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Observer On the Ground: UNC

If there is anything to confirm that there is nothing like a Notre Dame game day, our trip to Chapel Hill is it. Our Friday evening flight was rather empty, which is surprising for a direct flight from South Bend during football season. Aside from the three Observer employees, the rest of the passengers consisted of the regular Notre Dame football beat writers, as well as some scattered students and local fans. 

The duration of the flight was only just over an hour, getting us into Chapel Hill around dinner time. We found a local Mediterranean restaurant to try, and it gave us high hopes for the remainder of our trip. Even early on a Friday night, the restaurant was packed with UNC students and fans, making the tavern a bustling ball of energy ahead of the Irish-Tar Heels showdown the following day. As we stood in line for a table, we could see the potential for a high-energy tailgating scene in the morning.

And the food was certainly worth the wait. We don’t know if it is the fact we have been eating dining hall food for every meal or if it was that good, but Kipos Greek Taverna is a must-stop in Chapel Hill. Did we get three desserts, reasoning we’d need a “snack” for game day? Potentially. Are we ashamed? Not at all.

However, the following morning proved to be slightly different than what we are used to in South Bend. As far as college towns go, Chapel Hill deserves a spot among the best. We found Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews–a bookstore/coffee shop on Franklin St. just off of UNC’s campus that specializes in specialty lattes and Spanish-style pastries–for breakfast, and our good food streak continued. It seemed like the chocolatería was a place to be ahead of game days, as nearly everyone who entered the shop was sporting UNC or ND spirit wear. Many families took a quiet morning in the independent bookstore before the game day festivities commenced.

These festivities, though, were much more subdued than the tailgating scene at Notre Dame. There was no designated concentration of tailgates, with handfuls of tents benign scattered throughout North Carolina’s beautiful campus. Most of these setups also seemed to be sponsored in some way or another, which is very different from the family-style functions we were used to at Notre Dame.

For an away game, we saw nearly as many Irish fans walking around as we did Tar Heels. We were unable to locate where they were tailgating, however, if they were at all. We walked past several UNC frat houses that had creative signs, but when “Desperado” is on the tailgate playlist, one can assume the energy was slightly more relaxed. The player entrance into the stadium was also very different for UNC, as they remained on the buses as opposed to walking through the crowds like a Notre Dame Victory March.

Despite this new concept of game day pre-games, we had the perfect weather to walk around campus. It had all the southern charm we could hope for, and we tried to glean every moment we could before we headed into the stadium. 

Writers were allowed to be on the field for warmups, so a few of us went to the Notre Dame sideline and watched the position groups warm up. It was a unique experience to be on the same level as the players. As someone who clocks in at 5’2, it was impressive to see just how intimidating the people who are facing off against each other are.

The stadium began to fill in around us, and the number of Notre Dame fans present for the game was rather impressive. The whole Notre Dame side was largely green, blue and gold, and the crowd even got touchdown push-ups going as the Irish began racking up the points. Under the leadership of the lively leprechaun, they combatted the full UNC student section, which brought the energy we thought had been somewhat lacking ahead of kickoff. 

However, once UNC’s fate was sealed in the fourth quarter, those cheers from Tar Heels fans turned into objections. When we were allowed back on the field in the final few minutes of the game, someone from the stands launched a full plastic water bottle at one of the referees, managing to hit him in the back.

But by the time the sun had set on game day, the Irish were the ones left in the stands as the team filed into the tunnel, satisfied with another win under their belts.

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Notre Dame notches second win of the season against Tar Heels

Notre Dame emerged victorious against the UNC Tar Heels, notching 45 points in their highest scoring match of the season thus far. This puts the Irish at 2-2 ahead of their bye week.

This is the second win for head coach Marcus Freeman, making him 2-3 in his tenure at Notre Dame. Following the game in Chapel Hill, Freeman remarked that he was proud of his team, while simultaneously acknowledging their room for growth.

“We played really well,” he said. “And the beauty of it is there’s always room to get better. We can go and we can learn from a lot of situations that happen in the game.”

Some of these situations happened early on for the team. The Irish finally won a coin toss, electing to defer and receive at the start of the second half. This put the Notre Dame defense on the field to start. However, despite their previous showings this season, their initial performance was not what was expected of the usually-solid unit. The Tar Heels plowed through the line, ending the drive in a 12 play, 76 yard touchdown. Freeman said that he told his defense to be more aggressive on the field after understanding UNC quarterback Drake Maye could run.

“You have to be aggressive, but understand you have to stay in your rush lanes and it was good to see the adjustment from our defensive line,” he said. “Like I said on the sidelines to them, ‘I don’t want you to play cautious, but I want you to be aware that we can’t just rush past the quarterback because he’ll step up and he’ll run,’ and so it was good to see that.”

When the offense took over, a similar shutdown occurred. Two of junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s passes were batted down, effectively stunting the drive in a minute of play. The Irish were forced to punt after only gaining eight yards on the drive, and were again unable to score on their next offensive drive. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s potential touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas rendered itself incomplete, and graduate student kicker Blake Grupe’s field goal attempt went south to keep the score 7-0 UNC.

However, this was the last true dry spell the Irish would have all night. At the start of the second quarter, continuing from their final drive of the first, the Irish began with a first down. Pyne launched the ball to a wide-open Logan Diggs for a 34 yard play after a fake out from junior running back Chris Tyree drew some of the Tar Heels’ defense. Tyree followed up with nine, five and 10 yard gains to put the Irish in a first and goal situation. After the snap, it seemed everyone was covered until junior tight end Michael Mayer flew into the middle for an open pass from Pyne, which he carried into the end zone. The kick from graduate student Blake Grupe was good, tying the game and turning the tides of the matchup.

Freeman spoke on the importance of getting Mayer more involved in their offensive game plan. The All-American tight end recorded 88 receiving yards on the night, accounting for 30% of the total receiving yards. This comes after only receiving for 10 yards against Cal the week before.

“You’re a fool if you can’t find a way to get the ball in his hands,” Freeman said.

After Mayer’s touchdown, each consecutive drive for the Irish was a scoring one. The defense promptly forced the Tar Heels to punt on the following drive, and when the Irish took the field again, another touchdown was quick to follow. Pyne passed to Mayer in jet-sweep fashion, ending in a gain of seven yards as the tight end shoved his way forward. Freeman said that that method of passing is not one you would usually expect to see Mayer involved in, but that it is a testament to how many different options he can perform on the field. 

Following this, sophomore running back Audric Estime clocked a 29 yard rush, putting Pyne in position to make a 30 yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lorenzo Styles, Jr. A rushing the passer penalty was additionally called on UNC, and was enforced on the following drive.

On the next Irish offensive showing, after UNC made a successful touchdown drive, the Irish capitalized on their third touchdown drive. Tyree found a hole in the defense to rush for a 19 yard gain, with Diggs following it up with a gain of 17. On Pyne’s next pass to Mayer, the tight end continued to plow forward with three defenders on him to put the Irish firmly in the red zone. The attempt ended with Estime falling forward one yard for the touchdown. To end the half, the Irish made a field goal attempt after being shut down, putting them ahead 31-14.

The Irish continued their hot streak on the first drive of the second half. Pyne found a wide open Diggs near the sideline, and the running back walked the ball into the endzone to make it 31-14, Notre Dame. 

The defense quickly shut down the Tar Heels’ response as Justin Ademilola recovered a Tar Heels fumble. Freeman noted his pride in how the defense played, given the caliber of the Tar Heels offense.

“It was a challenge to our defense to stop the run,” Freeman said. “I think the lowest amount [UNC] had offensively in the first three games is 183 rushing yards, and to hold that offense 66 rushing yards is a great accomplishment by our defense.”

Pyne then hit up Styles for an 11 yard gain to put them in the red zone. His following pass to Mayer was ruled incomplete as the tight end received the ball in the endzone, but the play went under further review. Despite the fact that Mayer had his foot down, his heel was over the line, and the ruling on the field stood.

The Irish took a time out when they were 4th and 2, attempting to psych out the Tar Heels by having both the offensive and kicking units out on the field in huddles. Ultimately, the team went for it. After Pyne’s pass to Tyree was ruled incomplete, signaling the end of their scoring attempt, a pass interference call was enacted on the defense, resetting the drive to a first down. UNC head coach Mack Brown stormed onto the field to argue the ruling with the refs, only to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on him. These calls allowed Estime to soar over the huddle for a touchdown.

Notre Dame’s next drive resulted in another score for the Irish. A series of penalties were called on the UNC defense, adding to the momentum the Irish were gathering. After Estime was pushed out of bounds, unnecessary roughness allowed the Irish to move forward to first and goal at the seven yard line. On the following play, another personal foul for unnecessary roughness was called when Pyne was hit out of bounds after running the ball. This caused the Tar Heels to begin fighting among their own ranks, which was broken up by the referees and fellow teammates. Pass interference was called on Pyne’s red zone pass to Styles, Jr., which gave them the first down needed to complete their scoring attempt. Tyree rushed the final yard into the end zone and Grupe’s kick was good. These would be the final points the Irish notched.

When the defense took the field, JD Bertrand was ejected for targeting, giving the Tar Heels an opportunity for a score. Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye threw two incomplete redzone passes before Omarion Hampton rushed for the touchdown (ND 45, UNC 26). However, freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey broke the pass from Maye during their two-point conversion attempt. This is the second time the Tar Heels’ two-point conversions were thwarted by the Irish defense in the second half.

This is the second game in a row Bertrand was disqualified for targeting. Because he missed the first half of today’s game and will miss the first half against BYU, he will have missed a full game of play this season. Freeman noted that he wants to work on different ways of tackling with the defense, and specifically with Bertrand, to avoid calls like this in the future.

“As I told JD [Bertrand] on the field, it’s our job to learn from that situation,” he said. “We have to learn from it, and we have to change or you’re going to continue to get targeting calls.”

In the final scoring drive of the night, the Tar Heels gained one last touchdown. Another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on wide receiver Andre Green, Jr., but because the call came after the touchdown, the loss of yardage did not count against their score.

Despite this win, Freeman noted the team must see the bigger picture of their success: progression.

“I’m really happy with where this team is progressing,” he said. “Sometimes we let the outcome kind of mask some things, right, and continue to look at ‘Is this a football team that’s getting better?’ And it is. They’re playing better. They’re practicing better. And that’s the challenge: continue to get better.”

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Five key moments in Notre Dame’s victory over UNC

Offense and defense struggle through opening drives.

The Irish finally won a coin toss, electing to receive at the start of the second half. This put the Notre Dame defense on the field to start, but their performance was not what was expected of the usually-solid unit. The Tar Heels plowed through the line, ending the drive in a 12 play, 76-yard touchdown. Despite some good looks from Isaiah Foskey, Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser, by and large UNC dismantled the line without much resistance on their way to the end zone.

When the offense took over, a similar shutdown occurred, only this time it was on the other side of the ball. Two of junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s passes were batted down, effectively stunting the drive in a minute of play. The Irish were forced to punt after only gaining eight yards on the drive.

Michael Mayer puts the Irish in the game on aggressive touchdown drive.

At the start of the second quarter, the Irish began their drive with a first down. Pyne launched the ball to a wide-open Logan Diggs for a 34-yard play after a fake out from junior running back Chris Tyree drew some of the Tar Heels’ defense. Tyree followed up with nine, five and 10-yard gains to put the Irish in a first and goal situation. After the snap, it seemed everyone was covered until junior tight end Michael Mayer flew into the middle for an open pass from Pyne, which he carried into the end zone. The kick from graduate student Blake Grupe was good, tying the score, 7-7, and turning the tides of the matchup.

Consecutive scoring drives put the Irish solidly in the lead at half

After Mayer’s touchdown, the Irish scored on every remaining first-half drive. The defense promptly forced the Tar Heels to punt on the following drive, and when the Irish took the field again, another touchdown was quick to follow. Pyne passed to Mayer in jet-sweep fashion, ending in a gain of seven yards as the tight end shoved his way forward. Sophomore running back Audric Estime clocked a 29-yard rush, putting Pyne in position to deliver a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles.

On the next offensive showing, after UNC tied the score at 14-14, the Irish capitalized on their third touchdown drive. Tyree found a hole in the defense to rush for a 19-yard gain, and the attempt ended with Estime falling forward one yard into the endzone.

To end the half, the Irish made a field goal attempt after being shut down in the red zone, putting them ahead 24-14.

Pass interference resets drive, leads to touchdown

After starting the half off with a touchdown, the Irish sought to continue their scoring streak on their second drive of the second half. The drive came quickly, as Justin Ademilola recovered a Tar Heels fumble. Pyne hit up Styles for an 11-yard gain to put them in the red zone. His following pass to Mayer was ruled incomplete as the tight end received the ball in the end zone, but the play went under further review. Despite the fact that Mayer had his foot down, his heel was over the line and the ruling on the field stood.

The Irish took a time out when they were 4th and 2, attempting to psych out the Tar Heels by having both the offensive and kicking units out on the field in huddles. Ultimately, the team went for it. After Pyne’s pass was ruled incomplete, a pass interference call was enacted on the defense, resetting the drive to a first down. UNC head coach Mack Brown stormed onto the field to argue the ruling with the refs, only to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on him. These calls allowed Estime to soar over the huddle for a touchdown.

Series of penalties causes UNC to unravel; Irish capitalize to extend lead.

In the fourth quarter, a series of penalties were called on the UNC defense. After Estime was pushed out of bounds, unnecessary roughness allowed the Irish to move forward to first and goal at the seven-yard line. On the following play, another personal foul for unnecessary roughness was called when Pyne was hit out of bounds after running the ball. This caused the Tar Heels to begin fighting among their own ranks, which was broken up by the referees and fellow teammates. This drive resulted in another touchdown run for Tyree.

When the defense took the field, JD Bertrand was ejected for targeting, giving the Tar Heels an opportunity for a score. Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye threw two incomplete red zone passes before Omarion Hampton rushed for the touchdown (ND 45, UNC 26). However, freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey broke the pass from Maye during their two-point conversion attempt. This is the second time the Tar Heels’ two-point conversions were thwarted by the Irish defense in the second half.

Despite ending with a touchdown drive, the Tar Heels could not recover, and the Irish took the day with a final score of 45-32.

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‘I owe this school everything’: Irish football legend Manti Te’o returns to Notre Dame, addresses team before Cal

For the first time since his Netflix documentary, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” Irish football legend and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o was back on Notre Dame’s campus. This was Te’o’s fourth visit back to South Bend, and it was a warm homecoming for the former linebacker; when he was announced in Notre Dame Stadium, the applause he received brought Te’o to tears. While its layout has changed significantly since his time in Irish uniform, he said that Notre Dame itself remains a home for him each time he returns.

“There’s just so many new things, but as far as the feel, it’s always the same,” Te’o said. “Home is always going to be home. You know, on a good day, bad day, when you go home that’s … that’s your sanctuary. And that’s what Notre Dame is for me.”

For Notre Dame being his home, Te’o mentioned how he enjoys seeing the Notre Dame family when he attends game days. Te’o said that he always stops by several locations on campus, including South Dining Hall — checking to see if the cooks are still working there —and touches base with familiar ushers and Guglielmino Athletic Complex workers.

Starting with Te’o, three members of the Notre Dame linebacker corps in the past decade have gone on to win the prestigious Dick Butkus Award; the most recent recipient for the Irish was Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in 2020. When asked about the type of standard he wants set for Notre Dame following this success, Te’o said that although he is proud to be an award winner and wants more accolades like this for the program, he merely wants each player to perform at their best.

“I want everybody to be at the top of their game. Because if we’re all at the top of the game, it gives us the best opportunity to get the main prize,” Te’o said. “I don’t really preach specific excellence. I want excellence overall for everybody. Because if everybody’s on their P’s and Q’s, we’re gonna win the big one.”

The Irish entered the game 0-2 on Saturday, with hopes of being in the running to win “the big one” dimming significantly. Though the team has struggled, head coach Marcus Freeman has still received support from fans in the wake of his 1-3 record as the leader of the program. Te’o said that he reached out to Freeman when he was initially hired to tell him how happy he was for his promotion. 

Te’o compared Freeman to Bob Diaco, former assistant coach of the Notre Dame football program that led the team to a National Championship showing. This comparison, Te’o said, bodes well for the team moving forward.

“He reminds me of Coach Diaco to me, just somebody that you will literally do anything for, and I think that as a head coach is the most important thing that you could establish with your players,” Te’o said. “That’s what kind of led to all of our success in 2012 on the defensive side of the ball, is because all of us guys on the field would do anything for Coach Diaco … and now they have it as the head man, so what a great blessing, opportunity.”

This sentiment extends to Te’o himself. The Irish alum participated in the Notre Dame football team’s Victory March, stopping first to address the crowd in front of Hesburgh Library. In his speech, he noted that Freeman had reached out to him to give the Notre Dame community a boost ahead of Saturday’s game against Cal, to which he responded, “I’m there, Coach.”

Along with this showing, Te’o spoke to the players ahead of Saturday’s game. He likened the team to his “little brothers,” noting that he has kept in contact with a few of them over the years and addressed them as someone who has gone through similar experiences before.

“I’ve sat in those seats … I know you guys can’t see the forest from the trees, but I’m that older brother that’s hovering in the helicopter over you that’s helping you navigate your way,” Te’o said about his pre-game speech. “When they had their notepads out, they were writing notes and I was like, man, that meant a lot to me. You know, meaning that they were like, ‘OK, he has something to say that I need to hear.’”

Te’o said that in addressing an then 0-2 team, he spoke on how the game relates to life in general and gave them motivation moving forward into their eventual victory over the Golden Bears.

“That’s the greatest thing about football: It’s the greatest parallel to life,” Te’o said. “It’s not gonna start off the way that you wanted it to. Keep going. Like, life’s not always gonna be the way you want it to be. Keep going. And so, you can’t do anything about 0-2, but you can do something today.”

Te’o mentioned that he misses the “chess game” of football, but that it is really the relationships he misses the most. He said that, even though his schedule is already busy, he wanted to come back and speak to the team because of the impact Notre Dame has had on his life.

“I owe Notre Dame everything,” Te’o said. “I was asked a question yesterday: ‘What is the best decision I ever made?’ And I said, ‘There’s two, there’s two of them. One, to marry my wife because she’s the anchor in my life. And she’s given me a daughter and a son on the way. And the second was to come to this school. And so I owe this school everything.”

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Estime talks brotherhood and ‘keeping the chains moving’ following first win of the season

Notre Dame finally notched a win Saturday against the California Golden Bears — in no small part due to the running back corps. After struggling to get the run game going in the first two games of the season, the Irish notched 147 rushing yards split between three players. One of them was sophomore running back Audric Estime, who led the rushing category with 76 yards (51.7%).

“It was really rewarding just busting our tails off during the week, having a tough week,” he said. “We got the win, so it’s definitely a satisfying feeling, but there’s a lot more work to be done.”

Thanks to the offensive line — which posted a stellar day compared to their earlier performances — the running backs were able to find the lanes through the defense that they had struggled to execute previously. Estime noted that the position group’s goal coming into the game was to “run the ball, be dominant.” For Estime, this came to fruition most notably in a series of rushes that got him and his team a touchdown. 

In this scoring drive, Estime totaled 30 yards, nearly 40% of his total yardage on the day. Quarterback Drew Pyne noted that at the end of the drive, the offense ran the same play four times in a row to get Estime in the end zone. When asked about his thoughts on this fact, Estime said the team should simply keep doing what works.

“Just don’t stop, you keep on doing things that work,” he said. “And that play was working, and we just had the momentum. And the O-line were just pushing guys off the line and were just opening up holes for me, and we just executed and finished that drive.”

Pyne said that if he gives the ball to Estime, the running back falls forward. Estime said that his mentality is to just keep going, no matter how many yards he receives. His goal was just to move forward in whatever way he could.

“I just pride myself that no matter what, I’m always gonna go forward, get as many yards as I can, because that’s what keeps a drive going, keeps the chain moving,” he said. “No matter what, I got to try to get positive yards, no matter what.”

Head coach Marcus Freeman said that sophomore running back Logan Diggs had missed practice on Thursday due to an illness, which put more emphasis on Estime and junior running back Chris Tyree. Estime said this did not change his mindset heading into Saturday.

“I just had to do my job,” he said. “We just knew that we had a bigger load with Logan not playing. That’s something that we’re ready for, and we’re prepared for, and we just handled it.”

Estime said that the running backs had a goal to have a “breakout game” for all of them and get more than 100 combined yards; he and Tyree were able to do so, which he described as a “surreal moment.”

“Just being able to do that, fulfill a goal that you set with your brothers, is a surreal moment,” he said. “And there’s a lot more for this running back group with me, Chris and Logan.”

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“Find the better way”: Captain Bo Bauer talks leadership, ownership ahead of Cal

It’s no secret that, at 0-2, the Notre Dame football team is feeling some pressure. And the leadership position that being a captain of said team can certainly amplify that pressure.

This certainly rings true for 2022 captain Bo Bauer. After Notre Dame’s home opener loss against Marshall, the fate of Marcus Freeman’s debut season hangs in the balance. Especially with sophomore starting quarterback Tyler Buchner’s season-ending injury, the Irish have had to rethink their entire game plan moving forward.

In addition to restructuring the offense around junior Drew Pyne, the defense has had to take a hard look at itself to see what needs improvement in order to prevent fourth-quarter games of catchup. For Bauer, this review began with a self-evaluation as a player and a captain.

“The first thing I said is ‘what could I have done to, you know, get these guys to the point,’” Bauer said. “We’ve had great leaders who have not let the standard fall. And now that’s on my shoulders.”

Such high standards make a tough loss like the one to Marshall an even tough pill to swallow. Bauer said that the days following Marshall have been difficult. But that this defeat was also a motivating factor for him.

“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, is to walk around the locker room and look these guys in the eye who’ve given me the greatest gift, the greatest trust in my life to be a captain and lead these guys,” Bauer said. 

The team bond has added an emotional level to the issues at hand. Bauer said that the strong relationships he and his teammates have with each other influence the push to make a play happen. This can also lead to a strong response when it does not go their way.

“I think a lot of the times that it comes down to the guys, we all love each other so much that we wanna make the play,” Bauer said. “And not for some selfish reason or something. It’s ‘we want to win the game together to see our brothers happy and successful’ and we just kind of have to make the game smaller. Just, ‘look, what’s my job this play’ and do that over and over and over again.”

For Bauer, he has focused in on his role on defense. Despite the defense looking like the Irish’s strong suit, they have run into issues in their execution.

“We have to attack the ball,” he said. “Two games, no takeovers. Now it’s starting to be like ‘we have to take ownership for that.’”

Bauer himself posted two tackles on the day Saturday. But the defense was unable to stop some of the “X-plays” Marshall threw at them. According to Bauer, frustration over this stems from the fact that they are consistently working well in practice.

“There’s 11 angry guys out there every snap on defense trying to knock back the tacklers, put them on the ground,” he said of himself and his fellow defenders. “We’re taking it very personally that that kind of didn’t go that way [in the games].”

Moving forward, Bauer said it all comes down to one question: “When it matters the most, can you do what you need to do?” Despite the love the team has for each other and the effort they are putting into practice, the execution of what they learned in their training is where it matters most. If they cannot perform on the field, what they did in practice can risk proving futile.

“We just need to be better,” Bauer said. “I’m willing to find the better way, whatever that may be, and do whatever it takes to get us heading in the right direction.”

Contact Emily at edefazio@nd.edu

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The Observer grades each position and selects players to improve

Editor’s Note: Sports Editor Aidan Thomas contributed to this report.

With almost a week in the books since Notre Dame fell in the season opener, sports editor Aidan Thomas and associate sports editor Emily DeFazio handed out grades to each position group and discussed which players need to break out for the Irish in the coming weeks. 

Offensive Line

There were too many times that Buchner was left scrambling when the line broke. Moments of discombobulation cost the Irish some yardage and playmaking ability. The Irish averaged 0.4 yards before contact on running plays. By PFF, three of the Irish’s four lowest-rated players were offensive linemen. That is not to say the linemen are the only ones to blame or that they were ineffective. As Buchner himself said in the post-game press conference, it is his job as well to find protection. But the trend must continue upwards for this group, especially if Jarrett Patterson’s return is at all in question.

Thomas: D, DeFazio: C+

Wide Receiver

The 39 yards per catch by the wide receivers is eye-popping. The three total catches? Not so much. Some of the wide receiving corps had some highlight plays in Columbus, notably Lorenzo Styles, Jr. with his opening 54-yard gain and Matt Salerno with his recovery catch. Braeden Lenzy added a 32-yard reception. However, this group was not used to the extent it could be, and they weren’t getting open quickly.  They need to work out some issues and find a solid possession receiver so the Irish don’t have to lean on Michael Mayer on every crucial down.

Thomas: C+, DeFazio: B 

Quarterback

This grade can depend on what you were looking for. Buchner delivered a few electrifying moments, and he played turnover-free. It was a solid performance but one with a lot of room for improvement. Buchner seemed confident on the field. His strength was in his passing game, yet he didn’t exhibit it enough in the second half. He needs to get a consistent rhythm of passing and rushing to sure up this position group.

Thomas: A-, Defazio: B

Running Back

The running backs boast the only touchdown on the season so far with Audric Estime. But that will not be enough moving forward. This group averaged 2.5 yards per rush against OSU, which is not enough to have a major effect on the game. That being said, they also received little help from the offensive line, frequently getting hit at or behind the line of scrimmage. They have the talent in the likes of Estime, Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs to really step it up moving forward and to maybe even utilize Tyree in a receiver position should this group get locked down.

Thomas: B+, DeFazio: B- 

Tight End

The Irish tight ends notched six of the ten receptions in the passing game. Both Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman played a key role in the touchdown drive. This is where the strength of the offense is right now. Mayer is an instrumental player for the Irish, but only averaged 6.4 yards — after ending the 2021-22 season at an 11.8 average — and had an uncharacteristic bobble. This and missed blocks by him and Bauman dropped the position score.

Thomas: B+, DeFazio: A-

Defensive Backs

This position group objectively had the best showing at Ohio State. Cam Hart, Tariq Bracy and Clarence Lewis all showed up and helped hold Ohio State to its lowest number of points since 2018. The Irish also saw breakout performances from freshmen Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison. We’re expecting big things from this group going forward and are excited to see them be a premium feature of our defense.

Thomas: A, Defazio: A  

Linebackers

It was good to see Marist Liufau back in Irish uniform; with a year of waiting under his belt, he and his pent-up energy will be a welcome addition to the ranks of JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser moving forward this season. The Irish were solid but had some slips and also didn’t make any disruptive plays, with zero sacks or tackles for loss. Those slip-ups and lack of impact play helped OSU to pull away late in the game.

Thomas: B+, DeFazio: A-

Defensive Line 

Pretty much the same problem for the defensive line. This group was not as effective as it needed to be and needs to consistently add pressure to matchups moving forward. Key players also need to play at the elite level they normally do; Isaiah Foskey may have notched four tackles against the Buckeyes, but he was not as dominant of a force as he usually is on the field. Additionally, the second unit needs to be more effective in relief, as the Irish wore down late in the Buckeyes’ final two touchdown drives. 

Thomas: B, DeFazio: B+

Special Teams 

The special teams unit saw a lot of action Saturday night. When the Irish were kicking or punting, they looked great. When they were receiving punts or kicks, the Irish struggled. They didn’t get a punt return off, and two kickoff returns averaged 11 yards. That played a big role in Notre Dame losing the field position battle all night. Blake Grupe’s kick was good to put the Irish on the board first, and Jon Sot was rock-solid in the punting game. This group needs to focus on tightening up their performance to where they are consistent every time they take the field.

Thomas: B-, DeFazio: B+

Two offensive players that need to breakout or improve

Thomas: Lorenzo Styles, Blake Fisher. Styles caught the first pass of the game, broke a tackle and ran for a 54-yard gain. He must provide that electricity but also more consistency. He only saw one more target and no more receptions. Blake Fisher also needs to be a rock at right tackle. He got beat in a critical moment on Saturday, forcing Buchner to rush a deep throw to an open Styles. That could have been a potential touchdown and a 17-7 Irish lead. Fisher (and the offensive line as a whole) must improve.  

DeFazio: Chris Tyree, Braden Lenzy. Tyree’s speed continues to amaze me. He needs to have a stellar season for the Irish, which may even include a position switch to receiver and must be a more dominant force on the field. Lenzy also has to focus on being more of a presence for the Irish offense. He only had one reception on the night at OSU; he needs to break out and be a consistent find for Buchner.

Two defensive players that need to breakout or improve

Thomas: Isaiah Foskey, Brandon Joseph. I’m turning to the star power here. They both played well on Saturday, but they weren’t disruptive. In those big games, the Irish need disruptive plays from their stars, and they really didn’t get them all day from either Foskey or Joseph. 

DeFazio: Marist Liufau, Rylie Mills. Liufau started the game off strong, but his energy seemed to dwindle in the second half. He has the capacity to be a key defender for the Irish if he focuses on bringing the same amount of energy on the final block as he does to the first. Rylie Mills had three tackles in Columbus, and also has the capacity for a breakout season. He looked pretty solid in the season opener.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu and Emily DeFazio at edefazio@nd.edu.

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Sports

DeFazio: The unsung hero of Columbus

“There’s no such thing as a moral victory.”

As head coach Marcus Freeman himself said, Saturday night was no moral victory for Notre Dame. No matter how long the Irish kept the Buckeyes at bay, according to the scoreboard, the Irish lost. Plain and simple. Those three points that edged the team ahead until the end of the third do not matter when that final score reads 10-21.

“We didn’t win.”

However, this sentiment does not mean that the season opener was meaningless. Yes, Freeman and his team learned that they needed to execute late in the game. Just like the 2022 Fiesta Bowl, the Irish fell apart in the third quarter, rendering them unable to turn the game back around in the end. Notre Dame learned this, but I learned something else watching them on that field Saturday night: the Irish have an unsung hero in their ranks. And that hero is sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner’s passing game.

Buchner is known for being a runner. In his debut season, he recorded 336 rushing yards without playing every game in full. Yet in Columbus, it was his arm that pushed the Irish cause forward. His 18 rushing yards pale in comparison to the 177 he gained from passing.

He started the match with a bullet of a 54-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles, Jr., initiating a drive that would make Notre Dame first on the board. But even then, every successive play of that sequence was a rush, ending with the need to call in the field goal unit as opposed to racing for the end zone. Despite the strong opening play and the three points that eventually came from it, it is this scoring drive that is the true testament to what this offense could be should Buchner be allowed to utilize his passing game in a greater capacity.

The momentum for the offense came when Buchner connected with graduate student wide receiver Matt Salerno for a highlight reel catch. This play was quickly followed by a 22-yard pass to junior tight end Kevin Bauman, which was paired with a rush by Chris Tyree–a new role for the running back, and perhaps one with untapped potential–and another pass to Michael Mayer to put the Irish at the one. From there, sophomore running back Audric Estime rose over the throng to plow ahead that final yard into the end zone, putting Notre Dame in the lead they would maintain until the end of the third quarter. Based solely on the number of yards for each play of that drive, it was not the rushing game that put the Irish in a scoring position, but big passes from Buchner that enabled the touchdown.

Buchner may be a runner, but his showing at OSU demonstrated he should not be limited to that facet of his game. Sometimes, it just makes sense to plant your feet and throw as opposed to scrambling around the defenders; and clearly, Buchner has the talent to not put those passes to waste.

That is not to say that Buchner should completely neglect his run game. On the contrary, his speed is useful in the quarterback position and can be employed when need be. Instead, the Irish should not be afraid to experiment. 

Attempting to plow through the defensive line only got the team so far. Rushing yards only accounted for 30% of the total yardage on the night, and yet run plays were the ones most consistently called. And as a third down efficiency of 23.1% can speak to, the Irish need to tweak the offensive game plan.

The Irish should focus on developing a choreography of passes and runs. They need to use every tool they have in their arsenal as opposed to consistently rushing the field. Doing so would keep the defense on their toes and would maximize every asset of the Irish offense.

Use Buchner’s pass game. Use Tyree and his speed at receiver instead of running back. Try it out, and see what happens. There may be no moral victories for the Irish, but these changes could lead to plenty of true ones in the future.

Emily DeFazio

Contact Emily at edefazio@nd.edu

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Sports

“That’s why we named him the starter”: Buchner ushers in new era against the Buckeyes

When he was first signed at Notre Dame, quarterback Tyler Buchner’s talent was lauded as the saving grace that would replace the stability that Ian Book brought to the Irish football program during his time in the position. When the former QB1 had played out his eligibility after having been the starter for three years, questions immediately arose about who would — and could — fill that position. Enter Buchner, a fellow Californian, four-star recruit that seemed ready to step into the role.

That was until graduate transfer Jack Coan entered the mix, unleashing the quarterback battle that ensued during the 2021-2022 season. With the position shifting between Buchner, Coan and junior Drew Pyne, the once straight path for the sophomore blurred slightly. But despite any uncertainty and doubt, it seems Buchner has won out and has become the sole man for the job.

That same uncertainty and doubt, however, followed Buchner into this season opener. After a year of experiencing several different quarterback combinations — often multiple in a single game — having a starter preestablished in fall camp was a shocking reality for Irish fans. Especially when it was one who did not play in the spring Blue and Gold game due to injury. Yet in the season opener, in his first game fully at the helm, Buchner has proven that although he may not yet be perfect in the position, he has great capacity to be.

Buchner exhibited both his run and pass game against the Buckeyes; he racked up 177 passing yards and a net 18 yards in rushing, nearly as much as sophomore running back — and sole touchdown scorer — Audric Estime’s 21 yards. He did so without a turnover, as head coach Marcus Freemen noted in his post-game press conference, which cannot be said for Coan’s or Book’s first games as starters for the Irish.

“I’m pleased with him,” Freeman said. “But the biggest thing I’m pleased with is zero turnovers.”

Aside from starting out on an even better foot than his predecessors, Buchner also had to adapt to the changing landscape on the field, shifting from the original idea to run both the ball and the clock, as Freeman said was their game plan heading into Saturday night. When his passing game was instead called upon, Buchner was able to capitalize on several opportunities for yardage gain, despite throwing some incomplete passes. 

In response to these mistakes, Buchner emphasized that it is the small facets of the game that eventually add up to how well a player or team performs.

“At the end of the day, it sort of comes down to execution and, you know, the little things,” Buchner said. “We didn’t do little things at the level of which, you know, the standard at which we hold ourselves to.”

In terms of execution, Buchner being a first-time quarterback was cause for concern, as he enters this new role in a highly anticipated matchup against one of the top teams in the country. However, Freeman noted that his adaptability and confidence prevented the moment from overwhelming him and instead, he rose to the challenge.

“That’s why we named him the starter,” Freeman said.

He demonstrated these qualities from the opening drive of the game, which ended in a field goal attempt that put the Irish on the board first. His rocket pass to sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. set the tone for what could be under Buchner’s leadership.

This confidence, Buchner said, is bolstered by his teammates. After having gone eight for eight at the start of the game, he noted how the offense was starting to gel based on their trust in each other and their abilities.

“Luckily, I’ve got a great support staff around me. Awesome teammates,” Buchner said. “They played really well. And so you know, having the confidence that, you know, the guys around me are going to execute and do their job well certainly helped.”

Buchner also acknowledged his equal responsibility in this system. When asked about the offensive line, Buchner said that it is his job to be in the correct protection, too. This rapport Buchner has with his offense gives Freeman high hopes for the quarterback’s future at Notre Dame.  

“He’s going to be a really great football player and a great leader for us,” Freeman said.

Emily DeFazio

Contact Emily at edefazio@nd.edu