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ZeLO: Overlooking the college football landscape

Whoever, you are, wherever you are, breathe. Feel better?

After an insane four weeks of Notre Dame, there is a lull in the season courtesy of an early bye week. The Irish are at an unexpected 2-2 record, and with this bye comes a chance for both fans and the team to collect their breath and prepare for the following slate of games. 

Moreover, with the collective pause comes time for ZeLO to look forward to the rest of the season — a bigger-picture view. But first, a minor update on the performance of ZeLO thus far. 

In the past four weeks, ZeLO had fallen behind, trailing by FPI by 17 games. Granted, that is small in the scheme of nearly 300 games, but FPI is firmly in the lead. This weekend, however, that changed (a bit). 

On Saturday, ZeLO beat ESPN in a head-to-head pick ’em competition. ZeLO picked 54-12 (.818) to FPI’s 51-15 (.773).

Is that a minor victory? Absolutely, FPI is currently 14 whole games ahead of ZeLO and has an incredible Brier Points margin. But it is a good sign. ZeLO is learning and reacting to stats and results as they come in, and this week’s result shows that. 

And so, with that announcement, it is time to look at ZeLO’s projections for the rest of the season.

Notre Dame

Last week I wrote that ZeLO had picked UNC to beat Notre Dame by a thin margin, primarily because of the high-powered Carolina offense. I did add that UNC looked like a paper ram because of their weak strength of schedule. 

And that was precisely what happened: ND exploited a poor UNC defense and lit up the scoreboard on offense. 

That data point was a massive change for Notre Dame, and it took the Fighting Irish from a team that was at best .500 to a solid 7-win team. It is probably not what you are looking for if you are among the Irish faithful, but it is at the very least good news. ND is 2-2, so they still have plenty of time to prove me wrong, but they need to show their growth against UNC is sustainable and not a flash in the pan against a poor defense. 

SEC

In August, the four SEC East teams I highlighted were Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky, with the Wildcats more of a wildcard team with high upside. Kentucky seized on that upside and is now third in the SEC East as a high eight-win team and a few simulations where they even turn in nine wins. Tennessee has crossed the double-digit threshold, but Georgia is still expected to make it to the title game. 

Not a ton has changed in the West, though it is worth noting that Brian Kelly and the LSU Tigers are now a team to be reckoned with and are currently tracking as a high seven, low eight-win team. Otherwise, Roll Tide. 

B10

The B10 East has stayed relatively static, though Michigan has closed the gap with Ohio State and the two teams should decide who wins the division (and the conference) when they face off in November. Penn State is surging, though, and has an outside chance to be the East representative come conference championship week. 

ZeLO had initially picked the Wisconsin Badgers to win the West. But that prediction seems less likely by the day. Now, the Golden Gophers seem like the strongest candidate, thanks to their thrashing of Michigan State.

ACC

In the preseason, the Clemson Tigers seemed like a lock to win the Atlantic. And while the Tigers are still favored, the NC State Wolf Pack certainly have a chance to take the throne from them. We will find out this weekend if they can. The FSU Seminoles are considered a strong team, too. But they have yet to enter the same tier as NC State and Clemson.

The Coastal, the less clear division, now has a clear favorite. Because of North Carolina’s atrocious defense and Miami’s … overall play, Pitt is now the clear favorite to win the division and has a projected two-game lead on Miami and UNC.

Pac-12

I will go ahead and throw out the unique prediction of Arizona State being a contender for the Pac-12. Just a perk of beta testing a brand-new model, I suppose. But do not worry, because ZeLO is back with an even hotter take. Washington and USC will face off for the Conference Crown. At least the Huskies are ranked (unlike Arizona State in the preseason).

B12

As my colleague Joseph Tunney wrote earlier this week, Oklahoma State at Baylor has the potential to be one of the most critical games in the B12 conference schedule. Right now, ZeLO has Baylor and Oklahoma State as two of the three favorites to reach the conference championship, with the third being Oklahoma. This matchup can potentially shape the Conference Championship game later this season. 

G5

As of right now, the AAC Title game looks to be a showdown between Cincinnati and UCF. Though the Tulane Green Wave -— yes, Tulane -— has an outside chance to make it, too 

I am sure everyone reading this loves the Sun Belt Conference. But why would you not? Do you not just love a group of spunky underdogs? In the Sun Belt, the two strong contenders to come out of the East are Coastal Carolina and James Madison, who was recently promoted to the FFCS. In the West, it’s South Alabama.

Conference USA has a handful of teams with the potential to make the conference title game. However, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and the UAB Blazers are the leading contenders.

In the Mountain West, Air Force still looks like the team to win the Mountain Division, though Boise State has had quite the fallout. In the West division, it looks like it should be Fresno State or San Diego State (I have absolutely nothing on that one).

The only strong-seeming team in the MAC East is Miami (OH), so at least there should be one successful Miami team this season. Toledo seems like the surest bet in the West, with Central Michigan and NIU looking like potential outside threats.

Unlike last time, I am going to offer a CFP prediction (though it will be brief — covering ten conferences and ND is kind of tricky in 1,100 words). 

Conference Champs

Alabama beats Georgia

Ohio State beats Minnesota 

Clemson beats Pitt

Washington beats USC (yes, this is real, what can I say)

Baylor beats Oklahoma

College Football Playoff

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Clemson

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Georgia

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@hcc-nd.edu.

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“An unbelievable player:” Michael Mayer elevates impact on and off the field

Early in the second quarter, with the game tied at seven, Notre Dame dialed up a play that surprised everyone in the stadium: a jet sweep to junior tight end Michael Mayer. 

“He’s a beast,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “[Mayer] is a heck of a football player, and you’re a fool if you don’t find ways to get the ball in his hands, and we found a unique way.” 

The play gained seven yards but seemed to catch the North Carolina defense off guard. Just two plays later, Notre Dame scored their second touchdown of the game to take a 14-7 lead. 

“You wouldn’t think [Mayer] is getting the ball on a jet sweep,” Freeman said. “It’s going to make a [defensive back] think twice about coming in there and tackling him.”

Mayer was all over the field Saturday afternoon for the Irish. The 6’4, 265-pound tight end is an imposing specimen who presents matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. He’s simply too big for most defensive backs to cover, and he’s too skilled for most linebackers.  

The matchup problems he presents for opposing defensive coordinators have led them to seemingly focus their schemes on slowing him down this year, but that hasn’t stopped him from being able to make big plays when the Irish need it most. 

He finished Saturday’s contest with seven receptions for 88 yards, which included a 10-yard touchdown reception that opened the scoring for Notre Dame and two critical third-down conversions that extended drives for the Irish. 

“I was able to find Mike a couple more times this week, and just execute and do my job and get the ball to him,” junior quarterback Drew Pyne said. “I’m very happy because he’s such a great player and getting the ball in his hands is something that our offense can really benefit from.”

Mayer nearly hauled in another touchdown on what would have been an incredible highlight reel play, but after a lengthy review, he was ruled to have been out of bounds. 

Freeman noted that the offense has to resist the temptation to solely focus on Mayer.

“You can’t just focus all on [Mayer], that’s the challenge,” Freeman said. “It’s easy to say, hey, [Mayer] gets one on one, throw it to him, but you have to make sure that you have enough ways to get him the ball, but also can use him as a decoy, almost in terms of the the progression, in terms of opening other things on the field.”

Mayer was held to a limited role in the loss to Ohio State to open the season, with just five receptions for 32 yards. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner often looked his way, but the Buckeye defense was able to limit his output. 

He exploded back onto the scene with an eight-reception, 130-yard effort against Marshall, which included a late touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to save the Irish from the upset. He returned to a more limited role against Cal, with only two receptions for 10 yards. One of those catches, however, was the game-winning touchdown grab in the fourth quarter.

By contrast, on Saturday, it was clear that he would be getting the ball early and often. Pyne’s first completion of the afternoon was a six-yard pass to Mayer on 3rd and 5 which extended a critical early drive for the Irish. Pyne kept turning to him in big moments throughout the contest. 

“He’s a guy who can do so many different things for you,” Freeman said.

It’s not just his on-field presence that makes Mayer unique, however. It is also his presence off the field and in the locker room. Prior to the season, Mayer was selected as a team captain and is one of the leaders of the offense. 

“The thing you love about Michael Mayer is that he comes to work every day,” Freeman said. “He sets the standard for how we prepare.”

In what is an inexperienced tight end room, Mayer has emerged as the unquestioned leader. His leadership will become even more critical with his primary backup, junior Kevin Bauman, ruled out for the season this week with an ACL injury. 

“He’s a captain, he’s a leader, he raises the play of those guys in his room,” Freeman said. “You’ll see those young guys step up because Michael Mayer’s in there making sure that everybody’s going to perform to a standard.”

Mayer’s continued performance will be critical to the success of the Irish this season. He has an immense impact on the team, but Pyne summed it up succinctly: “Mike’s just an unbelievable player.”

Contact Liam at lcoolica@nd.edu

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Notre Dame notches second win of the season against Tar Heels

Notre Dame emerged victorious against the UNC Tar Heels, notching 45 points in their highest scoring match of the season thus far. This puts the Irish at 2-2 ahead of their bye week.

This is the second win for head coach Marcus Freeman, making him 2-3 in his tenure at Notre Dame. Following the game in Chapel Hill, Freeman remarked that he was proud of his team, while simultaneously acknowledging their room for growth.

“We played really well,” he said. “And the beauty of it is there’s always room to get better. We can go and we can learn from a lot of situations that happen in the game.”

Some of these situations happened early on for the team. The Irish finally won a coin toss, electing to defer and receive at the start of the second half. This put the Notre Dame defense on the field to start. However, despite their previous showings this season, their initial performance was not what was expected of the usually-solid unit. The Tar Heels plowed through the line, ending the drive in a 12 play, 76 yard touchdown. Freeman said that he told his defense to be more aggressive on the field after understanding UNC quarterback Drake Maye could run.

“You have to be aggressive, but understand you have to stay in your rush lanes and it was good to see the adjustment from our defensive line,” he said. “Like I said on the sidelines to them, ‘I don’t want you to play cautious, but I want you to be aware that we can’t just rush past the quarterback because he’ll step up and he’ll run,’ and so it was good to see that.”

When the offense took over, a similar shutdown occurred. Two of junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s passes were batted down, effectively stunting the drive in a minute of play. The Irish were forced to punt after only gaining eight yards on the drive, and were again unable to score on their next offensive drive. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s potential touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas rendered itself incomplete, and graduate student kicker Blake Grupe’s field goal attempt went south to keep the score 7-0 UNC.

However, this was the last true dry spell the Irish would have all night. At the start of the second quarter, continuing from their final drive of the first, the Irish began with a first down. Pyne launched the ball to a wide-open Logan Diggs for a 34 yard play after a fake out from junior running back Chris Tyree drew some of the Tar Heels’ defense. Tyree followed up with nine, five and 10 yard gains to put the Irish in a first and goal situation. After the snap, it seemed everyone was covered until junior tight end Michael Mayer flew into the middle for an open pass from Pyne, which he carried into the end zone. The kick from graduate student Blake Grupe was good, tying the game and turning the tides of the matchup.

Freeman spoke on the importance of getting Mayer more involved in their offensive game plan. The All-American tight end recorded 88 receiving yards on the night, accounting for 30% of the total receiving yards. This comes after only receiving for 10 yards against Cal the week before.

“You’re a fool if you can’t find a way to get the ball in his hands,” Freeman said.

After Mayer’s touchdown, each consecutive drive for the Irish was a scoring one. The defense promptly forced the Tar Heels to punt on the following drive, and when the Irish took the field again, another touchdown was quick to follow. Pyne passed to Mayer in jet-sweep fashion, ending in a gain of seven yards as the tight end shoved his way forward. Freeman said that that method of passing is not one you would usually expect to see Mayer involved in, but that it is a testament to how many different options he can perform on the field. 

Following this, sophomore running back Audric Estime clocked a 29 yard rush, putting Pyne in position to make a 30 yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lorenzo Styles, Jr. A rushing the passer penalty was additionally called on UNC, and was enforced on the following drive.

On the next Irish offensive showing, after UNC made a successful touchdown drive, the Irish capitalized on their third touchdown drive. Tyree found a hole in the defense to rush for a 19 yard gain, with Diggs following it up with a gain of 17. On Pyne’s next pass to Mayer, the tight end continued to plow forward with three defenders on him to put the Irish firmly in the red zone. The attempt ended with Estime falling forward one yard for the touchdown. To end the half, the Irish made a field goal attempt after being shut down, putting them ahead 31-14.

The Irish continued their hot streak on the first drive of the second half. Pyne found a wide open Diggs near the sideline, and the running back walked the ball into the endzone to make it 31-14, Notre Dame. 

The defense quickly shut down the Tar Heels’ response as Justin Ademilola recovered a Tar Heels fumble. Freeman noted his pride in how the defense played, given the caliber of the Tar Heels offense.

“It was a challenge to our defense to stop the run,” Freeman said. “I think the lowest amount [UNC] had offensively in the first three games is 183 rushing yards, and to hold that offense 66 rushing yards is a great accomplishment by our defense.”

Pyne then hit up Styles for an 11 yard gain to put them in the red zone. His following pass to Mayer was ruled incomplete as the tight end received the ball in the endzone, but the play went under further review. Despite the fact that Mayer had his foot down, his heel was over the line, and the ruling on the field stood.

The Irish took a time out when they were 4th and 2, attempting to psych out the Tar Heels by having both the offensive and kicking units out on the field in huddles. Ultimately, the team went for it. After Pyne’s pass to Tyree was ruled incomplete, signaling the end of their scoring attempt, a pass interference call was enacted on the defense, resetting the drive to a first down. UNC head coach Mack Brown stormed onto the field to argue the ruling with the refs, only to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on him. These calls allowed Estime to soar over the huddle for a touchdown.

Notre Dame’s next drive resulted in another score for the Irish. A series of penalties were called on the UNC defense, adding to the momentum the Irish were gathering. After Estime was pushed out of bounds, unnecessary roughness allowed the Irish to move forward to first and goal at the seven yard line. On the following play, another personal foul for unnecessary roughness was called when Pyne was hit out of bounds after running the ball. This caused the Tar Heels to begin fighting among their own ranks, which was broken up by the referees and fellow teammates. Pass interference was called on Pyne’s red zone pass to Styles, Jr., which gave them the first down needed to complete their scoring attempt. Tyree rushed the final yard into the end zone and Grupe’s kick was good. These would be the final points the Irish notched.

When the defense took the field, JD Bertrand was ejected for targeting, giving the Tar Heels an opportunity for a score. Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye threw two incomplete redzone passes before Omarion Hampton rushed for the touchdown (ND 45, UNC 26). However, freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey broke the pass from Maye during their two-point conversion attempt. This is the second time the Tar Heels’ two-point conversions were thwarted by the Irish defense in the second half.

This is the second game in a row Bertrand was disqualified for targeting. Because he missed the first half of today’s game and will miss the first half against BYU, he will have missed a full game of play this season. Freeman noted that he wants to work on different ways of tackling with the defense, and specifically with Bertrand, to avoid calls like this in the future.

“As I told JD [Bertrand] on the field, it’s our job to learn from that situation,” he said. “We have to learn from it, and we have to change or you’re going to continue to get targeting calls.”

In the final scoring drive of the night, the Tar Heels gained one last touchdown. Another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on wide receiver Andre Green, Jr., but because the call came after the touchdown, the loss of yardage did not count against their score.

Despite this win, Freeman noted the team must see the bigger picture of their success: progression.

“I’m really happy with where this team is progressing,” he said. “Sometimes we let the outcome kind of mask some things, right, and continue to look at ‘Is this a football team that’s getting better?’ And it is. They’re playing better. They’re practicing better. And that’s the challenge: continue to get better.”

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Five key moments in Notre Dame’s victory over UNC

Offense and defense struggle through opening drives.

The Irish finally won a coin toss, electing to receive at the start of the second half. This put the Notre Dame defense on the field to start, but their performance was not what was expected of the usually-solid unit. The Tar Heels plowed through the line, ending the drive in a 12 play, 76-yard touchdown. Despite some good looks from Isaiah Foskey, Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser, by and large UNC dismantled the line without much resistance on their way to the end zone.

When the offense took over, a similar shutdown occurred, only this time it was on the other side of the ball. Two of junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s passes were batted down, effectively stunting the drive in a minute of play. The Irish were forced to punt after only gaining eight yards on the drive.

Michael Mayer puts the Irish in the game on aggressive touchdown drive.

At the start of the second quarter, the Irish began their drive with a first down. Pyne launched the ball to a wide-open Logan Diggs for a 34-yard play after a fake out from junior running back Chris Tyree drew some of the Tar Heels’ defense. Tyree followed up with nine, five and 10-yard gains to put the Irish in a first and goal situation. After the snap, it seemed everyone was covered until junior tight end Michael Mayer flew into the middle for an open pass from Pyne, which he carried into the end zone. The kick from graduate student Blake Grupe was good, tying the score, 7-7, and turning the tides of the matchup.

Consecutive scoring drives put the Irish solidly in the lead at half

After Mayer’s touchdown, the Irish scored on every remaining first-half drive. The defense promptly forced the Tar Heels to punt on the following drive, and when the Irish took the field again, another touchdown was quick to follow. Pyne passed to Mayer in jet-sweep fashion, ending in a gain of seven yards as the tight end shoved his way forward. Sophomore running back Audric Estime clocked a 29-yard rush, putting Pyne in position to deliver a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles.

On the next offensive showing, after UNC tied the score at 14-14, the Irish capitalized on their third touchdown drive. Tyree found a hole in the defense to rush for a 19-yard gain, and the attempt ended with Estime falling forward one yard into the endzone.

To end the half, the Irish made a field goal attempt after being shut down in the red zone, putting them ahead 24-14.

Pass interference resets drive, leads to touchdown

After starting the half off with a touchdown, the Irish sought to continue their scoring streak on their second drive of the second half. The drive came quickly, as Justin Ademilola recovered a Tar Heels fumble. Pyne hit up Styles for an 11-yard gain to put them in the red zone. His following pass to Mayer was ruled incomplete as the tight end received the ball in the end zone, but the play went under further review. Despite the fact that Mayer had his foot down, his heel was over the line and the ruling on the field stood.

The Irish took a time out when they were 4th and 2, attempting to psych out the Tar Heels by having both the offensive and kicking units out on the field in huddles. Ultimately, the team went for it. After Pyne’s pass was ruled incomplete, a pass interference call was enacted on the defense, resetting the drive to a first down. UNC head coach Mack Brown stormed onto the field to argue the ruling with the refs, only to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on him. These calls allowed Estime to soar over the huddle for a touchdown.

Series of penalties causes UNC to unravel; Irish capitalize to extend lead.

In the fourth quarter, a series of penalties were called on the UNC defense. After Estime was pushed out of bounds, unnecessary roughness allowed the Irish to move forward to first and goal at the seven-yard line. On the following play, another personal foul for unnecessary roughness was called when Pyne was hit out of bounds after running the ball. This caused the Tar Heels to begin fighting among their own ranks, which was broken up by the referees and fellow teammates. This drive resulted in another touchdown run for Tyree.

When the defense took the field, JD Bertrand was ejected for targeting, giving the Tar Heels an opportunity for a score. Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye threw two incomplete red zone passes before Omarion Hampton rushed for the touchdown (ND 45, UNC 26). However, freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey broke the pass from Maye during their two-point conversion attempt. This is the second time the Tar Heels’ two-point conversions were thwarted by the Irish defense in the second half.

Despite ending with a touchdown drive, the Tar Heels could not recover, and the Irish took the day with a final score of 45-32.

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Notre Dame vs. UNC: Irish return to the road

Crimson red to Irish green: Sot shines for Notre Dame

Irish keys to victory versus Notre Dame

Observer staff predicts Notre Dame-UNC

Coolican: Find joy in this season

Ranking Notre Dame’s remaining schedule

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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.

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Observer Staff predicts Notre Dame-UNC

After picking up his first career win as head coach in Week 3, can Marcus Freeman make it two straight this weekend in North Carolina? The Observer staff is split on the pick.

Sports Editor Aidan Thomas

I’ve tossed and turned about this pick all week. Not literally, but I truly have no idea what to expect. To put it slightly dramatically, the very moveable object (UNC’s defense) meets a nearly non-startable force (Notre Dame’s offense) in this matchup.

Here’s what makes the difference for me. Going back to the opener, Notre Dame shut down a vaunted Ohio State attack. They’ve given up 21, 19 and 17 points in three weeks. More notably, nobody has really beaten the Irish through the air, which is where UNC wants to operate. Their ground game is efficient, but it’s not their bread and butter. The biggest thing for the Irish is containing Drake Maye, who is a solid dual-threat quarterback. Notre Dame linebacker must be better, but that unit is operating without senior linebacker J.D. Bertrand for the first half which makes this task even more difficult. I think Notre Dame trails at the half — again — but starts figuring out how to target the Tar Heels in the second half. They’ll pull off the mild upset over the Tar Heels. 

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 27

Senior sports writer Nate Moller

The Irish defense will have to be on top of their game this weekend against a balanced UNC offense that has thrown for 930 yards through the air and 712 yards on the ground. The Tar Heels have plenty of options through the air, as they have six players with over 100 receiving yards this season. The Irish, by comparison, have just two players with over 100 receiving yards this season. The Irish have still yet to force a turnover this season, and winning that battle this weekend might be a key to victory. Despite UNC’s subpar defense, the Irish offense will have a difficult time keeping up with UNC quarterback Drake Maye’s offensive production. Unless junior quarterback Drew Pyne can up his level of play this weekend significantly, a loss to a highly productive UNC offense seems inevitable.

North Carolina 38, Notre Dame 27

Associate Sports Editor Liam Coolican

If there’s an opportunity for Pyne and the Notre Dame offense to get rolling, it’s this weekend in Chapel Hill. Only one power-five team (Colorado) ranks lower than UNC in terms of scoring defense. The Tar Heels are allowing opponents to score nearly 38 points per game. Conversely, they are 6th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging more than 51 points per game. It’s a testament to the strength of this offense that the Tar Heels are 3-0. The Irish will have to work hard to slow down Maye and his impressive cadre of receivers. 

A lot of this game will depend on the Notre Dame defense, because no matter how ineffective the UNC defense is, I am not willing (yet) to put my faith in Pyne in a shootout. One major concern is the inconsistency of Al Golden’s unit. They’ve played well this year, but have had stretches of poor play. In order to win this contest, they’ll have to be at their best for all four quarters, and that’s not something I’ve seen from them so far this year.

North Carolina 31, Notre Dame 28

Assistant Managing Editor Mannion McGinley

So Irish fans saw two almost takeaways this weekend against Cal. That was good. That was new this season. Did they end up counting? No, but we found other defensive success on both plays. Should that mean an interception or a strip is on the way? One would hope. Will I predict that the Irish get one this weekend? No. No, I will not. The last time I did that, the Irish lost (despite my predicting a 35-point win).

Do the Irish need to force a turnover to win this weekend? Yes, that much is clear. Pyne will be able to lead the offense just well enough to beat the UNC defense and keep pace with the UNC offense in terms of productive drives. Until he proves he can do more, he has proven that we can expect at least that much from him, and I believe in it.

It’s the defense that ends up controlling this game though. The defensive line especially needs to be able to get to Maye the way they’ve gotten to Plummer. I expect to see both Ademilola brothers bursting through that line, and I want to see the 2021 version of senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey right beside them. The new guys are still getting caught up, but even they are holding their own. The returners need to show them how it’s done to push Notre Dame over the top this weekend. There needs to be an even cleaner fourth-quarter stop in this game than the bouncing Hail Mary from the Cal game. Another tight one for sure.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 28

Associate Sports Editor Madeline Ladd

After a nail-biter of a win last week against Cal, the Irish need to capture a solid victory against the Tar Heels this weekend. Though they infamously struggle to run the ball, Notre Dame’s passing game was more accurate last week with Pyne. He grew more comfortable in the second half and has the ability to connect with receivers. There’s too much talent up front for the offense not to be better. Tyree and Estime will certainly be able to pound the awful UNC defense, as they are ranked 123rd in the nation.

Nevertheless, Tar Heel freshman quarterback Drake Maye has the potential to challenge the secondary and will most likely connect with returning wide out star Josh Downs. This will prove a fight, but finally the ND defense will get turnovers and hold off their opponent. Turnovers are the name of the game here, and if the Irish can do that they can continue their 10+ year win streak against the Tar Heels. I see it happening.

Notre Dame 37, North Carolina 28

Emily DeFazio, Associate Sports Editor

This is the make-or-break game for the 2022 Irish season. Notre Dame won the Cal game, but that does not mean it is smooth sailing the rest of the way. In the final five minutes, there were at least three instances where that game was nearly tied. And one of those moments came on the final play of the game. Pyne needs to have gotten his sea legs and move forward with a solid foundation and settle into his role as QB1. The Irish cannot afford turnovers and over-throwing receivers in Chapel Hill. The Irish defense will need to remain on-point this week to allow the offense some growing pains. But I expect a fourth-quarter solidifying of a narrow Irish win.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 27

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
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Ranking Notre Dame’s remaining schedule

Before the season started, the Observer Sports Staff ranked the toughest games on the Irish schedule. It is apparent now that Marshall was severely underrated in those rankings. Nevertheless, after three games, the remaining schedule ranks fairly similar to what the preseason rankings were. Let’s take a look at the remaining nine opponents the Irish will face this season.

1. USC (Record: 3-0, AP Rank: 7)

The Trojans have arguably been the biggest surprise in college football this season. Many, including myself, assumed that the Trojans would need time to adjust to Lincoln Riley’s air-raid attack style of offense, but that transition has been nothing but smooth so far. The Trojans have plenty of talent at the skill positions. They are led by three players from the transfer portal: quarterback Caleb Williams, wide receiver Jordan Addison and running back Travis Dye. Addison has been a beast for the Trojans. He posted five touchdowns and nearly 300 receiving yards in USC’s first three games. The Trojans have only played Rice, Stanford and Fresno State this season, but with an easy PAC-12 schedule, it would be shocking if the Trojans have more than one loss when they play the Irish at the end of the season

Key to Irish victory: 

The Irish need to win this one in the trenches. The Trojans have what the Irish don’t: a prolific offense that revolves around a top-tier quarterback and a plethora of wide receiving talent. The Irish defensive line has to improve as the season goes. They must find a way to put pressure on Caleb Wiliams. On the offensive side of the ball, the Irish need to hope the offensive line continues to improve and they need to establish the run game. Similarly to the strategy against Ohio State, the Irish will need to do their best to keep the ball out of Caleb Williams’ hands as long as possible.

2. Clemson (Record: 3-0. AP Rank: 5)

There has been surprisingly very little talk surrounding the Tigers so far this season. Although they only have wins against Georgia Tech, Furman and Louisiana Tech, the Tigers have won all of those games fairly handily. The key to the Tigers’ success has been running back Will Shipley, who has six touchdowns on the season and is averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Quarterback D.J. Uiagelelei looks to be much improved as well, having completed 64.8% of his passes for 662 yards and five touchdowns. The Tigers are anchored by a solid defensive corps as well that has already forced seven turnovers this season. Despite the lack of national attention, this Clemson squad feels similar to their national title teams from a couple of seasons ago.

Key to Irish victory:

This game is below the USC game because of the home atmosphere. Although the Irish fell at home to Marshall a couple of weeks ago, Notre Dame Stadium is going to be fired up for a game against Clemson. The Irish need to stop Uiagelelei’s production in this game. When Uiagelelei played in Notre Dame Stadium in place of Trevor Lawrence in 2020, he tore apart the Irish defense and nearly gave the Tigers the victory. The Irish defense can survive some long runs by Shipley, but they will have to limit the Tigers’ quarterback production if the Notre Dame offense is going to keep up with Clemson.

3. BYU (Record: 2-1, AP Rank: 19)

BYU was riding high after their double-overtime victory over Baylor two weeks ago, but last week’s 41-20 loss to Oregon brought the Cougars back down to earth. Quarterback Jaren Hall has been the centerpiece of a balanced BYU offense that has averaged 4.9 yards per carry on the ground and averaged nearly 300 passing yards a game. On the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars must regroup after last week’s disaster against Oregon. In that game, the big play destroyed the Cougars, as they allowed 227 passing yards off of just 14 completions. BYU has two very winnable games ahead of their matchup against Notre Dame, so it is likely BYU comes into the Shamrock Series game as a top-15 team.

Key to Irish victory: 

BYU’s defensive weakness appears to be the big play, which doesn’t bode well for an Irish offense that has failed to produce many big plays all season. In order to win the game, the Irish need to contain Hall’s production and limit wide receiver Chase Roberts, who has 223 receiving yards on the season.

4. UNC (Record: 3-0, AP Rank: RV)

The Tar Heels have a 3-0 record, but it has been anything but pretty. After squeaking out a victory against Appalachian State in their second game, they beat Georgia State by only one touchdown the following week. The Tar Heels have a prolific offense that is led by freshman Drake Maye. Their defense will need to improve going forward though if they are going to compete in the ACC.

Key to Irish victory:

The Irish have to keep pace with UNC’s offense. They will need to get into an offensive rhythm against a subpar UNC defense. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne will need to step up and make some plays downfield.

5. Syracuse (Record 3-0, AP Rank: RV)

The Orange are a somewhat surprising 3-0 after dismantling Louisville 31-7 in week one. In week two, they beat Purdue on a last-minute play last weekend. Quarterback Garrett Shrader has completed 66.2% of his passes with eight touchdowns and he has yet to throw an interception.

Key to Irish victory: 

The Irish secondary will have to step up against Syracuse’s passing attack. Graduate student safety Brandon Joseph will have to lead the way, but others must step up as well if the Irish are to get a win in the Carrier Dome.

6. Boston College (Record 1-2, AP Rank: NR)

The Eagles were stunned by Rutgers in the opening game of the season, and they also suffered a 17-point loss to Virginia Tech in week two. The Eagles have struggled to generate much of any offense this season.

Key to Irish victory:

Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec will be out to prove himself on Senior Day. The Irish will have to keep him in check if they are going to avoid a Senior Day disaster.

7. Stanford (Record 1-1, AP Rank: NR)

The Cardinal destroyed Colgate in the first game of the season but fell flat in a 41-28 loss to USC. Quarterback Tanner McKee has as many interceptions as touchdowns and he will have to improve going forward if the Cardinal are going to compete in the PAC-12 this season.

Key to Irish victory:

This is a classic rivalry game and if the Irish get fired up to play under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium, this one shouldn’t be a problem.

8. UNLV (Record 2-1, AP Rank: NR)

UNLV has wins over Idaho State and North Texas with their sole loss being to Cal. Quarterback Doug Brumfield has been spectacular this season, completing 70.6% of his passes for seven touchdowns.

Key to Irish victory:

The Irish beat themselves in their stunning loss to Marshall. If they play even somewhat decently and limit their mistakes, they should have no problem against UNLV.

9. Navy (Record 0-2, AP Rank: NR)

The Midshipmen have been atrocious this season, having scored just 20 points in their first two games. They are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, which is not nearly enough in a triple offense attack. 

Key to Irish victory:

The triple offense attack has been far from successful for the Midshipmen this season. The Irish will have to keep it that way and prevent Navy from having long, time-consuming drives.

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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