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A Tale of Two Sides (of the Ball) – Notre Dame vs. North Carolina Preview

By Michael Cannon | 8:45 AM

In his post-game press conference, Marcus Freeman said that he “had a conversation with God” during the last minute and change of the Cal game.  Three potential turnovers that were taken away from the Irish […]

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Can the Irish Bounce Back? California vs. Notre Dame Preview

By Michael Cannon | 3:51 PM

Wow…that was certainly not the start of the season that I, or any Notre Dame fans for that matter, was expecting.  The eighth ranked Fighting Irish fell to unranked Marshall at home by a final of 26-21.  With the updated AP Poll coming out at the beginning of the week, Notre Dame is now unranked for the first time since 2017.  To add salt to the wound, Notre Dame lost their starting quarterback, Tyler Buchner, for the remainder of the season after suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery to repair.  With their backs against the wall, it’s time for Notre Dame players and coaches to step up and right the ship.

After the performance that we all saw against Ohio State in the opening game, although a loss, I came out of it feeling disappointed (in the outcome) but optimistic about the remainder of the season.  With what was put on the field against Marshall, I have absolutely zero clue as to how the rest of the year is going to look for the Fighting Irish.  There is no excuse for losing to a team that has inferior talent top to bottom, none.  Am I one that is calling for everyone to get fired?  Absolutely not.  Sure, I didn’t expect to hit the low valley in the learning curve under a first time head coach so quickly, but I still truly believe that Marcus Freeman was and is the right man for this job. 

Looking back at the Marshall game, I don’t know if there was an emotional hangover from Ohio State or a lack of coaching preparation, but whatever the case was, this Notre Dame team did not come out with the same intensity and readiness to play that they did against the Buckeyes.  Tyler Buchner was able to put up 201 yards in the air, however those were accompanied by two interceptions.  My biggest offensive concern (other than the Buchner injury) is the fact that Buchner also led the team in rushing yards with 44.  The play calling in the run game had me completely baffled.  The fact that Chris Tyree only had three carries…excuse me?  When watching the game and realizing what each of the Notre Dame running backs brings to the field, it seemed as though the wrong back was in the game for almost every rushing play.  Estime was called on to break runs outside, something more suited for Diggs or Tyree, while Tyree’s carries were closer to draw plays up the middle, an Estime special.  And speaking of Logan Diggs, to me it does not look like he is 100% comfortable or certain that his shoulder is fully healthy.  He did not want to trust it with a stiff arm last Saturday and as someone with an extraordinary amount of talent, I would hate to see that go to waste if he were to re-injure it.  In the running game – get Tyree more involved, let Estime handle the “power” yardage, and give Diggs the proper time to heal up.

Passing game wise, Michael Mayer and Lorenzo Styles were the Irish’s leading receivers with eight and seven catches respectively.  Mayer totaled 103 yards in the air while Styles tacked on another 69 of his own.  The lack of creativity in the pass game play calling was uninspiring to say the least and when you couple that with poor blocking at the line of scrimmage, it is no wonder that the Irish offense only seemed to get going when Buchner was scrambling. 

The Irish defense has yet to force a turnover and once again, the “thought-to-be” playmakers on the defensive side of the ball had another quiet afternoon.  Isaiah Foskey finally recorded his first sack and added three tackles while the Notre Dame defensive line simply got bullied by the smaller but more ferocious offensive line of Marshall.  The linebacking corps that was flying around in pre-season camp seems to be overwhelmed by in-game scheme and checks causing them to play much slower than their potential, but I still remain optimistic here.  Any time a new defensive coordinator comes in, as we even witnessed last season under Coach Freeman’s defense, it generally takes a few games to get the scheme, speed, and coverage areas down pat.  Overall, I remain more hopeful for the Irish on the defensive side of the ball and I do believe that Notre Dame can get this season turned around, but it comes down to leadership.  Leadership from the coaching staff to call plays on both sides of the ball that put playmakers in a spot to succeed and leadership from the captains on the field to hold the team accountable and play to a much higher standard. 

Looking ahead to this week’s game against California, the Golden Bears come in 2-0 with wins over UC Davis and UNLV.  Under head coach Justin Wilcox, Cal is averaging 27 points per game this year, while holding opponents to an average of under two touchdowns.  This team is definitely a defense-first squad.  This week’s matchup may be one of the most pressure-packed home games for the Irish in recent history as digging out of an 0-3 hole would be an extremely tough task. The Cal offense is led by Jack Plummer, a Purdue transfer quarterback who took a beating when the Boilermakers played the Irish last season.  In Plummer’s last visit to Notre Dame Stadium, he finished the game with only 187 passing yards on 36 attempts before he was pulled for backup Aiden O’Connell.  Plummer is joined in the backfield by Jayden Ott as the Bears’ lead back and DeCarlos Brooks who will likely get a good amount of carries as well.  Jeremiah Hunter and J.Michael Sturdivant are the two Cal receivers that have eclipsed 100 receiving yards this year.  On the defensive side of the ball for the Bears, Jackson Sirmon and Oluwafemi Oladejo, both linebackers, are the team’s leading tacklers, while safety Craig Woodson and cornerbacks Isaiah Young and Jeremiah Earby all have one interception a piece this year. 

For the Irish, we will get to see Drew Pyne make the start in replacement of Buchner.  As a less mobile quarterback, I expect to see minimal scrambling and RPOs which could lead to a more balanced offensive attack, relying on the running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends to make plays rather than the quarterback scrambles and runs.  Obviously, no one should ever wish injury on an athlete, but the silver lining could be that with Pyne in the pocket, the coaching staff could/should be forced to reevaluate the offensive scheme.  I want to see the “Conor McGregor swagger walk” Drew Pyne – confident and able to lead the Irish to their first victory of the season.

When it comes to the Irish, as I mentioned at the beginning of this writing, I have absolutely no idea what to expect any more.  I have laid out what I think needs to be done – Freeman, at the beginning of the season, stated that he wanted the Irish to be a team that can run the ball and stop the run.  At first glance, that all sounds great.  With the way the Notre Dame offensive line has been playing, and now with Buchner out for the season, the run game certainly has taken a hit.  I do believe that the offensive play calling needs to improve both in the passing game – putting receivers in advantageous situations – and in the run game – utilizing Chris Tyree in a much more effective way.  Notre Dame has too much talent on the roster to let it go unutilized and fall to 0-3.  I don’t think that that will happen, but then again, I didn’t think the Irish would lose to Marshall either.  When it comes to a score prediction, I know that Notre Dame is favored by 11 points and at this point in time, I just want the Irish to finish with 1 more point than California.  61-60 or 7-6, I don’t care…Notre Dame just needs to get a win under their belt.  With Irish legend, Manti Te’o, making a return to campus and Notre Dame wearing green jerseys this week, I think the lack of Cal offense will favor the Irish come games’ end.  31-14 (optimistic prediction, I know) Irish get the victory and get this monkey off their back.  Go Irish.  Beat Golden Bears.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Ohio State: 2-0 overall, currently ranked #3, beat Arkansas State 45-12

Marshall: 2-0 overall, beat Notre Dame 26-21

California: 2-0 overall, beat UNLV 20-14

North Carolina: 3-0 overall, beat Georgia State 35-28

BYU: 2-0 overall, currently ranked #12, beat (#17) Baylor 26-20

Stanford: 1-1 overall, lost to (#7) USC 41-28

UNLV: 1-1 overall, lost to California 20-14

Syracuse: 2-0 overall, beat UConn 48-14

Clemson: 2-0 overall, currently ranked #5, beat Furman 35-12

Navy: 0-2 overall, lost to Memphis 37-13

Boston College: 0-2 overall, lost to Virginia Tech 27-10

USC: 2-0 overall, currently ranked #7, beat Stanford 41-28

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Welcome Home Coach Freeman – Marshall vs. Notre Dame Preview

By Michael Cannon | 7:21 PM

Well, the unfortunate news as Notre Dame fans is that Marcus Freeman is technically 0-2 as the Irish head football coach.  0-2 against two very talented programs, I get it.  We will learn a lot about this year’s Notre Dame team in this week’s matchup against Marshall – how they respond to a loss, how they have prepared after a high-emotions, high-stakes game, how they show up to play an inferior opponent.  Before we jump ahead and look at what it’s going to take for the Irish to beat the Herd, let’s take a look at what went well and what didn’t in last week’s game against Ohio State.

What shocked me the most was the fact that the areas that I thought would be strengths for the Irish looked questionable, while the question mark areas balled out.  I was thoroughly disappointed in the line play on both sides of the ball for the Irish.  The offensive line without Jarrett Patterson could not seem to get a push, and in a game where the Irish wanted to establish the run, running backs being hit within a half yard of the line of scrimmage is not something that brings about success.  The ND offensive line, especially the interior offensive line, needs some serious technical improvements to happen very quickly.  Sticking on the offensive side of the ball, I understand that the game plan was to establish the run in order to open up the passing game, but only 18 passing attempts all game?  Michael Mayer accounted for half of the team’s receptions, hauling in five for 32 yards while Lorenzo Styles, Braden Lenzy, Matt Salerno, Kevin Bauman, and Chris Tyree all accounted for one each.  It wasn’t that the offensive game plan was necessarily conservative, but I was not impressed with how “vanilla” it seemed.  Tyler Buchner is a dynamic quarterback so incorporating more pocket movement, motion in the backfield, or double moves from the wide receivers are all simple things that could and should be used more in the Irish offense.  As a first year starting quarterback, Buchner is going to make mistakes and going to throw interceptions, we all need to be prepared for that.  But I personally would rather see him doing that in scenarios where Rees is helping him be aggressive, taking strategic shots down the field, rather than not even giving this gamer a chance to game.

The defensive line, which looked to be the most stable part of the Irish defense coming into this game, only accounted for one sack thanks to Howard Cross III.  Foskey, the Ademilolas, Mills, and the rest of the defensive front will look to get back on track this Saturday against Marshall (again, it’s not that these guys played poorly, it’s just that they weren’t a factor in getting to Ohio State’s CJ Stroud).  For the most part, I was rather impressed with the defensive game plan called by Al Golden.  It was aggressive, especially throughout the first half, and kept the Buckeyes consistently guessing.  The cover zero double safety blitz in the second half proved ineffective, but other than that, I was a fan.  Notre Dame’s secondary has always seemed to have been a weak point on the defense in recent years, but much credit to cornerback’s coach Mike Mickens, it looks like the Irish have some studs there.  We will see if the performances of true freshmen Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will continue as the season goes on, but this was arguably the best secondary performance against an elite group of wide receivers in recent memory.

Key takeaways from the season opening loss at Ohio State – I hope that the offensive play calling puts more emphasis on Buchner’s dynamic playmaking ability, both lines need to show some improvement, and the Irish need to finish a ballgame.  In both of Freeman’s losses as a head coach, Notre Dame has been winning at halftime.  I give a ton of credit to Freeman because it looks like he knows how to get the team up and ready for the start of the game; no more flat, emotionless opening drives as seen under previous head coaches.  This Marshall game needs to be a get-right game for the Irish, and that is just what I’m expecting.

Saturday marks the home opener for the eighth ranked Irish and Marcus Freeman and I sure hope that he gets the reception from the crowd that he deserves. I personally, am extremely excited to see Coach Freeman take the field for his first regular season game at Notre Dame Stadium.  Lining up across from Freeman and the Irish will be the Thundering Herd of Marshall, now a Sun Belt Conference team who is 1-0 this year after their 55-3 opening win against Norfolk State.  Charles Huff, now in his second year as Marshall’s head coach, finished last season with a 7-6 record with four of their six losses being very close, competitive games.  Last season, the Herd scored 28 or more points in all but one of their games and have a rather dynamic offense.  After scoring 55 points in their season opener (granted it was against an FCS team), that offense looks to be clicking again.  Marshall’s offense is led by senior quarterback Henry Colombi, a Texas Tech transfer who is no stranger to playing in big games.  Colombi finished game one of the 2022 season completing 24 of his 26 passing attempts for 205 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.  Similar to Buchner, Colombi is an RPO quarterback, but has shown tendencies to be overwhelmed under pressure.  Their running game was very balanced in the opener with Ethan Payne and Khalan Laborn receiving the brunt of the work – totaling 22 carries, 215 yards, and four touchdowns between the two of them.

Marshall’s defense typically sets up in a 4-2-5 base alignment and they have some very aggressive and athletic linebackers.  I have no doubt that they will be throwing multiple looks and formations at the Irish in an attempt to keep the offense guessing.  This should be a good test for Notre Dame’s offensive line to see if they can get back to the form that we saw in fall camp, rather than the lackluster performance shown against the Buckeyes.  This defense held multiple teams well below their passing averages last season and are longer and more athletic than one might think for a team coming out of the Sun Belt.  After last week, I hope that Tommy Rees will call a gameplan that tests the Irish receivers against Marshall’s secondary and gives Buchner more opportunities to make plays with his arm.  Yes, Notre Dame should be able to run the ball against Marshall, but a run heavy scheme won’t answer a lot of questions that still remain.

Although disappointed in the outcome of Notre Dame’s first game, I remain optimistic about the remainder of this year.  There were a lot of positive takeaways from the matchup against Ohio State and if the Irish can build on those, they should win convincingly against Marshall.  No, this isn’t a game that the Irish can sleepwalk through with the amount of talent and athleticism that the Herd brings, but this should be a win that the Irish will have to earn.  I mentioned the skill that playmaking ability that are present on both sides of the ball for Marshall, but top to bottom Notre Dame clearly has more talent.  As fans, we will have the chance to see how the teams responds to an emotional first game loss and how ready Freeman has them on Saturday.  They should not be content with any “moral victories”, keeping the game against Ohio State close, but rather come out with aggression to prove that they are better as a whole than how they played the week prior.  Although not a typical characteristic of Irish teams, I hope that Freeman, Rees, and Golden (as well as the whole coaching staff) comes in with the game plan of keeping the foot on the gas.  Go up early, stay ahead, and keep putting points on the board – do not take the foot off the gas.  I expect the combination of an increase in offensive and defensive execution for the Irish as well as going up against an inferior opponent will lead to Notre Dame’s first W of the season and Marcus Freeman’s first win as Notre Dame’s head football coach.  45-21 Irish in a game that isn’t as close as that score may seem.  It’s time to get back to the winning ways, and I couldn’t be more excited for Freeman’s first head coaching home game.  Go Irish.  Beat Herd.

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Ohio State: 1-0 overall, beat Notre Dame 21-10

Marshall: 1-0 overall, beat Norfolk State 55-3

California: 1-0 overall, beat UC Davis 34-13

North Carolina: 2-0 overall, beat App State 63-61

BYU: 1-0 overall, beat South Florida 50-21

Stanford: 1-0 overall, beat Colgate 41-10

UNLV: 1-0 overall, beat Idaho State 52-21

Syracuse: 1-0 overall, beat Louisville 31-7

Clemson: 1-0 overall, beat Georgia Tech 41-10

Navy: 0-1 overall, lost to Delaware 14-7

Boston College: 0-1 overall, lost to Rutgers 22-21

USC: 1-0 overall, beat Rice 66-14 

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The Start of the Freeman Era – Notre Dame vs. Ohio State

By Michael Cannon | 6:07 PM

With all the extraordinary changes shaking up the landscape of college football this offseason, from coaching moves to conference realignment, one thing remains constant – come early September, it’s time for the season to kickoff.  A daunting task looms in front of the Irish this season as first-time head coach Marcus Freeman, first-time starting quarterback Tyler Buchner, and the rest of the Notre Dame squad head to Columbus, Ohio to take on the second ranked Buckeyes.  A top five primetime showdown to start the year…talk about getting the blood flowing right off the bat! 

The spread for this game continues to grow larger, and at the time of writing this, it has jumped up to 17.5 points in favor of Ohio State.  No matter where you look, it seems as though everyone (except the die-hard Notre Dame fans) have already written this off as being another blowout.  Is Ohio State an extremely talented team?  Absolutely.  Does that mean that the Irish don’t stand a chance in this game?  I don’t think so, and I will tell you why.

From reports coming out of Notre Dame’s fall camp, sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner has not only demonstrated his leadership ability, but his elite playmaking skills as well.  Obviously, Buchner’s performance will dictate a lot about how far the Irish will go this season, but behind a more experienced offensive line that has taken on the identity of Coach Harry Hiestand, I expect Buchner to have more time in the pocket than what we all saw last year with Jack Coan.  Buchner provides a more dynamic quarterback option for the Irish, being able to make plays down the field with his arm, while adding in a running element with his legs.  Buchner’s capability to get the ball into the hands of Notre Dame playmakers will not only be imperative for the Ohio State matchup, but for all 12 games on the Irish’s regular season schedule this year. 

In the backfield, the three headed monster of Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs, and Audric Estime all provide unique elements in Notre Dame’s ground attack this year.  Tyree being the speedster, Estime being the power, and Diggs being a combination of both, I think that all three will contribute in different but meaningful ways.  As mentioned, under the coaching of Hiestand, I expect the Irish offensive line to provide more of a push up front, providing Buchner with more time in the pocket and the running backs better lanes to accumulate yards on the ground.  Coach Freeman preached the importance of being able to establish the run against the Buckeyes, so a solid performance out of the backfield would go a long way in increasing Notre Dame’s ability to come out of game one with a win.

Through the air, arguably the number one tight end in college football, Michael Mayer should expect to see another productive season with great numbers.  In this opening matchup against the Buckeyes, I fully expect him to receive a lot of attention from the defense, drawing double teams or forcing shaded coverage to his side of the field.  That should help to free up, or at least provide better matchups for the Notre Dame wideouts going up against the Buckeye secondary.  Lorenzo Styles, Braden Lenzy, Jayden Thomas, and the rest of the Irish receives will need to capitalize on this.  Only in his second year, Styles will likely need to step up to claim the number one receiver position, which is something that I have the upmost amount of confidence in.  He’s a natural born playmaker that is only starting to scratch the surface of his incredible amount of talent.  Braden Lenzy has looked like a man on a mission this off-season, fully embracing the coaching from Notre Dame’s new wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey.  Jayden Thomas, entering his redshirt freshman season, has continued to garner more praise from the Irish coaching staff and although not listed on the two-deep for the Ohio State matchup, I expect true freshman wide receiver Tobias Merriweather to play a pivotal role throughout 2022 as well.  The somewhat unproven nature of this group remains to be one of the biggest question marks and causes for concern heading to Columbus, but if the receivers can play up to their abilities, this question mark could end up being one of the biggest strengths for Notre Dame this season.

Looking at the defensive side of the ball for the Irish, there is a lot more proven production and veteran players.  Saturday will be a strength-on-strength battle between the Buckeyes’ offense and the Irish defense.  Led by the front four of Isaiah Foskey, Jayson Ademilola, Howard Cross III, and Rylie Mills, I am a big fan of the Irish defense this year.  The depth of playmakers across the defensive line paired with the athleticism, length, and speed of linebackers is not something to be overlooked.  Yes, Foskey will draw a lot of attention from opposing offensive lines, similar to what is expected on the other side of the ball with Michael Mayer, but this leaves some great opportunities for the Ademilolas and the rest of the defensive front to cause some major disruptions.  Marist Liufau, JD Bertrand, and Jack Kiser have been named the starting linebackers for game one – returning production from Bertrand and Kiser and Liufau looks to sure up the will position.  In the secondary, All-American safety Brandon Joseph and senior safety DJ Brown, along with Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis, TaRiq Bracy, and Jaden Mickey at the corner position, will have their hands full going up against the high-powered Buckeyes offense.  Throughout the year, I expect Joseph and Hart to be major factors in Notre Dame’s success, but I am very excited to see the impact that freshman Jaden Mickey can provide.  Speaking of freshmen, another name to keep an eye out for throughout this year is linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka.  The charisma and athleticism that these two bring will undoubtedly be fun to watch, both this year and in seasons to come.

Taking a look at the Irish opponent for week one, the Buckeyes are led by 4th year head coach Ryan Day who has only lost a total of four games while coaching Ohio State.  On the field, the Buckeyes are led by pre-season Heisman favorite, CJ Stroud, at quarterback.  Stroud, a junior from California finished the 2021 season ranked fifth in total yards, third in touchdowns, and first in QBR – very impressive numbers to say the least.  Stroud’s main target on the outside is Rockwell, Texas native Jaxon Smith-Njigba.  Smith-Njigba is a speedy playmaker who finished last season averaging just under 17 yards per catch, an almost sure-fire NFL draft pick.  The Notre Dame defensive backs will certainly need to contain the Buckeye weapons, but I believe that the containment starts up front.  If Notre Dame’s defensive line can put continual pressure on Stroud, forcing him into quicker decisions and maybe even turnovers, the Irish should fare well.  Two turnovers forced by the Irish defense, and I think Notre Dame is sitting pretty (granted, ND can’t turn the ball over more than that).  The key word when the Ohio State offense is on the field is containment.  Contain the playmakers and contain the offense as a whole.  We have all seen the pre-season accolades talking about how much of a high-powered offense this is, and they will undoubtedly score points.  But, if Notre Dame can limit some of the Buckeye drives to end in no points or field goals rather than touchdowns, the 17.5-point spread could look a lot more enticing for Irish fans. 

A familiar face is heading up the Buckeye defense this year, former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.  Knowles’ defensive adjustments during last years Fiesta Bowl was able to hold the Irish offense to just 7 points in the second half; yes, under much different circumstances this time around – Knowles coaching a different team and Freeman having a full off-season to prepare for a game rather than just a few weeks.  Knowles typically likes to run a 4-2-5 defensive scheme, but with this being his first off-season working with the Buckeye athletes, it is hard to predict exactly what that will look like.  At his previous stops at Duke and Oklahoma State, the complexity of his defensive schemes has taken a few weeks to iron its kinks out – making a Jim Knowles led defense most susceptible in its earlier games.  We will see if this remains the case at Ohio State and if this is something that the Irish offense can take advantage of. 

Notre Dame has the talent on the roster to play with Ohio State, it will come down to how well they can execute on both sides of the ball that will ultimately determine the outcome of Saturday’s matchup.  Under a new coaching regime, it is very hard to know what to expect when walking in to the first game of the season, let alone the first game being a top-5 showdown.  We will see how good of an in-game head coach Marcus Freeman is and how well this reconstructed coaching staff has this Notre Dame team prepared.  Freeman and the staff have created a lot of positive momentum on the recruiting trail, and I have one ask for Notre Dame fans no matter what the outcome of Saturday’s game ends up being…do not overreact.  Don’t overreact to a loss and say, “the sky is falling”, “Freeman was the wrong hire”, “same old Notre Dame”, etc.  Going up against one of the pre-season National Champion favorites, on the road, at night, with a first-year head coach and first-year starting quarterback is not an easy task for any team out there.  And no, I’m not trying to make excuses, I am simply pointing out facts.  If the Irish can pull off the upset, don’t overreact in the other direction either.  “Notre Dame is going 12-0”, “the rest of the season is going to be a cake walk”, “we want Bama”, etc.  Will this be a massive win (and maybe the biggest Notre Dame win of my lifetime)?  You know it.  But if I ask you not to overreact to a loss, it is only right that we as a fanbase not overreact to a win either.

With all that being said, it’s the first game of the Freeman Era…you think that in my blue and gold bleeding heart, I’m going to pick against the Irish?  Come on now…31-27 Notre Dame. This happens because Notre Dame Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees calls a great game that helps play to the strengths of Buchner while the Irish defense creates 1-2 turnovers and limits 2 Buckeye drives to field goals rather than touchdowns. It’s a big ask, but there’s no time like the start of the Freeman Era.  Go Irish.  Beat Buckeyes.

Notre Dame injuries of note: Jarrett Patterson (Offensive Line – questionable), Avery Davis (Wide Receiver – out for season)  

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