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Irish keys to victory versus North Carolina

After earning their first victory of the year, Notre Dame heads to North Carolina, eyeing a return to a .500 record. They face a tall task, entering the game as slight underdogs to the unbeaten Tar Heels. The story of this game is two programs with completely opposite strengths. Notre Dame ranks 115th out of 131 in scoring offense, but their defense has been solid, allowing seven total touchdowns in three games. That included a battle with the vaunted Ohio State offense. UNC is averaging over 51 points a game, but they’re giving up over 37 per contest. They haven’t faced a Power-5 program yet, so the offense will face their most difficult test of the young 2022 season. Notre Dame’s offense is certainly struggling, but UNC’s defense is truly an eyesore through three weeks. To truly measure the stark difference: the Irish offense has scored seven touchdowns this season…the UNC defense gave up six touchdowns in the fourth quarter of their season opener. So there is a path to victory for Notre Dame, but what are the keys to obtaining the slight upset win? 

Key 1: Minimize Drake Maye as a runner

Drake Maye is going to be solid. He’s a really strong quarterback and will make some plays. But Notre Dame let Cal stick around last week via Jack Plummer escaping a collapsed pocket and ripping off a bevy of first-down runs. Against a far better runner, that cannot happen with the Tar Heels. 

This responsibility largely falls to the Irish linebackers, who struggled against the Golden Bears. They need a quarterback spy on Maye to make him uncomfortable outside the pocket. This will be difficult without senior captain J.D. Bertrand playing the first half (the tail-end of his targeting punishment from last week), but the Irish have the depth to fill his role for 30 minutes. Additionally, the Irish defensive line must finish their job. While they terrorized Plummer with six sacks and 27 quarterback pressures last week, Notre Dame whiffed on several sacks, allowing the Cal signal-caller to escape. That can’t happen this week. 

Key 2: Beat the UNC secondary at the line of scrimmage

This is huge for Notre Dame, and it corresponds to a general strength for the Irish. UNC generally features a heavy dose of press coverage, and that makes beating your man at the line of scrimmage absolutely pivotal. The Irish have a tight end in junior Michael Mayer who can beat anyone at the line of scrimmage. Sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles showed against Marshall and at times against Cal, he can beat his defender off the line and get open quickly. 

If they can win quickly against the cornerbacks, the Irish may be able to open up the vertical component of their offense that has been so sorely lacking. This is a big test for these Irish receivers. They have struggled so far this year, and their offense has moved lethargically at times. This is a unit they can expose, and if they can’t, it speaks to far bigger issues for this Irish offense moving into the middle third of the season. 

Key 3: Contain Josh Downs

The key word here is ‘contain’. Notre Dame, in all likelihood, will not stop UNC’s dynamic receiver. Injuries have limited Downs to one game this year. But he was a difference-maker in that contest, notching nine catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns. The Irish would likely be ok with more yards from Downs but less scoring impact. Last year, Downs caught 10 passes for 142 yards against Notre Dame; but he didn’t score. For Notre Dame, that’s successful containment. They made the Tar Heels find secondary methods of scoring, and that’ll be key again on Saturday. 

Ultimately, this is going to be a major test for the Irish. The defense faces a loaded offensive unit. On offense, Notre Dame was at full panic mode through the first half of the Cal game. After scoring 17 points in a three-drive span in the second half against a solid Cal defense, that panic subsided a little bit. Now, against a weaker defensive unit, the goal should be 30+ for the Irish, a number they’ll likely need to hit in order to win this road battle, and for head coach Marcus Freeman to snag win No. 2 of his career.

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As Irish search for answers, special teams provides consistency

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

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

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

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

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

Sot provides punting consistency

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

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

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

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

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

Return game vastly improves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olivia Schatz


Contact Olivia Schatz at oschatz@nd.edu

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Irish fail to execute late, fall to Buckeyes in season opener

The fifth-ranked Irish battled hard in the season opener against the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, but Notre Dame failed to score in the second half and Ohio State battled back to secure a 21-10 victory on Saturday night in Columbus.

The Irish started off the night in a big way with a 54-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles down the sideline. An Ohio State penalty set the Irish up at the Buckeyes’ 16-yard line, but the Irish drive faltered after three straight running plays. The Irish managed to get on the board, though, with graduate student kicker Blake Grupe nailing a 33-yard field goal to give the Irish an early lead.

After stopping the Buckeyes at midfield on their opening drive, the Irish got the ball back at their own five-yard line. They got backed up even more, though, after a two-yard loss from sophomore running back Audric Estime and a false start penalty. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner managed to give the Irish some breathing room on second down, but the Irish failed to convert on the third and were forced to punt.

On the ensuing drive, a pass interference penalty for senior cornerback Cam Hart set the Buckeyes up at the Irish 35-yard line. A few plays later, Buckeyes’ quarterback C.J. Stroud found wide receiver Emeka Egbuka on a pass to the flat, who eluded the Irish defense to score the game’s first touchdown, giving the Buckeyes a 7-3 lead with just over five minutes to play in the first quarter.

A few possessions later, the Irish put together their most impressive drive of the game. A circus catch from graduate student wide receiver Matt Salerno on a third and short kickstarted the drive and set the Irish up in Buckeye territory. The terrific catch put the Irish in great shape and earned Buchner’s praise after the game.

“He’s one of our best receivers and he made a huge play,” Buchner said. “And I was thankful that he came down with it.”

The Irish continued to move the ball after Salerno’s catch with Buchner, finding junior tight Kevin Bauman on the ensuing play to set the Irish up at the Buckeyes’ 12-yard line. After two run plays, the Irish converted another big third down on a pass to junior tight end Michael Mayer to set up a first and goal from the one-yard line. After an Ohio State timeout, Estime leaped over the pile to score the first touchdown of the season for Notre Dame and give the Irish a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.

After a few empty possessions for both teams, Ohio State wasted no time moving the ball down the field on their final drive of the first half. C.J. Stroud got the drive going, completing pass after pass to get the Buckeyes into Irish territory. Running back TreVeyon Henderson had an impressive 16-yard run as well to set the Buckeyes up at the Irish 25-yard line. The Buckeyes’ drive stalled a few plays later, however, and a missed 39-yard field goal allowed the Irish to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room.

Ohio State’s frustration on offense continued to build at the start of the second half after the Buckeyes went three and out on their opening drive. They also failed to score on their second drive of the half, as well.

The Irish offense couldn’t capitalize on their first two possessions, though, allowing the Buckeyes to stay within three. Head coach Marcus Freeman acknowledged that his team’s strategy was to limit the Buckeyes’ possessions and milk the clock as much as possible offensively.

“We wanted to control the clock, limit their offensive possessions, and run the football,” Freeman said. “It was a 10-7 game until seconds left in the third quarter, so we knew we weren’t going to try to outscore them.”

But a turning point came late in the third quarter when the Buckeyes marched down the field for a 70-yard touchdown drive. Stroud started the drive off by showing off his play-making abilities on the opening play, eluding multiple pass rushers and then finding Emeka Egbuka for a 16-yard completion on the run. After a false start penalty, Stroud then found wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. on the following play for another 11 yards.

Set up at the Irish 48-yard line, the Buckeyes continued to move deeper into Irish territory. A personal foul call backed the Buckeyes up into a second and long situation. However, the Buckeyes overcame the penalty. Stroud found wide receiver Xavier Johnson down the middle for a go-ahead 24-yard touchdown pass.

The Irish desperately needed an answer on the ensuing drive, and it looked like they were off to a good start, as Buchner found graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy for a 32-yard play to open the drive. On the following play, junior running back Chris Tyree ran for 14 yards to set the Irish up at the Ohio State 41-yard line. But a crucial offensive pass interference call against Salerno backed the Irish up, eventually forcing Notre Dame to punt.

After getting the ball back, the Buckeyes put the Irish away for good, courtesy of a 95-yard touchdown drive powered by the run game. Running back Miyan Williams carried the ball on the final five plays of the drive. His two-yard rushing touchdown with just under five minutes to play in the game all but solidified an Ohio State victory.

“They had four rushing big plays in the fourth quarter,” Freeman said. “That is a heartbreaker for a defense when you are giving up big plays to an offense that is running the ball. We have to be able to finish and execute.”

An Irish three and out on their next possession further cemented that reality. The Irish punted, and Ohio State ran the clock out to secure the season opening victory over Notre Dame. While the Irish fought hard, Freeman was ultimately disappointed in his team’s execution and inability to respond offensively late in the game.

“We didn’t finish the game. We didn’t execute,” Freeman said. “I think we learned that we have a good football team, but we have to learn how to finish. We battled for two and a half quarters, but then they scored 17 seconds before the end of the third quarter and we don’t respond. And then they go and score again in the fourth quarter, and that’s the game.”

The Irish will return to action in the home opener next week against Marshall, and Freeman is excited to get back to work and get the first win of the season next week.

“We have a lot to learn from this game,” Freeman said. “The beauty of this thing is we don’t have to wait 245 days. We have seven days for another opportunity, so we have to get back to work.”

Nate Moller

Contact Nate at nmoller2@nd.edu.