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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

September 21, 2023
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At the end of fall camp, there was a buzz about Notre Dame’s 2023 football team. Every media member covering the team could feel it.

Camp was very competitive and that was no surprise, but more than just the energy around the team, it was obvious that this group looked different than Freeman’s first one at Notre Dame. They were faster. More violent. The depth was better. It looked more like a team who could compete with just about any team in the country.

They went out the first four games of the season and looked the part. The offense put up 40 in each game. The defensive deficiencies that hurt them last season have no longer been an issue. Notre Dame played very well and looked like who we thought they were.

More will be revealed this weekend when the level of competition jumps up several notches against Ohio State. Depending on where you look, they have as many as five top-50 NFL Draft prospects on their roster. They have several others who will play on Sundays as well. It’s one of the most talented teams in the country.

OSU is 25-4 in their last 29 games. The only teams to have beaten them are Oregon, Georgia, and Michigan (twice). If Notre Dame wins on Saturday, it’s a legitimate indication that this Irish team is for real.

The Irish gave Ohio State a game to start last season. Notre Dame held OSU to their lowest point total of the season and second lowest yards per play behind the Northwestern game when the best defense against the Buckeyes was the wind that made it practically impossible to throw the football.

That loaded wide receiver room was mostly held in check against the Irish. Marvin Harrison Jr. torched the blue-bloods OSU played in 2022 with 10 for 185 against Penn State, seven for 120 against Michigan, and five for 106 against Georgia (in less than a full game). He had five for 56 against Notre Dame.

But even holding someone like him check and having Jaxon Smith-Njigba injured early in the game didn’t prevent OSU from winning. They had other game wreckers who led them to victory.

Defensive tackle Michael Hall Jr. was a problem all day for the Irish to block. Running backs Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson averaged 6.0 and 6.1 yards per carry. Offensive tackles Paris Johnson and Dawand Jones shut down Isaiah Foskey, only one pressure, and helped their running game close out the game in the fourth quarter.

Even CJ Stroud, who didn’t light the world on fire with big numbers, was clutch when he needed to be. He was 10 of 11 for 11.3 yards per attempt and two touchdowns when Notre Dame sent the blitz.

OSU had that and Notre Dame’s best players didn’t make a difference. I mentioned Foskey already, but Jayson Ademilola, who did a lot of talking in the lead up to the game, was a non-factor with zero pressures. They limited Michael Mayer and without him producing it showed where things stood with the rest of Notre Dame’s offense at the time.

They simply didn’t have enough of impact players to step up and win a game like that.

This season is different. OSU is still loaded with talent, but Notre Dame has more potential game wreckers that they didn’t have last year in week one. Joe Alt and Blake Fisher are different players than they were a year ago. Audric Estime wasn’t the lead back that he is now. Notre Dame didn’t have a quarterback like Sam Hartman, the same kind of depth that they have now at running back, or as many options who can win in the passing game.

Xavier Watts and Marist Liufau are not the same players either. Benjamin Morrison wasn’t starting in week one of last season and Howard Cross was not playing at the same level he is now. There’s more players who have stepped up and made plays to start the season and if they made plays on Saturday, it wouldn’t surprise Notre Dame fans like it would have in 2022.

These types of games against great teams are typically determined by whose best players play the best that day or night. At the end of fall camp, Marcus Freeman talked about what we had seen during it and made sure to make a point about the coaches putting their best players in a position to succeed.

He wasn’t talking about any game or this game specifically, but he could have been based on what he communicated.

“You have to make sure your coaches give off the vibe of competitive spirit. There is a truly tactical aspect to playing the game of football. You have to be intelligent; you have to make sure your schemes are good enough to help you win. But I’ve challenged our players and our coaches—we’re going to be best when our great players play great. How do we get our best players to play great? If you have so many different schemes that they’re not playing fast, then your great players aren’t playing great.”

Notre Dame’s coaches have had good schemes on offense and defense to start this season, but the most important thing they’ve done is getting so many players to play really well within those schemes. That has to continue for them on Saturday.

They can come in with an awesome game plan on both sides of the ball. They can be prepared for everything OSU will throw at them and be ready with adjustments when the time comes too. That’s important, but they need to do everything they can to have Notre Dame’s best players be at their best.

If they do that, then the Irish have the team to win a game against this type of opponent.

2. Getting pressure on Kyle McCord is going to be very important for Notre Dame in this game. Foskey and Ademilola didn’t have the impact the Irish needed last season and overall the defense only pressured Stroud on 20% of drop backs. No matter how well they cover on the back end, that’s not close to good enough.

To say McCord hasn’t been challenged yet by a defense is an understatement. In the first three games he’s only been pressured 13 times (16.3% of drop backs). Ohio State couldn’t ask for a better situation for a new starting quarterback. (In that tiny sample size, McCord’s passer rating is 41.7 when pressured. It’s 137.7 when he has a clean pocket)

Notre Dame’s pressure rate in the first four games is 47.4%. Ohio State hasn’t faced anyone who can get after the passer and Notre Dame hasn’t faced any good offensive lines yet. This is also the first time this season that the Irish are going to face a quarterback who isn’t a scrambler. They don’t have to spy or concentrate on squeezing the pocket to remove lanes to run. They can finally get after it.

I know many people will be looking at Javontae Jean-Baptise and Jordan Botelho as players who need to have a big game rushing the passer and it would be a great time for Botelho to have a breakout. If he plays like the same guy who had 10 pressures against South Carolina last season, that would be huge.

It’s two new tackles starting for OSU and how good they are is unknown. Josh Fryar has started three games and San Diego State transfer Josh Simmons is talented, but also inconsistent. He’s had 20 penalties called against him in his last 17 games and he’s played only three games against Power 5 teams (Arizona, Utah, and Indiana). He was not good against Utah and Indiana.

Though Rylie Mills hasn’t been the force Notre Dame fans were hoping he’d be as an interior defensive linemen, he’s fifth in pass rush win percentage for defensive tackles with at least 50 pass rush opportunities. Howard Cross is 13th. They are critical pieces as well as Marist Liufau off the edge (20% versus true pass sets) and this could be a great opportunity for Jaylen Sneed too (also 20%).

(True pass sets are a pass with no play action, no screen, no rollout, no quick game (time to throw between two and four seconds), and with more than a three-man rush.)

That leads into the obvious statement: they can’t get pressure on McCord if they are having success running the ball and able to use play-action frequently. They need to win on early downs and create those obvious passing situations.

Then when they do that, putting pressure on McCord is going to be critically important.

3. Ohio State is 94th in 3rd down conversion percentage in the first three games. When I think of 3rd down for Notre Dame, I’m thinking of pressure packages and the different ways Al Golden can attack with the blitz.

In the first two games, McCord was 7 of 14 vs blitz, averaged 6.2 YPA and 1 INT. Against Indiana he was 5 of 11 and averaged 5.3 YPA. It got much better against Western Kentucky.

How much of that was McCord feeling more comfortable and the offense executing better? How much of that was WKU having a bad defense? They are 96th in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ranking) and had a truly horrible plan against Ohio State.

Those are questions we’ll find out, but regardless of the answers, he’s certainly not at the level Stroud was when he carved up the Notre Dame defense against the blitz.

I mentioned on Power Hour this week that we really haven't come close to what we’re going to see with Notre Dame’s pressure packages out of “Spear”, their three safety sub-package. My guess is we’ll see more of that this week when it’s 3rd down for Ohio State.

4. There is nothing that shows just how different Notre Dame’s offense is this year compared to last year than the wide receiver position.

Lorenzo Styles was considered the top receiver heading into the season. He’s now a defensive back at Ohio State and not even playing for them. Braden Lenzy led the receivers with four targets in week one. The rest of the receivers had three. Chris Tyree was the only running back with a target (one).

Eight targets for the receivers and backs sums up the status of where things were with Notre Dame’s passing game. It’s not just Hartman that has made a difference for Notre Dame. They have more options out of the backfield and the receiver position is in a much better spot than it was.

Receivers only caught 10 touchdown passes during the entire 2022 season. They have eight in four games to start this season.

It’s a low bar for Notre Dame’s receivers and backs to make a bigger impact in the passing game against Ohio State this year. The Buckeyes have a great defense, but they also have more things to worry about with the Irish passing game now.

5. I mentioned points per Eckel last week (points allowed per quality possession, which is either a big play touchdown or a possession that has a 1st and 10 across the opponents' 40-yard line). Well, these two teams have both been great in scoring points when the offense has a quality possession and at not allowing points when the defense gives up a quality possession. As always, thanks to Parker Fleming for sharing these advanced stats previews.

Ohio State’s offense: 9th in points per Eckel

Notre Dame’s defense: 1st in points per Eckel

Notre Dame’s offense: 21st in points per

Eckel Ohio State’s defense: 16th in points per Eckel

Who is better at getting stops or holding an offense to three and not seven is the kind of thing that can make the difference in a game that is expected to be tight. Notre Dame’s red zone Havoc rate improvement (21.1% compared to 11.3% in 2022) has been critical in helping them force teams into field goal attempts. That’s a trend that needs to continue.

6. There’s a lot of times that winning in football comes down to who can be the most successful at exploiting the weaknesses of their opponent. That’s something we’ll see in this matchup like we do every week.

After the game, we could be talking a lot about whether or not Notre Dame’s slot receivers can create big plays against Ohio State’s nickel or how Notre Dame’s interior offensive linemen will handle Michael Hall and Ohio State’s defensive tackles. But let’s not kid ourselves, one of the reasons that this game is so intriguing is the amount of best on best we’ll see from players on both teams who will be watched closely by NFL scouts.

Joe Alt has given up zero pressures this season. If he’s going to be a top-10 pick, having that kind of day in pass protection against edge rushers JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer is big step towards that. Blake Fisher didn’t have his best day against NC State. This is a game where he can do well against those two and wipe the slate clean.

The same goes for Tuimoloau and Sawyer. Those two had dominant days against Western Kentucky with a combined 16 pressures, but Sawyer had only one pressure in their first two games and Tuimoloau has 0.5 havoc plays through three games. These guys need to have big games to help their draft stock too.

Cam Hart can go from intriguing prospect with great measurables to rising up draft boards with a strong game against Ohio State’s receivers. Benjamin Morrison isn’t eligible to leave after this season, but he already has the attention of scouts. If he holds his own against Marvin Harrison Jr., he’ll have the attention of every NFL team.

Rylie Mills was 10th on Bruce Feldman’s 2023 Freaks List. He may have the tools to be a disruptive force, but he hasn’t been that so far. If he is going up against Ohio State guard Donovan Jackson, considered to be one of the top interior line prospects for the 2024 NFL Draft, Mills is going to make himself some money.

There’s a lot to gain from this game for both teams and it’s about more than just looking good in the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee. The best players are the ones who have the most to say in deciding who wins the game. The best players also have the most to gain from having a great day against other players who are going to be playing on Sundays next fall.

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