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Coolican: Win over UNC must serve as turning point for Irish offense

Before kick-off Saturday in Chapel Hill, I noted that if Drew Pyne and the Irish offense were unable to get it going against the North Carolina defense, I wasn’t sure they would be able to do so against anybody. The Tar Heels came into the contest allowing opponents an average of 468 yards per game, so it was the perfect opportunity for the Irish to turn things around offensively.

Drew Pyne & Co. did that, and then some. After two unsuccessful drives, the Irish offense was absolutely dominant for the remainder of the game. The Irish rattled off six consecutive scoring drives and only punted once. It was an offensive masterclass in every facet of the game. The Irish rushed for 287 yards and passed for 289. 

North Carolina does have one of the worst defenses in college football, and that was on full display Saturday afternoon. But that shouldn’t take away from what the Irish were able to do offensively. 

“It’s what you hope Notre Dame football is going to be about,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “That you’re going to have an O-line that can run the ball…to be able to run the ball at will for four or five yards, that’s something that you have to be able to do.”

Notre Dame certainly showed what they are about on Saturday. The talented trio of running backs, junior Chris Tyree and sophomores Audric Estime and Logan Diggs, each had more than 100 total yards. 

After a shaky first drive, junior quarterback Drew Pyne looked increasingly confident as the game progressed. He played largely mistake-free football and consistently found open receivers downfield. Establishing the run early allowed for the offense to open up a vertical dimension that the Irish hadn’t shown previously. 

The play calling has been much maligned to start the season, and until Saturday, it appeared Notre Dame would be extremely limited offensively with Pyne under center. 

“I try to tell the team all the time. When things go bad, it’s bad play-calling. When things go well, it’s great play-calling. That’s the reality of things,” Freeman said. “I believe in the game Tommy Rees has called from Ohio State to Marshall to Cal to now. We were able to execute better.”

Pyne agreed with this confidence and sang the offensive coordinator’s praises in the post-game press conference.

“I think Coach Rees called an unbelievable game. He puts me in a position to go out there and just succeed and do my job and execute,” Pyne said. “I can’t tell you how many times I ran over to the phone and said, ‘Coach Rees, that was all you.’” 

All of this is well and good, but only if this game serves as a turning point for the Irish offense. Notre Dame must be able to build on this momentum as they approach the midway point of the season, with many of their toughest opponents still to come. 

The game was clearly an inflection point for Notre Dame; either they would drop to 1-3 and begin to cast doubts about whether the team would even be bowl eligible, or they would win their second game in a row heading into a bye week and the upcoming showdown with BYU. 

The Irish went out there and responded to this pressure in a big way. When this season is over, however, the win over UNC won’t be the first game that comes to mind. It will be the battles with BYU, Clemson, USC, and, unfortunately, the upset loss to Marshall. The Irish have to carry this momentum forward into these big showdowns.

Notre Dame is clearly getting better each week, but that will have to continue. What was most impressive about the win Saturday wasn’t the play-calling, the performance of the running backs or the offensive line, or Pyne’s play. It was the consistency. 

North Carolina quickly took a 7-0 lead on their first possession and then forced a three-and-out. Based on the first three weeks of the season, one might have expected the Irish offense to be completely demoralized, but instead, they bounced right back and put themselves in scoring position for every single drive for the rest of the game. 

A missed 44-yard field goal on their second drive of the game preceded six consecutive scoring drives, five of which were touchdowns. The Irish failed to convert on a 4th and 1 from the UNC 25 before another touchdown, and finally a fumble into the endzone. For those keeping track, that is 10 consecutive drives that finished inside the UNC 26 yard line. The Irish were moving the ball at will down the field practically all game. 

Notre Dame will certainly hope this game serves as a turning point for an offense that was at times painful to watch through the first three games of the season. North Carolina didn’t offer much in the way of resistance, but it was undoubtedly the best the Irish have looked all season. However, they’ll still need to prove it against better defensive opponents, and BYU is the perfect place to do so. 

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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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Coolican: Find joy in this season

The mood in the locker room after Notre Dame’s victory over Cal last weekend was jubilant. It was Marcus Freeman’s first career win as a head coach, and it was the first win of the season for the players and coaches who worked so hard in the offseason for this moment. 

Compare that to the mood of Irish fans as the game came to an end. Rather than joy, it was more a collective sigh of relief that was heard across South Bend as Cal’s last-second Hail Mary attempt finally fell harmlessly to the ground. Everyone in the stands seemed relieved that Notre Dame didn’t lose, rather than feeling happy that they won.

It is a challenge to find hope and joy in what some consider to be a lost season after just three weeks. This season hasn’t gone exactly to plan; dropping from fifth in the nation to unranked in the span of two weeks hurts, and it hurts badly. 

Perhaps this is because of how high the expectations were for Notre Dame prior to the season. Despite losing their starting quarterback, a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher, and one of the best defensive players in college football, Notre Dame was ranked fifth in the country before even playing a down. Not only that, but the expectations the fans had for Marcus Freeman were astronomical. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a first-year head coach.

Irish fans everywhere, including myself, bought into this undeserved hype. And now, it seems, we are paying the price. Losses hurt the most when expectations are highest. Conversely, there is very little joy in winning the games your team expects to win.

In all honesty, expectations for a first-year head coach shouldn’t have been this high. Yes, this is Notre Dame football. And like it or not, there will always be an extremely high level of scrutiny. It is undoubtedly part of the job description. However, it seemed that the expectations placed on Freeman were higher before this season than they ever were in 12 seasons under Brian Kelly.

This may have been because of the immense success Freeman had in recruiting over the offseason. Or the fact that his players clearly love playing for him. Maybe even the lingering resentment over Kelly’s abrupt departure. Whatever the reason, the fanbase’s expectations of Freeman set them up for disappointment this year.

Still, we all owe it to ourselves to find joy in this season. This isn’t one of those “your team is terrible, here’s how to enjoy watching them anyway,” columns. Notre Dame is still a very good team that could challenge for another New Year’s Six Bowl this year. Despite the slow start, the season is far from over.

It is all too easy to fall into negativity when junior quarterback Drew Pyne throws the ball at the feet of a wide-open target. Or when the secondary allows a receiver to run free. Notre Dame fans aren’t used to seeing these kinds of mistakes. Fans have grown used to the Irish beating teams they are expected to beat, and often falling flat in the rare instances when they are the underdog. This year has changed that narrative completely. North Carolina, an unranked opponent, is currently a 1.5-point favorite ahead of Saturday’s matchup.

If the Irish manage to beat the Tar Heels this weekend on the road, celebrate like it’s the upset victory that it is. Not merely another win against a team they should beat. Winning a game on the road against a quality opponent would be a big step for Freeman and the team. And it should be treated as such.

For all of Notre Dame’s struggles this year, they are still a good team with talented players. Enjoy watching junior running back Chris Tyree break tackles in the open field. And junior tight end Michael Mayer bowling over defenders as he makes another first-down catch. And senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey’s third-down sacks.

But most of all, enjoy the wins. Here’s my advice for this weekend’s game against UNC, which is expected to be a close one. As are most of the seasons of the ones in Notre Dame’s season. Don’t sit on pins and needles waiting for disaster to strike. Instead, wait for the team to make a big play, and celebrate.

If fans are too busy waiting for failure, we may miss celebrating the unexpectedly great moments.

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Notre Dame beats Cal, Marcus Freeman gets first win as head coach

On that final drive, it seemed like the first win of the Freeman era might never come. Two turnovers were brought back after further review, giving the California Golden Bears one final chance to tie the game and force an overtime. 

“There was a conversation between me and God,” said head coach Marcus Freeman about that final drive. “There was some, ‘Lord, what is going on?’”

But there was no time for prayer. In that moment, it meant the defense would need to step up one final time — and that they did. A broken-up Hail Mary attempt sealed the 24-17 win, as Notre Dame football finally got off the starting blocks in 2022.

It was a huge moment for a defense that had been problematic late in games this year. Against both Ohio State and Marshall, late 90+ yard touchdowns sealed the Irish’s fate. On Saturday, the defense finished the game the way their coaches had been preaching all week.

It was a happy ending to what was ultimately an inconsistent game for Notre Dame in terms of execution. Early on, it seemed like more of the same anemic offense as the first two games. The Irish had four three-and-out possessions to open the game and totaled 28 yards and just one yard on the ground. Regardless, the defense played well. And Cal kicker Dario Longhetto’s 45-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright, meaning the game was still a scoreless tie at the end of the first quarter.

After that missed field goal, Notre Dame got the ball back, but after graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy picked up 8 yards on a pass while in motion, disaster struck. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne lined up under center but couldn’t get a handle on senior center Zeke Correll’s snap, and Cal’s Oluwafemi Oladejo beat Pyne to the loose ball to flip the field for the Golden Bears.

Freeman had some words for his quarterback following the fumble.

“I told Drew, ‘Relax, man, go out and be Drew Pyne and execute,’” said Freeman.

After the Irish turnover, Jack Plummer and the Golden Bears were set up in prime field position just outside the red zone, and they did not waste it. Plummer connected twice with freshman receiver J. Michael Sturdivant to make it count. 

First, Sturdivant laid out for a 15-yard catch on third and 10 to keep the drive alive. Then, on the next play, Plummer faked the handoff and rolled right. There, he looked up field and saw a wide-open Sturdivant running to the corner of the end zone. Plummer’s pass was on the money to put the Golden Bears on the board with an 18-yard touchdown. Sturdivant also received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the celebration, which backed up Cal’s kickoff 15 yards.

That mistake from Sturdivant opened the door for Notre Dame’s special teams unit to make an impact as they did all game. Coming in, the special teams unit was one of the few bright spots from Notre Dame’s first two games, and they kept it up on Saturday. On returns, junior running back Chris Tyree and junior safety Brandon Joseph consistently picked up yards, while graduate student punter Jon Sot averaged 45.6 yards over seven punts and graduate student kicker Blake Grupe was perfect on his field goal and extra point attempts.

On this occasion, Tyree received the ball on the backed-up kickoff, returning it 16 yards to set up the Irish at their own 40-yard line. From there, he took over the drive. He handled the ball six times from there with four carries and two catches, including the 21-yard touchdown grab after beating the linebacker coming out of the backfield.

Granted, Notre Dame was a little fortunate on that scoring drive, with an offside penalty bailing out Grupe. The kicker had missed a 45-yard field goal attempt after the drive stalled following a failed third-down conversion. Still, the penalty gave the offense new life and they capitalized on Cal’s mistake to even the score at 7-7.

Tyree was happy to get increased touches, but said his focus was getting the win.

“Whether I get the ball or not, I’m always going to be happy with the win, but it happened to go that way today. I got a lot of touches and the opportunity to show my skills out on the field. I’m blessed to have that opportunity and I try my best to take advantage of it every time,” said Tyree.

On the following drive, Cal found its offensive rhythm putting together a 10-play, 69-yard drive deep into Irish territory. On third and 12, the Irish sent five men and pressured Plummer, who was able to step up and get loose to pick up the first down on a huge 21-yard scramble.

Plummer then threw a perfect dime to wideout Jeremiah Hunter, who made an over-the-shoulder grab despite tight coverage from freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey. That completion set up first and goal for the Golden Bears. The Notre Dame defense tightened from there, including a huge open-field tackle from graduate student safety DJ Brown to prevent receiver Mavin Anderson from scoring on a screen pass.

Longhetto nailed his second field goal attempt of the day, this time from just 34 yards out, to give Cal a 10-7 lead. 

Down three points, Notre Dame got the ball back with about four minutes left in the half. The drive started off promising before it all unraveled. Pyne was sacked on second down to set up a third and nine. Before the snap, graduate student offensive line Jarrett Patterson was flagged for a false start, making it 14 for the first down. Then, senior offensive line Zeke Correll made the same mistake and backed them up five more yards. It was the fourth false start penalty on Notre Dame in the first half, and all of them came on third down.

Following the penalties, the Irish failed to pick up the first down, and with just four seconds left on the clock, Freeman elected to punt the ball away instead of taking a chance at the end zone before the half. Down by three and showing a lot of the same problems they had against Marshall a week before, much of the home crowd, dressed in green from head to toe, booed as the Irish made their way off the field at halftime.

Notre Dame came out strong in the second half. California received the ball to start, but a quick three and out forced a punt. This time, it was the Audric Estime show. The sophomore running back had six carries on the drive, including a dive into the end zone for the touchdown. Turns out, Notre Dame ran the same play four times in a row ahead of that score.

“That play was working. We had the momentum and the O-line was pushing guys off the line and opening up holes for me,” said Estime. “We did run the same play four times, but if it works, don’t stop.”

Facing their first deficit of the game, Cal took over at the 25 after a Grupe touchback. The Golden Bears moved the ball efficiently, going down the field in a long 10-play drive that ended with Plummer running the QB sneak into the end zone on third and goal to retake the lead, 17-14.

At this point in the game, Coach Freeman told his squad to change the narrative and to do it through execution. 

“I remember I said to the sideline after we gave up that touchdown drive, I think we were down three, and I said: ‘This isn’t going to be a repeat. This isn’t going to be “Here we go again.”  We’re going to change the outcome of this game, and it’s going to be by our offense going out there and doing what we have to do and executing, and then our defense when we get the opportunity, we’re going to go out there and execute. And that’s what you saw.  We needed that,” said Freeman.

Notre Dame tied it on the following possession, driving it 46 yards and into Cal territory. The Irish committed to the running game on this drive, handing it off seven times to Tyree and Estime.

“I wanted to run the ball. I felt like we were moving the ball and so, let’s continue to run it,” Freeman said. 

Eventually the drive stalled, and Grupe came on and converted a 47-yard field goal as Notre Dame evened the score at 17.

Now, in the fourth quarter with the game tied, it was crunch time for Notre Dame on both sides of the ball. The defense responded with a phenomenal series punctuated by senior defensive lineman Jacob Lacey’s second sack of the day. Three and out Cal.

“We prepared all week for this. We knew we had a chance to get after the quarterback and we emphasized it every day,” said Lacey. “It paid off.”

With the ball back in Pyne’s hands, the offense got back to work. Working off an efficient run game, Notre Dame was able to move the ball into Cal territory, and on first down they broke out for their longest play of the game: a 36-yard completion from Pyne to Estime.

“Audric made a great cut on an angle route off the linebacker and I threw it early because they were bringing pressure. He made a great catch and just ran with it,” said Pyne.

Pyne finished off the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Michael Mayer on the next play. Mayer featured less against Cal than the first two games, with just two catches on 10 yards, but he was there when Notre Dame needed him. And Pyne found him to take a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter.

From that point forward, the Irish defense stepped up to the task. On the following drive, they forced a turnover on downs. Senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey was huge down the stretch and sacked Plummer on fourth and 10 with the Bears threatening to score.

After a quick series — and a Sot punt that pinned Cal inside their own 10 — the defense was back on the field. Immediately they showed they were up to the task, forcing two throw aways from Plummer and pressuring him in the end zone. On third down, the pressure got to Plummer, and Foskey and graduate student defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola combined for a sack that was almost a game-sealing safety.

After a Cal punt from their own end zone and another quick punt from Notre Dame, Cal took over at the 25 with a little over a minute left and no timeouts. Then, chaos ensued. 

On the first play of Cal’s drive, it seemed like it was over. Plummer overthrew his receiver, and the ball went straight into the arms of junior cornerback Clarence Lewis, who slid down and began celebrating with his teammates. Unfortunately for Lewis, a flag had been thrown on the play and Irish senior linebacker and captain JD Bertrand was called for targeting and ejected from the game. It also meant 15 yards and a Cal first down.

Freeman was incredulous: “I looked at J.D. and said, ‘J.D., really?’” 

Plummer and Cal began to move the ball down the field and on third and 7, it looked like the defense had sealed it again. Justin Ademilola got to Plummer again and, as the quarterback tried to escape the pocket, Ademilola was able to drag him down and force a fumble.. The loose ball was recovered by graduate student cornerback TaRiq Bracy, who returned the ball for a touchdown as the stadium erupted. But again, the call was overturned after video review made it clear that Plummer’s right knee hit the ground before he lost the football.

“It was a rollercoaster for sure,” said Lacey of the final drive. “But we knew if we were on the field, the game was in hand regardless. We weren’t worried about the next play or them scoring. We just knew we had to execute, and that’s what we did.”

After Ademilola’s sack, five seconds remained on the clock for Plummer and the Golden Bears to take one last shot at the end zone. Notre Dame dropped seven into coverage for the final play as Plummer heaved a long shot into the end zone. With every defender in the area — and three Cal receivers there as well — the ball was juggled around in the air and eventually fell harmlessly to the ground.

The defense played hard until the final whistle and lived up to the pressure in the final minute. The unit had struggled in the first two games of the year, twice giving up 90+ yard touchdown drives in the final period. Those difficulties led to emphasis from the coaching staff on finishing games.

“Found a way to finish. I’m proud of those guys. You know what? It is hard to win football games,” said Freeman.

It was Notre Dame’s first win of the season and the first of Freeman’s tenure at the helm of the program. It was also a win for Drew Pyne in his first career start for Notre Dame.

“There’s a lot of coaching that happened on that field today that we can learn from. But listen, if you don’t take a minute to enjoy these things, you’re going to regret it. That’s what I keep reminding myself is enjoy this victory. We’ll get back to work tomorrow, but again, I want to celebrate with those guys today.”

Contact José Sánchez Córdova at jsanch24@nd.edu.

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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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Key moments from Notre Dame’s first win in the Freeman era

Slow start for both teams

The game started slowly with seven consecutive three-and-out possessions for the Notre Dame and Cal offenses. For the Irish, this meant 10 total yards in their opening four possessions. For the Golden Bears, it was 14 yards through their first three.

On their fourth possession, Cal was finally able to get something going. They put together an 11-play, 58-yard drive punctuated by a 17-yard throw and catch to convert on third down. However, they stalled at the 27-yard line and sent out the field goal unit. Cal kicker Dario Longhetto promptly doinked the 45-yard attempt off the left upright and the game remained tied at zero.

Pyne fumbles, Cal takes advantage

After escaping unscathed following Cal’s missed field goal, Notre Dame took over at their own 27, still without a first down. Pyne connected with Lorenzo Styles Jr. to open the drive and the first quarter came to an end.

But on the first play of the second quarter, Pyne couldn’t get a handle on Zeke Correll’s snap and fumbled it, with Cal linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo recovering. The turnover gave Cal excellent field position and, four plays later, they scored the game’s opening touchdown and took a 7-0 lead.

Notre Dame replies as Chris Tyree takes over

With 16 total yards, zero first downs and a seven-point deficit to make up, Notre Dame turned to junior running back Chris Tyree, and he answered the bell. Notre Dame put together a 10-play, 60-yard touchdown drive where Tyree accounted for 44 of the team’s 60 yards, plus a 16-yard kickoff return before the drive began.

This included the 21-yard touchdown reception where Tyree got open out of the backfield and scored untouched. The score came after Notre Dame was bailed out by an offside penalty on Blake Grupe’s missed 45-yard field goal attempt.

The Golden Bears offense were able to move the ball well again before stalling on third and goal, where an excellent open-field tackle from DJ Brown kept Cal out of the end zone. Regardless, a 34-yard field goal made it 10-7 before the half.

Estime scores, Plummer matches him

Notre Dame’s defense forced a quick three and out to start the third quarter, and Pyne and the offense got back to work.

This time, it was Audric Estime who handled the ball often and a 14-yard carry quickly got the offense into Cal territory. They stalled at the 28, though, where a Drew Pyne incompletion seemed to force a field goal attempt. However, the flags came flying, and Cal linebacker Blake Antzoulatos was called for targeting and ejected from the game. The call gave the Irish 15 yards and a first down.

From there, Estime carried the ball four straight times until he dove over the goal line to give Notre Dame a 14-10 lead.

Cal replied with a 10-play, 75-yard drive to retake the lead. The Irish seemed to have got the stop on third and goal but with the ball inches short, Cal went for it, and Jack Plummer was able to score on the QB sneak and make it 17-14.

Notre Dame ties it then takes the lead in fourth quarter

On the following drive, the Notre Dame offense got going again. It included a big 19-yard completion from Pyne to Styles for a first down. However, after a few touches for Tyree and an incompletion, the drive stalled. Grupe came out and nailed a 47-yard field goal to tie the game.

The defense then came up huge with Jacob Lacey sacking Plummer for the second time in the game. That play led to another three-and-out for the Golden Bears who punted it back to Notre Dame.

Back on the field, the Notre Dame offense kept their momentum and scored for a third consecutive drive. This time it was set up by a 36-yard completion to Estime, who got inside the 10 on the play. From there, Pyne found Michael Mayer on the slant route to give Notre Dame the 24-17 lead.

 Defense steps up late

With a one-score lead, the onus now fell on the Irish defense to step up late in the game. Fourth quarter execution had been an issue for the Notre Dame defense in the first two games, but you wouldn’t know it watching them on Saturday.

With the ball back in Plummer’s hands, Notre Dame needed a stop to take control in the contest, and that’s exactly what they got. After giving up a conversion on fourth and eight that made Irish fans think “here we go again,” the defense were able to force a turnover on downs. After three consecutive incompletions, Isaiah Foskey got home and sacked Plummer for a loss of eight yards and a turnover on downs. 

After a short Irish possession, a Jon Sot punt pinned the Golden Bears inside the 10 and it was the same story as the previous drive: two Plummer incompletions before he was sacked. This time it was Jayson Ademilola and Foskey who combined to force the punt from Cal. 

After a little clock management from the offense and a Sot touchback, it was all on the defense once again. This time, it seemed it might only take one play. Plummer dropped back to pass and threw the ball straight at Clarence Lewis, who intercepted to seemingly seal the win. However, under further review, the interception was overturned, and Notre Dame captain linebacker JD Bertrand was ejected for targeting. The penalty means that Bertrand will miss the next game against North Carolina. 

It also meant that Cal’s drive was alive. After some progress down the field, it seemed once again that the Irish might’ve sealed it with a turnover. This time, Justin Ademilola got some pressure on Plummer, who fumbled the ball. Ta’riq Bracy recovered and scored on the play, sending Notre Dame Stadium into delirium. 

Once again, the turnover was negated upon further review. This time, the referees ruled that Plummer was down by contact, meaning the play resulted in a six-yard sack for Justin Ademilola instead. With one final play, Plummer threw a hail mary to the goal line, which was juggled between several players until it hit the turf. Finally, the Irish could celebrate. 

FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame 24, California 17

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The Observer predicts Cal vs. Notre Dame

Emily DeFazio, Associate Sports Editor

I am not sure where to begin in predicting Saturday’s outcome; I have few words left after having to eat so many of them last week. The Irish would have to win out in order for my 10-2 season prediction to be correct, and with USC and Clemson still left to take on, I have my doubts.

The offense was already struggling, and the loss of sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner is a tough pill to swallow. I have mixed feelings about junior quarterback Drew Pyne stepping in. It is certainly his time to shine, but he will have to do just that. Interceptions like Saturday cannot happen moving forward. However, this is an opportunity for Rees to structure a solid game plan that involves more than just the run game. Pyne has proven he can pass the ball well, and he should be allowed to do so.

I am counting on those sporadic moments of greatness he posted on the field last year to grow now that he is securely in the QB1 position. Utilize juniors Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman for some tight end touchdowns Saturday. Should the offense rally under this new leadership, and the defensive line tighten up their play, I see the Irish coming away with their first win of the season. Albeit a close one.

ND 24, Cal 17

Nate Moller, Senior Sports Writer

Notre Dame Stadium is usually one of my favorite places in the world. But it was far from it last Saturday. The Irish looked truly awful throughout most of the game. With Freeman being 0-3 as a head coach, this game feels like a must-win. Without Buchner at quarterback, that will make getting a win much more difficult. Cal is by no means a strong power five team. But they have shown that they can close out games, which is something Notre Dame has yet to do. Running back Jaydn Ott has averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry this season. Stopping his production will be key for the Irish.

If the Irish are going to win this game, the offensive and defensive lines need to be much better than the mess that was Marshall. If Pyne doesn’t have time to pass and the run game can not be established, the Irish could be in trouble yet again. I think this is going to be a sloppy game. And while it may not be a good win, I do expect Notre Dame to find a way to get into the win column. A late Michael Mayer touchdown gives the Irish just enough offense to edge out the Golden Bears.

Notre Dame 14, Cal 13

Liam Coolican, Associate Sports Editor

If you’re looking for someone to blame for the Irish’s struggles, look no further. Not only did I predict the team would go 11-1 and make the CFP, I also wrote last week that “Notre Dame doesn’t lose trap games.” The good news is, my predictions, much like Notre Dame’s fortunes, can’t get much worse. Drew Pyne clearly wasn’t ready to come into the game last week, but he showed flashes of brilliance last year and I believe he can be a solid, if not spectacular, quarterback at this level. However, the Irish do have to adjust their offense substantially to play to Pyne’s strengths rather than Buchner’s in just a week’s time.

It might be another slow start for the Irish as the offense takes time to get used to Pyne under center. But the defense will keep them in the game against a lackluster Cal offense. Notre Dame should be more fired up and better prepared than they were a week ago. Pyne will get rolling in the second half, and the defense will come up with a couple of big plays in the fourth quarter. It may take a late score, but the Irish will pull this one out.

Notre Dame 24, Cal 17

Mannion McGinley, Assistant Managing Editor

The Irish have started the season 0-2 for the first time since 2011. Seeing as that’s as many losses as I predicted on the season as a whole, the Irish are not where I expected them to be. Losing Buchner on top of that was just salt in the wound. There’s potential in the change up though, especially this week. Cal may be 2-0, but the Irish need the win and this is the space to get it. Plummer is a quarterback the Irish D-line knows, and knows well. They need to get to him just as they did when he played for Purdue.

In terms of Irish offense, it’s not perfect. But Pyne’s structure may be the answer to ending the passing touchdown drought. Both UC Davis and UNLV were able to score through the air on Cal. This should mean the Irish can as well. The defense gets the takeaway they’ve been striving for. And while it’ll be tight, some of the pieces finally come together. At the risk of losing any credibility, Irish win. 

Notre Dame 21, Cal 17

Madeline Ladd, Associate Sports Editor

To be honest, I’m not sure what to say here after the devastation last week. Coupled with the loss of Buchner, there are a lot of question marks going into this weekend. However, though Notre Dame is down, they are not out. They will certainly be coming into the weekend hungry, and the changes made on offense may prove to be beneficial.

But Cal’s defense is no joke. The Notre Dame offense, now led by Pyne, will need to get it together in order to come out with the victory. I predict that Pyne will be efficient and throw for two TD’s. I see junior running back Chris Tyree with more action on the ground as well. The defensive line will control the weaker Cal offensive line, not fading in the second half as they have in the previous two games. This is a game well within the Irish’s wheelhouse and I think they can pull off the win. But it certainly won’t be pretty.

Notre Dame 17, Cal 13

Aidan Thomas, Sports Editor

Gross. I predicted Notre Dame to go 10-2 this season, which, I guess, is technically still in play. However when you lose a game that I personally ranked seventh-hardest on the schedule and start 0-2, that 10-2 dream is on very thin ice — but still alive.

The Irish currently have no semblance of an offense. They’ve scored just 31 points, blowing a bevy of opportunities over the first couple of weeks. Untimely penalties, missed open deep shots, interceptions and no running game have thwarted the Irish offense at nearly every turn. Now they turn to longtime backup Pyne to make things right.

He must do so against a Cal defense that is stiff against the pass but has experienced struggles against the run. The lead back for each Cal opponents this year averages 7.1 yards per carry. The Irish need to assert themselves in the trenches and dominate a below-average Cal offense. Notre Dame must win ugly this year. Hopefully, that trend starts on Saturday.

Notre Dame 24 Cal 13

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Sports

Notre Dame’s keys to victory against Cal

Marcus Freeman is still searching for his first win as a head coach, after starting his career off 0-3. Prior to the season, many predicted that this weekend’s matchup would be a walk in the park for the Irish. But the season has not gone as planned for anyone in South Bend.

Oddsmakers, however, still believe in the Irish, as they are currently listed as 11-point favorites heading into the contest. Notre Dame will certainly have to make some adjustments if they hope to get the victory Saturday afternoon. Here are three keys to victory.

Get Tyree the ball

One of Notre Dame’s most dynamic offensive threats has been largely absent from their game plan thus far. Star junior running back Chris Tyree has gotten just 12 touches for 65 total yards through the team’s first two games. In the defeat against Marshall, he carried the ball just three times.

By comparison, sophomore running Audric Estime has 10 carries, while sophomore Logan Diggs has seven. Estime and Diggs are certainly talented, but they are averaging just 2.8 and 1.5 yards per carry on the year, respectively. While Tyree only has nine carries on the season, he is averaging an impressive five yards per attempt. 

Tyree is also known to be a threat in the passing game. However, he has caught just three passes so far. Getting Tyree touches will be especially important in this game as the offense will still be adjusting to a new quarterback under center. Establishing the running game will be important. But neither Diggs nor Estime have been overly impressive.

Tyree has certainly done enough to have earned the feature back role. If Freeman hopes to get his first win Saturday, he should make sure the ball is in Tyree’s hands early and often.

Limit the Bears’ Passing Attack

Irish fans might be familiar with Golden Bears’ quarterback Jack Plummer, who transferred from Purdue this offseason. Notre Dame handled the Boilermakers 27-13 at home last year. But Plummer played well. Although he didn’t put up spectacular numbers, Plummer completed a solid 25 of 36 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown.

Plummer has looked solid so far in his new uniform. He threw for 278 yards in Cal’s victory over UNLV last week, and 268 yards and three touchdowns the week prior against UC Davis. As a team, the Bears have rushed for just 119.5 yards per game against mediocre competition. So the Irish would do well to limit Plummer and force the Bears to beat them on the ground.

This might be a favorable matchup for Notre Dame, as the Irish secondary has been a bright spot so far this year. Against Ohio State, they held star quarterback C.J. Stroud, who many predicted to be a Heisman contender, to 223 yards through the air. For reference, Stroud averaged nearly 370 yards per game in 2021. Meanwhile, the Irish held the Thundering Herd to under 150 yards passing last week. If they can continue this trend on Saturday, Notre Dame will put themselves in a good position to walk away with the victory. 

Win the turnover battle 

This one’s pretty simple. One of the main reasons why Notre Dame was competitive against Ohio State was because they took care of the football. Against Marshall, sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner tossed two interceptions, including a late pick-six which seemed to kill any energy that was left in Notre Dame Stadium. To make matters worse, junior quarterback Drew Pyne came in and immediately threw an interception of his own.

Notre Dame hasn’t been getting any extra possessions on the defensive side, either. According to Pete Sampson of The Athletic, Notre Dame is one of just eight teams that has yet to force a turnover. A year ago, the Irish finished top-20 in the nation with a turnover margin of plus-9.

It’s not a promising trend, and it’s one the Irish will likely have to reverse if they hope to get their first win of the year. The Golden Bears have turned the ball over three times this year but have also forced three turnovers on defense. Notre Dame must be able to take care of the football on offense and force Plummer into mistakes. 

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Schatz: The Irish are not good, thoughts on falling to an unranked Marshall

Emotions were high, and scoring was low, this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. The Thundering Herd stormed onto campus ready to knock down the Fighting Irish. What is there to say about the game? Well… not a lot. Marshall proved that Notre Dame was ultimately an underprepared – and under-coached – team. And, moving forward, they need to their act together if they hope to have even somewhat of a successful season. 

After this weekend, it has become very difficult to fight the rumors that Notre Dame is over-ranked, year after year. And as much as it pains me to say, Saturday proved the doubters right (even if it is just a little bit). Now you could justifiably argue that Marshall came to play this weekend, and they did, but the Fighting Irish made countless mistakes. 

If I had to sum up this weekend in one word, it would be messy. Notre Dame fans expect the opening of any game to look bad, that’s just the way the team plays, always has been. But, Irish fans also expect the team to come out with a different type of energy post-half-time. This was not the case. The Irish made mistake after mistake. And while they saw some good things from players like Michael Mayer, Lorenzo Styles and Howard Cross, overall football is a team sport and they did not play like one on Saturday. 

The MVP for Marshall football on Saturday was the Notre Dame defense. The Herd made it seem like the Notre Dame defense was a high school team. I watched in disbelief as the Marshall offense walked straight through the Irish line. 

At the end of the day, I wasn’t angry at the situation, I was disappointed. The “Freeman Era” was doomed from the start. The Irish fan base has put such high pressure and expectations on a first-time coach and I am honestly still surprised that the campus and the fan base have not pulled an absolute 180 on him. If he continues down this path, I fear the wider Irish community will turn on him soon enough. 

This past weekend settled the debate that Buchner was the right choice to put in as QB1. Yes, Pyne was put in a tough situation, but even after a scored touchdown, he seemed to have made the situation worse. Pyne had the opportunity to prove that he should take the reins leading into the rest of the season, but he flopped, and he flopped hard. Now that the position of QB1 was ever so sadly gifted to Pyne, the Irish need to figure out some leadership on the field. Somehow, Pyne made the offense look even worse than it did before he entered the contest. Yes, Buchner had two interceptions to his name, but Pyne had one, and he was in for significantly less time than Buchner. With Pyne taking control moving forward, I hope he puts out more than he did this past Saturday.

Now, there were some positives to come out of the atrocity that was the Notre Dame/Marshall matchup. 

The first was that when we were looking good, we were looking really good. There were multiple times where Buchner threw a pass and I thought maybe Notre Dame could win this. Or, there would be momentum after an Irish touchdown. But, that would only last one play at a time, and Notre Dame would eventually disappoint their fans yet again. 

Second, Notre Dame students are loyal. While the rest of the fans were dying from the heat, and slowly trickling out of the stadium. The Notre Dame student section remained fairly full all the way until the alma mater ended. I guess that can be counted as a win? 

Finally, the Marshall fans seemed to have had a fun time. As I was watching one of the worst games in Notre Dame Stadium, I looked up to the Marshall section where fans were hysterically chanting “We are Marshall,” (something my boyfriend explained was a thing before the famous movie of the same name and not the other way around) and just thought how good of a day they were having. The man behind me was practically crying on the phone with his father who had been a Marshall fan his entire life. Ultimately, while the Notre Dame side was sulking in disbelief, the Herd will hopefully have this day to mention for years to come. This was the first time Marshall beat a top 10 team since 2003, and the first time the Irish lost their first two games of the season since 2011. 

So, while Irish fans will sulk for the remaining week, and tentatively get ready for another hot game day, Marshall fans will be bathing in their glory. The Freeman era is off to a rocky start, but he will have one more chance to prove he is still someone the Irish should have faith in.

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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