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Notre Dame Football

With Healthier Wideouts, Notre Dame Intends to Push the Ball Downfield vs. Pitt

October 24, 2023

In recent weeks, the Notre Dame offense has stagnated. 

Over the last four games, the Fighting Irish are averaging 5.3 yards per play — a mark that would tie them for 94th nationally this season.

“The biggest thing is the execution,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “The challenge will continuously be we have to simplify so the execution is at the standard we need it to be. It’s not more, more, more. It’s clear, clear, clear.” 

Of course, it’s difficult to execute when one of the most important position groups is decimated by injury. 

The Irish were down to three scholarship wide receivers following the 17-14 loss to Ohio State. 

In the three games since, Notre Dame wideouts have 20 receptions on 43 targets for 285 yards (95 yards per game) and two touchdowns.

                                 Notre Dame Receiver Production Over Three Previous Games
Wide Receiver Targets Rec. Yards Touchdowns
Chris Tyree 11 7 114 1
Rico Flores Jr. 15 6 65 0
Jordan Faison 5 4 56 1
Jayden Thomas 3 2 33 0
Tobias Merriweather 9 1 17 0

That should change this weekend. Hamstring injuries have hampered Jayden Thomas and Jayden Greathouse, but they should be a full-go against Pitt (2-5) on Saturday. 

“They’re going to be as close to 100 percent as they’ve been all year,” Freeman said. “JT was probably a step below where he was two weeks ago. Louisville, he was probably at a higher level in terms of how he felt than he was versus USC, which dictated a little bit of what we did with him. Greathouse has continuously gotten better and better with his hamstring.”

It’s unclear if Deion Colze will return this season after he had his knee scoped in September. 

The 6-foot-4 receiver broke out in the season opener against Navy with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, but he’s been limited or unavailable ever since.

“He will probably start some individual this week,” Freeman said. “He’s probably a little behind where we thought he’d be with the scope on his knee. I still see him coming back here in the next couple of weeks and being available.”

The emergence of former walk-on Jordan Faison gives the Irish a solid two-deep at wide receiver.

They’ll need this unit to make plays this weekend against a top-30 Pittsburgh pass defense that also loves to load the box.

“We have to continue to build confidence in taking shots, especially playing the defense we play this week,” Freeman said. “You’re going to have to take some shots and some play-action shots. We’re continuously looking at the things we do.”

That’s easier said than done. Quarterback Sam Hartman is 19 of 41 (46.3%) on play-action passes for five touchdowns and an interception.

Still, the Irish likely won’t have a choice but to test the sixth-year quarterback in this regard. 

Getting Greathouse and Thomas back to 100 percent should help the Irish find holes in the Pitt defense down the field. Neither are burners, but both are adept enough route runners to beat man coverage or find an opening in the zone. 

Despite injuries, they’ve still snagged 5 of the 7 combined deep balls (20+ yards through the air) thrown their way for 121 yards and four touchdowns. 

                                                 Notre Dame Receiver Production on Deep Shots
Player 20+ Receptions 20+ Targets Yards TDs
Chris Tyree 3 5 146 3
Jaden Greathouse 3 3 68 3
Jayden Thomas 2 4 53 1
Tobias Merriweather 1 5 75 1
Jordan Faison 1 2 36 1
Rico Flores, Jr.  0 7 0 0

Their return should also enable freshman receiver Rico Flores, Jr. to serve a more comfortable role. He’s 0-7 on deep shots thus far, but he’s 9 for 12 on short-to-intermediate throws over the middle of the field for 93 yards and a touchdown.

Speedsters in Faison and Chris Tyree have been surprisingly efficient downfield, but it’s difficult to use them in this role consistently since they’re both a few inches under 6-foot-0.

The key to unlocking the deep passing game is sophomore Tobias Merriweather. The 6-foot-4 receiver has the height and speed to get open beyond the second level, which he’s done at least once per game this season. 

Only when given the opportunity, he just hasn’t made enough plays on the ball to be a reliable deep threat, but the Irish hope that changes this weekend.

“We talked about this today in our meeting. We have to try and find ways to get him the ball and take some shots down the field with Tobias’ body, length and speed,” Freeman said. “We have to try and continuously find ways to truly take shots and not look for the wide-open perfect play. That’s what, at times, we can end up doing. 

“We have to take shots and believe he’ll make a play on a 50-50 ball. We have full faith that he will.”

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