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Welcome Home Coach Freeman – Marshall vs. Notre Dame Preview

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