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

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