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Sports

Tunnel vision: Offense doesn’t produce against Clemson

| Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Sofia CrimiVaroli | The Observer
Sam Hartman (10) takes off with the ball during the game between Notre Dame and Clemson at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article originally stated that the author’s record prediction was “11-11.” This has been corrected. The Observer regrets this error.

A few weeks into the football season, I was talking to a group of alumni, and they asked me how I thought we’d do against the big three this season. I misheard them, and thinking they had asked what I thought our regular season record would be, said “11-1.” They repeated their original question, and I apologized and told them I thought we’d beat USC and Clemson, but lose to Ohio State. 

As much as I like to think I’m an expert on football, I’m not. I’ve never played in a game or even stood on the sidelines. I am certainly no sports psychologist, but I think the team is having the same problem that I did when talking to those alumni — “ranking” tunnel vision. 

If we have learned anything from college football so far this year, it should be that a team’s record does not define them, for better or worse. There are upsets every year, but the number of underdog wins this year has astounded me and, looking at the games still to come, I don’t think it’s over yet.

We know that we can hang with the Ohio States and USCs of the world. What’s frustrating is this team is so anxious to play in these big games that we write off the “less-important” ones. We can’t hang with a fired-up Clemson and Louisville on a hot streak because they come in caring more than we do. 

If you don’t believe me, think about all of the news surrounding Notre Dame this week. Can Notre Dame Win a New Year’s Six? What if the one-loss teams in front of the Irish lose? All of this assumed that Notre Dame would win out, and the team assumed that too. 

Expect a little whiplash in comparison to last week’s grades against Pitt. 

Quarterback 

Hartman had his worst game of the season so far going 13/30 for 146 yards, no touchdowns and two picks. He did have his most productive run game of the season; he ran seven times for 68 yards and one touchdown making him our second best running back of the day. Through the first four possessions of the game, Hartman completed two passes for five yards. His next completed pass was unfortunately caught by Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and returned for a touchdown. 

The first half was obviously a train-wreck for Hartman, but while the scoreboard showed improvement, that really wasn’t a result of Hartman’s playmaking ability. The defense gifted them the ball at the two yard line for a walk-in Audric Estime touchdown, which really got them back in the game. The defense kept forcing punts, and the offense had four straight possessions where they ran four plays or less. 

Hartman instilled no sense of urgency in this team and threw the heartbreaking pick on what should have been the Irish’s last possession of the game (if the defense hadn’t come through again). After the defense’s miracle of forced turnover, Hartman went 1/5 for five yards, missing his last four passes. 

We thought Hartman was our transfer knight in shining armor who had come to rescue this program, but while he usually plays better than his predecessors, he’ll probably end up with a similar record that Pyne or Buchner would have gotten with this team (different wins and losses, same record).

Weekly Grade: C; Season Grade B+

Running Back

Estime certainly didn’t have his best game ever, but he definitely wasn’t the problem Saturday. Six different players ran the ball for the Irish, but Hartman probably had to run too much. With only 13 completed pass attempts, Clemson was clearly keying in on the pass, so more designed runs should’ve been pulled from the playbook. Instead, the Irish’s performance was characterized by scrambles and forcing the ball up the middle.

The run game did help prevent more Hartman sacks, but they were definitely underutilized. Gi’Brian Payne and Jordan Faison each only carried once for six yards. While they’re not normally the main ball carriers, it makes sense to keep handing the ball to players who are being productive. 

This group did everything they were asked to do; they just weren’t asked to do enough. 

Weekly Grade: A-; Season Grade B+

Wide Receiver

If a quarterback doesn’t have a good day, then there’s no way any of the receivers did either. But once again, when looking at the stats, the play calling simply doesn’t make sense. Rico Flores Jr. had the most receiving yards with 35. 

He had one target. 

At the beginning of the second quarter. 

Estime and Chris Tyree had the most receptions of the day with four each. They each had one 20+ yard reception but everything else was Hartman off-loading the football to them because he was under pressure or didn’t have anything open downfield. 

Were receivers just not helping out their quarterback by getting open or coming back? Was Hartman just really inaccurate? As suspicious as it is that not a single penalty was called on Clemson the entire game, that is not the overarching problem here. Inconsistent play by Notre Dame is. Whatever blame is held by Hartman, the receivers share that equally. 

Weekly Grade: C; Season Grade: B

Tight End

We really missed Mitchell Evans this week. Holden Staes had one catch for seven yards on four targets. He did help against the pass rush, which contributed to the limited number of Hartman sacks. 

Weekly Grade: C; Season Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Against Pitt, the running backs averaged 4.7 yards per carry. This week it was up to 5.9, which is a definite improvement. There were only three deflected passes and six TFLs, so the offensive line had a pretty decent performance. 

Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: A-

Coaching Staff

In the eighth grade, I had an English teacher who liked to give “symbolic grades” in order to push us in the right direction. For example, an essay that got a 79% could have been just as good as the 81% on the desk of the kid sitting next to you, but he just thought they put more effort in. I never really got it until now, but despite some really good moments during the season, I would like to add a symbolic coaching grade this week. 

I know that being a coach is not easy. Especially not during this season where there has been a lot of very publicized coaching errors. That being said, the play calling has been pretty atrocious. They’ve been conservative at times they had to be aggressive and vice versa. There has been no creativity recently. On paper, this offense should be scoring every time they take the field, but they have not been clicking when it matters most.  

That brings me back to where this article started — tunnel vision. Every game matters. I don’t care if we’re playing the cupcake school that all of the other cupcake schools try to schedule. We need to go out onto that football field and pretend like they just won a National Championship. 

Because as much as losing to Ohio State at the end of the game sucked, losing to the then-4-4 Clemson Tigers was worse. 

Weekly Grade: D; Season Grade: C 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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