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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

September 14, 2023

As Marcus Freeman said on Monday, a college football team only gets 12 guaranteed opportunities to play in the regular season.That means they can’t overlook any opponents and they have to make the most of each opportunity.

The Notre Dame defense has certainly made the most of the first three opportunities this season. They haven’t exactly played the best offenses in the country, but all they can do is play the competition that’s in front of them and they’ve played well.

It’s not just that they’ve played well collectively. They have done that and then some. The defense is currently 3rd in points per Eckel, which is points given up per quality possession.

(What's a quality possession? Either a big play touchdown or a possession that has a 1st and 10 across the opponents' 40-yard line)

They’ve done that despite currently ranking 120th in field position. Yes, it’s early and this will change quite a bit during the season, but they’ve gotten stops after turnovers inside their own red zone twice already.

The defense as a whole can’t shine unless individual players are playing well and there’s been plenty of that too.

Howard Cross has the second best grade out of any defensive tackle in the country according to PFF. Marist Liufau is the top graded linebacker in the country. They’ve been standout players in the front six.

As a unit, the safety position managed only 13 total havoc plays (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, pass breakups) last season. It’s been three games and Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson have as many havoc plays as Brandon Joseph had all of last season. Henderson already has more than he had all of last season as well.

There are nine players with at least two havoc plays. Cam Hart already has five. Watts, Henderson, Thomas Harper, and Benjamin Morrison all have three.

I can hear it all the way in the back…”But they ain’t played nobody!”

It’s true. It’s definitely easier to have a bunch of playmakers step up when the competition isn’t great. They haven’t played Ohio State (3rd in OF+) or USC (1st in OF+) yet and they have skill talent that’s at a different level than any others the Irish will face.

But all Notre Dame can do right now is play to their standard and they’ve done that to start this season.

The games will get tougher and the opponents will be more talented, but the obvious development with specific players is hugely important in order for them to be able to handle the elevated competition when they get there. Al Golden’s defense is playing at a higher level now than at any point they did in 2022 and there’s a lot of reasons to be excited about how they’ll perform going forward.

2. Back before the season I wrote about magic numbers and one of the things I highlighted was that seven of the last nine national champions had a Havoc rate of 19.5% or higher. That’s the line a defense should be shooting for.

This is another area where the defense has done well. They had a 20.5% Havoc rate against NC State and are now up to 18.3% overall on the season. Just taking the last two two games where they played with their actual defense, rather than defending the option, it’s been 20.6%.

I’ll revisit where they’re at with it after they play Ohio State and Duke, but five forced fumbles, five interceptions, and 17 passes defended against 77 pass attempts is a dang good start.

3. Notre Dame has 17 receptions of 20+ yards over the first three games. It’s not something to get too hyped about, but it does stick out when seeing that USC has 18 over three games as well.

I don’t think anyone would dispute that USC has more explosive skill position talent than Notre Dame. That’s the expectation with them, though. They were second in the country in total explosive pass plays and averaged 5.2 per game last season.

Notre Dame averaged only 3.7 and they are clearly trending in the right direction so far.

ISD’s Drew Mentock pointed out in his piece earlier this week how much the Irish have been spreading the ball around with Jayden Thomas leading the team in target share (15.1%).

Michael Mayer was at 33% last season. Chase Claypool was at 28.6% in 2019. Will Fuller was at 28.2% in 2015. I’m sure if Notre Dame had that type of player, the target share would look similar to that.

It’s not to stay that someone like that might not emerge over the course of the season. It will be interesting to see if the targets increase for certain players once they get through the stretch from Ohio State to USC. For now, they’ve been getting big plays through the air from multiple players.

Jaden Greathouse, Chris Tyree, and Holden Staes all have three receptions of 20+ yards. Thomas has two. Six other players have one.

We don’t know yet if Staes’ monster day against NC State is the beginning of him becoming “that dude” for the Irish or if we’re going to see others have those types of games depending on the matchup each week. Spreading the ball around is working very well at the moment. This matchup against Central Michigan feels like a game where the backs could have a field day matched up with their linebackers.

4. I know after the NC State game most of the discussion about the offense had to do with explosive plays. For the defense it was about what they did to limit Brennen Armstrong. There probably wasn’t enough credit given to how Notre Dame finished the game.

It was 24-17 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The Irish scored 21 unanswered. Up until the final garbage time drive to end the game, they outgained NC State 103 yards to 32 (7.9 YPP to 2.7).

Notre Dame was 3 of 4 on 3rd down, had two interceptions, and the Irish defense only allowed one first down while they were scoring those 21 points.

Only two Notre Dame defenders played more than 40 snaps in either of the first two games. Xavier Watts and Marist Liufau played 73 and 70 snaps respectively against NC State.

The team was pretty much on easy street in the first couple of games, but were tested in a way they hadn’t been so far this season against NC State. It’s one thing to be the more talented team. It’s another thing to prove to be the physically and mentally tougher team.

5. NC State definitely came out and hit Notre Dame’s offensive line in the mouth to start the game. They weren’t ready for it, which is somewhat understandable.

Teams can go ones versus ones in practice to replicate the level of competition, but the first game on the road in a hostile environment with a silent count is different. It’s not a surprise that it took a while to get adjusted.

Audric Estime had three carries for one yard in the first quarter. He had 11 for 133 the rest of the game. Even if the 80-yard touchdown is taken out, he still averaged 5.3 yards per carry on his other 10 carries.

Some scheme helped with that, but the line doing a better job had a big impact as well. The backs finished with 31 for 196 (6.3 YPC). Those are numbers anyone would take against a Power 5 opponent.

In a lot of ways, that was like game one for the offensive line. The opponent isn’t as strong this week, but they need to treat this weekend seriously because starting slow against Ohio State, especially at home, is not a recipe for winning that game.

6. I guess part of what being a fan is all about is looking ahead to the future. That’s why we see message board topics on 2024 depth charts that pop up every once in a while and why we seem to frequently get asked whether or not Notre Dame should go back to the portal to take another quarterback transfer after this season.

Mike Frank and I both agreed on Power Hour this week that whether or not they do largely depends on who is available. That part is just as important as where things stand with their evaluations of Steve Angeli and Kenny Minchey.

Fit is obviously critical as well. Sam Hartman (5th in ESPN’s QBR) is thriving to start the season partially because it’s a good fit at Notre Dame. DJ Uiagalelei is doing well at Oregon State (2nd in QBR) and he seems to have chosen his next program wisely after leaving Clemson.

Washington’s Michael Penix (4th in QBR) is off to another scorching hot start, but he looked like a lost cause at Indiana. Reuniting with his former Indiana coordinator Kalen DeBoer made a ton of sense for him, but as important as that familiarity is the fact that Washington has good skill talent to get the ball to.

It might have seemed like a good fit for Brennan Armstrong (96th in QBR) to reunite with his former coordinator Robert Anae at NC State, but the supporting cast for the Wolfpack is nowhere close to what Armstrong had at Virginia. Cade McNamara (97th in QBR) got the opportunity to be QB1 at Iowa, but Brian Ferentz isn’t taking McNamara’s game to the next level.

In theory, resurrecting Graham Mertz (98th) sounded like it could happen with Billy Napier at Florida. It turns out, he’s still Graham Mertz. Nothing was going to change that.

Notre Dame’s staff clearly made the right call deciding to go to the portal after last season and they landed the right quarterback. Everyone has to let it play out and take that into consideration.

Everyone should also remember there is a lot of time left before any decision has to be made. They're going to have time to evaluate Angeli and Minchey and no matter who the quarterback is next season, they’ll be set up well with plenty of experienced talent returning on that side of the ball.

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