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Thomas: Freeman’s offensive approach looks nearsighted as bigger tests loom

Notre Dame scored 44 points last weekend, and they followed it up with 41 points at No. 16 Syracuse. That’s certainly an improvement on the last time they scored 40+ points. That came against North Carolina, at which point the Irish followed with a combined 42 points against BYU and Stanford, two struggling teams with a combined 7-10 record.

But is it sustainable? Marcus Freeman said some of the right things after the win against Syracuse. He wants to establish an offensive identity, and he feels the Irish have done that. Certainly, 56 carries for 246 yards feels like an established identity. But when asked about inconsistencies in the passing game, Freeman dismissed those concerns. He even felt a little defensive, saying, “We scored, what, 41 points?” The first-year head coach checked the box score as if to verify his numbers. He went on to note that if they can score 41 points the way they just did, that’s what they’ll do.

“I’m not looking for a certain number of passes or a certain number of rushes,” Freeman said in the final comments of his postgame press conference.

I mean, that’s good and all, but is it a little narrow-minded, particularly when you consider the Irish’s next opponent? Unbeaten and fifth-ranked Clemson.

Going into this past two-game stretch, the Irish knew one or two things about their inconsistent offense. One, they had arguably the best tight end in the country and probably the best tight end in the program’s vaunted history at the position. Two, they had an improving offensive line and a talented trio of running backs.

Against UNLV, the Irish had a chance to maybe try and find something else. The outmatched Rebels didn’t really belong on the same field with the Irish. Yes, leaning into your identity is good, but did Notre Dame really need to ride Michael Mayer as much as they did in that contest? Could they not have given more than one target to freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather? Or a couple more to Lorenzo Styles Jr, Braden Lenzy, Deion Colzie or Jayden Thomas? It just felt like a missed opportunity to develop more of a well-rounded offense against a defense that wasn’t going to do much against anything that week.

Fast forward a week later, and it still feels like more of the same. Granted, Syracuse was a tougher game, and the Irish were underdogs. So leaning into your strengths, the downhill running attack, is good. But you can’t ignore what was another shoddy performance from Drew Pyne. He’s now started six games for the Irish. In his last three, he is 36-74 for a combined 472 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s under 50% completion for an average of 157.3 yards per game. That’s not good, and ignoring that isn’t going to solve much.

I’m not much for incredibly negative columns. And I try not to be one of the doomsday message board posters who act like this is the worst Notre Dame team of the century. Certainly, the Irish deserve props for a ranked win on the road. This isn’t meant to find only the negatives in an overall solid performance. But even with that mentality, Freeman’s mentality and comments feel a little ignorant of the challenges to come.

I’m going to hazard a guess and say Notre Dame is not going to be able to run the ball 56 times against Clemson. Game script isn’t going to allow that. And against a far bigger Clemson defensive line, the Irish probably aren’t going to be averaging nearly five yards a carry. Pyne is going to need to throw the ball. And he’s probably going to need to find players not named Michael Mayer.

Pyne did link up with Colzie three times on Saturday, a nice confidence booster for the sophomore heading into a massive game. But Pyne also went 2-7 for eight yards when trying to connect with Merriweather (one target), Thomas or Styles (three targets each).

Merriweather remains an odd situation. He proved he can be a solid downfield weapon with his 41-yard touchdown against Stanford. That may be his best asset throughout his years in South Bend. For an Irish offense whose longest play of the season came back on their first offensive play from scrimmage, it’s a desperately needed dimension. However, since that go-ahead touchdown, Merriweather has received all of two targets in the past nine quarters.

I like Freeman a lot, and I still think he was the right hire for Notre Dame. Long term, with his recruiting ability, he could still be the guy that breaks the title drought for the Irish. But you have to hope he’s more concerned with the passing game than he lets on to the media. And you have to be a little disappointed with the lack of development it’s shown.

An overreliance on Mayer can be excused early with a plethora of unproven wide receivers. But now, those receivers remain relatively unproven not just because of youth, but because they’re just not getting targeted. To say you’re not concerned with a 9-19 passing performance feels a little nearsighted. Because if Pyne completes under 50% of his passes against Clemson — the fourth straight game he’d be at or under 50% — the Tigers might win by 30. If he finds himself under 210 yards passing for the fourth straight game, the Irish are probably facing a blowout loss in primetime. Not to mention a 2-3 record at home after having lost there just once since 2018.

Celebrate every win, for sure. This column isn’t to say Notre Dame shouldn’t feel good about beating a top-20 team on the road. Winning is difficult, and Notre Dame has somewhat righted the ship with five wins in six games (despite the one loss being absolutely mind-boggling). But a lack of development throughout the offense and Freeman’s comments regarding the passing struggles are reason for concern as Clemson — and eventually, a top-10 USC team — approach. Without a passing game, beating No. 16 is probably this team’s ceiling. And Freeman was not brought on to beat the 16th-best team in the country. It might be a harsh word, but it feels immature offensively to bristle at the question regarding the faltering passing attack simply because you scored 41 points.

You scored 41 points because Syracuse can’t stop the run, and they haven’t been able to do it all year. Far worse rushing tacks have also victimized the Orange on the ground. The 246 rushing yards were certainly great, but it was likely more an indictment of Syracuse’s poor tackling and undersized defensive line than anything else. Clemson is going to bring a monstrous line to South Bend and more talent on both sides of the ball. You can’t be one-dimensional and beat the Tigers.

Notre Dame has an identity in its offensive line and ground game. But to maximize your ceiling and challenge elite teams in the modern era, you also need a passing game. Freeman seems almost alarmingly unconcerned about the lack of Notre Dame’s aerial attack. It’s okay to both enjoy this win over a ranked opponent and be critical of an underwhelming and at times flat-out bad quarterback performance. Freeman seemed unwilling to admit that the latter could present an issue down the stretch, at least outwardly.

One can only hope that despite this, there is internal understanding of the growth that needs to happen offensively. Because if not, Notre Dame might be celebrating wins over No. 16 as their biggest wins for a lot longer than this fanbase wants.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu

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Thomas: How the Irish can build for the future without sacrificing 2022

Hopes of a national championship, a playoff berth, or even a New Year’s Six bowl game have evaporated for Notre Dame this season. The first two ended when the Irish dropped their second straight game to open the season, a stunning loss to Marshall. The latter ended upon Notre Dame’s embarrassing 16-14 defeat to the Stanford Cardinal. 

So what’s left to play for? And how can Notre Dame build for the future while not trying to give away wins? As much as tanking is a part of professional sports, it doesn’t exist in college. You only get four years with players — if you’re lucky. If you are an elite-level program, your top players stay for just three years. To simply give up on winning to play some younger players could instantly lose a locker room.

Notre Dame’s culture is praised by current players and alumni alike. And if Marcus Freeman jeopardizes that to start planning for 2023, it would be a catastrophic mistake. So here’s a look at some of the dos and don’ts over the last five or six games of this season (bowl eligibility pending).

DON’T: Start Steve Angeli

I like freshman quarterback Steve Angeli. He was a fun player to watch in the spring game last semester. His performance there is largely why so many are rooting for him to usurp Drew Pyne as the starter. Realistically, Angeli is not going to be some kind of instant upgrade to Pyne, nor does he give the Irish a better chance at winning games at the current moment.

Give me another ten minutes on this deadline I’m writing on right now, and I could probably find a nice long list of quarterbacks that had a good spring game and disastrous seasons. Let’s not assume Angeli is some savior because he had a couple of spring-game touchdowns.

Pyne has proven he has starting quarterback-caliber talent. He played very well against UNC and BYU. He was serviceable against Cal and UNLV. We didn’t get a full glimpse of sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner this year. And there’s no guarantee the Irish go to the transfer portal for a quarterback next year. Pyne remains part of this team’s future under center, and he’s a key leader in the locker room. To bench him so the Irish can “see what they have” would be a quick way to lose the locker room.

It’d be nice to see the Irish get some big leads against inferior opponents down the stretch (Navy, Boston College), so Angeli can get some game reps in. But he shouldn’t be starting. No matter how much I want to write “Peanut Butter Angeli” as a headline.

DO: Get everyone not named Michael Mayer more action in the passing game

Last week should have been a prime opportunity for this. But rather than expand the offense, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees demonstrated what we already knew about the Irish. Junior tight end Michael Mayer can dominate most teams and, in single coverage, he’s a total mismatch. The problem? Not only will teams like Syracuse, Clemson, and USC likely find ways to make life harder for Mayer, the Irish won’t have Mayer next year. Finding additional threats in the passing game will benefit the Irish in the short term and the long term.

The list is extensive. Do you want sophomore Lorenzo Styles to be your No. 1 receiver for the next year or two? Start getting him more than three or four targets a game. The drops are bad right now, but the lack of a consistent workload is also hampering his development. Same with sophomore Jayden Thomas.

And your guess is as good as mine when it comes to why freshman Tobias Merriweather is barely seeing the field. He played a bit under a third of the offensive snaps last week, which was a welcomed bump from past contests. The Irish have to see what they have past Mayer, or else the wide receiving corps is going to remain a crippling part of this roster moving into 2023. Get tight ends sophomore Mitchell Evans and freshman Holden Staes some reps in the passing game and not just in the quarterback sneak game. The Irish will need both to be a threat next year.

DON’T: Give up on Estime, Styles, etc

At the beginning of the year, a lot of the Irish’s hopes were contingent on unproven talent having big years. Topping that list were sophomores Styles and running back Audric Estime. Both have had some issues this year. Styles has had some brutal drops this season. Last week, on a 3rd and two, he was wide open on a return arrow route and dropped a pass that was a likely first-down conversion. Last week, Styles got wide open on a 3rd and 10 route. Pyne hit him in the numbers, but the sophomore dropped it.

Estime has looked great at times, but he’s fumbled the ball three times in the past four games. One of those fumbles came on a potential game-winning drive versus Stanford.

It’s easy to advocate for the younger guys getting more touches. But the younger guys are also definitively part of the offensive problem. That being said, the ceiling is still really high. Styles is getting open, which is half the battle. Estime is still an absolute ox of a running back, and he has solid numbers overall. Mistakes and growing pains are going to happen when you heavily rely on unproven talent. The Irish can’t let that affect their game plan.

Staes had a tough drop last week. Sophomore wide receiver Deion Colzie has had a forgettable season to this point. Merriweather has hardly even tapped into his potential. Notre Dame has young talent to work with, but they have to be patient. The Irish have seen issues with poor development at key skill positions haunt them in 2022. They have to stick to their guns and continue getting their young guys the necessary reps. The Irish need them now, and they’ll need them even more next year. 

DO: Start utilizing more linebacker depth

Notre Dame’s linebacker room is an interesting piece. They’ve struggled at times this year, but they’ve also made some big plays. It remains to be seen how many of those players will take their extra year or two of eligibility and stay at Notre Dame. 

The Irish reeled in some impressive linebackers last year. Freshman Junior Tuihalamaka and freshman Jaylen Sneed should see at least some rotational snaps. They could become key pieces of the defensive rotation next year. Last week, senior J.D. Bertrand played 62 snaps. That’s a ton, and the Irish have some depth to spell Bertrand and some others in that position group. The Irish rotate their defensive line relatively liberally, and it would be nice to see the linebackers at least embrace some of that moving forward.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu

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Sports

Herko: Will the next Michael Mayer please stand up?

After the abysmal Marshall game that culminated in Tyler Buchner’s shoulder injury, no one would blame any Notre Dame fans who decided to check to see when basketball season started. Buchner’s replacement, junior Drew Pyne has been up and down for sure, but there has definitely been some great improvement since his interception in the fourth quarter on that terrible day. But, how much of this improvement is a result of increased reps at practice that comes from being the starting quarterback versus having the benefit of a future first round draft pick in Michael Mayer on call whenever Pyne gets into trouble?

Mayer is certainly the star player on this inconsistent Irish offense, but with him on his way to the NFL, who will the Irish rely on next year? If Pyne is to be the starter next year, which would make sense because he has far more game experience than Buchner now, this is the time he should be building better chemistry with his younger wide receivers and tight ends to see real cohesive play next season. 

For every game except his first as a starter against Cal, Mayer has been on the receiving end of the majority of Pyne’s passes. At North Carolina, just under a third of Pyne’s total passes were to Mayer, while the four underclassman receivers combined for 14 catches. 

Against BYU, Mayer caught 11 of Pyne’s 22 passes for 116 of his 262 total passing yards, including two touchdowns. Only nine passes were completed to freshman and sophomore receivers and running backs with Jayden Thomas and Lorenzo Styles leading the pack.

Hosting Stanford, five of 13 passes were caught by Mayer and six others were caught by the underclassman. And in the Irish’s win against UNLV, Mayer caught six of Pyne’s 14 passes. Four passes combined were completed to sophomore Lorenzo Styles and redshirt freshman Jayden Thomas, which totaled all of the passes completed to underclassmen. 

The first problem is Pyne is just not throwing enough. Whether this is by design or is the result of a lot of broken plays, Pyne needs to learn that good things happen faster when you put the ball in the air. If the lack of throwing is commentary on Pyne’s playing abilities, practice more throws during practice reps; We should not be looking to Navy’s offensive schemes as a role model. 

Additionally, lots of short passes especially on later downs will not cut it. Defenses that Notre Dame plays are starting to key in on these patterns. To free up areas closer to the offensive line for runs and shorter passes, these defenses have to respect the deep ball. And they just don’t right now because they occur so infrequently. 

This is not to say that Notre Dame needs to become predictable or aggressively throw downfield on every play — just that the play call and execution need to match the situation. For example, toward the end of the second quarter during the UNLV game, the offense turned it over on downs after two incomplete passes. It was 3rd and 3 (and then 4th and 3) on the UNLV seven-yard line. Pyne threw for the end zone both times when it may have been easier to run or look for a shorter pass. 

Or last week against Stanford, when the Irish completed a five-yard pass on 4th and 7 at the end of the game. This offense can play well –  they just need to make logical decisions based on the looks the defense is showing them. 

Besides the fact that Pyne is just not throwing enough for Notre Dame to be successful against halfway decent teams, he and his younger receivers need to build greater trust between them if there is going to be any chance for good games against Clemson, Syracuse and USC.  Or, even more importantly, for a better season next year. Those teams will be stacked enough on defense that may be able to double team Mayer for large portions of the games, to force Pyne to throw elsewhere. Styles, Staes, Thomas and Merriweather all have flashed at different points this season. The young star power is there in the receiving core. Drew Pyne has to utilize them if Notre Dame football wants to keep winning football games. 

The only way that trust between the offensive skill players is going to form is if it shows up in the stat book. Everyone loves Michael Mayer, but Pyne needs to figure out who his next Michael Mayer is going to be. 

Contact Annika at aherko@nd.edu.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Sports

Thomas: Seven Irish players who need to step up after the bye week

After a sluggish start, the Notre Dame football team has begun to turn things around. A gritty, if closer than desired, win over Cal pushed the Irish into the win column. A week later, head coach Marcus Freeman and Co. went on the road as underdogs and decimated UNC. Now, after a week off, the boys in the blue and gold, or should we say white and gold, head to Vegas. The game feels like a make-or-break moment in this season.

If the Irish win and move to 3-2, there’s every reason to believe they’ll be back in the Top 25. Additionally, they have a couple of almost guaranteed wins approaching on the schedule. A real chance at being 6-2 and in the top 15 heading into the Clemson matchup emerges. From there, ending in the 8-10 win range feels almost certain, and with a solid bowl game.

With a loss? Well, Notre Dame would fall to 2-3. With Clemson, USC and a thus-far unbeaten Syracuse squad remaining on the schedule, topping seven wins feels even more unlikely. 

So no doubt the Irish are at a critical point in their season. While it’s not at the halfway point just yet, here’s a look at five Irish players (plus two honorable mention) who need to step it up as the Irish try to continue their renaissance. 

Honorable Mention: freshman wide receiver Tobias Merriweather and tight end Eli Raridon

The honorable mentions go to the true freshmen due to a lack of opportunity. Merriweather has barely seen the field, although comments from the coaching staff seem to imply he’s tracking towards an increased snap count. He’s a tall and speedy wide receiver that could give the Irish a much-needed boost in the passing game. 

Raridon was just elevated into a bigger role last week with the season-ending injury to junior Kevin Bauman. The 6’7 tight end emerged in Week 1 as an absolute force in the run-blocking game. It’s not too controversial to say he was an immediate upgrade in that department. However, what remains to be seen is how he can impact the passing game. Raridon is a matchup nightmare, particularly when opposing defenses are also concerned with guarding junior All-American tight end Michael Mayer. Deploying both of those guys on pass routes could be a sight to see. 

5. Senior corner back Cam Hart

Cam Hart took a big step forward against UNC, and he’s been serviceable throughout the year. But starting across a true freshman, Hart needs to lockdown and be less prone to the big plays that have victimized him through four weeks. He hasn’t necessarily been bad, but a step up from Hart could elevate this secondary to a new level. 

4. Sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas

Jayden Thomas received a lot of hype this season, and he feels like a major breakout candidate. However, so far, Thomas has played a lot of snaps and made minimal impact. Despite starting and playing the majority of offensive snaps, Thomas is sitting on three receptions for 32 yards in four games. That needs to improve from a player that has the talent to become the WR2 in this offense. 

3. Senior linebacker JD Bertrand

Part of this is on Bertrand, and part of it isn’t. For the second straight game, Bertrand will miss the first half of the game after a second-half targeting penalty in the prior contest. The first one was a pretty clear-cut targeting call, and it was really a mental mistake from the senior captain. The second call was far more questionable, and Notre Dame appealed the decision, albeit unsuccessfully. But beyond the targeting calls, Bertrand hasn’t been the impact player the Irish need at linebacker.

That unit has been the weak spot of the defensive corps, although they took a step forward against the Tar Heels. Bertand himself has 18 tackles, which ties for fourth on the team. However, he really hasn’t created much in the way of disruption, with zero tackles for loss, sacks, pass breakups, forced fumbles or interceptions. The Irish need some more dynamic play from their linebackers, and that starts with their senior captain. 

2. Graduate student wide receiver Braden Lenzy

Three years ago, Lenzy was the former track star that the Irish plugged into gadget plays. Lenzy utilized his speed well, and he figured to be a weapon at wide receiver. Injuries marred his development at times, but now fully healthy, Lenzy has looked almost lost at times on the field. Whether it’s poorly timed drops, a failure to get open or anything else, Lenzy has simply not made an impact. He’s touched the ball eight times in four games for 76 all-purpose yards. Between him and Thomas, they need to solidify the wide receiver corps for the Irish. 

1. Sophomore offensive line Blake Fisher

The offensive line has improved greatly since the start of the year, but right tackle Blake Fisher has continued to struggle. He’s consistently been one of the weak links on the line, and he has missed blocks in key moments that have hurt the Irish. Think back to Week 1, with the Irish up 10-7 at the start of the second half. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner had sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles open down the sideline but rushed the throw as Fisher got beat around the edge. The Irish missed on the potential touchdown, and didn’t score again. Fisher has monster size and potential and he needs to translate that into on-field production in the coming weeks.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.