(Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

Marcus Freeman’s Defense: What’s the “Point”?

Since Brian Van Gorder was replaced midway through the disastrous 2016 season, ND has played pretty good defense. Under Van Gorder however, not so good. Under his watch, ND allowed 29.2 points per game in 2014, 24.1 in 2015 and 27.8 In 2016.

In 2017 Mike Elko came to town and the number fell to a respectable 21.5 points per game. In 2018 Elko left for perceived greener pastures and his protégé, Clark Lea took over. The Irish defense did not miss a beat, because points allowed per game fell again, this time to 18.2. In 2019 the trend continued to 17.9, the lowest number since 2012 and the second best number sine 2002. In 2020 there was a slight uptick but still a stingy 19.7 points were allowed.

Marcus Freeman came over from Cincinnati last winter to take over for Lea who moved on to a head coaching job. Freeman’s defenses at Cincy had been excellent in points allowed, from 2018 through 2020. 17.2, 20.6 and 16.8 respectively. The 16.8 number last year was the 8th best number in the nation.

But Freeman started as the Cincinnati DC in 2017. That year his Bearcats allowed 31.8 points per game! That number ranked 94th nationally and is higher than Notre Dame, going back to 1946, has ever given up. Clearly it took Cincinnati a while to adapt to Marcus Freeman and maybe a while for Marcus Freeman to adapt to being a defensive coordinator.

Through six games in 2021 the Irish have given up 24.3 points per game, historically not so great. But the in season trend looks promising. After giving up 38 and 29 weeks one and two, the average over the last 4 has been 19.75.

Better yet tackles for loss are on the rise and the Irish have been on the receiving end of 10 interceptions so far in 2021 and have two pick sixes. Last season for the entire season, those numbers were 7 and 0.

The trend looks promising, but as for the popular expectation that Freeman would bring in a new era of defensive dominance, the jury is still out.

Quarterback shuffle

Three Quarterbacks, all have played, all have played effectively, all have made mistakes.

Jack Coan was the odds on favorite to be “the guy” in 2021. He won the job in camp, and he had by far the most experience. In fact he has started all six games. But a lack of mobility and a struggling offensive line have conspired to force Brian Kelly to look elsewhere for production and answers. He produced 4 TD passes and 366 yards in his debut, but was sacked 4 times.

In week two, as the ND offense was struggling and Jack Coan was sacked early and often, freshman Tyler Buchner first entered the line up game 2 against Toledo and immediately pay dividends. He loosened up the Toledo pass rush that totaled 6 sacks on the day to the tune of 68 yards on 7 carries and 3-3 passing for 78 yards and a TD. It was the veteran Coan however that saved the day with a two minute drill in the 4th quarter that ended with a 19 yard TD pass to Michael Mayer at the 1:09 mark to put the Irish in the lead to avoid the upset.

Coan got most of the snaps week three but again displayed his lack of mobility by getting sacked 4 times. Fortunately 15-30 passing for 223 yards and 2 TDs were enough to defeat Purdue. Buchner saw limited action. 0-1 passing and 3 carries for 24 yards.

In game 4 the QB wheel spun in a third direction. Tyler Buchner was unavailable due to injury and Jack Coan struggled to to a Purdue game like 15-29 passing and 1 TD. When Coan went down with an injury and the Irish trailing 13-10 in the first minute of 4th quarter, Chris Tyree give the Irish the lead with a 96 yard kickoff return TD. Then with their next possession the Drew Pyne “era” started. Pyne finished things out for the Irish and managed a nice 16 yard TD strike to Kevin Austin. Perhaps more impressive was that Pyne showed some mobility and ability to throw on the run. An important skill considering how porous the ND pass protection had been. On the day Wisconsin scored 6 sacks.

Coan was back in the starting lineup for game 5 against Cincinnati. He came out of the gate and drove the Irish down to the 6 yard line on their first possession. But he then was intercepted on an ill advised toss into the flat and things went down hill from there. Coan struggled the rest of the half and the Irish trailed 17-0 at halftime. Pyne took over in the second half and rallied the Irish to two scores, but it was not enough as the Irish suffered their first loss of the season to the top 5 Bearcats. Despite the fact that Pyne had rallied the Irish, he was not overly impressive statistically: 9-22 for 143 yards and 1 td.

Week six in a hostile atmosphere at Virginia Tech, Jack Coan was ineffective on his first three drives and midway through the 2nd quarter the Irish trailed 10-0. Tyler Buchner then entered the game and immediately sparked the Irish. On two possessions the Irish found the end zone after drives of 76 and 80 yards, and Buchner was superb. The first score came on his own run to the end zone from 3 yards out and then he hit Kyren Williams from 8 yards out.

As effective as Buchner was in the first half it all unraveled in the second half. Two bad interceptions including a pick six and the Irish trailed by eight points with 4:04 remaining on the clock. That set up a heroic return to the field for Jack Coan as he rallied the Irish to a touchdown, two-point conversation and a field goal at the :16 second mark to clinch the come from behind victory. Significantly during the rally the offensive line seemed to have jelled and provided ample time for Coan to deliver 7-9 passing down the stretch.

Where do Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees go from here? My guess would be that the standard approach with an improving offensive line will be more Jack Coan starts and Tyler Buchner sprinkled in to change the pace.

Nail-biters are Us

Florida State- in overtime, Toledo- trailing in the last 2 minutes, Purdue- a one score game well into the 4th quarter, Wisconsin trailing in the 4th quarter, and Virginia Tech- rally from 8 points down in the last 4 minutes.

Like I’ve been saying , the heck with the team needing a bye week, my mental health needed a bye week.

It will, should, may, get easier the rest of the way

Conventional wisdom says that things get easier for the Irish schedule wise from here.

So coming up next week is 3-3 Southern Cal, fresh off a bye week, just like the Irish. The Trojans are dangerous and boast a great combination in Kedon Slovis to Drake London. (Ask Iowa what a great pass combination can do to you after Purdue’s David Bell 11 catch 240 yard performance last Saturday.) The next week it will be preseason top 10 North Carolina. The Tar Heels are 4-3 and took care of Miami 45-42 this week. They will also have a bye week off to prepare for the Irish. They score a lot, they give up scores, a lot.

November will start with currently 1-5 Navy. Does anyone really think the Navy game will be a breather? Okay, are you certain of that? After Navy the Irish go to Virginia to take on Bronco Mendenhall’s 5-2 Cavalier’s. Virginia has a potent offense and they whitewashed Duke this past weekend 48-0. Yikes.

Next up will be 3-3 Georgia Tech. The Ramblin’ Wreck has a program that has steadily improved since Geoff Collins took over in 2019. The Irish will then end the season against “up and down” Stanford in Palo Alto. The Cardinal stand at 3-4 but own an overtime victory over top 5 at the time Oregon back in week five.

Two likely wins and four more nail biters would be my guess. Get plenty of rest folks and stay hydrated, its going to be a fun but undoubtedly exhausting ride to bowl season.

By Phil Houk

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

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