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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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“An unbelievable player:” Michael Mayer elevates impact on and off the field

Early in the second quarter, with the game tied at seven, Notre Dame dialed up a play that surprised everyone in the stadium: a jet sweep to junior tight end Michael Mayer. 

“He’s a beast,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “[Mayer] is a heck of a football player, and you’re a fool if you don’t find ways to get the ball in his hands, and we found a unique way.” 

The play gained seven yards but seemed to catch the North Carolina defense off guard. Just two plays later, Notre Dame scored their second touchdown of the game to take a 14-7 lead. 

“You wouldn’t think [Mayer] is getting the ball on a jet sweep,” Freeman said. “It’s going to make a [defensive back] think twice about coming in there and tackling him.”

Mayer was all over the field Saturday afternoon for the Irish. The 6’4, 265-pound tight end is an imposing specimen who presents matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. He’s simply too big for most defensive backs to cover, and he’s too skilled for most linebackers.  

The matchup problems he presents for opposing defensive coordinators have led them to seemingly focus their schemes on slowing him down this year, but that hasn’t stopped him from being able to make big plays when the Irish need it most. 

He finished Saturday’s contest with seven receptions for 88 yards, which included a 10-yard touchdown reception that opened the scoring for Notre Dame and two critical third-down conversions that extended drives for the Irish. 

“I was able to find Mike a couple more times this week, and just execute and do my job and get the ball to him,” junior quarterback Drew Pyne said. “I’m very happy because he’s such a great player and getting the ball in his hands is something that our offense can really benefit from.”

Mayer nearly hauled in another touchdown on what would have been an incredible highlight reel play, but after a lengthy review, he was ruled to have been out of bounds. 

Freeman noted that the offense has to resist the temptation to solely focus on Mayer.

“You can’t just focus all on [Mayer], that’s the challenge,” Freeman said. “It’s easy to say, hey, [Mayer] gets one on one, throw it to him, but you have to make sure that you have enough ways to get him the ball, but also can use him as a decoy, almost in terms of the the progression, in terms of opening other things on the field.”

Mayer was held to a limited role in the loss to Ohio State to open the season, with just five receptions for 32 yards. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner often looked his way, but the Buckeye defense was able to limit his output. 

He exploded back onto the scene with an eight-reception, 130-yard effort against Marshall, which included a late touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to save the Irish from the upset. He returned to a more limited role against Cal, with only two receptions for 10 yards. One of those catches, however, was the game-winning touchdown grab in the fourth quarter.

By contrast, on Saturday, it was clear that he would be getting the ball early and often. Pyne’s first completion of the afternoon was a six-yard pass to Mayer on 3rd and 5 which extended a critical early drive for the Irish. Pyne kept turning to him in big moments throughout the contest. 

“He’s a guy who can do so many different things for you,” Freeman said.

It’s not just his on-field presence that makes Mayer unique, however. It is also his presence off the field and in the locker room. Prior to the season, Mayer was selected as a team captain and is one of the leaders of the offense. 

“The thing you love about Michael Mayer is that he comes to work every day,” Freeman said. “He sets the standard for how we prepare.”

In what is an inexperienced tight end room, Mayer has emerged as the unquestioned leader. His leadership will become even more critical with his primary backup, junior Kevin Bauman, ruled out for the season this week with an ACL injury. 

“He’s a captain, he’s a leader, he raises the play of those guys in his room,” Freeman said. “You’ll see those young guys step up because Michael Mayer’s in there making sure that everybody’s going to perform to a standard.”

Mayer’s continued performance will be critical to the success of the Irish this season. He has an immense impact on the team, but Pyne summed it up succinctly: “Mike’s just an unbelievable player.”

Contact Liam at lcoolica@nd.edu

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Notre Dame notches second win of the season against Tar Heels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five key moments in Notre Dame’s victory over UNC

Offense and defense struggle through opening drives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pass interference resets drive, leads to touchdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Observer Staff predicts Notre Dame-UNC

After picking up his first career win as head coach in Week 3, can Marcus Freeman make it two straight this weekend in North Carolina? The Observer staff is split on the pick.

Sports Editor Aidan Thomas

I’ve tossed and turned about this pick all week. Not literally, but I truly have no idea what to expect. To put it slightly dramatically, the very moveable object (UNC’s defense) meets a nearly non-startable force (Notre Dame’s offense) in this matchup.

Here’s what makes the difference for me. Going back to the opener, Notre Dame shut down a vaunted Ohio State attack. They’ve given up 21, 19 and 17 points in three weeks. More notably, nobody has really beaten the Irish through the air, which is where UNC wants to operate. Their ground game is efficient, but it’s not their bread and butter. The biggest thing for the Irish is containing Drake Maye, who is a solid dual-threat quarterback. Notre Dame linebacker must be better, but that unit is operating without senior linebacker J.D. Bertrand for the first half which makes this task even more difficult. I think Notre Dame trails at the half — again — but starts figuring out how to target the Tar Heels in the second half. They’ll pull off the mild upset over the Tar Heels. 

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 27

Senior sports writer Nate Moller

The Irish defense will have to be on top of their game this weekend against a balanced UNC offense that has thrown for 930 yards through the air and 712 yards on the ground. The Tar Heels have plenty of options through the air, as they have six players with over 100 receiving yards this season. The Irish, by comparison, have just two players with over 100 receiving yards this season. The Irish have still yet to force a turnover this season, and winning that battle this weekend might be a key to victory. Despite UNC’s subpar defense, the Irish offense will have a difficult time keeping up with UNC quarterback Drake Maye’s offensive production. Unless junior quarterback Drew Pyne can up his level of play this weekend significantly, a loss to a highly productive UNC offense seems inevitable.

North Carolina 38, Notre Dame 27

Associate Sports Editor Liam Coolican

If there’s an opportunity for Pyne and the Notre Dame offense to get rolling, it’s this weekend in Chapel Hill. Only one power-five team (Colorado) ranks lower than UNC in terms of scoring defense. The Tar Heels are allowing opponents to score nearly 38 points per game. Conversely, they are 6th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging more than 51 points per game. It’s a testament to the strength of this offense that the Tar Heels are 3-0. The Irish will have to work hard to slow down Maye and his impressive cadre of receivers. 

A lot of this game will depend on the Notre Dame defense, because no matter how ineffective the UNC defense is, I am not willing (yet) to put my faith in Pyne in a shootout. One major concern is the inconsistency of Al Golden’s unit. They’ve played well this year, but have had stretches of poor play. In order to win this contest, they’ll have to be at their best for all four quarters, and that’s not something I’ve seen from them so far this year.

North Carolina 31, Notre Dame 28

Assistant Managing Editor Mannion McGinley

So Irish fans saw two almost takeaways this weekend against Cal. That was good. That was new this season. Did they end up counting? No, but we found other defensive success on both plays. Should that mean an interception or a strip is on the way? One would hope. Will I predict that the Irish get one this weekend? No. No, I will not. The last time I did that, the Irish lost (despite my predicting a 35-point win).

Do the Irish need to force a turnover to win this weekend? Yes, that much is clear. Pyne will be able to lead the offense just well enough to beat the UNC defense and keep pace with the UNC offense in terms of productive drives. Until he proves he can do more, he has proven that we can expect at least that much from him, and I believe in it.

It’s the defense that ends up controlling this game though. The defensive line especially needs to be able to get to Maye the way they’ve gotten to Plummer. I expect to see both Ademilola brothers bursting through that line, and I want to see the 2021 version of senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey right beside them. The new guys are still getting caught up, but even they are holding their own. The returners need to show them how it’s done to push Notre Dame over the top this weekend. There needs to be an even cleaner fourth-quarter stop in this game than the bouncing Hail Mary from the Cal game. Another tight one for sure.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 28

Associate Sports Editor Madeline Ladd

After a nail-biter of a win last week against Cal, the Irish need to capture a solid victory against the Tar Heels this weekend. Though they infamously struggle to run the ball, Notre Dame’s passing game was more accurate last week with Pyne. He grew more comfortable in the second half and has the ability to connect with receivers. There’s too much talent up front for the offense not to be better. Tyree and Estime will certainly be able to pound the awful UNC defense, as they are ranked 123rd in the nation.

Nevertheless, Tar Heel freshman quarterback Drake Maye has the potential to challenge the secondary and will most likely connect with returning wide out star Josh Downs. This will prove a fight, but finally the ND defense will get turnovers and hold off their opponent. Turnovers are the name of the game here, and if the Irish can do that they can continue their 10+ year win streak against the Tar Heels. I see it happening.

Notre Dame 37, North Carolina 28

Emily DeFazio, Associate Sports Editor

This is the make-or-break game for the 2022 Irish season. Notre Dame won the Cal game, but that does not mean it is smooth sailing the rest of the way. In the final five minutes, there were at least three instances where that game was nearly tied. And one of those moments came on the final play of the game. Pyne needs to have gotten his sea legs and move forward with a solid foundation and settle into his role as QB1. The Irish cannot afford turnovers and over-throwing receivers in Chapel Hill. The Irish defense will need to remain on-point this week to allow the offense some growing pains. But I expect a fourth-quarter solidifying of a narrow Irish win.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 27

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
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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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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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Evaluating the Notre Dame offense

Coming into Saturday’s game against Cal, there’s no doubt that the offense was the biggest question mark surrounding Notre Dame football. They had only scored 31 points in the opening two games, and the season-ending injury to starting sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner only added to the uncertainty. That being said, here are my takeaways from the offense’s performance against Cal.

They found a way to win

It wasn’t pretty, but the bottom line is the offense did enough to win the game. After 0 first downs and just 28 yards on four possessions in the first quarter, it was easy to start thinking the worst. But slowly, they turned it around. In the second quarter, they took advantage of good field position to score their first points of the game. After halftime, they looked even better, scoring on three straight drives after the break.

Outside of the fumbled snap in the second quarter, junior quarterback Drew Pyne didn’t make any egregious mistakes in his first career start. His final stat line was 17-23 (73.9%) for 150 passing yards and 2 touchdowns. It’s a solid line.

Lack of verticality

On the surface, Pyne’s numbers are not bad, but they hint at a troubling lack of verticality from Notre Dame with Pyne under center. On Saturday against Cal, he averaged 8.8 yards per completion, a far cry from Jack Coan’s 12.5 YPC last year and even further from Pyne’s own 14.9 average in limited action last year.

The location data on Pyne’s passes from Saturday tells a similar story: 70% of his attempts were shorter than five yards in front of the line of scrimmage. Nearly half of Pyne’s pass attempts (11/23) on Saturday were screen passes completed at or behind the line.

Altogether, Pyne only attempted three passes deeper than 15 yards with only one completion. This came after Buchner attempted 9 such passes against Marshall, completing three for 71 yards. Granted, this lack of aggression down the field isn’t all on Pyne. The receiving core is limited for Notre Dame, both through injury and inexperience, and it’s clear that that position group will need to find a way to improve quickly to give Pyne better options on the outside.

This reality was reflected in Pyne’s top receivers on Saturday being two running backs. Sophomore Audric Estime and junior Chris Tyree combined for eight receptions and 87 yards out of the backfield to lead the Irish. Even so, it’s telling that the two biggest passing plays came when they were able to run past the line of scrimmage and receive the ball in space down the field.

First, Tyree ran uncovered out of the backfield where Pyne hit him for the 21-yard touchdown. Later, he hit Estime on an angle route out of the backfield where he beat the linebacker to catch a pass that he turned into a 36-yard gain after the catch.

Simply put, the Irish will need to find a way to generate more chunk plays on offense to increase their margin for error. Being able to score more efficiently will also take some pressure off their defense in games against high-scoring offenses like North Carolina and USC later in the year.

Resurgent offensive line and run game

On Saturday, the offensive line reminded us why we thought so highly of them coming into the year. After two shaky games where they struggled, there’s no question Notre Dame dominated in the trenches this week. In fact, PFF graded sophomore offensive linemen Joe Alt, graduate student Jarrett Patterson and senior Zeke Correll the top offensive players for Notre Dame last weekend.

In the run game, they did a great job opening holes for Tyree and Estime, and allowed Notre Dame to control the tempo. In total, the two backs combined for 140 yards on 35 carries. Despite giving up two sacks, they also did a great job in pass protection, often giving Pyne enough time to go through multiple reads. Coming into the season, high-level offensive line play and a tough run game was supposed to be the backbone of this team — on Saturday, they played like it.

Get Michael Mayer the ball

Junior tight end Michael Mayer is by far Notre Dame’s best offensive weapon. He is a projected NFL first-round pick, and he’s slowly climbing to the top of a lot of Notre Dame’s tight end leaderboards. Coming into Saturday, it was expected that the All-American would be a safety blanket for Pyne. A reliable pass catcher in an offense sorely lacking a truly elite threat at wide receiver. Instead, Mayer had just two catches for 10 yards on just five targets. With Buchner under center, Mayer had nine targets against Marshall and eight against the Buckeyes.

Mayer had four targets in the first quarter against Cal and just one reception. In part, it was a product of Pyne’s poor play in the first half. That was most obvious on a crucial third down situation where Mayer got wide open in the middle of the field, but Pyne sailed the throw high and out of the 6’4” tight end’s reach forcing a punt.

Moving forward that can’t happen. Pyne has to be able to get Mayer the ball and do it accurately. They can’t just forget to target him for two and a half quarters after it doesn’t work a couple of times. Michael Mayer is a game-changing talent at tight end and he needs to be a focal point of the offense every single game.

The offense saw some significant progress against Cal. They ran the ball well with someone other than Tyler Buchner for the first time, and the offensive line stepped up in a big way. However, they also showed a worrisome lack of explosiveness and the receiving core is still a big concern. It was encouraging to see a willingness to adapt to what was working and ultimately, they were able to win the game. The onus falls on offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to find ways for this offense to play to its strengths and hopefully continue to improve across the board.

Contact José at jsanch24@nd.edu

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Sports

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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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