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Irish O-line looks to build on in-season improvements

There were a lot of things that didn’t go right in the first half of Notre Dame’s 2022 season. Few position groups performed further below expectations than Notre Dame’s offensive line. It was one thing to see the Irish struggle to run the ball against an Ohio State team that would eventually reach the College Football Playoff. But to see the Irish held to 3.5 yards per carry by Marshall the next week raised immediate red flags about the state of Notre Dame’s offensive line.

Eventually, the Irish answered those questions. By season’s end, an Irish program known for its O-line prowess was back to handling opposing front sevens. Few Irish fans will forget how the unit flexed its muscles, literally and figuratively, in Notre Dame’s 35-14 destruction of then-No. 4 Clemson. After Notre Dame rushed for just 130 yards as a team against the Thundering Herd, sophomore running back Logan Diggs nearly topped that figure alone. The Irish galloped for 263 yards on an average of 5.6 per carry while also protecting quarterback Drew Pyne well.

That the Irish finished with respectable rankings in stats most associated with offensive line play such as rushing yards (35th) and sacks allowed (39th) given their dismal play at the start of the year speaks to how much they turned things around. Of course, one of the biggest reasons for Notre Dame’s O-line resurgence was All-American graduate student Jarrett Patterson, who was notably absent for the opener at Ohio State due to a right foot sprain. Patterson finished his Irish career with all kinds of accolades. Perhaps most impressively, he did not allow a single sack in nearly 1,700 pass block snaps. The Irish will certainly miss his dominance at left guard.

For as good as Patterson was, the guy to his left might have been even better. According to Pro Football Focus, sophomore Joe Alt graded out as college football’s top tackle in 2022. It’s been a meteoric rise for Alt. He’s gone from three-star recruit (according to Rivals) to starter in 2021 to downright elite last season. Alt could be the latest in a long line of Irish offensive line greats.

They’ll need him to be every bit as good in 2023 with Patterson and Notre Dame’s other starting guard, graduate student Josh Lugg, set to depart. The Irish will have senior center Zeke Correll back and sophomore Blake Fisher will look to build on his breakout 2022 season at right tackle.

Notre Dame adds five new O-linemen to the program for 2023, all from their recruiting class. That quintet includes Notre Dame’s highest rated recruit (according to 247 Sports) in tackle Charles Jagusah. Jagusah is a four-star recruit, as are tackle Sullivan Absher, who comes to South Bend from South Point High School in Belmont, NC, and interior linemen Sam Pendleton (also from North Carolina) and Joe Otting. Three-star interior lineman Christopher Terek rounds out the class.

It’s possible that some of that group sees playing time in 2023, but it would be a major surprise if any of them take over Patterson or Lugg’s starting spots. After all, the Irish also brought in several four-star linemen in last year’s recruiting class, including tackles Aamil Wagner and Billy Schrauth. More experienced options like junior Andrew Kristofic and sophomore Rocco Spindler could see increased roles as well. There will definitely be some things for offensive line coach Harry Hiestand to sort out in the second year of his second stint in South Bend. But given the strong foundation bookended by Alt and Fisher at tackle, Notre Dame’s O-line should be rock-solid once again. Hopefully from day one this time around.

2023 Projected Depth Chart

LT: Joe Alt, Tosh Baker

LG: Billy Schrauth, Rocco Spindler

C: Zeke Correll, Pat Coogan

RG: Andrew Kristofic, Aamil Wagner

RT: Blake Fisher, Michael Carmody

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.

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‘The third and fourth quarters are our quarters’: Irish run game executes monster second half to beat South Carolina

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In Notre Dame’s 45-38 Gator Bowl win over South Carolina, the Irish run game paved the way to victory with 264 yards on the ground and three touchdowns. 

Sophomore running back Logan Diggs finished the day with 89 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. He also added 81 receiving yards, which included a 75-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Sophomore Audric Estime and junior Chris Tyree also found success in the run game, finishing the day with 95 and 21 rushing yards, respectively. 

Diggs scored his receiving touchdown off of a short pass from sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner. Diggs then raced down the sideline, beating the pursuit of multiple Gamecock players to the end zone. Diggs’ explosive touchdown cut the Gamecocks’ lead to seven and kept the Irish within striking distance at halftime. 

Diggs described what went through his head during his touchdown. 

“As soon as I got out of my release, I knew it was good. I have trust in Tyler that he’s going to put it where it needs to be. At that point I have to trust myself and trust my speed to capitalize, and I did, and it’s a blessing,” Diggs said.

Although the Irish only had 54 rushing yards in the first half, the second half saw the Irish rush for 210 rushing yards.

Diggs knew that the run game would have success after halftime. 

“We always know the third and fourth quarters are our quarters,” Diggs said. “We had to be patient in the first half, but once your back is against the wall, that’s the type of games that we want.”

Offensive line steps up to provide crucial blocks

Diggs praised the offensive line for the team’s second-half success on the ground. 

“When we were in that huddle and you see the O-line and they’re fixing their gloves and tightening their hands, you just know. I have the utmost trust in them and [offensive line] coach Harry [Hiestand] and their preparation,” Diggs said. “All I do is adjust my reads and trust my coaches and go out there and execute. They put us in a great position to continue to run the ball.

Buchner himself had a great day on the ground, rushing for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Buchner also credited his success in the run game to the offensive line.

“The big guys played their tails off. It’s great standing there in the huddle when they’re strapping their gloves and they’re ready to go. Having that look in their eyes gives you more confidence as quarterback that we’re going to be able to run the ball,” Buchner said.

Head coach Marcus Freeman loves the mentality of his offensive linemen late in the game.

“They want the pressure on. They want to run the ball in those critical moments, and hats off to them,” Freeman said. “They’re an excellent group. They’ve done an excellent job all season.”

In addition to praising his running backs and offensive line, Buchner praised the blocking of his tight ends and wide receivers as well.

“The boys up front were rolling today. Our backs had an unbelievable day,” Buchner said. “The tight ends and the wideouts had a huge role in the run game today, and I don’t know if people realize that. [Graduate student Matt] Salerno, [sophomore] Deion [Colzie], [sophomore Jayden] Thomas, [sophomore Lorenzo] Styles Jr…. those guys blocked their tails off all day long. Those are things that go unnoticed.”

Freeman touted his team’s ability to run the football against a South Carolina defense that was expecting them to run the ball.

“When you have the ability to run the ball when the other team knows you’re going to run it, that’s when you know things are rolling. They knew we were going to run the ball,” Freeman said.

On the game-winning touchdown drive, the Irish focused heavily on running the football, but they ultimately scored on a pass play to sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans on a critical third down.

Freeman credited the run game with opening up the game-winning touchdown pass to Evans.

“I think it’s a credit to how we were running the ball,” Freeman said. “In that short yardage situation, to be able to leak Mitch out, that’s a tough play for a defense, especially when you’re able to run the ball.”

Looking ahead

The success of the run game in the Gator Bowl bodes well for the Irish run game next season with the Irish returning their top three running backs in Diggs, Estime and Tyree. The Irish also return three of their starting offensive lineman next season with sophomore left tackle Joe Alt, senior center Zeke Correll, and sophomore right tackle Blake Fisher all expected to return. The Irish will need to replace graduate student right guard Josh Lugg and graduate student left guard Jarrett Patterson.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

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Freeman, Irish captains discuss leadership, team culture ahead of Gator Bowl

With Isaiah Foskey and Michael Mayer moving onto the NFL, the Irish locker room is left with four official captains. Graduate student offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson leads the offense with wide receiver Avery Davis, while senior linebackers JD Bertrand and Bo Bauer represent the defense.

On Friday, the Irish will take on the South Carolina Gamecocks in the 2022 Gator Bowl. While Patterson could have joined Mayer and Foskey in opting out for the draft, he decided instead to stay and play one final game with Bertrand and the rest of the Irish. 

“The way I look at it is just it’s one more opportunity to play with this group. For me personally, to pass on that opportunity despite all the injuries — you know injuries come and go, but the memories last forever and I really had no thought of opting out or not practicing or anything like that. I wanted to finish this thing out the right way and play my last game as a Notre Dame football player,” Patterson said. 

In maintaining Patterson’s presence, the Irish keep one more starter but also a stable official leadership. But Patterson said there’s no shortage of leaders on the rest of the roster. 

“Isaiah and Mike, those two guys were great leaders but also tone-setters for this team,” Patterson said. “But I feel like just because a couple guys are named ‘captain,’ that doesn’t mean they’re the only leaders on the team. We have plenty of guys on this team and I think one of the strengths I’ve seen — especially throughout the summer, working with coach Balis in camp — is that there are plenty of other guys who are vocal as well who aren’t seen as captains or ‘leaders’ on the team. But they trust the process, and those guys in those position groups know they’re going to have to step up and be as great leaders as they possibly can. They’ve done a great job for us.” 

Bertrand echoed the success that Patterson has seen on the leadership front. He celebrated the space that bowl game preparations has left for younger guys to step up and lead, as well.

“It’s an exciting time for a lot of young guys to one, be able to get these [leadership] opportunities in this bowl prep time and then also be able to display their talents and be able to have an opportunity to play their best out here tomorrow,” Bertrand said. 

One of the guys stepping up has been freshman linebacker Jaylen Sneed, and Bertrand said he’s excited to see what the young linebacker starts to do. 

“The biggest thing is, he’s very raw athletically. He has so much athletic talent and potential that you can see such flashes …Those instances where you see that are super exciting and he has so much to build off of. It’s just exciting to be able to see him step into a little bit bigger role one step at a time,” Bertrand said. 

Head coach Marcus Freeman echoed the importance of the bowl game and its practices, not only as a cap to the season but also as a space to see what young players can do on the field and as leaders.

“You get a chance to prepare for a great moment, but also early in the Bowl practice you really get a chance to develop some of those guys who haven’t gotten the opportunities throughout the season,” Freeman said, specifically of Chance Tucker taking advantage of that opportunity.  

Patterson said readiness to lead didn’t come out of nowhere; he could see it working in his position group throughout the year. Particularly, he and offensive line coach Harry Heistand were talking after the UNC game. 

“We could finally see the cohesiveness and the togetherness of the unit, and he understands that with a new group of guys out there … It’s going to take time. But I think throughout the season, as the moment’s more crucial and you gotta have a situation where it’s two-minute, four-minute or short yardage, that we improved in that area,” Patterson said.

On Bertrand’s side of the ball, improvement both on the field and in the team culture came from communication. 

“As the year goes on, you continue to grow. You continue to see where you were at the beginning of the year and going forward. One of the biggest things is the communication piece, especially going into a new defense and being able to start at the beginning of the year and come to this point — it’s that communication piece. Not just between the three of us, but to the guys up front to the guys behind us, being able to make sure we’re all working and flowing as one,” Bertrand said. 

Both captains and Freeman shared how important the culture is to the Notre Dame program and its ability to see improvement. 

“We’re fortunate,” Freeman said. “We have a great group of captains, a great group of leadership that you really don’t have an option when you come into our locker room. You’re going to convert to the way these guys lead or you’re going to say, ‘This isn’t the place for me.'”

About Bertrand, Patterson and how both embody that leadership and culture, Freeman said, “Your culture, your leadership is really revealed when things aren’t going so well. I learned more about these two guys, our captains, in the difficult times than I did during the times that things were going really well. These guys continue to take control of this team. Sometimes as the head coach, you feel like it’s everything you say to the team that’s going to get this culture, get this program where it needs to go. These guys, they take care of the messaging that needs to be said. I’m fortunate that I have a great group of leaders that when things weren’t going so well, they really took care of it.” 

Bertrand and Patterson, on the other hand, said their ability to lead successfully comes from learning from Freeman. 

“The biggest thing for me was being able to have that steady voice that no matter how the season was going throughout we could always look to someone that was always pushing us to get better throughout every single day and every single week,” Bertrand said

Patterson, on the other hand, celebrated Freeman’s authenticity, making him a leader that players not only want to play for, but win for. To win tomorrow, Patterson said, would be the perfect feather in his collegiate-career cap. 

“It would be that one last great memory I could have,” Patterson said. “I have so many these past four-and-a-half years, five seasons with these guys. Especially for the other guys in the locker room who are going to move on later in life and not even try to go to the NFL, to play the last football game is going to be special for those guys, as well.”

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A ‘Notre Dame man’: Josh Lugg develops as player and leader

There were two things that went into Josh Lugg’s decision to return to Notre Dame for a sixth year in 2022. First, there was the practical side of it. Lugg felt he needed more development before pursuing his NFL dream. The return of universally regarded offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who recruited and coached Lugg during his first season with the Irish, made the decision even easier.

But there was a second part. The Irish have long held a reputation for churning out quality offensive linemen. Two of the team’s starters Lugg’s freshman year, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, became top-10 NFL draft picks. However, they weren’t just great players, they were great mentors for Lugg, the No. 15 offensive tackle of his recruiting class. Over the last two seasons, the Irish have welcomed some more highly touted offensive line recruits, such as sophomore Blake Fisher, sophomore Joe Alt, freshman Billy Schrauth and more. The chance to return to Notre Dame Stadium and better his NFL chances was obviously important to Lugg. But, so was the chance to provide the same type of guidance that Lugg received from McGlinchey, Nelson, Hunter Bivin and others that helped him get to where he is.

“I wanted to be a mentor for the young guys,” said the Wexford, Pa, native. “Help them understand what it means to be a Notre Dame man.” 

Lugg in his sixth year at Notre Dame has followed a fairly traditional development curve. He redshirted in 2017, then saw the field in all but one of Notre Dame’s games in their College Football Playoff run of 2018, albeit primarily for kicking duties. His first “big break” came the next season, with a Robert Hainsey injury opening the door to start five games. Injuries cracked the door open again for Lugg in 2020. In particular, he showed off his versatility by making one start at right guard and two more at center due to injuries to Tommy Kraemer and current graduate student Jarrett Patterson, respectively.

Lugg didn’t need injuries to crack the door open to become a first-time full-time starter a season ago. In fact, he started 12 of Notre Dame’s 13 games last season. He and the rest of the offensive line helped weather some early-season storms, helping the Irish develop a ground-first identity. Notre Dame’s run game has progressed from a liability to a lifesaver, especially in Notre Dame’s most memorable game of the season, its 35-14 upset of then No. 4 Clemson on Nov. 5. The Irish rushed for 263 yards and held the football for 33 minutes flat. After watching most of Notre Dame’s 2020 upset of Clemson from the bench, Lugg was front and center this time.

Part of the reason why Lugg has such a strong influence is the wide variety of experiences he’s had. He called Heistand’s departure for the Chicago Bears after his freshman year “devastating” and went through the turmoil of last offseason when Brian Kelly unexpectedly left to go to LSU.

“It’s important to be happy for the coaches, and understand that you committed to Notre Dame, not necessarily a coach,” Lugg said. “Coaches are gonna come and go, but the players you have at 5:30 when you’re sitting in the locker room in the morning before winter workout — those are the guys that are gonna be with you.”

While Lugg downplayed Alt and Fisher’s need for help in particular, calling them “mature and ahead of their age, very much aware of what the standard is here as a Notre Dame offensive lineman,” everyone can always use a helping hand. That help goes beyond football, too. The former Duncan Hall Highlander will do anything to help his younger peers fit in. Maybe that means going out to dinner. Maybe that meets talking about real-world things like “faith and family.” Whatever it means, Lugg is up to the task.

The challenge of Notre Dame, particularly on the academic side, was a huge attractor to bring Lugg to South Bend. After graduating last year with his finance degree, Lugg is currently getting his masters in analytics. He knows how difficult Notre Dame can be.

But it’s that difficulty that helps create the brotherhood that Lugg also said drew him to Notre Dame.

“[It was] something I didn’t really see at other schools,” Lugg said. Lugg knows his football life won’t last forever. Though he hopes to go pro, he also cited the common quip of the NFL standing for “Not For Long.” In particular, he is passionate about real estate, which he minored in at Notre Dame. In fact, he worked for former Notre Dame basketball star ‘15 Pat Connaughton’s real estate development company Three Leaf Partners a few years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Right now, though, Lugg is focused on two things. First is not “wast[ing] any of God’s talent.” Second, teaching the next crop of Irish o-line stars everything they need to know to ensure they don’t either.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu

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Thomas: Where Ben Morrison ranks among recent Irish recruiting steals

Within just weeks, three-star cornerback recruit Benjamin Morrison claimed a starting job within the vaunted Notre Dame defense. Morrison came to South Bend as the second-highest cornerback recruit in the class, with many figuring four-star Jaden Mickey to challenge for early playing time. Mickey has played some very important snaps for the Irish, but it is the previously little-known Morrison that has carved out a regular role. Where does Morrison rank amidst recent Irish recruiting steals? The Irish have molded several lower-rated recruits into dominant starters, but did any get off to as fast a start as the Phoenix, Arizona, native? 

Where does Morrison fall

Morrison came to Notre Dame ranked as the 311th-best recruit per 247 and the 35th-best cornerback. He received a .9000 grade on the dot from 247. Morrison wasn’t an early enrollee, so the headlines centered around Mickey and his brash confidence at the spring game. But after a strong camp and preseason, Morrison forced his way into the cornerback rotation. He played 29 snaps in the opener at Ohio State. He usurped the starting role a few short weeks after.

A three-star recruit that was seemingly a depth addition to a strong class, Morrison looks like one of the best recruiting steals for the Irish in recent memory. To compare him to recent and similar recruiting steals, I looked at the litany of Irish three-star recruits that became big-time contributors for the blue and gold. In order to create this list, a combination of how quickly they became a starter and their overall impact on the team over their career was considered. 

Recent Recruiting Steals

7. Logan Diggs

Diggs filled a big hole late in the 2021 recruiting cycle for Notre Dame. The Irish went hard after eventual Clemson commit Will Shipley, and they needed to pivot late. They grabbed Diggs, ranked as the 504th-best player and 35th-best running back. While Diggs never was RB1 as a freshman, Diggs appeared in eight games, filling some critical roles especially when eventual fifth-round draft pick Kyren Williams was drafted. 

6. Jarrett Patterson

Patterson wasn’t exactly a highly underrated recruit, but he did enter Notre Dame ranked as the 25th-best offensive tackle in the country and the 369th-best player. However, Patterson has established himself as a linchpin of the Irish offensive line in recent years. As a sophomore, he started all 13 games of the 2019 season at center. He’s moved around between tackle and center over his career, but outside of missing the end of the 2020 season due to injury, Patterson has been a full-time starter since cracking the lineup. 

5. Clarence Lewis 

In a bit of irony, Lewis, who just largely lost his job to Morrison, comes in at No. 5. Given recent events and Lewis’s struggles, it’s easy to forget he came in as a freshman and took over a starting role on a College Football Playoff-bound team. Lewis played in nine games as a freshman, taking over as a starter in November. He entered as the 727th-ranked prospect and 58th-ranked cornerback. He stays lower on the list given he has since been surpassed on the depth chart. 

4. Benjamin Morrison

For now, Morrison slots in at No. 4. He’s got a lot to prove, but after becoming a starter by Week 3 of his true freshman year, and given the fact that he wasn’t an early enrollee, his rapid ascent merits a rise up this list. 

3. Kyren Williams

One of the best skill position players out of Notre Dame in the past few years, Kyren Williams didn’t come to South Bend with otherworldly amounts of hype. His .8918 recruit grade was modest, and he clocked it at No. 367 on the 247 recruit rankings. Even within the running backs, he was only ranked No. 24 on the list. Of course, Williams became a starter as a sophomore and pushed the Irish to a playoff berth in 2020. His 140-yard, three-touchdown effort against No. 1 Clemson, including a 65-yard touchdown run on his first rush of the game, remains a legendary performance. He finished his career with back-to-back 1000-yard seasons before departing for the NFL. 

2. Joe Alt 

Alt was almost forced into a starting role with underperformance and injury issues along the Irish offensive line. But after entering at left tackle against Cincinnati, Alt took over the starting job against Virginia Tech. He stabilized Notre Dame’s most questionable position and emerged as the clear starting left tackle for at least the next three years. Alt has almost seamlessly transitioned into this season as a starter, performing as the Irish’s best offensive lineman for most of the season. It’s easy to forget he entered with a .8862 prospect grade, rated as the 408th-best recruit in the country. 

1. Kurt Hinish

Kurt Hinish has been exceeding expectations long before he surprisingly made the Houston Texans roster this past preseason. Before that, Hinish entered as the 520th-ranked recruit and 43rd-ranked defensive tackle in the 2017 class. He immediately became a contributor as a freshman, appearing in 12 games in his first year. He had his coming out party in the USC rivalry clash, totaling a then-career-high three tackles against the Trojans. Ultimately, his collegiate career-high would amount to 10 in the 2022 matchup against Navy. Hinish played in 63 games over five years for the Irish, totaling 28 tackles and 2 sacks. The nose guard jumped from little-known three-star recruit to starting lineup staple for half a decade, earning the No. 1 spot on this list.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

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

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Irish Insider: BYU

Maggie Klaers, Ryan Vigilante | The Observer || Abigail Westerby | The Daily Universe

‘Creating chaos’: Kiser ready to lead Irish over BYU 

‘I still love what I do’: Patterson provides leadership amidst adversity

Notre Dame keys to victory against BYU

Notre Dame-BYU predictions

Shamrock Series prevents unique recruiting opportunity

Thomas: Irish players who must step up after the bye week

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‘I still love what I do’: Patterson provides leadership amidst adversity 

In a public display of anger and frustration, fifth-year senior offensive lineman and captain Jarrett Patterson stormed off the field after the clock hit zero in Notre Dame’s devastating 26-21 loss to Marshall last month. Patterson had a rough game at left guard, only adding to his turmoil.  Ripping off his jersey and having to be forcibly pulled back for the alma mater seemed inappropriate to many Irish fans — especially for a captain. Nevertheless, as time has passed, Patterson has taken it as a learning situation and described the emotions he felt that day.

“It’s a combination of seeing the disappointment on those guys’ faces after seeing how hard they work, Patterson said. “And then individually for me, just all the rehab I’ve had to go to since March and had to push through and get to the point where I could play.”

Patterson’s history makes it clear why he got especially emotional. He postponed NFL plans to return to Notre Dame for a final season. But he suffered from a torn pectoral muscle in the spring causing him to miss the Ohio State game. Coming back for a frustrating Marshall loss was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nevertheless, Patterson continues to remember why he plays the game. 

“A big reason why I came back is because of the guys in that locker room,” Patterson said. “I love playing next to them, I love our coaches and everything about that place. At the end of the day no matter what I’ve gone through, I still love what I do.”

As the leader of a young but talented offensive line, Patterson was pleased with their performance at UNC. Moving from center to guard this season caused Patterson to switch gears, but he has focused on building continuity. The chemistry seen in that game gave hope to the team, especially in establishing the run game. There was much that the offensive line did well against the Tar Heels, yet Patterson also stresses the importance of focusing on the mistakes.

“It is exciting to see all the hard work pay off,” Patterson said. “But we all agreed, we can never be satisfied with our performance. You can’t let winning mask the mistakes you made during the game. When you lose, those mistakes are bright spots. When you win, it kind of gets hidden.” 

According to Patterson, the Irish’s bye week has helped them with their individual critiques. The team has spent extra time at practice focusing on technique and what will allow them to stand up to a competitive opponent in 16th-ranked BYU this weekend. The Irish are ready for Vegas and ready to write the story of the rest of this season. 

“If we take care of business the way we are supposed to, most people are going to forget what happened in the beginning of the season,” Patterson said.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking on Patterson’s part, but only time will tell. This weekend’s Vegas matchup will be the litmus test for the Irish and how they have been able to handle a tough beginning of the season — both physically and emotionally 

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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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Sports

Notre Dame’s keys to victory against Ohio State

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

1. Win the turnover battle

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

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

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

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

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

2. Limit Ohio State’s production through the air

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

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

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

3. Develop a run game

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

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

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

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

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

Nate Moller

Contact Nate at nmoller2@nd.edu