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Previewing The Fighting Irish with Notre Dame Expert

We spoke with our friends at One Foot Down to get the inside scoop on Notre Dame.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We spoke with Patrick Sullivan at One Foot Down to get the inside scoop on Notre Dame ahead of Saturday’s Game.

1) Notre Dame came into the season with lofty expectations but started 0-2. They’ve now won two in a row, but what is the overall feel for the team and the outlook for the rest of the season?

It was no doubt a major bummer the way ND started their season, particularly the Marshall game. Even after the Ohio State loss, there was plenty of optimism because we all knew the Buckeyes are really good and the Irish had basically played them even for 3 quarters, but just faded in the 4th. That was a nice sign in QB Tyler Buchner’s first start and Marcus Freeman’s first regular season game.

After Marshall, though, Irish fans went into full-on meltdown mode, with everyone predicting a 4-8 or 3-9 season and the more radical folks already saying they thought Freeman didn’t have what it takes yet to be a head coach at a program like Notre Dame. That was obviously premature, but you can’t blame us for panicking a bit after losing at home to the Thundering Herd — at that point, what games on the schedule DIDN’T suddenly seem losable?

The beginning of the Cal game did nothing to help any of the above, with Drew Pyne looking incompetent (which it now appears was mostly nerves, but at the time was just laughably bad quarterbacking). However, the Irish recovered to do a few nice things and juuuust barely win that game, securing Freeman his first win as head coach. They then followed that up by going to Chapel Hill and dominating the Tar Heels’ horrible defense with a fantastic performance by the offensive line and running game, with all three running backs going over 100 yards from scrimmage. Pyne looked much better (and even made some throws downfield), and the defense, though not perfect, made enough plays to slow down Drake Maye and that high-powered offense. Truthfully, ND should have scored 50-60 points and won by much more than 13, but had some miscues in the fourth that made the final score much closer than the game actually was throughout.

So overall, I would say that everyone in Irish Nation is now breathing a bit easier, but we also had enough of a reality check that no one still believes a NY6 bowl bid or anything really close to that is still on the table. Notre Dame still has to play BYU, Syracuse, Clemson, and USC, and there are plenty of games in between those that could be scarily close or even losses if the team taps back into what they did against Marshall. Nevertheless, I think Freeman and co. have done a good job resurrecting the season, the team is finally starting to jell, and I would guess the Irish finish something much more like 8-4 or 7-5, which isn’t great but is much more palatable than 3-9.

2) What is the strength of the Notre Dame offense and defense?

On offense, ND’s strength is exactly what you’d expect: their running game + tight end Michael Mayer.

The offensive line is a talented, experienced group who was underperforming early in the season but is finally starting to play as they should, and the Irish backfield is comprised of three really good backs who all rotate in and have unique strengths. Chris Tyree (189 yds, 4.6 YPC, 1 TD; 12 rec, 88 yds, 1 TD) is the lightning to Audric Estime’s (264 yds, 4.9 YPC, 4 TDs) thunder, and Logan Diggs (66 yds rushing; 3 rec, 65 yds, 1 TD) is somewhere in between with very good vision, cutting ability, and solid receiving skills.

Then, you add in Mayer (22 rec, 233 yds, 3 TDs), who is perhaps the best tight end in the country (and if he isn’t, he’s definitely the best one not named Brock Bowers). The Irish may not have an optimal passing attack to maximize Mayer’s production while starting their backup QB, but they still get the ball to him plenty as a security blanket on 3rd downs and a match-up nightmare for all opponents, and he’s a fantastic run blocker to boot.

Defensively, the answer is definitely the defensive line, and then to a lesser extent, the secondary. The d-line goes 8-10 guys deep, is 12th in the country in sacks per game, and features an All-American in DE Isaiah Foskey (3 sacks) as well as a trio of undersized but super good veteran DTs (Jayson Ademilola, Howard Cross III, and Jacob Lacey, who’ve combined for 36 tackles and 4.5 sacks), and when they’re on, the entire group is great at disrupting and getting after the QB (other names to know in that regard are Rylie Mills and Justin Ademilola, who have 3.5 combined sacks between them).

In the secondary, safety Brandon Joseph is an All-American caliber guy and some of the corners/nickelbacks have been very impressive this season against really good passing offenses in OSU and UNC — namely, TaRiq Bracy and true freshman Benjamin Morrison, who just was officially named the lone starter at one of the CB positions this week. The ND DBs aren’t perfect by any means, but there’s enough tested talent there to slow down Jaren Hall and his receivers at least a bit.

3) What are the weak spots of the Notre Dame offense and defense?

On offense, it’s the wide receiver position, followed by quarterback. QB is explainable considering Drew Pyne was supposed to be the backup until Tyler Buchner was lost for the season, so now he’s the starter and Notre Dame is one injury away from true freshman Steve Angeli having to play. Pyne has started to look better the last couple games, but he’s still very limited and Angeli is nowhere near ready to play against a team like BYU (let alone someone like Clemson later this year), so it’s not a great situation, to say the least.

WR, meanwhile, is an absolute shitshow. ND has Lorenzo Styles Jr. as a young, talented, and undeniable WR1 (16 rec, 221 yds, 1 TD), but after him the Irish depth chart has neither quality nor quantity to turn to at the position. Due to poor recruiting and development, transfers, and position switches, the Irish have only 4-6 other scholarship wideouts available on the entire roster after Styles, with one of those being a true freshman, one being a former walk-on, and multiple battling injuries and/or not having really played any significant time to-date in their careers. They’re doing Drew Pyne no favors there, and someone besides Styles needs to step up in a hurry.

Defensively, the linebackers were supposed to be a potential strength entering the season, as they’re a group of upperclassmen with tons of experience, multiple team captains, and a guy who was supposed to be a breakout star in Marist Liufau, who missed all of 2021 with a leg injury. Instead, the group has looked slow and sometimes lost, missed several key tackles, and just generally not been great. I think BYU can absolutely exploit them on Saturday if they force them to cover in space.

I also think there are pieces of the ND secondary that are less a strength as mentioned above and more a potential weakness. The safety position opposite Joseph is a rotation of guys who haven’t looked overwhelmingly good, and corners like upperclassmen Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis haven’t performed up to standard (which is partially why Morrison has been elevated to starter). I think Hall can pick on all those guys and find a decent amount of success, especially if he has all his receivers healthy and available to throw to, and time to do so.

4) Notre Dame has turned to backup QB Drew Pyne. What does he bring to the position?

Most of all, I would say he brings confidence. There’s no question he’s a veteran who knows the offense and believes he can get the job done. This was him when he had to come in in relief in a close game in the 4th quarter against Wisconsin last season, throwing a touchdown that would be followed up by multiple pick-sixes by the ND defense to make the final score a blowout instead of reflecting how close the game really was:

On top of his confidence and swagger, he’s a pretty consistent and accurate quarterback (especially after his nerves subsided against Cal), and although he might not have a laser rocket arm, he’s got enough ability when it comes to slinging it that he can make plenty of throws downfield and otherwise when absolutely needed.

There IS a reason he was the backup when the year started, though. His lack of height makes it difficult for him to see over the line and throw over the middle/downfield at times, and his confidence can get him into trouble if/when he tries to force passes that turn into turnovers. Also, he’s not bad at moving in the pocket or scrambling, but he isn’t a dual-threat by any means and thus was a major downgrade in that department from Buchner, who was an excellent runner. That limits some of Tommy Rees’ playbook as well, although I’m not completely sure that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Overall, he’s a fine backup and someone we mostly trust to play pretty well, but he’s not going to win ND many games on his own and he’s not the ideal guy to have to start for 10-11 games in 2022 against the likes of BYU, Clemson, USC, etc.

5) Any key Notre Dame injuries to keep an eye on?

Besides Buchner as the obvious injury to call out, there are a few others to note, either who will be out this week or who are coming back from injury.

Backup tight end Kevin Bauman tore his ACL and is done for the season, and the next two guys on the depth chart — Mitchell Evans and Cane Berrong — are both still rehabbing their own injuries, so true freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes will see plenty of time along with former walk-on Sherwood Davis. I think Raridon is already really good both as a pass-catcher and as a blocker, though, so it might not be a huge step down at the position (but still worth noting). Freeman also said in his presser this week that Michael Mayer was “banged up” and needed a lot of rest during the bye week, so that’s something to keep an eye on, considering how important he is to the offense.

Elsewhere, LG Jarrett Patterson was battling a sprained foot early in the year and missed the Ohio State game because of it, but played in the next three and should be feeling decent after a bye week to rest it a bit. Safeties DJ Brown (hamstring) and Ramon Henderson (ankle) both either missed or had to leave the UNC game due to injury, but it sounds like they should both be good to go this week.

Final note: it’s not an injury, but starting LB and captain J.D. Bertrand will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting against North Carolina. This is the second straight game he’s had to miss the first half due to targeting, as he managed the same ejection against Cal and was thus suspended for the first half of UNC. I don’t think he’s a malicious headhunter out there or anything (and many didn’t think his penalty against UNC should have been held up as targeting upon review/appeal), but the guy clearly needs to put himself in some better situations when tackling guys. Hopefully he can stay clean in the second half on Saturday.

6) What worries you about BYU?

Mostly it’s their passing attack. I think the Irish defense is pretty good at containing the run, but if their pass rush isn’t landing, I don’t think the Notre Dame secondary/linebackers are good enough to not get burned a few times for big gains. Jaren Hall is a talented, accurate passer who doesn’t turn it over much (and ND has only forced one turnover all year, with no INTs yet...not great!), and he seems mobile enough and has enough really good targets to throw to that I’m worried he could do a lot of damage — especially if guys like Puka Nacua will be available.

On the other side, I think the BYU linebackers and secondary scare me a bit, just because they seem to have some solid talent there and have proven they can force some turnovers. Drew Pyne got to play the UNC defense last game, so he will have to tighten up even more to avoid committing turnovers that could put ND in a hole that they aren’t built to come back from due to their run-heavy offense.

7) Non-game question: Do most Notre Dame fans want to stay independent in football, or would they rather join the Big 10?

Notre Dame fans would very much like to stay independent, full stop.

The only way we would accept a move to a conference — and even then it would still receive TONS of pushback, especially from the old and cranky crowd — is if joining a conference was the ONLY possible way the Irish would get a seat at the table in terms of being included in the College Football Playoff and having the opportunity to play for national titles. Ideally (and maybe arrogantly, I will admit), I think Notre Dame’s brand and national fan base and appeal (and the hate they engender in countless more people) allow for it to have enough sway as an independent to not have to join a conference, but the way things have gone lately with conference realignment, I’m not sure I feel suuuuper confident in that continuing to hold up forever.

The Big Ten does seem like the obvious choice for ND if that were to become a necessity, for academic and geographic reasons, but it would be a TOUGH pill to swallow for any ND fans who know the history of Michigan leading that conference in black-balling the Irish for decades (which, ironically, forced the Irish to play a more national schedule and grow into the power they were from the 1920s to the 1990s). Hopefully it doesn’t ever come to that, but I’m not confident anymore that Irish fans won’t eventually be very disappointed on this topic.

8) What is your prediction for this game?

I could see this game going about 1,000 different ways, just because I think this Notre Dame team has shown us multiple different kinds of performances in their first 4 games this year (and hell, BYU has had some variance too, considering their nice win over Baylor but also getting blown out by Oregon).

My best guess is that it will be close throughout, with ND struggling to contain Jaren Hall and giving up a couple big plays through the air to BYU receivers, but with the ND offensive line and running game also finding lots of success and managing to eat some clock and put some points on the board as well.

I’m going to say BYU ultimately pulls ahead for good in the final 5-10 minutes and wins something like 33-27, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if my Irish make me eat those words with a strong defensive performance (the pass rush will be critical) and more execution from the offense than I currently expect from them against a non-UNC (i.e. competent) defense.