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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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Notre Dame’s keys to victory against Cal

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

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

Get Tyree the ball

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

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

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

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

Limit the Bears’ Passing Attack

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

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

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

Win the turnover battle 

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

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

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

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Moller: Freeman Era teetering on brink of disaster

It’s hard to believe that just last week, there were many Notre Dame fans across the country expecting the Irish to finish the season 11-1 after a hard-fought loss to Ohio State in the opening week of the season. Fast forward a week and the narrative is completely different following a stunning Irish defeat to the Marshall Thundering Herd.

Being a lifelong Notre Dame football fan, I have faced plenty of lows. USC’s reign of terror over the Irish during the Charlie Weis era. A 3-9 season in 2007. The national championship blowout loss to Alabama in 2013. A 4-8 season in 2016. And of course, the pair of recent CFP losses.

Despite all of those painful memories, this might be an all-time low for me. That Marshall game will forever be burned into my head as I sat in the student section in utter disbelief. Notre Dame usually finds a way to win games like that one. But that just wasn’t the case last Saturday. I had never left a Notre Dame football game early. But I did on Saturday after the Drew Pyne interception because I didn’t want to waste more time on a team that had looked lackluster and effortless all day.

Last December, when Marcus Freeman was announced as head coach, I had full faith in Freeman. I truly believed that he would be the coach to finally get the Irish to a national title. After a stunning 0-3 start to the Freeman Era, I am now beyond skeptical.

In each of Freeman’s three losses, the Irish have led in the second half and have looked like the better team in parts of each game. And just like clockwork in all three of the games, the team utterly collapses, forgets how to play defense in the fourth quarter and fails to execute late in the game. It’s one thing to have less talent than the other team and be outplayed. But that hasn’t really been the case in any of the three losses. In each of those games (yes, even Ohio State), the Irish proved they had the talent to go toe-to-toe with their opponent and win the game.

Ultimately, those close losses come down to one thing: coaching. The Irish have been out-coached in each of the three losses, and ultimately, that has been the difference. I could point fingers at offensive coordinator Tommy Rees as well, but I think the problem has been bigger than him so far. This is, after all, the Freeman Era. This is Coach Freeman’s football team. There has to be some sense of urgency in this football program, and I don’t get the sense there is right now. A loss to Marshall should be a big deal. But it seems like the fanbase and media are waving if off like everything is going to be alright.

Freeman said after the loss to Oklahoma State in the bowl game that the “honeymoon phase is over.” After the atrocious beginning to this season, the relationship is even more than post-honeymoon strained now. Freeman must do everything in his power to right the sinking ship that is Notre Dame this season. Even though the Irish will be playing mostly for pride here on out, Freeman has to energize his team and get them back to playing Notre Dame football.

I haven’t given up on Freeman this yet. But I am angry, confused and anxious. The recruiting has been great under Freeman, and I still believe Freeman can be a great head coach at Notre Dame. But I need to see something from him this year that proves that to me.

For that reason, this weekend at Cal is a must-win game for Coach Freeman. Another loss at home to a sub-par opponent will raise even more doubts about Freeman and could send this season into free-fall — if it isn’t already.

So, what do the Irish need to do to get into the win column? Losing sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner to a season ending injury certainly isn’t going to help, but hopefully the team can rally around Drew Pyne. If Pyne is going to be successful, though, the offensive line has to improve drastically. The Irish have failed to establish a run game in both games this season. And that, in turn, has made it difficult to find consistency in the passing game. The Irish should have three solid backs in junior Chris Tyree and sophomores Audric Estime and Logan Diggs. Now is the time to get those three going offensively.

Aside from the offensive line, the Irish need to take care of the football. They didn’t do that at the end of the Marshall game, and it arguably made the difference. The Irish might find themselves in a lot of low scoring games and handing the opposing team good field position will cost the Irish greatly.

The defense has not been the issue this season. But they have struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, recording only three sacks this season. Senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey has been relatively quiet for the Irish this season. He needs to energize the Irish front seven going forward and generate some turnovers to help out a struggling Irish offense.

Let’s take a quick detour and look back to 2011, the last time the Irish started 0-2. Last week was not the first time the Irish suffered a horrible loss in the home opener. In fact, in Brian Kelly’s second season as head coach, the Irish lost the home opener to South Florida — a game I was actually at as an excited ten-year old Notre Dame fanatic. Despite the loss, the Irish managed to finish a respectable 8-5 and beat some quality opponents. The following season, the Irish completed a perfect 12-0 regular season.

I see plenty of parallels between last week’s Marshall game and the South Florida game. And if the Irish can clean up a couple of the things I mentioned, there’s no doubt in my mind that Notre Dame can get some wins this year and build confidence into next season.

These next few weeks are crucial, though. The Freeman Era is currently teetering on the brink of disaster and how this football team finishes out this year will be pivotal in Marcus Freeman developing himself as a legitimate head football coach. Marcus Freeman, I am rooting for you. But it’s time to win some football games. If these losses keep cascading into more defeats, the Freeman Era might burn out as quickly as it took over.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu

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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