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Regular Season Finale – Notre Dame vs. USC Preview

By Michael Cannon | 9:52 PM

99-0 is now the combined score of Notre Dame’s last two Senior Night games.  The Irish closed out the home season with a dominant 44-0 win over Boston College on a brutally cold and snowy […]

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Irish Look to Get Right on Senior Day – Boston College vs. Notre Dame Preview

By Michael Cannon | 4:49 PM

Notre Dame improved to 7-3 this season with a 35-32 nailbiter victory over the Midshipmen of Navy last Saturday and this game was truly a tale of two halves.  After a dominant opening half, the Irish could not find anything to work after halftime and had just enough offensive output to escape with the win.  On the bright side, the win did enough to move Notre Dame up to number 18 in the College Football Playoff rankings and a strong finish to the year will continue to benefit the Irish.

In the first half of last week’s game, Drew Pyne and Notre Dame racked up five touchdowns and had a great deal of success through the air.  Pyne threw for four touchdowns, one to Braden Lenzy, Jayden Thomas, Audric Estime, and Chris Tyree each and the offense seemed to be rolling.  I was thoroughly impressed with the Irish passing game and with five touchdowns in a half, you would think that the game would have been all but over at that point in time.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.  Notre Dame was outscored 19-0 in the second half, and I have to give a lot of credit to the fight that the Midshipmen displayed doing everything in their power to erase a 22-point deficit in the final two quarters.  As impressed as I was with the first half passing game, there was a lot left to be desired on both sides of the ball for the Irish as well.

Coming out of halftime, it looked as though Notre Dame was content with the outcome at that point and did not display any “killer instincts”.  The Navy defense was continually providing pressure and Notre Dame’s offensive line was having a great deal of trouble trying to stop it.  The long passes that were connecting in the first half were no where to be found and the Irish ground game, that has been a staple of the offense for the majority of the season, was continually getting stopped for little to no gain.  Notre Dame finished the game with only 66 total rushing yards, not impressive by any stretch of the word.  Thanks to the production in the first half, the Irish totaled more yards though the air than the Midshipmen but were outgained 363 to 335 in total yards.  Notre Dame’s defense had trouble all game long stopping the fullback dive and even gave up multiple long pass plays to a Navy offense that isn’t known for gaining yards through the air.  It is worth noting that due to injuries, JD Bertrand and Brandon Joseph were certainly missed, but that still does not excuse the lack of production on Notre Dame’s defensive side of the ball.  In a way, this game perfectly epitomized this season for the Irish – when things are clicking, Notre Dame can compete with any team in the nation, but when things aren’t…not even a 22-point lead is secure against sub-500 Naval Academy.  I understand that at the end of the day, getting out of there with a win and minimal injuries suffered is most important, but consistent production on both sides of the ball doesn’t seem like too much to ask for. 

Looking ahead to this Saturday, the matchup against Boston College marks the final home game of Notre Dame’s 2022 season.  The Eagles have a lot of Irish connections making a return to Notre Dame Stadium – transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec, transfer tight end George Takacs, and former tight ends coach John McNulty – are all part of the Eagles’ operation and could provide some added motivation for current Irish players to heighten their levels of play.  Although Boston College’s record is only 3-7 thus far, the Eagles are coming off of a very respectable win over a now 7-3 NC State team last week.  The Eagles, on average, are being outscored by nine points per game from their opponents and present another matchup in which Notre Dame should have superior talent at almost every position.  We will see if that is evident on the field or not.

As former Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec has been battling injuries all season, he remains questionable for Saturday’s matchup.  If Jurkovec is not cleared to play, expect sophomore quarterback Emmett Morehead to captain the Eagle’s offense.  Running back Pat Garwo and wide receiver Zay Flowers are two of Boston College’s offensive weapons – Garwo racking up nearly 300 ground yards, and Flowers totaling almost 1000 receiving yards.  Flowers also enters Saturday’s game just a few receptions, yards, and touchdowns short of breaking multiple Eagles’ records and it will be up to the Irish secondary to prevent those records from being broken for at least another week.  What gives me a great deal of hope when the Eagles are on offense is lack of production from their offensive line.  This unit is giving up nearly four sacks per game and I expect the Notre Dame defensive line to have a Thanksgiving feast in the backfield.  Pressure on the quarterback will result in less time for Flowers and the rest of the wide receiving corps to get open down the field which will significantly help out the Irish corners.  It is worth noting that in the last two games in which Emmett Morehead has played in, he has attempted at least 40 pass attempts per game, so any help the Notre Dame secondary can get will be much appreciated. The Eagles’ main source of offensive production is through the air, so I will be very interested to see if Saturday’s weather affects this in any way.

Boston College’s defense has had quite a bit of success even though they are giving up 28 points per game.  Kam Arnold, Josh DeBerry, Jason Maitre, Elijah Jones, and Cole Batson all have at least one interception on the year and the defense has recovered four fumbles through ten games.  The same question for the Irish remains prevalent in game number 11 this year – what offense are we going to see?  With Saturday’s forecast calling for below freezing temperatures with a chance of snow, I expect there to be a heavy reliance on the rushing attack.  I expect this to be a bit of a slog on both sides of the ball, but with Notre Dame’s superior talent, I do expect win number eight will be achieved.  At this point in time, the Irish are 20.5-point favorites for this Senior Day matchup which sounds great until you realize that Notre Dame is 0-5 against the spread when they are favored by a touchdown or more.  I don’t know if the Irish will be able to cover this week, and Boston College does have enough offensive weapons that I could see them converting a few chunk plays against the Irish, but if Notre Dame’s two lines can be the focal point on the field, the seniors should be sent out as they deserve to be – with a win.  Notre Dame 28, Boston College 17 in a game that won’t feel as close as that final score may indicate.  Go Irish.  Beat Eagles.   

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Ohio State: 10-0 overall, currently ranked #2, beat Indiana 56-14

Marshall: 6-4 overall, beat App State 28-21

California: 3-7 overall, lost to Oregon State 38-10

North Carolina: 9-1 overall, currently ranked #13, beat Wake Forest 36-34

BYU: 5-5 overall, coming off bye week

Stanford: 3-7 overall, lost to Utah 42-7

UNLV: 4-6 overall, lost to Fresno State 37-30

Syracuse: 6-4 overall, lost to Florida State 38-3

Clemson: 9-1 overall, currently ranked #9, beat Louisville 31-16

Navy: 3-7 overall, lost to Notre Dame 35-32

Boston College: 3-7 overall, beat NC State 21-20

USC: 9-1 overall, currently ranked #7, beat Colorado 55-17

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Irish Look to Keep Momentum – Notre Dame vs. Navy Preview

By Michael Cannon | 1:35 PM

Bully ball.  That was the motto that came out of Saturday’s 35-14 domination that Notre Dame put on fourth ranked Clemson.  From start to finish, there wasn’t any doubt, from the players to the fans, to anyone watching the game, who was the better team that night.  The Irish were able to impose their will in all three aspects of the game – offense, defense, and special teams.  To go along with an incredible on-field performance, the atmosphere inside Notre Dame Stadium was the best that I can remember going back quite some years.  A true homefield advantage was created and it was evident that the Notre Dame players were feeding off of it all night.  Not only was this the biggest win to date of the Marcus Freeman era, it also marked the 27th straight regular season victory over ACC opponents for the Irish. 

This game was not only significant as a potential indicator as to how the rest of Notre Dame’s season could play out, but it was also a massive confidence builder for the players and coaching staff.  I have been critical of Tommy Rees’s gameplan and play calling in previous articles, but I thought that just about everything called against Clemson was great.  The Irish run game was working all night and it even helped set up some open passes to get Pyne more comfortable looking downfield.  The perfect example was Michael Mayer’s touchdown catch; on a run-heavy possession for the Irish, the passing game was able to find success as Clemson had the box loaded, leaving minimal accountability for Mayer sneaking into the open field.  As the Tigers (and all defenses for that matter) put so much attention on shutting down Mayer in the pass game, their all-in focus on defending the run set up that beautiful touchdown reception.  Further congratulations to Michael Mayer are due for now holding another of Notre Dame’s tight end records – and as Irish fans, we know what an accomplishment that is, given the tight end talent that has come through this program.

Defensively, the Irish seemed to have an answer for anything and everything that the Tigers wanted to throw their way.  Clemson was held to 191 passing yards and only 90 rushing yards, none of which came very easily.  To go along with that, the Irish came up with two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and another punt block – again, returned for a touchdown.  On the defensive side of the ball, true Freshman corner back Benjamin Morrison played the game of his life.  It was evident that the Tigers were looking to attack the lack of experience that Morrison had at the collegiate level and boy, was that a mistake.  Looking at the blocked put as well, Notre Dame special teams coordinator, Brian Mason, has this unit absolutely rolling.  It has been a long time since I can remember being excited about an Irish special teams unit and after racking up their sixth blocked punt of the season, Mason has proven to be one of my favorite coaching hires from this past off-season.  I could go on and on about all the positive takeaways from Notre Dame’s performance against Clemson; it was the most complete football game that I have seen from this team all year and if they are able to not only replicate this, but build on it as well, the Irish could be a dangerous team down the stretch.

As Notre Dame’s play has been “Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque” this season, you could tell that the team was feeding off the coaching staff’s energy and focus for Clemson.  A mark of a mature football team though is not playing so up and down based on the opponent in which they are lining up across.  The Irish have risen to the task in the larger games this year – North Carolina, Syracuse, Clemson – but have also fallen short against inferior opponents – Marshall and Stanford.  Coming off the emotional high of beating a playoff-contending team, how will Notre Dame respond in the upcoming weeks when having to take on a 3-6 Navy and a 2-7 Boston College?

After traveling to Baltimore, Maryland, the Irish will face a three-win Midshipmen team led by longtime head coach, Ken Niumatalolo.  A team averaging a touch over 22 points per game, this marks the week in which the Irish defense will have to face the triple option.  In this run heavy offense, Navy as a team, is averaging right around four yards per carry on the season and have tallied up 17 touchdowns on the ground through their first nine games.  Although this offensive scheme is unique and can give opposing defenses fits, it is actually Navy’s defense that is the strength of their program. 

The Midshipmen’s run defense is not something to be taken lightly.  It will be a strength-on-strength matchup as Notre Dame’s rush offense goes up against Navy’s rush defense.  After the gameplan that was executed against Clemson, I expect the Irish offense to continue to rely on the ground game to supplement the offensive success.  I do believe that Drew Pyne can total over 85 passing yards, his through-the-air production last week against the Tigers, as the Midshipmen do not have a dominating pass rush.  Their defense is giving up just under 25 points per game and as long as the Irish can establish the ground game early, I think this will be a favorable matchup.  With the way that Navy runs the ball and eats the clock, the Irish offense will need to have efficient drives that end with points.  Possessions will be at a premium in this matchup and if the Irish look to be victorious, they cannot afford to have multiple drives that stall out or end with nothing put up on the scoreboard.  As mentioned, I expect the Notre Dame passing game to be a bit more prevalent than it was last week against Clemson.  I don’t think that the Irish have to pass the ball a great deal in order to be successful against Navy, but I do believe that going up against the Midshipmen defense presents a great opportunity to work out some kinks that could be present in the current pass offense. 

On the other side of the ball, Navy’s starting quarterback, Tai Lavatai suffered a season ending knee injury, so look for Xavier Arline to captain the Midshipmen’s offense.  Arline has gotten playing time in Navy’s last two games, an overtime win against Temple and a loss to Cincinnati.  This season, he has attempted five passes, one of which was caught for three yards and one of which was intercepted.  Although not very impressive passing stats, Arline has racked up nearly 200 yards on the ground and averages five yards per carry.  In the triple option, fullbacks Daba Fofana and Anton Hall Jr., as well as wide receiver Maquel Haywood are the Midshipmen’s most productive ground threats – all of which have eclipsed 200 rushing yards thus far.  In a run heavy scheme, Navy’s wide receivers do bring some good talent to the table as well.  Jayden Umbarger, Vincent Terrell Jr., and Mark Walker all have at least 175 receiving yards and have combined for four passing touchdowns as a trio.  As the Notre Dame defense looks to sink the Midshipmen’s offensive scheme, it is important to keep in mind that All-American safety Brandon Joseph is “doubtful” due to an ankle injury sustained last week against Clemson.  This is a game that I feel Notre Dame could and should win without playing time from Joseph and I would rather err on the side of caution, especially when a successful defensive scheme requires the safeties to get down hill and attack the ball carrier. 

As big of a win it was for the Irish over Clemson, the performance we see against Navy will tell us a lot about the state of this program.  Marcus Freeman has done an incredible job of navigating this team through adversity.  If you told me after two rather stunning losses to Marshall and Stanford that this Notre Dame team would turn around and dominate the fourth ranked Clemson Tigers, I would have straight up called you crazy.  As the Irish seem to have taken on the identity that is being forged by this coaching staff, the next key will be how they handle success.  If Freeman has this team playing with the same focus that we saw against Clemson, the Irish will be dangerous down the stretch.  This all starts with Saturday’s game against Navy.  Notre Dame has more talent across the board, and I expect them to win, but will it be another dominant, momentum building performance or a shaky, unenthusiastic one from a team nursing a big-game hangover?  I expect it to be the former, leading to a 31-13 Notre Dame victory.  Go Irish.  Beat Midshipmen.    

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Ohio State: 9-0 overall, currently ranked #2, beat Northwestern 21-7

Marshall: 5-4 overall, beat Old Dominion 12-0

California: 3-6 overall, lost to USC 41-35

North Carolina: 8-1 overall, currently ranked #15, beat Virginia 31-28

BYU: 5-5 overall, beat Boise State 31-28

Stanford: 3-6 overall, lost to Washington State 52-14

UNLV: 4-5 overall, lost to San Diego State 14-10

Syracuse: 6-3 overall, lost to Pittsburgh 19-9

Clemson: 8-1 overall, currently ranked #12, lost to Notre Dame 35-14

Navy: 3-6 overall, lost to Cincinnati 20-10

Boston College: 2-7 overall, lost to Duke 38-31

USC: 8-1 overall, currently ranked #8, beat California 41-35  

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Can Irish Tame the Tigers? Clemson vs. Notre Dame Preview

By Michael Cannon | 12:06 PM

Another victory and another game closer to bowl eligibility – that is what Notre Dame was able to achieve against the Orange of Syracuse this past Saturday.  The trend of the Irish playing their best football away from Notre Dame Stadium continued with a 41-24 victory in Notre Dame’s first of three remaining matchups against ranked opponents.

The Irish fully leaned into the identity of a run first football team on Saturday piling up 246 yards on the ground compared to Syracuse’s 61.  Audric Estime and Logan Diggs were each responsible for 20 carries a piece while quarterback Drew Pyne only attempted 19 passes during the entirety of the game.  Granted, Notre Dame’s offensive line was getting a push on almost every play which certainly helped the effectiveness of the run game, but the lack of involvement and production from the wide receivers could be something that hurts the Irish in upcoming marquee matchups against the likes of Clemson and USC.  It’s not all doom and gloom though; let’s not forget that Notre Dame just beat the 16th ranked team in the country rather handily even with the officiating helping Syracuse on numerous occasions.  I’m not one to blame the refs for the outcome of a game, but doesn’t it seem a bit suspicious that Syracuse, the most penalized team in college football, didn’t have a flag thrown on them until the middle of the third quarter?  I mean, come on now.  The silver lining here is that Notre Dame didn’t put themselves into a position where the calls constantly going against them were able to sway the outcome of the game.  With the strength of the offensive line clearing paths for the Irish backs, it was made very clear the way that Notre Dame was looking to move the ball on offense. 

Defensively, the Irish got off to a quick start as Brandon Joseph recorded the first pick six of his football career on Syracuse’s opening play, giving the Irish a 7-0 lead less than one minute into the game.  A tipped pass at the line of scrimmage led to a Marist Liufau interception later and the momentum that was created by the swarming Notre Dame defense certainly helped to keep Pyne and the offense rolling.  The question mark regarding the Irish defense comes when opposing teams reach the red zone.  Notre Dame’s red zone defense is tied for dead last with Rutgers, giving up a touchdown or field goal every time an opponent has gotten inside the 20-yard line.  I am not 100% sure as to why this happens, but if Notre Dame wants to compete with Clemson this upcoming Saturday, red zone stops are going to be imperative.  What I truly appreciated about the Irish’s defensive performance against Syracuse was that for the first time all year, they looked like they were flying around and causing havoc.  They didn’t seem to be bogged down by overthinking, playing slow, and questioning their reads.  Sure, the defensive game wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to slow down a team that went neck and neck with Clemson for over three quarters just two weeks ago.

The highlight of Saturday’s matchup and a facet of the games that are becoming a corner stone for Notre Dame’s success is the emergence of a dangerous special teams unit.  Between a blocked punt, 47 yards in punt returns, and 200 yards in punts from the Irish’s Jon Sot, Special Teams Coordinator, Brian Mason, has this unit cooking.  It has been quite some time since Notre Dame has had this sort of production from a special teams unit and I am all here for it.  With what they have been able to put on film in recent weeks, they are drawing a significant amount of attention from opponents and still finding ways to produce.  Will the blocked kick/punt streak continue this week?  We will soon find out.

Looking ahead to this Saturday’s matchup, the 8-0 and fifth ranked Clemson Tigers return to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since the Covid season.  Coming off their bye week, Dabo Swinney will certainly have the Tigers ready for the task at hand.  The big question for Notre Dame fans is what Irish team are we going to get this week – the one that is on the rise and building confidence after another ranked win last week, or the team that Irish fans saw take the field three weeks ago against Stanford?  As I talked about in the last article previewing the Syracuse game, Notre Dame – for whatever reason – hasn’t played very well at home this year, but a good performance (and even a win) against Clemson would go a long way in writing the script for the rest of this season.

Talent is not an issue for Clemson; the Tigers come in with a dynamic offense and playmakers scattered across the defense.  It will surely be a challenge for the Irish on both sides of the ball.  The good news is that I don’t think this Clemson team mirrors Clemson teams of past, the Trevor Lawrence led world-beaters.  On the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers will go as quarterback DJ Uiagalelei goes.  Uiagalelei, who made his first career start against the Irish back in 2020, is coming off a shaky performance prior to the bye week, one in which Dabo Swinney pulled DJ in replacement for 5-star freshman, Cade Klubnik.  If less-than-stellar Uiagalelei play is in the cards for Clemson, this will certainly improve Notre Dame’s chances of winning this Saturday.  In the backfield, the Tigers’ Will Shipley has racked up 739 on the ground this year, averaging six yards per carry and is responsible for 10 touchdowns already.  For those who don’t follow recruiting very closely, Shipley was a 5-star running back coming out of high school whose final college choice came down to Clemson and Notre Dame.  To pair with the talent in the backfield, Clemson’s pass game is dynamic as well.  The Tigers like to lineup in spread out formations, getting players in space and taking advantage of RPO (run pass option) packages.  Two of the Tigers’ top five pass catchers are their tight ends – Jake Briningstool and Davis Allen – who have taken advantage of favorable matchups against opponents’ linebackers.  I imagine Clemson will look to do the same against Notre Dame, so the Irish linebackers coverage skills will be put to the test.  As a team, the Tigers’ third down and red zone offense is very good – a strength going against one of Notre Dame’s weaknesses.  Will the Irish defense be able to string together enough stops to allow the offense to keep up with the Tigers’ production?

On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s defense is without a doubt, the strength of this team.  This will likely be the best defensive line that Notre Dame will face all season, including Ohio State’s.  Clemson has done a very good job at stopping the run this year and forcing opponents to try and pick up yards through the air.  That sentence right there gives me chills – Notre Dame having to rely on the pass game in order to be competitive…yikes.  I still think the Irish will be able to move the ball relatively effectively on the ground, but if the Irish are going to pull off the upset, I think there will need to be one or two wide receivers that have statement games.  Clemson’s secondary is the “weakest” part of their strongest unit, so we will see if Pyne and the Irish receivers can take advantage of this.

In my opinion, the two deciding factors in Saturday’s matchup will be Notre Dame’s ability to score on offense and if the Irish special teams can break one play – whether that be a kick/punt return or a kick/punt block at an opportune time.  If these things can happen, an Irish victory would not surprise me.  With the way this season has gone though, there aren’t many things that would surprise me come Saturday night.  Clemson is a well-tested, undefeated football team deserving of their top five ranking.  Notre Dame has not played well at home this year, but this would be a great weekend to break that trend.  At the time of writing this, the Tigers are 3.5-point favorites, and your guess is as good as mine as to how this game will play out.  My hope is that the crowd and home atmosphere will have the Irish fired up and ready to play from the jump and if so, I believe Notre Dame will win 28-27 in another instant classic.  Go Irish.  Beat Tigers.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Ohio State: 8-0 overall, currently ranked #2, beat Penn State 44-31

Marshall: 4-4 overall, lost to Coastal Carolina 24-13

California: 3-5 overall, lost to Oregon 42-24

North Carolina: 7-1 overall, currently ranked #17, beat Pittsburgh 42-24

BYU: 4-5 overall, lost to East Carolina 27-24

Stanford: 3-5 overall, lost to UCLA 38-13

UNLV: 4-4 overall, coming off bye week

Syracuse: 6-2 overall, currently ranked #22, lost to Notre Dame 41-24

Clemson: 8-0 overall, currently ranked #5, coming off bye week

Navy: 3-5 overall, beat Temple (in overtime) 27-20

Boston College: 2-6 overall, lost to UCONN 13-3

USC: 7-1 overall, currently ranked #9, beat Arizona 45-37   

*Note: all rankings are from the AP Poll, not College Football Playoff rankings

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