Audric Estime scores the game winner. (Photo by Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire)
Penalties, missed tackles, missed field goals, dropped passes, 3-15 on 3rd down, and a team trying to recover from an emotion sucking loss the week before.
Mitchell Evans, Howard Cross III, 3-3 on 4th down, no turnovers, and an ironclad will to win.
Spin it anyway you want, but there is one thing irrefutable about where the Irish stand halfway through the regular season. Notre Dame remains solidly in the national conversation with a spicy buffet of game dishes still to navigate.
The speculation all week that the Irish would be an angry team entering the Duke contest was correct, but that anger channeled mostly into an unsteady performance Saturday night. The problems start with 12 penalties 9 of which were of the pre-snap kind. Five yards here, five yards there, it adds up and it had the Irish taking two steps up and one step back all night long.
“I don’t know if it’s the week. I don’t know, but we have to fix it.” A good suggestion from Marcus Freeman post-game, because the Irish are racking up penalties now and lots of ‘em. After being flagged just five times in the first two games of the season combined, the Irish have committed 34 in the four games since. This is not a transitory issue, it is a five-alarm fire. “Fix it”, indeed.
Next, and at the risk of getting in to the young man’s head, the Irish have a place kicking problem. There I said it. For all the good will Spencer Shrader has earned for having a “big leg”, which has included kicking a school record 54 yarder against NC State, he has only made 5 of 10 on the season. He missed a 37 yarder against Duke.
Missed field goals have not directly lost a game for the Irish in 2023, yet. Marcus Freeman confirmed post game that his strategy once the Irish reached field goal range Saturday night was to run the football until the clock was down to a few seconds and then attempt a field goal for the win. How would you have felt as the Irish lined up for that one? A little nervous perhaps? How do you think 50% kicker Spencer Shrader would have felt? Confident or would he have visions of 5-10 dancing in his head?
Dropped passes is another issue that may or may not soon improve. With Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse out with hamstring issues, the Irish are threadbare at wideout. Chris Tyree and Rico Flores had two catches each Saturday but could not find ways to consistently get open. Tobias Merriweather was targeted four times, with no catches and two drops. Merriweather is athletically talented and has been an excellent blocker on the perimeter, he has not developed into a reliable downfield threat. Until some guys get healthy and/or improve, the Irish will have to rely on the 2022 Michael Mayer era strategy of finding the tight end.
And that brings us to Mitchell Evans. With 6 catches for 134 yards Saturday, Evans accounted for over 60% of the passing offense. Despite the fact that he missed the Central Michigan game with a concussion, and was not even targeted in the season opener, on the year he leads the Irish with 18 catches for 272 yards. He has shown an ability to catch contested balls and he is a powerful runner after the catch. He is the best healthy pass catching option the Irish possess.
Defensively the Irish missed too many tackles Saturday night, but the play of the Irish defensive front, particularly that of Howard Cross II (13 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles) was impressive. Overall holding Duke to 14 points on the heel of holding Ohio State to just 17, means the Irish defense is playing mostly at a high level. But, they have to tackle better.
An Ironclad Will to Win
Good football teams win a lot of games, great football games will their way to victories even when they are not at their best. Saturday night through a cascade of penalties, miscues and misfires, the Irish showed ironclad fortitude. They went 3-3 on 4th down, and Sam Hartman scrambled 17 yards for a first down when the game was on the line. One play later as Audric Estime finally broke loose and found the endzone, the Irish had clawed back a victory from near certain defeat.
Notre Dame is now halfway through the regular season with plenty of challenges to come. USC lurks, Clemson lurks, and next week it’s on the road into an SEC atmosphere against 5-0, Louisville.
The Irish have firepower, and an ironclad will to win. The also have plenty to fix.