And miles to go before I sleep. -Robert Frost
Marcus Freeman has made a habit of promising post game to fix things. After the Marshall game, it was about examining everything, top to bottom. After the Stanford loss, more of the same. Against an over matched UNLV team Saturday, the Irish walked away with a comfortable 23-point win, but for every shred of evidence that the 2022 Irish were making progress, there were plenty of things still in need of a fix.
With difficult matchups looming against Syracuse, Clemson and USC, those fixes undoubtedly mean Marcus Freeman and company face some long nights and tough practices as they continue their effort to mold the 2022 Irish into a good football team.
Miles to go indeed.
First the good news.
Fast Start. After notching just two field goals and failing to score a touchdown in the first quarter of the first six games of 2022, the buzz word all week around Notre Dame this past week had been “urgency”. Mission accomplished. The Irish notched 23 first quarter points Saturday and even scored a touchdown on their first drive. Aided by a couple of blocked punts, the Irish scored on five of six first quarter possessions. In fact, with a little better execution the Irish would have scored more. More on that later.
The defense, with the exception of one really bad play, was spectacular in the first quarter. On six first quarter possessions, UNLV punted five times, and the Irish ‘D” notched five, three and outs.
Foskey Came to Play. Entering this past weekend, defensive end Isiah Foskey, expected to be a player of impact, and touted as a likely first round NFL draft pick, had been mostly silent. Through six games he had notched just three sacks. Against UNLV he doubled that number and added two blocked punts, both in the first quarter, and set a Notre Dame all-time record by doing so. Isiah Foskey isa difference maker, the Irish need him at his best the rest of the year.
Evans for Short Yardage. The Irish have struggled on short yardage this season. On 3rd-1, or 4th-1, the quarterback sneak is a football mainstay. Apparently though, short yardage sneaks are not the forte of 5-11, 198 lb. Drew Pyne. The Irish may have found an answer in 6-5, 255 TE, Mitchell Evans. Evans, who played quarterback in high school, took two direct snaps against UNLV in short yardage situations and converted twice. Can you say Taysom Hill? The first carry went for 4 yards and the second from the 1-yard line, was good for a touchdown. Credit Tommy Rees with some creativity here to address ND’s short yardage issues, and keep an eye out for more creative use of Evans the rest of the year.
Logan Diggs, power back. The transformation in Logan Diggs’s running style has been impressive. Typically, not known for a tough inside running style last year, and then slowed by a shoulder injury suffered in the spring, After nice efforts against BYU and Stanford, Diggs really had a coming out party against UNLV carrying 28 times for 130 yards, the most carries by an ND back in a game since 2007. He showed a low pad level and did not shy away from contact. More often than not, he initiated contact against UNLV and demonstrated superb balance and an ability to carry tacklers along for extra yardage. Is he now a “power back”? Post-game Diggs answered that question with this, “I wouldn’t consider myself a power back yet because I’m not 220 yet, but I would say just attacking the weight room with Coach Bayless, I put on 18 pounds this off season.”
Special Teams look Special. Special teams units for the Irish have been solid all season long.
Two more blocked punts by the Irish give them an impressive four for the season. The Irish rank 2nd nationally in the category.
Walk-on Freshman Zac Yoakam has been superb at notching touchbacks on his kickoffs. Grad transfer Jon Sott is averaging 45.3 yards per punt with a net on each attempt of 42.3 yards. Fellow grad transfer Blake Grupe has been perfect on PATs and is 8-10 on field goals, including three in the first quarter against UNLV.
The Irish could use a little more pop in the return game, but of late Brandon Joseph has had some productive punt returns. Most importantly, Joseph has secured the football and made good fair catch decisions on each of his 38 return chances.
Credit Brian Mason with an excellent coaching job of Irish special teams this season.
Plenty of things, however, need fixing.
As comfortable as a 23-point margin felt this past weekend, the game revealed plenty of problems that should have the Notre Dame coaching staff burning the midnight oil for the foreseeable future. Let’s start here, UNLV was a struggling football team. They were missing their two best offensive players in Quarterback Doug Brumfield and running back Aiden Robbins. They had lost their previous two games 40-7 and 42-7. Winning by 23 frankly is not a great accomplishment.
Confidence deficit. Drew Pyne for all of his outward show of confidence, does not always play that way.
What else would explain his first five drives as a starter against Cal? You remember, those series gained 16 total yards and included his own lost fumble. Confidence looked to be in short supply. And it looks like the confidence problem is back. What else again would explain Pyne badly missing multiple open receivers and low completion percentages against Stanford and UNLV?
Pyne played and looked confident against North Carolina and BYU, and in the second half against Cal, but he hasn’t looked confident for long stretches of game time against Stanford and UNLV.
Post-game UNLV, Michael Mayer all but admitted that his QB has issues in this area. “He (Pyne) does get down sometimes, and I think he does need some people to lift him up sometimes. That’s why I’m there. The other captains on the team are there for him.”
It is understandable that a young QB would struggle with his confidence and Pyne’s inconsistency is a tell-tale sign that that is exactly what is going on.
Good coaching that puts a player into positions to succeed build confidence. If Drew Pyne is to develop into a multi-year starter for ND, increased confidence is a necessity. Most would settle for enough confidence to get the Irish through the rest of 2022 without any more upsets.
You can add wide receiver Lorenzo Styles and his subpar performances this season, to the confidence problem watch, by the way. After a breakout freshman season, he is dropping passes with an alarming frequency, and that’s not good for Pyne’s confidence either.
Adding to Drew Pyne’s confidence problem: tipped passes. Two passes tipped at the line of scrimmage last week, two this week, and there have been others. One tip against UNLV resulted in an interception. Pyne’s problem would seem to be caused mostly by his stature within the pocket. I wrote it last week and I’ll write it again, maybe Tommy Rees needs to find a way to get Pyne on the move outside the pocket every so often? To do so would give Pyne a clearer view, and path downfield.
Defensive Miscues. They have happened every single week. The Irish have put in good defensive efforts overall, but a handful of plays each game keep this year’s defense out of the dominant category. Against UNLV it was a 74-yard run in the first quarter by 5-8, 165, Courtney Reese that led to a TD a couple of plays later and in the 4th quarter it was a 43 yard effort by Reese, which led to another Rebel TD a few plays later. That score cut the Irish lead to 16, thus making it a two score game.
Mostly this season it has been breakdowns in pass defense, now add two big breakdowns against the running game. JD Bertrand did show impressive effort and speed by running down Reese on the 74 yarder and Cam Hart did the same on the 43-yard run. But the Irish must clean this stuff up and Marcus Freeman agreed postgame, “If you want to be a championship team, if you want to be a great football team, you can’t make those mistakes. Those will be two plays we get corrected as we attack this week.”
Red Zone issues. The Irish have red zone issues on offense and defense. The Irish scored 23 in the first quarter against UNLV, that sounds good until you look behind the number. Blessed with great field position aided by the two blocked punts, the Irish entered the red zone 5 times and it looked like they could move the ball almost at will. In the quarter and came away with 2 TDs and 3 field goals, the drives stalled three times as the Irish neared the goal line. Against a team as out manned as UNLV the Irish should have scored 35 points in the first quarter when UNLV was reeling. It is nice that Grupe was 3-3 on his field goal attempts in the first quarter, but they Irish left a lot of points on the field.
Likewise, this year in the red zone Irish opponents are a perfect 17-17 in the red zone scoring (TD or FG). ND’s defense through seven games has yet to shutout anyone once they cross the 20. Not even once. That is not the mark of a good team.
Turnover Drought. Hallelujah, thanks to Clarence Lewis’s strip and recovery the Irish picked up a turnover in the third quarter Saturday. But one was not enough. Again an undermanned and vastly out “athleted” team like UNLV should have been ripe for the Irish to force more than a solitary fumble.
In 28 quarters of football the Irish now have gotten three turnovers , two fumble recoveries and one interception. It would not seem that the “great turnover drought” of 2022 has anything to do with practice. I recall commenting during August practice sessions that the media was admitted to, how much defensive coordinator, Al Golden had the Irish defense working on forcing turnovers. But what the Irish are doing, is not working.
How bad is the drought? The Irish are dead last nationally out of 131 FBS teams with one interception. They are next to last nationally with 2 fumbles recovered. From 2017-2021 the Irish averaged getting a healthy 22.6 turnovers preseason. The 2022 Irish are on pace to have slightly over 6 this season. Unbelievable!
A few turnovers here and there would certainly have lessened the impact of some of the other problems the Irish are having. Conventional wisdom says that turnovers always come and often times in bunches. The problem this season is that the Irish have already lost three close games in 2022, and arguably in a normal turnover year, they might well have made the difference between victory and defeat. ND could actually be 7-0 now and most likely would be 6-1, with the help of a few turnovers.
This turnover thing has hurt the Irish and the situation to this point borders on the bizarre.
Last week I jokingly suggested the Irish call a witch doctor to address the situation, I’m starting to wonder if maybe they really should!
Coming up: #16 Syracuse, #5 Clemson, this staff’s first shot at the Navy option, Boston College and Phil Jurkcovec’s “home coming” and #10 USC, three teams having great years and two traps.
Winning any game by 23 points makes for a good day, and against UNLV the Irish had some good moments but showed plenty of flaws as well. With the schedule coming up the next five weeks, the Irish will need to find some answers, fast.