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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame's offense under Sam Hartman is still work in progress late in season

November 14, 2023
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Sam Hartman fell on the proverbial sword following Notre Dame’s 31-23 loss to Clemson last Saturday, plunging responsibility for the defeat into his heart. 

The quarterback declared to the media, the Fighting Irish faithful and anyone else listening that the result occurred because he went 13-30 for 146 yards and two interceptions. There’s no need to blame poor coaching decisions, head-scratching play calls or an inability for much of the team to execute down the stretch. 

Coach Marcus Freeman sees it differently.

“The thing you love about Sam is that he takes ownership of everything, and he's not passing blame,” Freeman said. “But as the head coach, you look and you watch and evaluate, and it's an accumulation of [a lot of things]. We've got to protect Sam Hartman better. We’ve got to be precise in the exact route details that we have. Sam's got to make better decisions, as he'll be the first to tell you, but it's not just one thing.”

While all of the above is true, there’s no getting around the bitter reality of Hartman’s tenure in South Bend. Such poor results are par for the course against the top-tier opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule this season.

Hartman’s numbers have taken a dramatic dip versus opponents that have appeared in the top 25 at some point this season, especially compared to when he’s faced yet-to-be-ranked teams.

                                     Sam Hartman versus ranked & unranked opponents
  Completion Yards/Game Touchdowns (Passing-Rushing) Turnovers (Picks-Fumbles)
Vs. Ranked 56% 184.6 6 (5-1) 7 (5-2)
Vs. Unranked 71.3% 269.8 15 (13-2) 3 (2-1)

Oddly enough, he pulled a reverse-Drew Pyne — yes, the signal-caller Notre Dame drove out of town last December after Freeman shared his desire to pursue a transfer QB that eventually became Hartman.

Pyne was often at his best against the best on Notre Dame’s schedule and far more efficient than Hartman in obvious passing down

                                     Drew Pyne versus ranked & unranked opponents
  Completion Yards/Game Touchdowns (Pass-Rushing) Turnovers (Picks-Fumbles)
Vs. Ranked 70.1% 214.0 12 (11-1) 4 (3-1)
Vs. Unranked 59.2% 158.5 12 (11-1) 5 (3-2)

Perhaps, Notre Dame would’ve beaten Ohio State, Louisville and Clemson (again!) if Pyne is still the program’s man under center.

Doubtful.

Hartman may not be a Heisman contender, but he’s still an upgrade.

“We got to do things as coaches and players around him to help him have success because he is a talented, talented individual,” Freeman said,” but it's hard because he's only gonna have 12, 13 games in this new system. But that's not always going to be a reflection of how good of a player Sam Hartman is.” 

Plus, Pyne has experienced his own turnover disasters in effectively two games at Arizona State this season, turning the ball over five times whilst getting sacked on 11 occasions. 

The charts also represent somewhat selective statistics. Pyne never had to face Ohio State, and “ranked” encompasses a Syracuse team that finished 7-6. 

Still, the latter is also the opponent Pyne performed the worst against, completing a season-low 47.4% of passes for 116 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The 2022 Orange limited opponents to 184.8 passing yards per game (14th out of 131 FBS teams), representing the top pass defense the Irish faced.

What the quarterback comparison actually underscores is that former offensive coordinator Tommy Rees consistently developed a winning game plan in marquee matchups by taking advantage of Pyne’s limited strengths and minimizing his apparent deficiencies. 

Thus far, that’s yet to be the case for Hartman, whose transition from Wake Forest’s slow-mesh offense to Notre Dame’s pro-style system started hot before fizzling in the national spotlight. 

“The biggest thing I think with Sam is that he's still in the first year of a completely different system,” Freeman said, “and the problem is you have so much success early, right that it's like, 'Oh man, he's just mastered this. 

“We're good to go. He's makes every perfect read and those types of things,’ and then you play some really good defenses, and we haven't a performed as well. The challenge is always figuring out why.”

In addition to the turnovers, Notre Dame has often failed to get anything going in the down-the-field passing game. Hartman went 1-10 on throws that traveled more than 10 yards for 21 yards and an interception against Clemson.

Of course, the Irish were rather effective on deep shots the week prior against Pitt, so Clemson likely game-planned to take those away with a pass defense that gives up 162.5 yards per game (T-7th out of 133 FBS teams), and Notre Dame lacked the personnel to counter. 

The Irish are still missing a viable go-to playmaker to rely on against top defenses. That is, someone who can highpoint the ball against any defender and come down with a reception, no matter how tight the coverage. 

Notre Dame typically had at least one pass-catcher with this skillset in the past.

                     Recent Fighting Irish players with 6+ contested catches in a season
Pass-Catcher Year Contested Catches Contest Targets CT% 10+ 20+
Michael Mayer 2022 17 26 65.4% 7 5
Michael Mayer 2021 13 23 56.5% 7 1
Kevin Austin 2021 12 23 52.2% 10 9
Javon McKinley 2020 9 14 64.3% 7 5
Ben Skowronek 2020 6 9 66.7% 4 1
Chase Claypool 2019 15 26 57.7% 7 7
Miles Boykin 2018 10 24 41.7% 7 5
Chris Finke 2018 7 10 70% 2 2
Chase Claypool 2018 6 14 42.9% 2 1

*10+ & 20+ denotes contest catches where the throw traveled at least that distance in yards down the field.

It’s the type of playmaker Hartman has relied upon in the past. In each of the last two seasons, Wake Forest had five different pass-catchers with 7+ contested catches and three with 10+ and finished with a team total of 62. 

Notre Dame is on pace for 26, and it’s unlikely an individual on the roster will finish with six. That’s partially due to the loss of tight end Mitchell Evans, the team leader with five in eight games, which also emphasizes the immense value he brought to Hartman and the offense. 

Still, even with Evans in the lineup, there hasn’t been a player capable of consistently making contested catches of 20 yards or more down the field. As a team, the Irish are 5 of 12 on such opportunities — the type of production the program typically gets from one player. 

Currently, the 5-foot-9 Chris Tyree and freshman Jaden Greathouse lead the team in this category with two apiece. 

Ultimately, that’s not an excuse for Hartman, offensive coordinator Gerad Parker or anyone else.

If deep shots aren’t working against a particular opponent, it’s time to adjust.

“We can't just take the one-on-one every time,” Freeman said. “Maybe we do have to take this free access throw that they're given us to have success. We want to win the 50-50 balls. We haven't won them right now, so how do we continuously find ways to help Sam in his decision-making because Sam's gonna do exactly what you tell him to do.”

Otherwise, the run game effectively collapses as well. 

Notre Dame scored on its first two possessions of the second half against Clemson, making it a one-score game midway through the third quarter. 

Clemson loaded the box from that point on, and Hartman went 5-17 with an interception from that point on. As a result, the Irish produced 56 total yards over the final six offensive possessions, which included a trio of three-and-outs and six carries for 27 sack-adjusted rush yards. 

It’s easy to point the finger at Hartman’s shaky under-center play or an inability to effectively throw out-of-play action, but that’s oversimplifying why a six-year college veteran finished the game with a 15.1 NFL passer rating. 

“We all have to understand that if there was a quick fix, an easy answer — just do this and you're gonna win and get first downs — we all would do it,” Freeman said. “That's why this game of football is so frustrating because you try to do things that you believe are going to help you have success, and they don't always guarantee to have success.”

 
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