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Notre Dame Football

Fighting Irish Enter Ohio State Week Knowing What to Clean Up

September 17, 2023

Notre Dame won its fourth consecutive game by more than 20 points on Saturday with a 41-17 victory over Central Michigan. 

It’s also the first time the Fighting Irish failed to cover the spread this season, entering the contest as a 34.5-point favorite. 

While Notre Dame played well on both sides of the ball  — outgaining the Chippewas by nearly six yards per play — the Irish still came away having made plenty of mistakes. 

For the second week in a row, the Irish had at least eight penalties. Those didn’t impact the final outcome against North Carolina State or Central Michigan, but those penalties certainly will come into play if Notre Dame is in a close game against No. 6 Ohio State next weekend. 

“Every snap you have to be disciplined,” linebacker Jack Kiser said. “There were so many flags, we can't have that moving forward. In a tight game, those are going to matter.”

Notre Dame last had 18+ flags over the course of two consecutive games against Purdue and Wisconsin in 2021. The Irish followed that up with seven flags in a 24-13 home loss to No. 7 Cincinnati, which is actually the last time there was a top-10 matchup inside Notre Dame Stadium. 

Over the last two games, five of the flags were thrown on the Irish defense for 15-yard penalties. Those were the result of a personal foul, roughing the passer or unsportsmanlike conduct. 

Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman doesn’t believe this means his team is undisciplined. Instead, they must reign in their aggressiveness once the play is over.

“We have to continue to get better, and continue to make sure that they're an aggressive team,” he said. “Are they disciplined? Absolutely, but they're aggressive and sometimes you have aggressive penalties.”

The good news is a few of the culprits are already holding themself accountable. 

“The biggest thing is a lot of the yards we (gave up) are self-inflicted, and I take that personally,” Rylie Mills said, who was flagged for roughing the passer against Central Michigan. “My penalty, I get 15 yards. Coach Freeman said, ‘No one's worth 15 yards.’ Sometimes we get caught up and trying to make a play and get at the quarterback, and that's on me to get better and be more focused.”

The other defensive mistakes consisted of missed tackles (look at Pro Football Focus) or failing to get pressure when the secondary required it. 

That includes when Central Michigan quarterback Jase Bauer hit a 37-yard pass in the third quarter, which happened to be the Chippewas’ biggest play of the game. 

“The one long pass in the second half, we're blitzing six guys and we didn't get pressure, and so I can't get mad at the DBs,” Freeman said. “If we're bringing six guys, we have to get pressure. We have to challenge those guys that if we're going to blitz you, let's get pressure so the DBs don't have to cover for longer than the amount of time we need them to.”

Of course, pretty much everyone has aspects to clean up, even the offense, which totalled 578 yards on Saturday. 

Tight end Holden Staes and offensive linemen Pat Coogan and Blake Fisher were each flagged for holding against Central Michigan, with Staes negating a 72-yard touchdown run from running back Audric Estime. 

 Of course, there’s room for everyone to improve, even Heisman award candidate Sam Hartman, who’s thrown for 1,061 yards and totaled 15 touchdowns in four games. 

“He'll tell you he's got to be better,” Freeman said. “He made some mistakes today that he can improve on.”

His biggest advantage won’t be his lack of interceptions in 2023. It’ll be that the sixth-year quarterback is experienced enough to handle the moment. 

“His mind will be in a great spot and he knows he has to go out there and execute, go out there and do his job,” Freeman said. “He won't let the things that don't matter to having success affect him. Some young guys that have never been in this situation, sometimes you can let that stuff that has nothing to do with winning the game affect your preparation and affect your execution out there. 

“I don't think that'll be something that Sam will let bother him.”

The ninth-ranked Irish have a chance to pick the program’s biggest win of the Marcus Freeman era if they can defeat perennial Midwest power Ohio State.

“We're going to play a heck of an opponent next Saturday,” Freeman said, “so we'll see how good this football team really is.”

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