Marcus Freeman focused more on Notre Dame’s preparation than on any motivation or recruiting – NBC SportsMotivational
By the time No. 5 Notre Dame takes the field at No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday (7:30 ET; ABC), Marcus Freeman’s primary job will be done. Even in the locker room beforehand, the Irish head coach will no longer be pressing his team.
A rah-rah speech during the pregame before running onto the brand-new artificial turf will not be what catapults Notre Dame to an upset or a defeat.
“It’s all in the preparation,” the 36-year-old, first-year head coach said. “If you’re not motivated Saturday night at 7:30 to play at the No. 2 team in the country, then we have bigger issues.
“You have to continue to motivate your guys and understand preparation is the most important key. As I’ve told them all the time, I have to find ways to create this type of environment where the practices are hard, where the practices are tough, there’s a lot of pressure, because when you get out there in the game in front of 105,000 fans, that’s pressure.”
The Irish will visit Ohio Stadium, more commonly known as The Horseshoe, on Friday simply so the players do not need to navigate a new locker room for the first time on Saturday. “Getting a feel for it” is another piece of Freeman’s preparation, again not a motivational ploy.
Not even Notre Dame remaining a 17-point underdog — as of Thursday afternoon, +17.0 is the consensus number — will also not be a piece of Freeman’s pregame, though he mentioned it to the Irish on Monday after a reporter brought it up at Freeman’s early week press conference.
“I’m not hugely into gambling, as I told the team. I just said, ‘We’re underdogs, it’s okay,” Freeman said Thursday. “It all comes back to the motivation to prepare. That’s what our job as coaches is to do. Make sure we have the most-prepared team we can.
“I’m not using that for Saturday. If we have to go in and say we’re an underdog on Saturday to get them motivated, we have other issues.”
The most notable set of other issues are Notre Dame’s injury concerns. Fifth-year left guard and preseason All-American Jarrett Patterson is still questionable with a foot sprain. He has practiced some this week but is not taking every snap.
“We’ve still got a good amount of time before Saturday evening,” Freeman said. “We’ll revisit it today after practice and tomorrow after practice and once we get to Saturday, but I would still say today he’s questionable for Saturday night.”
If Patterson does not play, sophomore Rocco Spindler is listed as his backup on the depth chart though senior Andrew Kristofic has more experience and thus may see some action in primetime.
Freeman continues to insist sophomore running back Logan Diggs and fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins will both be good to go on Saturday, despite that being a distinctly-expedited return timetable for both as they come back from a labrum injury in mid-April and a Lisfranc injury in mid-March, respectively. Sophomore receiver Deion Colzie is also cleared after some preseason nicks.
“All three of them will be in a position to play for us and be able to go out there and compete,” Freeman said. “We’re not going to put them on the field if we don’t think they’re ready to help us, ready to play a game. …
“There’s some live reps they missed during camp, but there’s no hesitation in my mind and the position coaches’ minds to be able to play those guys.”
That same lack of hesitation applies to any freshmen the Irish will turn to this weekend. A lengthy list of them may contribute: tight ends Eli Raridon and Holden States, receiver Tobias Merriweather, linebacker Jaylen Sneed, and cornerbacks Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison. If Notre Dame plays any of them in this top-five matchup, it is with the obvious knowledge that it would be hard to throw them into a deeper end of the figurative pool.
“You have to understand they’re still freshmen, this is their first collegiate game,” Freeman said. “A lot of it is who has earned the trust in their coaches and our coaching staff that we can play them.
“We will, but we have to understand this is, for all of them, their first collegiate game. Going into a place like Ohio Stadium, you have to understand the type of challenge it is going to be. We have to be smart in terms of what we’re asking them to do. But if we put them on the field, we have the confidence they can get the job done.”
ALWAYS BE RECRUITING
The Irish coaching staff put in late hours Wednesday night not only preparing for the Buckeyes, but also reaching out to class of 2024 at midnight as the calendar turned to September, the first moment of allowed calls. Some of those players will be on the sidelines at Ohio State.
Freeman knows what will most impress any recruit, more than any late-night phone call or recruiting graphic.
“More important than anything, it’s about making sure this team is ready to go. Hopefully that’s something that is attractive to these recruits. They go out there and see a competitive, tough, disciplined football team. Then they have to figure if this is something they want to be a part of. Then we’ll get to that.
“The strongest message is a good performance.”
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The North Carolina Tar Heels may not score 51.3 points per game much longer this season, just logically speaking, but no matter who the Heels put those points up against, that prolific offense should worry Notre Dame this weekend (3:30 ET; ABC). The Irish (1-2) have barely scored that many points all season, managing just 55 points in three games.
Then again, North Carolina (3-0) has given up 37.3 points per game against arguably inferior opponents in FCS-level Florida A&M (24 points), Appalachian State (61) and Georgia State (28). The Mountaineers managed more points against the Heels than Notre Dame has given up all season (57). In that fourth quarter alone, when Appalachian State scored an outrageous 40 points, North Carolina gave up more points than the Irish have to two Power Five opponents combined.
To repeat a line that began popping up in the elevator at Notre Dame Stadium as soon as the Irish notched their first win of the season, an unstoppable force (that Tar Heels offense) meets an immovable object (Notre Dame’s defense) on one side of the ball while a stoppable force runs into a movable object on the other. To get a better idea of if North Carolina’s defense is weaker than its offense is strong, The News & Observer’s C.L. Brown lends some insight.
DF: These first few games from North Carolina, do they have folks excited or frustrated? They were great wins, but they were closer than expected. The offense looks great, but the defense has not been able to compete against the Sun Belt.
CB: “Defensively, it’s definitely been frustrating. They are up 41-21 in the App St. game, and App. St. comes back to tie it and had a chance to take the lead. They’re up 21-3 against Georgia State, and Georgia State scores 25 straight points to take a 28-21 lead.
“On that side of the ball, it’s definitely been frustrating. They’ve been searching for answers because they felt like when they brought back Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator, they were simplifying the defense, (they thought) they wouldn’t give up as many big plays as they did.
“(Former defensive coordinator Jay) Bateman’s scheme was kind of complicated sometimes for the players with the amount of presnap reads they had to make. They never really clicked in that defense last year. Chizik was supposed to make everything better, and it hasn’t really been better so far.
“From the offensive side, though, it’s been great. They’ve responded to every challenge. When App. St. came back, Carolina always had an answer offensively. Then against Georgia State, when they fell behind, the offense got it together and pushed ahead for the win on the road. … Quarterback Drake Maye definitely has been better than advertised.”
Before we get into Chizik’s struggles or Maye’s stardom, solve a riddle for me: Why did North Carolina go on the road to App. St. and Georgia State? Personally, I love it for college football. All I really want from Notre Dame is to play a game at Annapolis rather than face Navy in Baltimore, San Diego and Dublin. But it was still unexpected. What convinced the Tar Heels to do that?
“(Head coach) Mack Brown talked about wanting to build his schedule. Last year they started off at Virginia Tech, which was a tough season opener for them. They didn’t really feel like they got their legs under them, and then they go out and lose that game early. He wanted to make a schedule where they progressively play harder games.
“Especially this year, coming in with the new quarterback, (Brown) wanted to give them a shot to work out some kinks, get some reps, get some experience, get better as the season moved on. He even moved the Florida A&M game from last Saturday to Week 0. One, so they could have a Saturday to themselves nationally without everybody in the world playing so they would get a little bit more publicity. And two, to have this weekend off before Notre Dame comes.”
Scheduling quirk: UNC is playing Notre Dame three years in a row.
Scheduling quirk: UNC has had an open date before playing Notre Dame three years in a row.
Scheduling note: UNC is 0-4 after scheduled open dates in the Mack 2.0 era
— Joe Giglio (@giglio_OG) September 22, 2022
Smooth moves from Brown there, thinking big picture well before he knew entirely what this roster would be, but then there is the Chizik hire. Chizik hadn’t coached since 2016. In the last decade, he spent two seasons as North Carolina’s defensive coordinator under Larry Fedora and that was the extent of his coaching. What were the expectations for him this year? Where has he fallen short?
“I don’t think anybody was expecting them to be dominant, but just be sound, be better, not have the mistakes. Last year was basically characterized by their communication breakdowns and just allowing big plays. They don’t allow as many big plays (now), but they’ve still given up more than they should have so far this year.
“I thought the defensive line was going to be the strength of the unit, and they haven’t played up to par. They haven’t been terrible, but I was expecting them to be better than they’ve been, be able to pressure more, get quarterback pressure with their base four without having a scheme or a blitz with that kind of pressure. They have a good rotation now, they have the depth now, but they just haven’t taken that step forward as a defensive line.
“And the secondary, Tony Grimes was injured the second series of the season opener and then he missed the App. St. game. He probably hasn’t played as well as expected. Storm Duck has battled injuries … They were expecting him to be a shutdown corner, and he hasn’t worked his way back into playing at that level on the corners.
“Those are the areas that have been the biggest letdowns defensively, their coverages and the defensive line.”
If spending that time criticizing Chizik and the defense, more time should be spent on sophomore quarterback Drake Maye. Let’s run through his stats real quick, as absurd as they sound: 930 passing yards on 9.6 yards per attempt with a 74.2 percent completion rate with 11 touchdowns against only one interception while adding another 146 yards and a score on 26 carries. That’s quite the three-game start. He may be a former five-star recruit and a one-time Alabama commit, but did you see this coming?
“I don’t think anybody really saw it coming. Expectations were he would perform well, but he’s just shown maturity beyond his years. He’s not a game manager. He’s shown he can win a game if they need him to. Honestly, I was kind of hoping App. St. would have converted that (first) two-point conversion because that would have meant Drake Mayer would have had the ball with a chance to have a game-winning drive. A couple timeouts and 30 seconds, let’s see what he can do.
“He hasn’t been in that situation yet, but everything else, he’s shown he can make all the throws. He makes good decisions with the ball. … The main thing he needs to work on is he’s left his feet a couple of times. He got hit and did a bit of a helicopter flip against Florida A&M, and they definitely don’t need him getting injured for a run that doesn’t really mean anything in some of those early games.
“But everything else, he’s shown to be as advertised.”
Drake Maye: 5 PASS TDs on throws 20+ yards
Leads all Power 5 QBs🔥 pic.twitter.com/Hwn6G2dYFT
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 21, 2022
Editor’s Note: C.L. Brown also made the point that Maye has enjoyed this success without star receiver Josh Downs or big-play threat Antoine Green this season. Downs caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns last season, while Green took 31 receptions for 612 yards and five scores. Brown thinks Green (shoulder) is likely to play this week, while Downs (knee) will be a game time decision.
A year ago, this Q&A included you suggesting Brown thought 2022 would be North Carolina’s year, not Sam Howell’s final season in 2021. It may be early to claim he was right, but did he see Maye coming?
I think he was thinking the defense would be a little better than it’s been, because on that side of the ball they stockpiled good recruiting classes and a bunch of talent, especially on the defensive line. He felt like they would have the depth they needed to really, if not be dominant up front, definitely hold their own against anybody. It hasn’t quite been like that.
“He felt like Drake Maye could be good, could be this good. … Mack was looking at this as the year they would have the talent and could make some noise. Right now, the defense is what has held them back.”
Will Maye be enough Saturday? As of Thursday morning, this is essentially a pick’em, with the Heels favored by a point. What do you expect?
“Saturday is going to answer a lot of questions. If they pull out a win, there will be some more excitement about it. Right now, people just look at it as the same old defense. When the games get harder, when the opponents get tougher, are they going to be able to stop anybody? Are they going to have to win every game in some kind of 42-41 shootout? …
“For football to keep anybody’s attention around here, the defense has to play better, and they’re going to have to win on Saturday for people to be like, Oh, this football team might be something.
“I picked Carolina, because they are at home obviously and because I’m not sure Notre Dame’s offense is any better than Carolina’s defense. I definitely think it’s going to be a game where Notre Dame is going to have to score probably in the 30s to win. I’m not sure they can get that done.
“So I’m taking Drake Maye.”
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The attention around Notre Dame (1-2) is currently focused on North Carolina (3:30 ET; ABC) and rightfully so, but some recognition should be given to a developing situation further north along the East Coast.
Boston College may have a problem on its hands. Eagles head coach Jeff Hafley’s third season is at risk of being completely undone by offensive line problems that make the Irish dearth of receiver depth look like a full array of options. Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec has been decently public with his frustration with his offensive line, compounding the issues that could torpedo what some thought would be a promising season for the Eagles.
Notre Dame does not face Boston College until mid-November, but there is a very real chance the Eagles are 3-7 at that point and Jurkovec’s 2023 NFL draft hopes are waylaid for a year.
But first, the Tar Heels …
North Carolina (3-0): The Tar Heels enjoyed an idle week, but do not assume that establishes a great disadvantage for the Irish. Power Five teams coming off idle weeks last season and then facing Power Five teams went 32-33.
The Irish are 1.5-point underdogs in Chapel Hill, as of midday Wednesday, a number that all but means this game is a pick’em. The combined points total Over/Under, per PointsBet, is the highest it has been for Notre Dame since the season opener. A 56-point mark suggests the winner may reach 30, hard to believe for the Irish offense of late.
BYU (2-1): The Cougars’ theoretical Playoff chase came to an abrupt and decisive end at now-No. 15 Oregon, falling 41-20. The Ducks ran through BYU in a way Notre Dame may want to remember, taking 44 carries for 212 yards, an average rush that jumps to 5.44 yards when deducting a single 22-yard loss from a receiver.
The Cougars get to recover against Wyoming (10:15 ET; ESPN2) as a 22-point favorite. The Cowboys sprung an upset last week of Air Force as a three-possession underdog, but pulling off such a surprise two weeks in a row would be a different level of accomplishment.
Stanford (1-1): The Cardinal took a week off to regroup, and maybe that is enough reason to think Stanford could frighten No. 18 Washington (10:30 ET; FS1), even as two-touchdown underdogs.
UNLV (2-1): The Rebels became a trendy pick to be upset last week, hosting North Texas as short favorites. Instead, quarterback Doug Brumfield threw for 211 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-27 passing to lead UNLV to an easy 58-27 win. As hard as it may be to believe, the Rebels are now favored for a second week in a row, this time on the road at Utah State (7 ET; CBSSN). And even more shocking, the 2.5-point spread feels too small.
Syracuse (3-0): It is time to talk to your children about a ranked Syracuse, about a 5-0 Syracuse, but maybe not yet about an ACC contender Syracuse. By slipping past Purdue 32-29 in a game that would necessitate 1,000 words to describe its ending, the Orange survived what should be their last major test for a couple weeks.
Re: that ending, realize this first photo below is of Purdue kicking off after taking the lead in the final minute, from its own 5-yard line. Then the second photo below is of Syracuse kicking off after scoring a touchdown, from the plus-35 yard line.
Sure, sure pic.twitter.com/RaDRMwoxDl
— Richard🇬🇾Johnson (@RJ_Writes) September 17, 2022
Orange quarterback Garrett Sharder was sick during the week and likely missed some practice time, lending some understanding to his uneven showing of 181 yards and three touchdowns on 13-of-29 passing with another 83 yards on 17 rushes.
Of course, true college football chaos would have Syracuse stumble against Virginia (7 ET on Friday; ESPN), but a 9-point spread doubts that.
No. 5 Clemson (3-0): The Tigers beat Louisiana Tech 48-20, yawn. They now head to No. 21 Wake Forest (12 ET; ABC) and star Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman certainly looks fully reintegrated into Dave Clawson’s offense. That elicits the opposite of a yawn.
Clemson is favored by a touchdown with an Over/Under of 55.5. The Tigers scoring that suggested 31 points against a viable Power Five opponent would itself stand out as reason to believe in Clemson’s Playoff hopes, no matter how much Wake Forest’s defense often struggles.
Navy (0-2): There is an irony to both the Midshipmen and Stanford taking an early off week this season. Both programs have fallen so far. Their seasons now following parallel tracks will make for a unique comparison.
Anyway, Navy heads to East Carolina (6 ET; ESPN+) as a 16.5-point underdog. Anyone backing the Midshipmen early this week was probably doing so thinking Ken Niumatalolo made good use of that idle week.
Boston College (1-2): The Eagles beat FCS-level Maine, 38-17. Jurkovec threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns on 25-of-37 throwing. Yet, Boston College’s problems were apparent once again.
BC QB Phil Jurkovec came into last night’s game against Maine having completed just 2-of-11 throws traveling 20+ yards downfield in the 1st two weeks of action, per PFF. He was 3-of-8 on such passes vs. the Black Bears.
— Andy Backstrom (@andybackstrom) September 18, 2022
Its starting offensive line on Saturday included a former walk-on and a former defensive lineman. The Eagles found only one transfer this offseason to combat this depth issue, a player from Lehigh.
All that after losing all five starters from last year’s team, and now losing two more this season.
Quick BC O-Line summary: After the 2021 season, BC lost four starting offensive linemen to graduation/the NFL. Then its lone returning starter tore his ACL in May. Then, of BC’s five new starters this fall, two have sustained knee injuries, one of which is another torn ACL.
— Andy Backstrom (@andybackstrom) September 17, 2022
Boston College is a 17.5-point underdog at Florida State (8 ET; ACCN), and that spread ballooned as the realities of the Eagles’ offensive line became more and more clear.
No. 7 USC (3-0): Anyone who tries to claim they know what the Trojans are is boasting where they should not. Beating Fresno State 45-17 after the Bulldogs lost their star quarterback is yet again an unconvincing result, but USC scored on eight of its 10 genuine possessions, so at the very least, that offense is every bit as frightening as long-hyped.
The Trojans now head to Oregon State (9:30 ET; Pac-12 Network) favored by only six points, a game that bookmakers apparently see as something of a trap.
No. 3 Ohio State (3-0): The Buckeyes welcomed back receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julina Fleming by hanging 77 points on Toledo in a 77-21 win. Neither starred, though Fleming caught two touchdown passes, but both simply playing was a big step for Ohio State’s long-term hopes.
The Buckeyes welcome Wisconsin (7:30 ET; ABC) as 18.5-point favorites, a testament to just how respected Ohio State remains compared to the best of the Big Ten West.
Marshall (2-1): The Herd fell flat, losing to Bowling Green, 34-31, in overtime. But in terms of goals, Marshall’s are all still ahead of it. Dominate in the Sun Belt and a New Year’s Six bowl is likely to follow. That path begins at Troy (7 ET; NFL Network), favored by 3.5-points.
Cal (2-1): The Bears will follow up their first loss of the season by beginning Pac-12 play against Arizona (5:30 ET; Pac-12 Network). Favored by a field goal, the question may be, what type of ground game do the Wildcats boast?
“Reach out. There are people around you that want to help you.”
Also, check in to make it easier for them to reach out. https://t.co/EmILYDo2Dk
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 19, 2022
Friday at 7 ET: Virginia at Syracuse (ESPN).
Saturday at 12 ET: Clemson at Wake Forest (ABC).
3:30 ET: Notre Dame at North Carolina (ABC).
5:30 ET: Arizona at Cal (Pac-12 Network).
6 ET: Navy at East Carolina (ESPN+).
7 ET: UNLV at Utah State (CBSSN); Marshall at Troy (NFL Network).
7:30 ET: Wisconsin at Ohio State (ABC).
8 ET: Boston College at Florida State (ACCN).
9:30 ET: USC at Oregon STate (Pac-12 Network).
10:15 ET: Wyoming at BYU (ESPN2).
10:30 ET: Stanford at Washington (FS1).
Favorites: North Carolina (-1.5) vs. Notre Dame; BYU (-22) vs. Wyoming; UNLV (-2.5) at Utah State; Syracuse (-9.0) vs. Virginia; Clemson (-7.0) at Wake Forest; USC (-6.5) at Oregon State; Ohio State (-18.5) vs. Wisconsin; Marshall (-3.5) at Troy; Cal (-3) vs. Arizona.
Underdogs: Navy (+16.5) at East Carolina; Boston College (+17.5) at Florida State.
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Manti Te’o did not need to partake in the recent two-part Netflix documentary, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.” The former star Notre Dame linebacker had found enough closure in his life after the chaos and dramatics of the 2012-13 winter, in no small part because he is now married with a one-year-old daughter and a son on the way. But to some extent, he wanted to do the documentary to give back to Notre Dame, among others.
“I didn’t think that it was important in the case of I needed to tell [my story],” Te’o said before the Irish beat Cal, 24-17, on Saturday. “When Netflix first approached me with the opportunity, I told them I didn’t feel the need to. I had experienced closure in my life, and I was at peace with where my life was and what it was going to be, what it could be for the rest of my life. I’m okay.”
Instead, the 2012 unanimous All-American now two seasons removed from his last NFL action saw an opportunity to vindicate anyone who stood by him as Deadspin threw accusations at him in early 2013.
“The main thing I wanted to make sure was there are a lot of you that really supported me over a long period of time that I didn’t give the facts to back everybody up,” he said. “It was kind of my attempt at saying, ‘Hey, listen, thank you for all your support, thank you for standing by me.; …
“With all the truth coming out and with the facts coming out, everybody got to see it. It’s almost like people were like, ‘I told you he was a good dude.’”
To Te’o, Notre Dame as a whole stood in that camp long before the well-received documentary. He has been back to campus a few times in the last decade, perhaps most notably in in 2018 following the sudden death of teammate Kona Schwenke that spring. South Bend has long been as comfortable a home to Te’o as his native Hawaii is. When a stranger bought Te’o and his family dinner on Friday night, unannounced and gone before Te’o could say thank you, that underscored the welcome feeling he has always felt in the cold of Indiana.
“Home is always going to be home,” he said. “On a good day, bad day, when you go home, that’s your sanctuary, and that’s what Notre Dame is for me.”
Here Te’o — a former professional football player who earned north of $10 million in his eight-year career and now owns two businesses, who still looks like he could be on the field with about a month’s worth of training, a devout man more grounded than the vast majority of those who ever applauded or derided him — offered one piece of relatability, something nearly anyone who has set foot on campus in the last decade will immediately understand.
“The only thing that makes it feel different is there’s a lot of buildings that weren’t here when I was here,” Te’o said, adding he would have gotten lost just driving from the airport. Though, some of the construction is welcomed’ Te’o offered a rave review of the new Irish Athletics Center, more commonly known as the indoor football field.
TE’O ON FREEMAN
Te’o gave an unexpected comparison when he was asked his thoughts on first-year Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman. While their defensive styles are wildly different — one “bend, don’t break” and one aggressive to a fault — Te’o sees similarities between Freeman and former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in how their players rally for them.
“Just somebody that you will literally do anything for,” Te’o said. “I think that, as a head coach, is the most important thing you could establish with your players.
“‘I will do anything for you.’ That’s what led to all of our success in 2012 on the defensive side of the ball, because all of us guys would do anything for coach Diaco [and the rest of his defensive staff]. Now they have it as the head man, so what a great blessing and opportunity.”
ND – Cal #FourFaves pic.twitter.com/EWpU4n256R
— Matt Cashore (@mattcashore) September 18, 2022
TE’O’S MESSAGE TO THE TEAM
Freeman asked Te’o to address the team on Friday. Still at 0-2 at that point, Te’o’s message to Notre Dame was one with more credence to it coming from someone who has experienced such public highs and lows in his life.
“That’s the greatest thing about football, it’s the greatest parallel to life,” he said he told the Irish. “It’s not going to start off the way you wanted it to. Keep going.
“Life’s not always the way that you want it to be. Keep going.
“You can’t do anything about 0-2, but you can do something about today.”
As that Cal Hail Mary falls incomplete, about the 24-second mark, you can see Freeman’s reserved reaction, undoubtedly thinking if he can get to the DBs right then and there to coach them up on how to handle that play. https://t.co/FZh8HibF5e
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 19, 2022
INSIDE THE IRISH
— Notre Dame defense, RB Audric Estime push Irish past Cal in miscue-filled afternoon
— Highlights: Notre Dame 24, Cal 17 — A chaotic final minute, a repeated play call and late-game dominance from the Irish defensive line
— Things We Learned: Notre Dame OL’s second-half surge against Cal a step forward despite ‘a long way to go’
— “I love these kids and I love this place.” – Marcus Freeman
— 2022-23 leprechauns talk journeys to leading Notre Dame fans
— JD Bertrand named to Allstate AFCA Good Works Team
— Iowa football at 2 a.m.
Finish this game and I’ll never again call South Florida-Notre Dame circa 2011 “the last unique college football game.” https://t.co/FegV1lK6qn
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 18, 2022
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Marcus Freeman’s verb tense caught back up with the present, and it was no coincidence that came immediately after Notre Dame (1-2) found the first win of his head-coaching career, beating Cal, 24-17.
“We are an O-line, D-line -driven program,” Freeman said Saturday. “Got to be able to run the ball, but you can’t just say this is what we’re going to do, that’s it. You have to be able to adjust to what is having success and to what an offense or defense is giving to you.”
A week ago, Freeman had to couch his aspirations for the program with an “if” qualifier. For the first half against the Bears, it looked like that would again be the case offensively, though the offensive line’s biggest issues early were repeated false starts and not failed blocks.
Instead of constant pressure plaguing him, the Irish skill-position players could not buoy junior quarterback Drew Pyne in his first career start. Dropped passes made his first few possessions look worse than they were, as did him missing a few open looks to preseason All-American junior tight end Michael Mayer. Less obvious but just as problematic, freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather failing to motion presnap when expected to led to an aborted third-down attempt deep in Cal territory.
“We have to have people that make the quarterback look good,” Freeman said. “A lot of the result of play falls on the shoulders of the quarterback, but there’s so much that happens during a play that really dictates the outcome.
“But the quarterback is going to have to answer to it.”
While a few moments of a particular phone call between Pyne and Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees garner most of the attention and were clearly aimed at Pyne’s mistakes, reminding him of others’ mishaps was assuredly a fine line to toe on the sideline. Giving the quarterback some leeway in acknowledging the stagnation was not entirely on him could not come at the cost of cutting into his trust in his teammates to make plays.
Regardless of who to blame, Notre Dame managed just seven points in the first half for the second consecutive week.
“We got to offensively start faster,” Freeman said Monday. “We just didn’t execute really those routine plays early in the game. A lot of the fault will fall on the shoulders of Drew, but it wasn’t all Drew. We had some drops, we had a couple penalties. Drew had some uncharacteristic throws.
“We just could not get it going early in the game. To really look at how it got flipped in the second half, we were able to establish a run game. What does that do? It opens up areas in the pass game.”
The Irish gained 109 yards in the first half on 30 plays. They gained 189 in the second half on 31 plays (not counting the final three-and-out for a loss of a yard as Notre Dame drained the game clock). Their first four possessions were three-and-outs, followed by a fumble before finally mounting a 10-play, 60-yard march for a touchdown. Six of Notre Dame’s seven first-half possessions were the exact opposite of “quality drives.”
Its first three second-half possessions resulted in scores, with only one genuine possession considered a waste.
What changed? That ground game, as Freeman said. “If” became “now.” Sophomore running back Audric Estimé and junior Chris Tyree combining to take 18 carries for 75 yards (again before that final three-and-out somewhat designed to pin Cal deep in its own territory) is far from glamorous, but a 4.2 yards per attempt average is a viable offensive approach.
It was no coincidence Pyne went 10-of-11 for 93 yards in the second half. Compared to his 7-of-12 for 57 yards in the first half, it was a difference of night and day, both in production and confidence.
“First, you’re like, ‘Okay, he’ll get it,’” Freeman said Saturday of Pyne’s early struggles. “You tap him on the shoulder pad.
“And then that’s not working, kind of went to the other end of the spectrum, ripped his butt a little bit. That didn’t work too much.”
Pyne finally relaxed, thanks in no small part to Estimé, Tyree and his offensive line.
“It helped, because you gain a little confidence in the running game in the second half, and then you start making those passes,” Freeman said.
That combination put enough points on the board for Freeman to now have every coach’s favorite opportunity, coach his team after a win. The Irish made plenty of mistakes Saturday, perhaps most notably in trying to intercept Cal’s heave on the final play rather than spiking it to the ground. Freeman had to restrain himself from pulling the defensive backs aside immediately and walking through that oversight.
Instead, he enjoyed the win for a moment.
“We didn’t execute for 60 minutes straight, but there was the execution when you needed it most,” he said Monday. “There’s a lot of good learning from the film. It’s always better to use those teaching opportunities after wins than it is after a loss.”
Not all the defensive backs made that mistake. Just a few plays earlier, it had been senior Cam Hart stepping in front of junior Clarence Lewis as Lewis dabbled in an interception return. Hart convinced Lewis to hit the turf, though the play was eventually invalidated by a targeting penalty on senior linebacker JD Bertrand that not only leaves Notre Dame yet without a forced turnover this season but will also sideline Bertrand for the first half at North Carolina (3:30 ET; ABC).
Similarly, for all the offensive line’s success in the second half, enough to change hopes of progress into tangible signs of it, the Irish could not hold onto the ball in the final minutes to remove any Bears’ chance of that tying touchdown. The second-half stats may offer a more accurate description of the game flow when ignoring that final drive — three Estimé rushes for four yards before a delay of game penalty, intentionally drawn, led to a punt into the end zone — but forgetting that drive’s failure glosses over the work still ahead of Notre Dame to become the O-line and D-line -driven program Freeman demands.
The defensive line responded by pressuring Cal quarterback Jack Plummer, including the final sack of its six in the game. But the reality was, the Bears never should have gotten back possession.
“You’re starting to see some consistency out of that group,” Freeman said of the offensive line. “[Fifth-year left guard Jarrett Patterson], this is his second game. Those guys have been together for three games. They’re getting better.
“They’re improving. The fundamentals, the execution, the techniques they’re playing with are improving. They have a long way to go.”
A long way to go while driving Notre Dame as far as it will go in 2022. In Saturday’s second half, they drove enough.
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