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Freshmen cornerbacks should help Irish offset losses at DB

When freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison was the toast of South Bend after recording five interceptions during a three-game span in November, The Athletic’s Pete Sampson dropped a bombshell that flew a bit under the radar. “Before the Ohio State opener, a source at Notre Dame indicated Morrison might be the best cornerback Notre Dame had signed in 10 years,” the longtime Irish beat writer wrote. While Notre Dame isn’t exactly known for its defensive back program, that’s still a pretty bold claim — especially since the source told Sampson this before Morrison played a single snap of collegiate football.

A year later, the only thing in question about that statement is just how far back it could hold up. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Notre Dame’s future. But its two young cornerbacks are pretty high up on the list. Fellow freshman Jaden Mickey wasn’t as productive as Morrison, who was downright dominant in the second half of the season. But Mickey, who like Morrison was a four-star recruit, has the talent to give the Irish a scary one-two punch at corner for the next few years.

The Notre Dame secondary has usually been led by its safeties. The Irish have quietly produced some excellent NFL talent at the position recently in Harrison Smith, Julian Love and Kyle Hamilton. Graduate student Brandon Joseph was the latest star to suit up at safety for the Irish, making an immediate impact at safety and returning punts after transferring from Northwestern. Cornerback Tariq Bracy, a solid presence in Notre Dame’s nickel defense, has used up his last year of eligibility. Joseph did have one left, but his departure was not a massive shock. Safety Houston Griffith also won’t be back.

The Irish secondary could have been hit harder, though. Graduate student safety DJ Brown and senior cornerback Cam Hart both elected to return for another year. Both, especially Hart, have been maligned by fans at times. But the two were key cogs of an Irish pass defense that was top-25 in passing yardage against (198 yards per game) and a solid but unspectacular 42nd in defensive passing efficiency.

The Irish were unable to secure another star safety with five-star recruit Peyton Bowen’s late decommitment. But it’s possible that the Irish secondary might still receive strong freshman contributions in 2023. Two of Notre Dame’s top nine commitments are cornerbacks, according to 247 Sports. Though playing time will be tough to find in a deep cornerback room, Christian Gray and Micah Bell will hope to become the next version of Morrison and Mickey. Both have track backgrounds, so the Irish hope their elite speed will translate to the college ranks.

Notre Dame’s recruiting class also includes a pair of four-star safeties in Adon Shuler and Ben Minich. The transfer portal, meanwhile, was a net neutral for the Irish secondary. Jayden Bellamy, a three-star recruit a year ago, left for Syracuse. Meanwhile, Notre Dame added graduate student Thomas Harper from Oklahoma State. Harper, who played between seven and 11 games in each of his four seasons with the Cowboys, had one interception and two passes defended plus 30 tackles a year ago. Sophomore Justin Walters could also see more action after appearing in seven games over the last two seasons.

There is definitely room for improvement for the Irish pass defense. Two of Notre Dame’s lowest points of the season — the double safety blitz against Ohio State and the regular season-ending dud against USC — involved breakdowns by the secondary. But with defensive coordinator Al Golden firmly back in the college landscape after coming to South Bend from the Bengals before last season and a strong pool of young Irish talent, there is definitely a path for the Irish DBs to hold their own in 2023 and beyond.

2023 Projected Depth Chart

Left Safety: DJ Brown, Justin Walters

Right Safety: Ramon Henderson, Thomas Harper

CB1: Benjamin Morrison, Jaden Mickey

CB2: Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis

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Thomas: Gator Bowl, recruiting drama puts spotlight on Irish safeties

Safety has long been a position of strength for Notre Dame football. Six former Irish safeties currently populate NFL rosters, three as starters. For the three seasons prior to 2022, Notre Dame enjoyed the services of Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton racked up eight career interceptions in two-and-a-half seasons (missing the last half of 2021 due to injury). The Baltimore Ravens drafted Hamilton 14th overall.

That led to the era of Brandon Joseph, an era that may last just one season, pending his draft decision. Joseph wasn’t as impactful as Hamilton, but the former All-American stabilized a relatively inexperienced secondary. He notched a forced fumble and a pick-six. Joseph may head to the NFL draft, and it’s feasible the upcoming Gator Bowl represents the final collegiate game for three Notre Dame safeties. With that fact, plus the recent recruiting drama surrounding the decommitment of five-star safety Peyton Bowen, there’s a major spotlight on the position in Jacksonville this week. Will those with decisions to make return for another run with the Irish? Or will the Gator Bowl be their last rodeo with the blue and gold? Those decisions could make or break this secondary in 2023, and it highlights some depth concerns amidst the rest of the group. 

Joseph is the big name. He was long expected to be a one-and-done with Notre Dame. That’s still a strong possibility, but a less dynamic season dropped Joseph down some draft boards. He’s unlikely to go in the first round if he enters the 2023 draft. He faces a similar situation to that of Isaiah Foskey’s 2021 season. Foskey was a second or third-round prospect and bet on himself by returning to Notre Dame. He bumped up his draft stock to the late first, early second round. Joseph could make the same call, or he could bolt for the NFL. That decision looms large, as Joseph would instantly provide some stability to the group in 2023. 

Joseph played alongside a safety group that played solidly although not outstandingly all season long. In some ways, graduate student DJ Brown epitomizes that. He led the safety room with 44 tackles but created little havoc. He notched 0.5 tackles for loss and a single pass breakup. However, he had no sacks and no interceptions. While Brown may not strike you as one of the most impactful players on the defense, he was a steady veteran presence and cut down on tackling issues that plagued him in 2021. He walked on Senior Day, and many believe Brown is moving on after the Gator Bowl. If he doesn’t, he slots back into the rotation. If he does, the Irish lose their leader in snaps at the safety position. 

Houston Griffith is definitely done, as his eligibility expires after the Gator Bowl. The former highly-touted recruit never became a game-changing force, but he notched 33 tackles and a tackle for loss in 2022. He was one of four safeties to play over 300 snaps. Like Brown, Griffith represents a dependable and knowledgeable player, and Notre Dame will have to find a suitable replacement. 

If Brown and Joseph both leave, along with Griffith’s pending departure, that leaves a whole lot of question marks. Xavier Watts would be the most prominent returning player, leading all returning safeties with 304 snaps in 2022. After making the transition to defense last season, the former wide receiver skyrocketed up the depth chart to become arguably the best havoc-creator in the safety room. He produced two tackles for loss, a sack and two pass breakups. His role gradually increased throughout the year, and his performance in the Gator Bowl will be a storyline to watch. He may need to take the reigns and become a big-time playmaker for the Irish defense in 2023.
Beyond Watts, only converted cornerback Ramon Henderson received serious playing time at safety in 2022, notching 268 snaps. Henderson added some depth and experience at the position. But again, the group needs more game-changing ability, and Henderson may play a key role in that. 

After Henderson and Watts, walk-ons Marty Auer (nine snaps in 2022) and Eddie Scheidler (injured in 2022) are next on the depth chart. It feels improbable that either become a factor in 2023, but the Irish have seen walk-ons turn into contributors at positions with minimal depth (hello, walk-on turned scholarship receiver Matt Salerno). 

A key factor could have been Peyton Bowen. But the Irish lost their longtime five-star commitment on National Signing Day. Bowen, who was committed to the Irish since Jan. 1, flipped to the Oregon Ducks, but he promptly reneged on that the next day, committing to the Oklahoma Sooners. Regardless, he’s not part of the equation for Notre Dame in 2023. That leaves two intriguing freshmen as potential factors. Ben Minich and Adon Shuler are both candidates to play early in South Bend. Minich offers some tremendous speed, while Shuler projects as the higher-floor, lower-ceiling type of prospect that could be game-ready early in his career. 

Ultimately, the storylines remain the same. The safety group exceeded expectations in some regards in 2022. They helped stabilize a secondary that was projected to be a major weakness. However, outside of Joseph’s pick-six against Syracuse, rarely did it feel like Notre Dame safeties significantly impacted the game. The Irish are now potentially going to lose the biggest thing they had going which was stability and experience. That leaves this group in a need of improved dynamism and game-changing ability. 

Look for Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson on Friday. If the Irish aren’t sure they have game-breakers in the pair of juniors, it may be time to think about looking at the transfer portal or preparing their freshmen to take on significant roles in 2023. But Watts and Henderson need to elevate their game from good depth options to consistent havoc-creating starters. Against a lethal South Carolina passing attack, they should have the opportunity to make a statement. They project as major X-Factors when it comes to Notre Dame’s ceiling in 2023 and could demonstrate how high that ceiling is against the Gamecocks in Jacksonville.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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‘Biggest blessing of my life’: Joseph thrives in transition to Notre Dame

After the 2021 season, Notre Dame was looking for a high-level safety to replace the vaunted production of first-round draft pick Kyle Hamilton; Northwestern junior safety Brandon Joseph was looking for a high-level program that could help him prepare for the NFL after his collegiate career. 

A match just waiting to happen. 

“I did my three years at Northwestern and for my fourth year, I knew I wanted to play in the NFL. Because of that, I wanted to be in the best position possible in my last year in college,” Joseph said. “Once I hit the portal, I knew I wanted to go to a top-level university. For me, personally, that meant academically, on the field and the ability to build the biggest network possible, which is why I wanted to come to Notre Dame.”

On Jan. 8, Joseph made it official, announcing his transfer to play for Marcus Freeman and the Fighting Irish. He joined a Notre Dame program bonded by the recent turmoil of the abrupt Brian Kelly departure. With a tightly knit culture that players refer to as the brotherhood, Notre Dame boasted a locker room of close relationships. It made it easy to be daunted by the prospect of transferring into the midst of the culture. But Joseph noted that his  new teammates made the transition easy. 

“My teammates took me in as soon as I got here. Being a new guy, I didn’t know if I’d be able to get relationships with the guys. How quick, how nice and how well they took me in, it was truly a blessing,” Joseph said. “I built great relationships with so many guys. For it to happen so quick, it’s been so great. I appreciate the guys for taking me in the way they did.”

Joseph was not a stranger to big stages. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, Joseph notched six interceptions for Northwestern, helping the Wildcats to the Big Ten championship. There, Joseph picked off Ohio State’s Justin Fields and nearly led Northwestern to a stunning upset. Thus, Joseph had big game experience when he got to Notre Dame, but he still cited the environment at Notre Dame as being a high point of his experience in South Bend.

“The atmosphere that Notre Dame brings, it’s insane, it’s something that I haven’t really had before. These sold out home games, having fans come to the away games the way they do.”

That atmosphere that Joseph talked about came to what felt like a massive high just two weekends ago against Clemson. The Irish thrashed the previously unbeaten Tigers 35-14 in primetime in front of a sellout crowd.

“It was insane. The atmosphere in that stadium was something you dream about as a little kid,” Joseph said. “For me to be able to experience that, to be on the field when you hear the crowd scream, it’s been crazy, it’s been a blessing.”

Joseph is currently considered a potential first-round draft prospect, should he declare for the draft at the end of this season. Some consider him the top safety in the draft class. Joseph credited the Irish coaching staff for their efforts in his development this past year. 

“I think we have one of the best coaching staffs in the country … and I think I developed into the best player that I could be which is the biggest reason I wanted to come here.”

There’s still two regular season games and a potential bowl game left in this 2022 campaign for Joseph. And from there, there’ll be decisions to make regarding his future on the gridiron. But right now, Joseph isn’t focused on that, as much as he is focused on taking advantage of the time he has at Notre Dame, regardless of when that comes to an end. 

“My time here has been the biggest blessing of my life … It’s been great. To come to a place like Notre Dame and meet everyone on my team and everyone I’ve met through my time here, it’s been great. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be. I learned so much in terms of becoming a better man,” Joseph said. “I know it’s not over yet, but almost a year out of my decision of coming here, it’s been everything I could imagine. My time here has been great, and I’m really appreciative of Notre Dame.”

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu

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Moller: Irish must build on momentum from Clemson win

The last time I wrote a column on the football team, the Irish were coming off of a stunning 16-14 home loss at the hands of a one-win Stanford team. Since I wrote that piece, the mentality surrounding Notre Dame football has completely changed after the Irish pulled off one of their best victories in recent memory last weekend against then-No. 4 Clemson.

With the newfound momentum, the Irish must focus on continuing to play good football against two subpar opponents in Navy and Boston College before they finish the season against top-10 USC. Although the Irish will likely enter the Navy and Boston College games as heavy favorites, the Irish were also heavy favorites in their losses to Stanford and Marshall earlier this year. If they overlook either of these opponents, they could be in danger of being upset again.

So how do the Irish continue to dominate going forward? They need to keep running the football. Against Clemson and Syracuse, the Irish stuck to the run game consistently, running the ball 47 and 56 times, respectively. In games where the Irish have run the ball well, they have won. Against Marshall and Stanford, the Irish failed to establish the run game early. And that cost them as the game endured.

Sophomore running backs Audric Estime and Logan Diggs have been the two biggest contributors in the run game. It certainly seems that the Irish have found their two-headed monster going forward. Both running backs have shown a great amount of physicality and ability to find the holes, and this has led to their overwhelming success over the last few games.

I am still not completely sold on junior quarterback Drew Pyne. But he has been solid as of late and avoided making too many mistakes. But this is in part because of Notre Dame’s strong run game over the last couple of contests. The Irish must keep running the ball going forward. When Pyne has had to pass in third and long situations, it typically hasn’t gone too well. So establishing the run game and getting into third and manageable will be essential for Pyne and the offense’s effectiveness.

Another issue the Irish have addressed in their last couple of games is getting off to a slow start. In their first six games of the season, the Irish failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter. Over the last three games, however, the Irish have changed the narrative, outscoring their opponents 37-14 in the first quarter. Getting off to a good start has allowed the Irish to settle in and run the ball, rather than trying to play catch up and having to throw the ball. It has also taken some of the pressure off of the Irish players. The early leads have allowed them to settle in and stick to their game plan from start to finish.

The Irish have also seemingly turned the script in the turnover battle over the last two games of the season. After getting only a handful of turnovers across the first six games of the season, the Irish have now recorded four interceptions in the last two games. Two of those interceptions were pick-sixes that changed the flow of the game. In the Syracuse game, graduate student safety Brandon Joseph’s pick-six gave the Irish the lead on the opening play. And against Clemson, freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison’s 96-yard interception return virtually sealed the game for the Irish.

It truly seemed that in some of the early games like Stanford, the ball just wasn’t falling in favor of the Irish defense. And it was starting to cause frustration. Lately, that has changed. And the Irish deserve credit for successfully translating those momentum swings to better play on both sides of the football.

In my previous column, I told the Irish to have some pride after their abysmal home loss to Stanford. It was evident against Clemson that the Irish were by no means lacking any pride or confidence in their identity. That energy and excitement around the team last weekend showed that the foundation has been laid for the Freeman era at Notre Dame. That Clemson win showed that the program is heading in the right direction. There might be some bumps along the way, head coach. But Marcus Freeman has proved he has the ability to coach an elite football team going forward.

I would not be surprised if the Irish struggle in another game this season like they did against Stanford or Marshall. However, everyone has now seen Marcus Freeman’s potential as a coach. And I am confident that Notre Dame is going to be a really good football team in a couple of years down the road. I said in my previous article that the Irish had to prove the doubters the rest of the season. They did just that against Clemson last Saturday. Now, it’s time to build off of that and end the season on a high note.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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Irish defense finds much-needed clutch gene late against Syracuse

SYRACUSE, New York — For a moment, early on in the fourth quarter, it felt like Notre Dame was spiraling toward collapse. 

Syracuse backup quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson had engineered consecutive scoring drives, finding his rhythm after a shaky start to the tune of a 5-7 and 104-yard performance on those scoring drives. Notre Dame’s offense, which dominated the trenches in the first half, sputtered into consecutive three-and-outs. 

With 13:57 left in the fourth quarter, the Orange had both the ball and the momentum. A soldout crowd at JMA Wireless Dome was the loudest it had been all day, knowing the tying score lay just 75 yards away. Notre Dame needed a statement stop from a defense that had been on the back foot for most of the half. And, for perhaps the first time all season, it got one. In all three losses this year, the Notre Dame defense had given up fourth-quarter scoring drives in a one-possession game. Those three backbreaking drives combined for 35 plays, 240 yards and 17 points against an Irish defense that seemed to repeatedly tire late in games. 

But after five games in which the Irish defense produced just four total turnovers, Al Golden’s unit produced its second of the day when it mattered most against Syracuse. After a pair of quarterback rushes netted the Orange a fresh set of downs, Syracuse looked to Del Rio-Wilson to once again make things happen through the air.

But this time senior defensive tackle Howard Cross III was able to get a hand up, bat Del Rio-Wilson’s pass into the sky, and senior linebacker Marist Liufau got under it to make a centerfielder-esque basket catch to give the Irish offense another chance to take the squad’s lead out of one-score territory.

Thanks to the spark provided by the defense’s stop, Notre Dame’s offense found its footing again. Going back to the run game that worked so well in the first half, the Irish continually battered the Orange with six rushes in eight plays. Eventually, one of those runs put a sigh of relief into head coach Marcus Freeman’s lungs when sophomore running back Audric Estime found a hole and burst through for an 11-yard score.

Liufau’s pivotal interception wasn’t the only time Saturday that the defense provided the Irish a spark. On the very first play from scrimmage senior safety Brandon Joseph got the Irish on the board, sitting on a short pass over the middle from Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader that hit him right in the chest. With nothing but green grass in front of him, Joseph raced 29 yards for the first pick-six of his career, a streak that the senior noted after the game went back to before his high school playing days.

Freeman remarked after the game on the importance of Joseph’s interception setting the tone for the rest of the game. “It was huge,” he said. “To start the game on defense and on the very first play get a pick-six? That’s how you want to start. It was good. The group started fast… the ability to establish [yourself], go on defense first, go up 7-0, that’s huge momentum for everyone at our football program.”

Notre Dame’s defensive output throughout the squad’s worst games this season has consistently been defined by bend but don’t break performances. In all three Irish losses, Notre Dame was unable to force a single turnover. In the team’s stressful, 24-17 win over Cal, the defense once again came away without a takeaway. 

And while the defense hardly played terribly in any of those four games, consistently wearing down offenses without creating momentum isn’t enough for an offense that has struggled as much with big plays as Notre Dame’s. 

It was easy to see the wind enter the Irish sails after both takeaways in Syracuse. Joseph’s pick-six brought the defense jumping and screaming to the Irish fan contingent behind the endzone. Senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey was even flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for his role in the raucous celebrations. 

Following Liufau’s interception, it was once again clear that the bench energy that had lagged during the short Orange comeback had perked up once again. The offense responded to that energy in kind and looked less intimidated by a Syracuse crowd that Freeman described as “hostile” and had forced multiple earlier false starts. The Irish score after Liufau’s interception all but put the game away for good.

The Irish defense knows the role it has to play in generating a spark for a more inconsistent offense that has begun to establish an identity reliant on a run game and as slow of a tempo as it can manage. 

Joseph commented after the game on the importance of the defensive unit continuing to force turnovers going forward:

“I think it’s a big confidence booster for our defense,” Joseph said. “It’s something that we’ve expected from game one of the season, to get turnovers, and for them to start falling now, with the games that we have up next… we’re a defense that puts an emphasis on turnovers. It’s what we expect. For it to happen today was real satisfying.”

With tests against No. 5 Clemson (8-0, averaging 37.1 points per game) and No. 10 USC (6-1, averaging 40.4 points per game) looming large as the biggest games remaining on the schedule, Notre Dame’s defense can’t afford to revert to bend but don’t break performances.

The Irish offense doesn’t have the big play capabilities on their own to match the scoring of their Tiger and Trojan counterparts. Notre Dame averages just 28.4 points per game. But even more notably, the Irish have averaged just 17.25 points per game in contests where they fail to force a turnover.

Unsurprisingly, two of the three games in which Notre Dame was able to eclipse 40 points have been the only two games where the Irish were able to generate at least one touchdown off turnovers (7 points against North Carolina, 14 points against Syracuse).

Defensive coordinator Al Golden continually stressed earlier in the season when pressed about the lack of turnovers that they would come. And while the Irish face as tough of a home test as one could ask for next week in No. 5 Clemson, Saturday’s game provided evidence of Golden’s prediction coming true. And with that evidence is a road map to what Freeman will hope is a first signature victory as Notre Dame’s head coach.

Contact J.J. Post at jpost2@nd.edu.

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5 key moments from Notre Dame’s victory in Syracuse

SYRACUSE, New York — Saturday afternoon, Notre Dame football notched its fifth win of the season, dispatching Syracuse 41-24 on the road. Here are the five key moments that defined the game

Brandon Joseph starts the Irish off early, Orange respond

It took one play from scrimmage for Notre Dame to get on the scoreboard. Senior transfer safety Brandon Joseph read a short pass by Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader perfectly and snagged his first interception of the season. Racing 29 yards to the endzone, the score marked Notre Dame’s first touchdown against a Power Five opponent of the season in the first quarter. The snag and score by Joseph would set the tone for a rough first half for Shrader, who went 5 for 14 for 35 yards to go with the pick. He was replaced by Carlos Del Rio-Wilson after halftime, potentially due to an unspecified injury reported by ABC. 

It didn’t take long for Syracuse to counter the Irish’s early score. Garrett Shrader bounced back from his early interception to put together a perfect second drive, going 3-3 with 31 yards and a score. It was tight end Oronde Gadsden II who hauled in the touchdown, beating Notre Dame’s mismatched freshman corner Benjamin Morrison to make a comfortable grab in the endzone to tie the game at seven.

Notre Dame leans on ground game, controls second quarter

The Irish offensive line put forth one of its most dominant performances early on against the Orange, consistently creating both push and free holes for Notre Dame’s running back stable to exploit. Tommy Rees and the Irish offense leaned heavily on that stable on the team’s first drive of the second quarter, giving touches to all three running backs. Notre Dame ran the ball 10 times total on an 11-play scoring drive, culminating fittingly in a three-yard touchdown by sophomore Logan Diggs. The Irish’s 25 first-half rushes marked the most they had attempted in the first half of any contest this year.

With just two minutes left in the second half, it felt like Notre Dame had just ceded all momentum to the Orange. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne threw an interception to give Syracuse a chance to tie late in the half. But a stalled drive and a failed fourth down attempt on a bold call by Syracuse coach Dino Babers resulted in Notre Dame getting the ball back with a minute and change to work with. The Pyne and Mayer pitch and catch got back to work, this time with more success. The quarterback-tight end pairing connected for a pair of catches for a combined 48 yards to set the Irish up on the Syracuse three. Pyne promptly found sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas for the score to give the Irish a comfortable two-score lead heading into the half

Syracuse gains momentum heading into the fourth quarter

After bringing in Del Rio-Wilson at halftime, the Orange offense found its groove. After a field goal brought the Irish lead back to 14, the former Florida transfer guided Syracuse into position with a series of completions through the heart of the Irish defense. He found Damien Alford for a gain of 23 and then D’Marcus Adams for a gain of 30. After that, running back Sean Tucker then trotted into the Irish endzone untouched for a four-yard score to bring the game back to a one-score contest.

Irish defense stops the bleeding early in the fourth 

After a quick three and out to start the fourth quarter, Notre Dame turned to its defense to help keep the Irish in the lead. And Al Golden’s unit delivered, with senior defensive lineman Howard Cross getting a hand up to deflect an effort from Del Rio-Wilson. With the wobbling throw hanging in the area as anyone’s game, senior linebacker Marist Liufau got underneath the ball and picked off the pass to set the Irish offense back up near midfield with a fresh set of downs. This time Notre Dame would move more efficiently, with sophomore running back Audric Estime eventually charging into the end zone for an 11-yard score to restore the 14-point Irish lead. 

Special teams come up big to extend Notre Dame lead late

After a strong defensive possession, the Orange were forced to punt from deep in their own territory. The Irish special teams unit broke through with a big play of their own, however, and Clarence Lewis’ blocked punt set Notre Dame up on the Syracuse two-yard line. On the very next play, Audric Estime leaped into the endzone to establish a commanding three-score lead that the Irish wouldn’t relinquish. The block was Notre Dame’s fifth on the season and marked the third straight game Brian Mason’s special teams unit forced a blocked punt.

With the win, Notre Dame now moves to 5-3 and will start preparations for its biggest home game of the year, with undefeated No. 5 Clemson coming to South Bend next Saturday, Nov. 5.

Contact J.J. Post at jpost2@nd.edu.

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Ranking Notre Dame’s remaining schedule

Before the season started, the Observer Sports Staff ranked the toughest games on the Irish schedule. It is apparent now that Marshall was severely underrated in those rankings. Nevertheless, after three games, the remaining schedule ranks fairly similar to what the preseason rankings were. Let’s take a look at the remaining nine opponents the Irish will face this season.

1. USC (Record: 3-0, AP Rank: 7)

The Trojans have arguably been the biggest surprise in college football this season. Many, including myself, assumed that the Trojans would need time to adjust to Lincoln Riley’s air-raid attack style of offense, but that transition has been nothing but smooth so far. The Trojans have plenty of talent at the skill positions. They are led by three players from the transfer portal: quarterback Caleb Williams, wide receiver Jordan Addison and running back Travis Dye. Addison has been a beast for the Trojans. He posted five touchdowns and nearly 300 receiving yards in USC’s first three games. The Trojans have only played Rice, Stanford and Fresno State this season, but with an easy PAC-12 schedule, it would be shocking if the Trojans have more than one loss when they play the Irish at the end of the season

Key to Irish victory: 

The Irish need to win this one in the trenches. The Trojans have what the Irish don’t: a prolific offense that revolves around a top-tier quarterback and a plethora of wide receiving talent. The Irish defensive line has to improve as the season goes. They must find a way to put pressure on Caleb Wiliams. On the offensive side of the ball, the Irish need to hope the offensive line continues to improve and they need to establish the run game. Similarly to the strategy against Ohio State, the Irish will need to do their best to keep the ball out of Caleb Williams’ hands as long as possible.

2. Clemson (Record: 3-0. AP Rank: 5)

There has been surprisingly very little talk surrounding the Tigers so far this season. Although they only have wins against Georgia Tech, Furman and Louisiana Tech, the Tigers have won all of those games fairly handily. The key to the Tigers’ success has been running back Will Shipley, who has six touchdowns on the season and is averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Quarterback D.J. Uiagelelei looks to be much improved as well, having completed 64.8% of his passes for 662 yards and five touchdowns. The Tigers are anchored by a solid defensive corps as well that has already forced seven turnovers this season. Despite the lack of national attention, this Clemson squad feels similar to their national title teams from a couple of seasons ago.

Key to Irish victory:

This game is below the USC game because of the home atmosphere. Although the Irish fell at home to Marshall a couple of weeks ago, Notre Dame Stadium is going to be fired up for a game against Clemson. The Irish need to stop Uiagelelei’s production in this game. When Uiagelelei played in Notre Dame Stadium in place of Trevor Lawrence in 2020, he tore apart the Irish defense and nearly gave the Tigers the victory. The Irish defense can survive some long runs by Shipley, but they will have to limit the Tigers’ quarterback production if the Notre Dame offense is going to keep up with Clemson.

3. BYU (Record: 2-1, AP Rank: 19)

BYU was riding high after their double-overtime victory over Baylor two weeks ago, but last week’s 41-20 loss to Oregon brought the Cougars back down to earth. Quarterback Jaren Hall has been the centerpiece of a balanced BYU offense that has averaged 4.9 yards per carry on the ground and averaged nearly 300 passing yards a game. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars must regroup after last week’s disaster against Oregon. In that game, the big play destroyed the Cougars, as they allowed 227 passing yards off of just 14 completions. BYU has two very winnable games ahead of their matchup against Notre Dame, so it is likely BYU comes into the Shamrock Series game as a top-15 team.

Key to Irish victory: 

BYU’s defensive weakness appears to be the big play, which doesn’t bode well for an Irish offense that has failed to produce many big plays all season. In order to win the game, the Irish need to contain Hall’s production and limit wide receiver Chase Roberts, who has 223 receiving yards on the season.

4. UNC (Record: 3-0, AP Rank: RV)

The Tar Heels have a 3-0 record, but it has been anything but pretty. After squeaking out a victory against Appalachian State in their second game, they beat Georgia State by only one touchdown the following week. The Tar Heels have a prolific offense that is led by freshman Drake Maye. Their defense will need to improve going forward though if they are going to compete in the ACC.

Key to Irish victory:

The Irish have to keep pace with UNC’s offense. They will need to get into an offensive rhythm against a subpar UNC defense. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne will need to step up and make some plays downfield.

5. Syracuse (Record 3-0, AP Rank: RV)

The Orange are a somewhat surprising 3-0 after dismantling Louisville 31-7 in week one. In week two, they beat Purdue on a last-minute play last weekend. Quarterback Garrett Shrader has completed 66.2% of his passes with eight touchdowns and he has yet to throw an interception.

Key to Irish victory: 

The Irish secondary will have to step up against Syracuse’s passing attack. Graduate student safety Brandon Joseph will have to lead the way, but others must step up as well if the Irish are to get a win in the Carrier Dome.

6. Boston College (Record 1-2, AP Rank: NR)

The Eagles were stunned by Rutgers in the opening game of the season, and they also suffered a 17-point loss to Virginia Tech in week two. The Eagles have struggled to generate much of any offense this season.

Key to Irish victory:

Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec will be out to prove himself on Senior Day. The Irish will have to keep him in check if they are going to avoid a Senior Day disaster.

7. Stanford (Record 1-1, AP Rank: NR)

The Cardinal destroyed Colgate in the first game of the season but fell flat in a 41-28 loss to USC. Quarterback Tanner McKee has as many interceptions as touchdowns and he will have to improve going forward if the Cardinal are going to compete in the PAC-12 this season.

Key to Irish victory:

This is a classic rivalry game and if the Irish get fired up to play under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium, this one shouldn’t be a problem.

8. UNLV (Record 2-1, AP Rank: NR)

UNLV has wins over Idaho State and North Texas with their sole loss being to Cal. Quarterback Doug Brumfield has been spectacular this season, completing 70.6% of his passes for seven touchdowns.

Key to Irish victory:

The Irish beat themselves in their stunning loss to Marshall. If they play even somewhat decently and limit their mistakes, they should have no problem against UNLV.

9. Navy (Record 0-2, AP Rank: NR)

The Midshipmen have been atrocious this season, having scored just 20 points in their first two games. They are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, which is not nearly enough in a triple offense attack. 

Key to Irish victory:

The triple offense attack has been far from successful for the Midshipmen this season. The Irish will have to keep it that way and prevent Navy from having long, time-consuming drives.

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Sports

As Irish search for answers, special teams provides consistency

During Saturday’s game against Marshall, there wasn’t any individual player who was the reason for success, or lack thereof. Throughout the 60 minutes of play, there was rare consistency between any one player. Tight end Michael Mayer stacked up 103 receiving yards, followed by wide receiver Lorenzo Styles with 69. Running back Audric Estime was second to only sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner who had a total of 33 rushing yards.

With these offensive stats also came a messy game for the Irish, and against an unranked team, Notre Dame was only able to come up with 21 points. On the defensive side, Howard Cross recorded 11 tackles, three of which were solos. DJ Brown notched 5 tackles on Saturday, and he joined linebackers Jack Kiser and JD Bertrand with nine total tackles. Yet again, these silver linings came hand-in-hand with missed tackles and broken coverage.  

However, one position group remained consistent within the Notre Dame roster: the special teams unit. On the punting end, Jon Sot totaled 169 yards on the day. On the returning end, Tyree and Styles totaled 59 yards (32 and 27 respectively), and Joseph returned 15 yards on a punt. 

“We challenged the kickoff return unit, and they did a good job of executing at the end of the game,” head coach Marcus Freeman said post game. “You know, you challenge Brandon Joseph, hey, you got a chance to return [a punt] let’s return. [Joseph] did one time today and you got some positive yards. So the special teams unit stepped up today. Majority really pleased with that phase of the ball.”

And while they weren’t perfect on the night, especially with a failure to recover graduate student place kicker Blake Grupe’s attempted onside kick, they were consistent. 

Sot provides punting consistency

Sot opened the Irish off with a 35-yard punt, landing at the Marshall 10, and the following drive for Marshall would be proven unsuccessful. The next time Sot would see the field would be with 3:14 left in the first quarter. This time, Sot punted the ball 36 yards, landing on the Marshall 24, likely shorter than the Irish wanted. The Thundering Herd scored on that drive.

It wasn’t until 8:10 left in the second that Sot would be needed again. This time, the Irish were trapped at their 27 after multiple incomplete attempts and were forced to punt. Sot came through, punting 61 yards to the Marshall 12. 

“Our special teams put the ball in a great field position at the five-yard line, and we have to, when it matters the most, execute,” Freeman said. 

The final time Sot would take the field would be with 10:32 left in the game. After a penalty, and multiple incomplete passes, the Irish were again forced to punt. Sot landed the ball 37 yards away at the Marshall 6. 

Out of Sot’s four punts on the field, three of them landed within 15 yards of the endzone. 

Return game vastly improves

On the returning end, Joseph kicked off the game with a fair catch at the Irish 41. The first time a Notre Dame player would return the ball would be when Tyree returned a kickoff from Marshall Rece Verhoff 32 yards to the Irish’s 33 in the second quarter. While this play would eventually lead to an Irish turnover, Tyree improved on last week when he averaged 11 yards per kickoff return.

The next return would be late in the second quarter when Styles returned a kickoff 27 yards to the Notre Dame 27. However, with only 15 seconds left, the Irish were unable to make anything out of it. Later in the game, Joseph returned his first punt of the year, this time taking it up 15 yards to the Irish 43. 

The last play that the special teams participated greatly in would be when Bo Bauer blocked a Marshall punt. While this seemed to spark a little bit of hope in the Irish fan base, it was ultimately too little too late.

“We have to execute and that’s at the end of the game. Fourth quarter. When the game’s on the line,” Freeman said. “We got to find a way to get a stop. We got to tackle this.”

While Marshall outworked Notre Dame in several categories Saturday afternoon, the Irish special teams outclassed the Herd’s unit. On average, Sot punted the ball to Marshall’s 13. Comparatively, Marshall’s punter John McConnell averaged the Irish 30. Sot also out punted McConnells average yardage 42.3 to 36.8. The Herd also returned one punt for a loss of three yards, and their one kickoff return managed just 20 yards.

Ultimately, the special teams set up the Irish for success, however, it was the rest of the team that were unable to execute, thus leaving the Irish to lose 26-21 and fall to 0-2 in the new Freeman era.

Olivia Schatz


Contact Olivia Schatz at oschatz@nd.edu

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Sports

TaRiq Bracy, Rylie Mills prepared to lead Irish defense this season

Although the Irish came up short in last week’s season-opening loss in Columbus, there were plenty of positive takeaways, especially on the defensive side of the football.

The Irish secondary held a potent Ohio State offense to 223 passing yards, compared to the Buckeyes’ 683 passing yards against Utah in last season’s Rose Bowl.

One of the leaders who emerged on Saturday night was graduate student cornerback TaRiq Bracy, who finished the game with four tackles — three of which were solo.

Head coach Marcus Freeman acknowledged that Bracy has always been talented but has become more consistent as he matured as a football player.

“From the minute I got here, he was talented. There was no question to how talented TaRiq Bracy is,” Freeman said. “But what he has shown us is that he is able to be consistent and perform at a really high level every day.”

Freeman praised Bracy for his ability to play multiple positions and step into a big role as a senior.

“We have used him at multiple positions. It’s impressive for him to be able to play nickel and then go out to corner and then go back to nickel and to be able to ask him to do different things,” Freeman said. “He’s really performing right now as a senior should, and he is a guy that we are really going to depend on. I couldn’t be more pleased with his performance.”

Bracy was proud of the secondary’s performance Saturday, and he emphasized the importance of competing with any opponent.

“The message we sent is that we are here to play ball,” Bracy said. “Any time we play, we want to come out and compete at the highest level. We are ready. It doesn’t matter what team we play or who it is, we just want to compete.”

Bracy emphasized the importance of limiting explosive plays, which the Irish did well for the most part against the Buckeyes.

“The receivers are going to catch the ball. That’s part of football, but we want to limit their explosive plays and limit the yards after catch,” Bracy said.

Another player who stood out for the Irish on Saturday was freshman cornerback Ben Morrison, who finished the night with three total tackles.

Bracy praised Morrison for his ability to step into his first collegiate game and make an impact.

“We knew what he could do coming in. We saw him ball out in our fall camp,” Bracy said. “We were 100% confident in his play, and it showed on the field.”

Freeman also praised Morrison and freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey for their performance on Saturday.

“To have Jaden Mickey and Ben Morrison play and perform at the level that they did in that game as true freshmen, they are going to be special,” Freeman said. “Both of those players are going to be special for our football program for years to come.”

Bracy also praised graduate student safety Brandon Joseph for being a captain of the Irish secondary.

“He’s a smart player, very athletic and can change the game,” Bracy said. “Having a guy like that along with the rest of our safeties is very helpful playing that nickel and corner position and knowing you have help over the top.”

Despite the secondary’s success against the Buckeyes, the Irish came up short, and Bracy knows his team can learn from this loss.

“It’s football. You are going to win some and lose some. There has to be a winner, and there has to be a loser,” Bracy said. “And if you lose, you have to learn from it and bounce back.”

Bracy is excited to return home this weekend and feed off the crowd’s energy.

“It feels great to be back at home with the fans supporting us. We are ready to move on and play the next game,” Bracy said.

Bracy emphasized the importance of the Irish focusing on this week’s upcoming game against Marshall and not dwelling on the past.

“It’s about the next game,” Bracy said. “Coach Freeman says all the time, ‘one play, one life.’ If things don’t go your way, on to the next week. Get in the film room, practice hard and get ready for next week.”

Junior defensive lineman Rylie Mills, who finished Saturday’s game with three tackles, is also one of the anchors of the Irish defense.

Despite the loss, Mills felt that the defense competed well against the Buckeyes and that the Irish could get another shot at Ohio State in the playoffs if they continue to improve and take care of business.

“The biggest takeaway is that we are right there. And if we take care of business and do what we can do day in and day out the rest of this season, I have no doubt that we will play that team again,” Mills said.

Mills emphasized the importance of constantly improving as the season progresses and competing every day in practice.

“As we go on this season, we have to trend upwards,” Mills said. “We have to go out and dominate every day of practice.”

When asked about finishing games strong this season, Mills stressed the importance of working hard towards the end of practices.

“When we get to later periods of practice, are guys getting tired and wavering off, or do we still have the same intensity as when we came out there?” Mills said. “There’s things like that where, as we get to the tougher part of practice you have to keep up with the same intensity that you started.”

Mills also mentioned that he and his teammates have meticulously watched the film from Saturday’s game to look for areas that they can improve.

“For me specifically, I noticed that I have to work my pad level lower and work my moves better,” Mills said. “I’m my harshest critic, so every time I come away from a game like that and watch the film, I notice some highlights and things I did okay. However, there are things that I look at and realize I can do better. I just look at those and I know if I can really perfect that, I can be that much greater next week.”

Mills acknowledged that the defense was firing on all cylinders in the first half of Saturday’s game, and he hopes that the defense can replicate that performance going forward.

“The biggest positive is for the first half of football, we were stopping them. We were stopping the run and dominating the guy in front of us and working moves to get to the quarterback,” Mills said.

Mills believes the Irish are capable of bouncing back this season and getting another shot at Ohio State in the playoffs.

“If we just keep preparing and being intense in practice and focusing on finishing, at the end of the season we will play those guys again,” Mills said. “I know we will be way more prepared and ready to go.”

Like Bracy, Mills is excited to be back in front of the home crowd this Saturday.

“I’m super pumped for it. It’s always great when you are at home and you have the crowd on your side,” Mills said. “Last week they weren’t cheering when we were moving down the field, so it will be nice to have that.”

Nate Moller


Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu

Categories
Sports

Notre Dame’s keys to victory against Ohio State

With the Irish currently sitting as 17.5-point underdogs against Ohio State, they are going to need a multitude of things to go their way come Saturday. Limiting the production of Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud will be nearly impossible, but there are other paths to victory for the Irish.

1. Win the turnover battle

This is an obvious one, but it is almost a necessity for Irish to upset the Buckeyes. With a young quarterback in sophomore Tyler Buchner, the Irish will need to avoid turnovers at all costs. Buchner had three crucial interceptions last year, and that is not going to fly in Columbus. Buchner will have his hands full, though, against a much-improved Ohio State defense led by former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

At cornerback, the Buckeyes will be led by Denzel Burke. Burke is coming off a terrific freshman season and has the potential to become one of the best corners in the league. The Buckeyes will also have plenty of talent at safety with Ronnie Hickman and Josh Proctor.

Although Proctor got injured last season, he arguably has the potential to become one of the best defensive playmakers in college football. Regardless, he will undoubtedly be a headache for Buchner and the Irish wide receiving corps. The Buckeyes also added Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCallister to further solidify their secondary.

With all this being said, Buchner will need to be precise and decisive in the passing game. If Buchner tries to force passes out to the flat or into tight spaces, the Buckeyes have plenty of playmakers to make Buchner pay for potential mistakes.

On the other side of the football, the Irish need to generate turnovers at opportune moments. The Irish will need anything they can get to take the life out of the crowd, and a timely interception and fumble can do just that. Stroud is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so the Irish will have to get lucky and get turnovers from their top defensive playmakers.

2. Limit Ohio State’s production through the air

C.J. Stroud is going to throw for a lot of yards against Notre Dame, and there is no way around that. What the Irish need to do is limit the big play. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is the most important receiver for the Irish to stop. Unfortunately for the Irish, the Buckeyes have plenty of other options in the air. The incredibly athletic Marvin Harrison Jr. is one of these targets. So are Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka, two more reliable options for the Buckeyes to turn to as well.

So how can the Irish limit this lethal Buckeye passing game? The Irish cornerbacks will need to step up big time if they are going to have a chance. Junior Clarence Lewis struggled mightily in the Fiesta Bowl — he will have to be much improved if the Irish are going to stand a chance. Senior Cam Hart needs to step up as well. Although Hart had moments of greatness last season, there were times where he was the weak link of the Irish defensive corps. 

At safety, the Irish will need Northwestern senior safety transfer Brandon Joseph to be on top of his game. If Ohio State comes out of the gate firing with deep passes every which way, this game could be over before the first quarter. So it is vital for the Irish secondary to keep everything in front of them to keep the game close for as long as possible.

3. Develop a run game

Developing a run game is of the utmost importance for an Irish offense that should not try to rely too much on Buchner’s passing ability. The Irish have three great running backs, and it looks like all three of them should see plenty of snaps with no starter being named at the position.

Explosive junior Chris Tyree will likely lead the way for the Irish, bringing plenty of big-play potential. Tyree will be joined in the backfield by sophomores Logan Diggs and Audric Estime, who are both ideal for short-run situations but more than capable of breaking a long run as well.

Diggs jumped onto the scene last year with a fantastic game against Virginia Tech, and he finished the year strong with three touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in the process. Estime only had a handful of carries, but his six-foot, 228 lb frame should be perfect for goal line and third-and-short situations.

Aside from the running backs, Notre Dame should feature a much-improved offensive line. Sophomore Joe Alt will start at left tackle for the Irish after proving to be one of the best freshmen in the country at his position last year. Preseason AP All-American graduate student Jarrett Patterson will line up next to Alt, which should lock up the left side of the line. Alt and Patterson are joined by senior Zeke Correll, graduate student Josh Lugg and sophomore Blake Fisher, who all possess plenty of talent and experience to pave the way for a successful run game.

The Irish need to generate some long, slow drives that eat up the clock and keep the Ohio State offense off the field. Buchner himself is very effective on the ground, so look for him to contribute to this run game scheme as well. The Buckeyes have a strong defensive line, so this will be a huge matchup to keep an eye on Saturday night.

Nate Moller

Contact Nate at nmoller2@nd.edu