Crimson red to Irish green: Sot shines for Notre Dame

The 2022 off-season saw definitive upheaval for Irish football in every sense of the word. A new head coach, new coaching staff, a new starting quarterback, and then another one two games into the season.

Harvard graduate transfer punter Jon Sot became a major player in this upheaval. No one expected the Irish to start the season 1-2 and need a new quarterback after two games. But now, that that is the reality Irish fans live in, they’re looking for reliability. Sot has been able to fill that need for consistency.  

Sot has taken 19 punts on the season, more than half of those placed within the 20, including all four punts he took against Marshall. In the season opener at Ohio State, the former Ivy League punter unleashed a 75-yard bomb, and he averages about 45 yards per punt. 

Initially, Sot said he was nervous to come into the Irish locker room. However, he found that this game is life to everyone at Notre Dame, and they’re welcoming because of that. 

“It’s been awesome,” Sot said during camp. “Football-wise, it’s been great. The facilities here are awesome. The coaches are the best around. The guys on the team are so dedicated to this, you know, they love this. This is their life. Being able to come in here and be a part of that is incredible. I feel like I belong here, they’ve made me feel that way. I can’t wait to see what this team does.”

Despite how the season opened, that energy and that excitement haven’t faltered. Sot said he’s seen where the good has come through. 

“I love it here,” Sot told Irish Sports Daily. “Not the start we hoped for as a team. Special teams-wise [though], we’ve done a good job. [But special teams] coach [Brian] Mason tells us being good isn’t good enough. We want to be the best of the best. We want to be elite. There’s improvements to be made all around special teams.” 

For himself, Sot says he could be more consistent than he has been thus far, something he wouldn’t have been able to see in himself earlier in his career. 

“When I was young as a freshman, I wasn’t able to find my deficiencies,” Sot said. “Now that I’ve been in college for quite a while, I’m able, when I hit a bad punt, to figure out what I’m doing wrong and that’s been the most helpful thing for me.”

Making those adjustments required Sot to rely mostly on his confidence and putting the work in, he said. 

“Being a fifth-year guy, I’ve played college football. It might not have been on the same stage but I’ve been out there and I’ve prepared for different teams … I’m confident in what I do,” Sot said. 

Before he joined the Irish, Sot found success at Harvard too, albeit on a smaller stage. The 5-foot-10, 198-pound New Jersey native matched this year’s longest punt in his freshman year and punted farther than that in his sophomore year. His average hovered around 40 yards at Harvard. Now three games in with the Irish, that average is up 5 yards. But he has seen the most improvements over the years with his placements. Sot went from no placements inside the 20 to 10 in just three games. Those 10 punts tie him second in the nation.

Sot’s numbers have improved from his Harvard days in spite of a more intense stage, going from a crowd of about 20,000 people per game to close to 100,000. 

“When I was a kid, it was the moment you dream of, just being able to run out there but you’ve got to be able to settle that down and go do your job. That’s been the biggest change for me, just the atmosphere and seriousness of this level of football.”

Making that adjustment required Sot to dial in and rely on both the players around him and his coach, Mason.

“I’m fortunate enough to have great blocking and a great special teams coordinator that trusts me,” Sot said. “I’m especially thankful for [long snapper] Michael Vinson, he’s made my job so easy.”

Off the field, Notre Dame is also where Sot wanted to be, he said. The graduate student will complete a master of science in management program at the end of the year. He said he’s about to declare a finance concentration and is looking forward to finishing that second degree. 

“For me, aside from the football, another reason I was attracted to here was being able to pair Harvard and Notre Dame with my two degrees. That’s really something I’m proud of,” he said. 

Sot takes pride in his work both on and off the field. He says his well-placed punts are just as exciting as the game changing plays.

“Putting them inside the 10, for me, is like throwing a touchdown or getting an interception because that’s what I do, so I take pride in that,” Sot said.


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.

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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


As Irish search for answers, special teams provides consistency

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

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

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

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

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

Sot provides punting consistency

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

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

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

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

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

Return game vastly improves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olivia Schatz

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McGinley: This weekend, the Irish define themselves

Last weekend, the Irish fell 21-10 to the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Irish also started a brand new quarterback, under a brand new coach, with a brand new O-line coach. 

Last weekend, the Irish beat the spread, scored first and led for most of the game all while the defense took on the three-headed hydra that is the Buckeye offense under C.J. Stroud. 

Last weekend was a different game.

Now, the Irish home opener is upon us, and Notre Dame has a different set of goals to accomplish as they take on Marshall.

This weekend, the Irish define themselves.

Outside of pulling off a win, Notre Dame’s goals Sept. 3 had two major facets, at least from where I sat. First, keep the Buckeyes at bay. The Irish were headed into a massive stadium. They knew it would be loud, and it was. They knew it would be hostile, and it was. They knew they’d be the underdogs in a space like that, and they were.

Still, the Irish defense came bounding out of the tunnel for a sack, forced Stroud out of the pocket repeatedly and only allowed one touchdown in the first half. (The lowest first-half score the Buckeyes have seen under head coach Ryan Day.) They could have kept that pace too had the offense not been in a conservative mindset in the second half. The defense was on the field for quite some time and still only let up three touchdowns overall.

This weekend, however, the defensive goal unequivocally has to be to join in on the scoring. With a defensive-minded head coach and Al Golden in the coordinator chair, the Irish were ready. You wouldn’t have known in Ohio that the Irish lost their star safety and their starting nose guard from the year before if you didn’t know you were supposed to miss them. And that was against the number three team in the country. 

Now, the Irish will take on the Thundering Herd, and you can expect the defense to be everywhere. Even the cornerback room — arguably the most questionable unit on the defensive side of the ball — has stepped up to the challenge. Last weekend was a test of how good they are. Now, it’s time for a joy ride. Marshall is a strong enough opponent that it’s an important test run for just how dominant the defense can be, not just how long it can hold its own.

The second goal last weekend was for the Irish to look like they belonged on that field. Throughout the 12 years of the Kelly era, fans of college football have told a broader narrative that once the Irish made it to the big stage, they couldn’t hold their own. While there’s a lot more nuance to that discussion, the fact of the matter is the scores were never close. Whether the talent just wasn’t there for the Irish, they weren’t coached the same way or it was just a sheer mindset issue, the outcomes were often blowouts.

Last weekend, however, they led until the third, were only down by four until the fourth quarter and only lost by 11 points. The Irish were by no means out of that game at any point. A couple conservative calls from Tommy Rees came in the form of protection for Tyler Buchner behind Hiestead’s offensive line, all on the field for the first time. While they could have been game changers had they gone for it — as Freeman ultimately said he wanted to — Rees made the right decision. There’s a just as likely possibility that a brand new quarterback makes a mistake downfield under pressure towards the end of a long, loud, hostile game as there is that he makes the game-winning touchdown throw. The difference? This way, Rees took the game — and mentally, the season — off Buchner’s shoulders. He gave Buchner the opportunities to do what he came to do without putting a tinted filter on his entire season. 

Does this mean Rees doesn’t trust Buchner? Absolutely not. Rees read the room — or the stadium for that matter. He allowed the entire team a chance to prove themselves, not just Buchner. Jon Sot is a great example of this. He did his part as well as anyone, pinning the Buckeyes deep in their own half on several punts. Had Buchner taken a desperate shot downfield and it went poorly, that’s an entirely different mindset coming off the field, one no one needs to start their collegiate career with. The shots he did take, although they didn’t all land, looked promising. This is the weekend to put those to the test. Marshall can be a threat if the Irish let them. But if Buchner takes control under guidance from Rees, this game will be a great space to shore up comfort levels on the field before the season grows more difficult week to week.

While that 1 in the loss column is going to hurt all season, 11 points is no detrimental loss, especially when they came so late in the game. And, some of the concessions the Irish made then will not be on the table this weekend. Freeman already made it well known. He wants to be aggressive this weekend, so you won’t see that conservative play calling — nor should you. It’s time to define Notre Dame Football for the season. The Irish will enter Notre Dame Stadium ready to rack up the points on both sides of the ball and they’re fully capable of it.

Mannion McGinley

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