Marcus Freeman leaving the field after the loss. He has work to do. (Photo credit: Chad Ryan for Fighting Irish Preview)

After compiling a record of 54-10 the last five years, Notre Dame and Notre Dame fans have enjoyed and come to expect winning, and a lot of it.  That fact makes it doubly shocking when you go into two games as BIG favorites ( Marshall-20.5, Stanford 17)  at home…..and you lose.  

This result on the surface is confounding, and to many painful.  How does this offense, that looked like it was on the verge of consistency and competency, fail so publicly (particularly in the first half)? Why could Michael Mayer get open early and often and have a huge statistical game against BYU, but struggle against a Stanford defense that had given up plenty points and yards to everybody else? How does a defense that is loaded with talent fail to create more turnovers?

How can you cope with such perplexing misery?

Saturday night’s performance is confounding for fans, and media, alike.  Traditional fans love their team, no matter what, after all they are fanatics!  They look forward to a Notre Dame football game like it is Christmas morning. The media on the other hand,  just tries to figure out what happened. 

I’ve been in both camps.

As a longtime member of the Notre Dame football media (26 years now and counting), I can tell you that I am not a Notre Dame “fan” anymore. My years of “fanaticism” ended a long time ago. Sure I want ND to win, a lot, after all it is good for business, but, these days I am much more interested and feel a responsibility to try to figure out the why’s inside Notre Dame football.

And analyzing games is a big assist in helping me cope with disappointing losses.   

So last night as social media was blowing up and frustration ran rampant, I calmly stood on the sidelines when the upset loss became a fait accompli. I felt no upset, anger or need to lash out as the utterly unexpected happened.  Instead, I was noting the reaction of the seventy or so thousand ND fans, and of the Irish players and coaches themselves as they left the field.  All along, the dozen or so of us assembled media there traded snippets of theories and ideas as we prepared for the postgame press conferences.  

So, want to feel better? My suggestion, do like the media does, try a little game analysis.

Follow along now, and consider what I have to say, draw your own conclusions and hopefully when we are done, you will then be ready to move on to next week. 

Alright now, let’s give this a try, it works for me, may it work for you.  

Here is what I saw last night, point by point, with a few suggestions.

Time of possession  This is something I don’t mention in my postgame video “wrap” but it was all over my notebook from last night.

The run first, play good defense model that the Irish were developing into an identity from roughly the second quarter of the Cal game through BYU was resulting in good time of possession numbers in favor of the Irish.  40:55 last week against BYU, 38:13 against North Carolina and 33:02 against Cal.  Dominating this stat generally means your offense is making lots of first downs and your opponent is punting a lot

Last night Stanford flipped this trend on it’s head.  The Cardinal, employing a ball control offense of their own, all though doing it mostly with Tanner McKee’s efficient, “mesh” RPO passing game, Stanford possessed the ball a dominating 36:07.  The Cardinal ran 81 plays to ND’s 61.  

It caught my attention during Marcus Freeman’s Monday press conference when he off handedly admitted that he hadn’t seen a lot of Stanford film yet. So why not?   Hmmm…. that “mesh” RPO game was kind of tricky.  Maybe some early film study would have helped the Irish deal with it? 

I’m not going to sit here and tell Marcus Freeman how to schedule his time but I have long felt that there has to be a tradeoff for his 24/7 emphasis on recruiting.  There is only so much time in the day.  The Irish recruiting game is trending up, the play on the field at 3-3 is trending down.  

Notre Dame played good defense, “sort of”.  It was good defense because the Irish for the 6th time out of 6 games this season held their opponent to under it’s season average for points.  In this case just 16 scored by Stanford.  That should be plenty good to win just about any game you play these days.  The “sort of” part however is that the Irish bent, a lot, and it resulted in the Irish offense cooling their heels on the sideline, also a lot.  On the first drive of the day Stanford mounted a long series and scored a TD from 2 yards out.  Stanford never entered the red zone the rest of the day.  But the Irish offense fell short of scoring opportunities, because Stanford controlled the clock. 

Tanner MaKee is an NFL prospect, and he has some pretty good receivers to work with.  This was a point I made a lot in the lead up to the game.   According to NFLdraftbuzz.com McKee is the third best quarterback prospect nationally for the 2023 draft, right behind CJ Stroud (Ohio State) and Bryce Young (Alabama). That is rare air.  And last night McKee showed why he belongs.  6-6, 230, McKee ran the Stanford “mesh” RPO offense with aplomb.  He completed an efficient, 26 of 39 for 288 yards with no interceptions. Quick release, strong arm, solid receivers. 

Did I mention the Sanford receivers?  Yes, I did, and they were experienced, skilled and BIG.  As in 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 and 6-5.

The importance of nickel back Tariq Bracy to the Notre Dame defense cannot be understated.  He has been the best ND pass defender all season long. Bracy suffered a strained hamstring against BYU and did not play. The pass defense acquainted itself reasonably well overall.  But, it would have been better with Bracy in the lineup, and in a close game, his presence could have changed the result.  

Pass Rush where art though? Stanford, coming into the game, was statistically one of the worst nationally at protecting Tanner McKee. Surely ND would force McKee into mistakes and sacks. They didn’t.  The Irish notched just one sack. McKee kept the Irish off balance with the RPO game all day.  Jayson Ademiola, one of ND’s keys in the defensive front and pass rush, suffered a rib contusion and sat out 2 ½ quarters.  Howard Cross at the other inside position for the Irish, pushed his way through a high ankle sprain that kept him out against BYU,  but was mostly ineffective.  

Ademiola, Cross, Bracy. Every team has injuries, so they are not an excuse for much, if anything in the game of football.  Sometimes, however, they help to provide context to analysis.  

All that said, I wonder if anyone is lighting a fire under Isiah Foskey in practice these days.  Foskey was supposed to be one of the best pass rushers in the nation this year.  So far through six games: three sacks.

Slow starts are us.  Notre Dame has not scored a touchdown in the first quarter, this season.  They have trailed at the end of every 1st quarter. The inability of a team to come out of the locker room and play well from the beginning of the game falls on whoever is in charge of emotionally preparing the team, that is the coaching staff. 

A turnover! My kingdom for a Turnover! The Irish have one fumble recovered and one interception made, this season. The Irish looked like they had recovered a fumble in the 4th quarter, at a time they led the game 14-13.  “Irish football”, was the call on the field. It was overturned.  It was close. Let just say analyzing minds differed on the proper call. The call reversal was critical to Irish fortunes. A possession at that point of the game for ND, and the likelihood of an Irish win on the day would have been high.

Getting turnovers is a bit like voodoo. There just isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to when they come and how they come.  25 years ago, teams did not regularly drill in stripping, scooping and generally wreaking the havoc necessary to create turnovers.    They do it all the time now and the Irish are no exception. 

Maybe ND needs a witch doctor.

Audric Estime loses the football after being hit by Stanford safety Kendall Williamson (21) in Cardinal territory late in the fourth quarter. (Photo credit: Chad Ryan)

Don’t Tip your quarterback. It has often times been reported that Drew Pyne is susceptible to having his passes tipped at the line of scrimmage.  I’ve seen it in practices, you’ve seen it in games this season.  Pyne had two passes tipped Saturday. He was a subpar 13-27 on the night for 151 yards and one TD.  Two of those missed passes were tipped balls. the Irish were hurt by this.

Maybe it is just me, but every time I see Pyne throw from the pocket, I expect to see his passes batted down or tipped.    Maybe Tommy Rees could every so often dial up a play or two that gets Pyne moving outside the pocket.  Then I could stop holding my breath so much.

Drew Pyne looks to pass. Mandatory (Photo credit: Chad Ryan)

One man attack. Last week, half of Notre Dame’s completions and over half of the targets went to the best college tight end in the world.  It worked great against BYU, as Michael Mayer had a day to remember in Las Vegas. Saturday, it seemed that Stanford was determined to not let Mayer beat them, no matter what. Often times it seemed that not only was Mayer bracketed by two, but I would see THREE defenders in his area as ND force fed their star.  Mayer was still Mayer with five catches and 60 yards on 11 targets, but he only found the endzone on a play called back by penalty. 

The 41-yard TD catch by Tobias Merriweather was a lonely bright spot for the Irish Saturday.  Again, I’m calling on Tommy Rees.  This time, to find more ways to get the ball in the passing game to receivers down the field. To do so would make Michael Mayer better. 

Michael Mayer catches a pass with Stanford Cardinal safety Kendall Williamson (21) wrapping him up from behind. (Photo credit: Chad Ryan)

Whew I feel better already.  That’s it, that’s what I saw. Analyzing what confounds me during such a game, always makes me feel better.  After working through it with me, I hope you are now also coping better with that ugly egg layed by the Irish Saturday.  After all there is nothing else you can really do about it.

Post-game, an under control but not by a much Freeman vowed to fix things. “We’re going to figure it out, we have too.” 

So, as discussed above are a few areas Fighting Irish Preview saw as lacking in the effort Saturday night.

Our work is now done here.

The ball is in your court Marcus Freeman. 

Michael Mayer walks off the field after kicking over an end-zone pylon. (Photo credit: Chad Ryan)

By Phil Houk

For 25 years, bringing you the glory of Notre Dame football.

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