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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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Coolican: Find joy in this season

The mood in the locker room after Notre Dame’s victory over Cal last weekend was jubilant. It was Marcus Freeman’s first career win as a head coach, and it was the first win of the season for the players and coaches who worked so hard in the offseason for this moment. 

Compare that to the mood of Irish fans as the game came to an end. Rather than joy, it was more a collective sigh of relief that was heard across South Bend as Cal’s last-second Hail Mary attempt finally fell harmlessly to the ground. Everyone in the stands seemed relieved that Notre Dame didn’t lose, rather than feeling happy that they won.

It is a challenge to find hope and joy in what some consider to be a lost season after just three weeks. This season hasn’t gone exactly to plan; dropping from fifth in the nation to unranked in the span of two weeks hurts, and it hurts badly. 

Perhaps this is because of how high the expectations were for Notre Dame prior to the season. Despite losing their starting quarterback, a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher, and one of the best defensive players in college football, Notre Dame was ranked fifth in the country before even playing a down. Not only that, but the expectations the fans had for Marcus Freeman were astronomical. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a first-year head coach.

Irish fans everywhere, including myself, bought into this undeserved hype. And now, it seems, we are paying the price. Losses hurt the most when expectations are highest. Conversely, there is very little joy in winning the games your team expects to win.

In all honesty, expectations for a first-year head coach shouldn’t have been this high. Yes, this is Notre Dame football. And like it or not, there will always be an extremely high level of scrutiny. It is undoubtedly part of the job description. However, it seemed that the expectations placed on Freeman were higher before this season than they ever were in 12 seasons under Brian Kelly.

This may have been because of the immense success Freeman had in recruiting over the offseason. Or the fact that his players clearly love playing for him. Maybe even the lingering resentment over Kelly’s abrupt departure. Whatever the reason, the fanbase’s expectations of Freeman set them up for disappointment this year.

Still, we all owe it to ourselves to find joy in this season. This isn’t one of those “your team is terrible, here’s how to enjoy watching them anyway,” columns. Notre Dame is still a very good team that could challenge for another New Year’s Six Bowl this year. Despite the slow start, the season is far from over.

It is all too easy to fall into negativity when junior quarterback Drew Pyne throws the ball at the feet of a wide-open target. Or when the secondary allows a receiver to run free. Notre Dame fans aren’t used to seeing these kinds of mistakes. Fans have grown used to the Irish beating teams they are expected to beat, and often falling flat in the rare instances when they are the underdog. This year has changed that narrative completely. North Carolina, an unranked opponent, is currently a 1.5-point favorite ahead of Saturday’s matchup.

If the Irish manage to beat the Tar Heels this weekend on the road, celebrate like it’s the upset victory that it is. Not merely another win against a team they should beat. Winning a game on the road against a quality opponent would be a big step for Freeman and the team. And it should be treated as such.

For all of Notre Dame’s struggles this year, they are still a good team with talented players. Enjoy watching junior running back Chris Tyree break tackles in the open field. And junior tight end Michael Mayer bowling over defenders as he makes another first-down catch. And senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey’s third-down sacks.

But most of all, enjoy the wins. Here’s my advice for this weekend’s game against UNC, which is expected to be a close one. As are most of the seasons of the ones in Notre Dame’s season. Don’t sit on pins and needles waiting for disaster to strike. Instead, wait for the team to make a big play, and celebrate.

If fans are too busy waiting for failure, we may miss celebrating the unexpectedly great moments.

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Evaluating the Notre Dame offense

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

They found a way to win

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

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

Lack of verticality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurgent offensive line and run game

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

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

Get Michael Mayer the ball

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

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

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

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

Contact José at jsanch24@nd.edu

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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

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The Observer predicts Cal vs. Notre Dame

Emily DeFazio, Associate Sports Editor

I am not sure where to begin in predicting Saturday’s outcome; I have few words left after having to eat so many of them last week. The Irish would have to win out in order for my 10-2 season prediction to be correct, and with USC and Clemson still left to take on, I have my doubts.

The offense was already struggling, and the loss of sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner is a tough pill to swallow. I have mixed feelings about junior quarterback Drew Pyne stepping in. It is certainly his time to shine, but he will have to do just that. Interceptions like Saturday cannot happen moving forward. However, this is an opportunity for Rees to structure a solid game plan that involves more than just the run game. Pyne has proven he can pass the ball well, and he should be allowed to do so.

I am counting on those sporadic moments of greatness he posted on the field last year to grow now that he is securely in the QB1 position. Utilize juniors Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman for some tight end touchdowns Saturday. Should the offense rally under this new leadership, and the defensive line tighten up their play, I see the Irish coming away with their first win of the season. Albeit a close one.

ND 24, Cal 17

Nate Moller, Senior Sports Writer

Notre Dame Stadium is usually one of my favorite places in the world. But it was far from it last Saturday. The Irish looked truly awful throughout most of the game. With Freeman being 0-3 as a head coach, this game feels like a must-win. Without Buchner at quarterback, that will make getting a win much more difficult. Cal is by no means a strong power five team. But they have shown that they can close out games, which is something Notre Dame has yet to do. Running back Jaydn Ott has averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry this season. Stopping his production will be key for the Irish.

If the Irish are going to win this game, the offensive and defensive lines need to be much better than the mess that was Marshall. If Pyne doesn’t have time to pass and the run game can not be established, the Irish could be in trouble yet again. I think this is going to be a sloppy game. And while it may not be a good win, I do expect Notre Dame to find a way to get into the win column. A late Michael Mayer touchdown gives the Irish just enough offense to edge out the Golden Bears.

Notre Dame 14, Cal 13

Liam Coolican, Associate Sports Editor

If you’re looking for someone to blame for the Irish’s struggles, look no further. Not only did I predict the team would go 11-1 and make the CFP, I also wrote last week that “Notre Dame doesn’t lose trap games.” The good news is, my predictions, much like Notre Dame’s fortunes, can’t get much worse. Drew Pyne clearly wasn’t ready to come into the game last week, but he showed flashes of brilliance last year and I believe he can be a solid, if not spectacular, quarterback at this level. However, the Irish do have to adjust their offense substantially to play to Pyne’s strengths rather than Buchner’s in just a week’s time.

It might be another slow start for the Irish as the offense takes time to get used to Pyne under center. But the defense will keep them in the game against a lackluster Cal offense. Notre Dame should be more fired up and better prepared than they were a week ago. Pyne will get rolling in the second half, and the defense will come up with a couple of big plays in the fourth quarter. It may take a late score, but the Irish will pull this one out.

Notre Dame 24, Cal 17

Mannion McGinley, Assistant Managing Editor

The Irish have started the season 0-2 for the first time since 2011. Seeing as that’s as many losses as I predicted on the season as a whole, the Irish are not where I expected them to be. Losing Buchner on top of that was just salt in the wound. There’s potential in the change up though, especially this week. Cal may be 2-0, but the Irish need the win and this is the space to get it. Plummer is a quarterback the Irish D-line knows, and knows well. They need to get to him just as they did when he played for Purdue.

In terms of Irish offense, it’s not perfect. But Pyne’s structure may be the answer to ending the passing touchdown drought. Both UC Davis and UNLV were able to score through the air on Cal. This should mean the Irish can as well. The defense gets the takeaway they’ve been striving for. And while it’ll be tight, some of the pieces finally come together. At the risk of losing any credibility, Irish win. 

Notre Dame 21, Cal 17

Madeline Ladd, Associate Sports Editor

To be honest, I’m not sure what to say here after the devastation last week. Coupled with the loss of Buchner, there are a lot of question marks going into this weekend. However, though Notre Dame is down, they are not out. They will certainly be coming into the weekend hungry, and the changes made on offense may prove to be beneficial.

But Cal’s defense is no joke. The Notre Dame offense, now led by Pyne, will need to get it together in order to come out with the victory. I predict that Pyne will be efficient and throw for two TD’s. I see junior running back Chris Tyree with more action on the ground as well. The defensive line will control the weaker Cal offensive line, not fading in the second half as they have in the previous two games. This is a game well within the Irish’s wheelhouse and I think they can pull off the win. But it certainly won’t be pretty.

Notre Dame 17, Cal 13

Aidan Thomas, Sports Editor

Gross. I predicted Notre Dame to go 10-2 this season, which, I guess, is technically still in play. However when you lose a game that I personally ranked seventh-hardest on the schedule and start 0-2, that 10-2 dream is on very thin ice — but still alive.

The Irish currently have no semblance of an offense. They’ve scored just 31 points, blowing a bevy of opportunities over the first couple of weeks. Untimely penalties, missed open deep shots, interceptions and no running game have thwarted the Irish offense at nearly every turn. Now they turn to longtime backup Pyne to make things right.

He must do so against a Cal defense that is stiff against the pass but has experienced struggles against the run. The lead back for each Cal opponents this year averages 7.1 yards per carry. The Irish need to assert themselves in the trenches and dominate a below-average Cal offense. Notre Dame must win ugly this year. Hopefully, that trend starts on Saturday.

Notre Dame 24 Cal 13

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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.

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Key moments from season opener against Ohio State

The Irish went toe-to-toe with the Ohio State Buckeyes in their season opener on Saturday night in Columbus, but the Ohio State offense clicked late to secure a 21-10 victory. Let’s look at some of the key moments that dictated the course of the game and gave the Buckeyes a season-opening victory.

Irish open with huge play

The Irish started the opening drive of the game from their own 15-yard line, and this set the tone early for the Irish. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner had some pressure on the play, but he made a sensational pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. on the sideline. Styles then eluded multiple Buckeye defenders — gaining 54 yards and a penalty on the play — and set the Irish up at the Ohio State 16-yard line.

Although the Irish drive would stall moments later, the play set up a field goal from graduate student kicker Blake Grupe to give the Irish the first points of the game. It showed the Irish had the potential for a big play at any moment and that they weren’t going down without a fight in Columbus.

Salerno’s circus catch sets up first Irish touchdown of the season

Aside from the big play to open the game, the Irish struggled to move the ball with any authority throughout the beginning of the first quarter. That changed with the 87-yard drive that the Irish put together towards the end of the first quarter that was capped off by sophomore running back Audric Estime’s one-yard touchdown run at the beginning of the second.

Arguably the biggest play of the drive happened on a critical third and two when Buchner found graduate student Matt Salerno downfield for a sensational 31-yard reception. Salerno bobbled the ball twice with a defender all over him, and he managed to make a highlight-reel catch as he was falling to the ground.

Immediately following the catch, Buchner found tight end Kevin Bauman over the middle for a 22-yard reception that set the Irish up at the Buckeyes’ 12-yard line. A couple plays later, Buchner found junior tight end Michael Mayer to convert on a huge third down to set the Irish up with first and goal from the one-yard line.

After a Buckeyes’ timeout, Estime leaped over the pile to score the first Irish touchdown of the game and give the Irish a 10-7 lead.

Buckeyes falter on final drive of first half

With the Irish holding a 10-7 lead with the first half winding down, the Buckeyes had one last chance to gain some momentum ahead of the second half. C.J. Stroud led the Buckeyes quickly into Irish territory, completing pass after pass. Running back TreVeyon Henderson then got the Buckeyes deeper into Irish territory with a sensational 16-yard run that pushed them down to the 25-yard line.

It looked like the Buckeyes were going to score a touchdown and grab a lead heading into the locker room, but the Irish defense held firm. With the Buckeyes facing a critical third down and six, Stroud threw a pass slightly behind wide receiver Emeka Egbuka. Egbuka nearly made a fantastic catch, but he was unable to hold on and the Buckeyes had to bring out the field goal unit on the fourth down.

With the Buckeyes desperately needing some points heading into the half, Noah Ruggles failed to convert for the Buckeyes, missing the 39-yard field goal. In what turned out to be a disappointing first half for the Buckeyes, the missed field goal deflated the crowd to some extent and allowed Notre Dame to maintain the lead into the locker room.

Buckeyes regain lead late in third quarter

With the Buckeyes struggling to get much going offensively in the second half, the 10-play, 70-yard drive at the end of the third quarter turned things around. The drive started off with Stroud showing off his play-making abilities, eluding multiple pass rushers in the back field. Stroud then found Egbuka on the run for a 16-yard completion. On the following play, Stroud exposed the Irish defense yet again, finding wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. on the sideline for an 11-yard completion to put the ball in Irish territory.

The Buckeyes continued to move the football further into Irish territory, but a personal foul penalty backed the Buckeyes up into a second and 21 situation. Stroud managed to get about half of the yardage back on second down on a 10-yard pass to wide receiver Xavier Johnson over the middle. Stroud then made the biggest play of the game, finding Johnson again over the middle for a 24-yard touchdown to give the Buckeyes the lead at the end of the third quarter.

Buckeyes put Irish away with run game

After stopping the Irish on the ensuing drive, the Buckeyes scored another touchdown to put the Irish away late in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes relied on their running game heavily on this 95-yard drive, picking up most of their yardage from running back Miyan Williams. After getting to the Buckeye 40-yard line, Williams took over and ran right up the middle for an 11-yard gain to get into Irish territory.

After a short completion from Stroud, Williams carried the ball on the next five plays, and he eventually found the endzone on a two-yard run. That touchdown gave the Buckeyes an 11-point lead and effectively made the game out of reach for the Irish. After Notre Dame punted on their ensuing drive, the Buckeyes were able to run out the clock and secure a 21-10 victory.