Immediate Overreactions: Notre Dame Defense Struggles in Inasuspcious Debut for March Freeman

Its too early to say the honeymoon is over for Marcus Freeman, but after last night, he'll have a lot of attention on him this week.

Notre Dame escaped Tallahassee last night with a 41-38 overtime victory over Florida State. The Irish squandered an 18-point lead in the 4th quarter before sneaking out with the win. It wasn’t pretty at times, and while we got some answers to questions we had going in, we left the game with even more questions on the defense.

Marcus Freeman’s debut leaves more questions than answers

Let’s get the most obvious out of the way. The Notre Dame defense looked shaky to say the least, in Marcus Freeman’s coaching debut at Notre Dame. The Notre Dame defense was attacking early, and Florida State was only successful on a couple of big plays on breakdowns – precisely what we expected in a new defense that was thought to be more attacking than Clark Lea‘s.

We didn’t expect the Irish defense to struggle as much as they did once Florida State could adjust. While Lea might not have been as aggressive as some liked, he was a master at half-time adjustments. We got the reverse of that Sunday night in Tallahassee when Freeman kept utilizing a 3-man front while Florida State gladly took that look and gashed the Irish up the front to the tune of 264 yards. Florida State adjusted. Marcus Freeman kept doing the same thing. That is not ideal.

Some of this could be chalked up to the first game in a new defense – i.e. the breakdowns – but the lack of in-game adjustments and Florida State’s ability to erase an 18-point lead 4th quarter lead is concerning. Of course, there’s no reason to sound any alarms after one terrible quarter, but how Freeman responds will be interesting.

While there was a lot of bad from the defense in the 4th quarter, there was still some good from the defense. For three quarters, the Irish defense made life miserable for Jordan Travis with 5.0 sacks. Notre Dame also picked off three passes.

Just a reminder to folks, though. Remember how good VanGorder’s defense looked the first few weeks before being exposed? How this defense looked last night is not necessarily an indictment of how it will play the rest of the season.

Still, Marcus Freeman will find out fast this week that he’s not in Cincinnati anymore because he is going to take a lot of heat this week for that fourth quarter.

The ACC referees and replay booth were AWFUL

I’ll get this one out of the way, too, since it was apparent. The officials and replay booth were terrible. So here’s a quick rundown of some awful calls/reviews.

  • After ruling a fumble on the field on the opening kickoff of the 3rd quarter, replay reversed the call on the field even though no angle (unless they had one we didn’t see) was totally conclusive. It looked like the runner’s knee was probably down, but no replay angle proved it, and the call should have stood.
  • The referees made the calculated decision NOT to call roughing the punter because the game was close. There’s no other explanation. Jay Bramblett got helicopter spun around, but they called a 5-yard penalty. Brian Kelly was livid. He was justified.
  • McKinzie Milton had a snap get away from him at the end of the game before the game-tying field goal. He recovered and threw the ball away. The only problem was, he was clearly inside the tackle box, and it should have been intentional grounding. No flag, because of course.
  • In overtime, Mike Norvell challenged Milton’s fumble on 3rd down that would have forced a 50-yard field goal. I still don’t know how that got overturned since it was a fumble. And if it was an incomplete pass, it should have been intentional grounding b/c the ball hit the ground inches in front of him, nowhere near a wide receiver.

Brian Kelly was not happy with the officials in his post-game comments, and again, he was justified.

Notre Dame’s offensive line was understandably shaky

There were concerns with the Notre Dame offensive line coming into the game, which came to fruition. Notre Dame only ran the ball for 65 yards as a team, and Jack Coan was sacked 4 times. In addition, there were some expected procedure penalties by some of the new starters. Finally, compounding matters, freshman Blake Fisher was lost to a knee sprain forcing a Michael Carmody onto the field. Luckily it sounds like Fisher avoided a significant injury but still could miss some time.

We knew the Notre Dame offensive line would struggle some. Anyone who thought the line wouldn’t miss a beat after replacing four starters was fooling themselves. That said, the lack of any sort of rushing attack is a little concerning since there wasn’t any room for Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree to run. Williams did his best to make the most out of the little space he had, but there will need to be more room for him and Tyree to operate moving forward.

Jack Coan and Wide Receivers Flash

Jack Coan missed a couple of passes early that I’m sure he wished he could have back, but overall, Coan’s starting debut for Notre Dame went about as well as could be expected. He ended the game 26 of 35 for a Notre Dame season opener record 366 yards and 4 touchdowns with an interception on the hail mary at the end of regulation. His lack of mobility relative to Ian Book was evident, and the Florida State pass rush got to him at times, but again, Coan played as well as Notre Dame fans could have hoped for.

From a positive standpoint, Coan fired some passes off that we saw Ian Book be hesitant to make in the past, such as the touchdown pass to Joe Wilkins. Coan’s touchdown pass to Kevin Austin was also an absolute DIME. It made up for him underthrowing Austin on the flea-flicker on the second drive of the game.

Kevin Austin‘s debut as a starter delivered. He started slow but finished with four catches for 91 yards and the touchdown. Expect him to ramp up his production over the next few weeks after hardly playing any football in live games since his senior year of high school. Braden Lenzy had a couple of nice grabs and had the chance for a couple of deep bombs that Coan misfired on that the two will eventually connect on.

The one real disappointment for the passing game was the two critical drops by Michael Mayer. John McNulty will likely drill into Mayer’s head all week to stop looking upfield before he secures the catch because if Mayer, one of the best tight ends in college football, just makes those two catches, this game probably never goes to overtime.

Jonathan Doerer looks like he is BACK

Jonathan Doerer’s career has been a bit up and down. He struggled very early in his career before being automatic in 2019. Then he struggled with consistency again in 2020. But last night, Doerer looked like the kicker from 2019 again. First, he drilled a 49 yarder in the first half that split the uprights; then, he nailed the game-winner from 41 yards out in overtime to win the game.

If Notre Dame has the Jonathan Doerer from 2019 again, Tommy Rees will have many options near the redzone with what this passing game looks like. If Doerer is a near lock on attempts in the 40s, Rees can let Coan take more chances.

Kyle Hamilton played the role of Jaylon Smith circa 2015 last night

In 2015, Jaylon Smith played the role of eraser for some bad schemes under Brian VanGorder. Kyle Hamilton did the same last night with two interceptions – one of which was absolutely incredible – while forcing a third that ended up in Clarence Lewis’s hands.

Kyle Hamilton turned this game around with his two interceptions. Without those picks, this game could have gone off the rails for Notre Dame. Let’s talk about that second interception, though. It was absolutely incredible. There’s not another safety in college football who can make that INT. Hell, there might not be another safety in the NFL who could do it. He was on the other side of the field and came out of nowhere to pick it off. The look on Jordan Travis’s face was that of “Wait, what? How?” Me too, Travis. Me too.  

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  1. Looks like Coan could be the worst ND QB runner since his OC. While Book may have took off too early occassionally, but it usually turned out positively. Coan takes anothet dimension out of the offense.

  2. It was a ray of sunshine to have a QB looking to get the ball downfield rather than one that was waiting for it to be ok to run. Coaching sucked. ND had a great identity on first drive then Blah. Rees is just as boring as an OC as he was a QB. Freeman was star struck on big stage but Kelly could have told him to go back to 4-3 anytime in second half. Kelly missed arguing the incomplete pass (s/b grounding call) as well.

    We need to be a passing team this year – OL is better pass blocking than run blocking. Hit backs in the flat with running room.

  3. The tackling was AWFUL! Time after time we had a rusher run down the QB or back and then get a hand on him and run past him. Some of these missed tackles went for big plays. Tackling is fundamentals and should be emphasized. Paolo

  4. All valid points, Frank, but you missed a few. Some of my immediate overreactions . . .
    1.Been waiting for WR Wilkins to be given a chance for 3 years, remember Boykin, remember McKinley? The ND WR way : don’t give them a chance to shine until Sr. year. More Wilkins, please!
    2. First play of 2nd half allow a long FLST kick return. Then a 60 yd. bomb in FSUs first series with no pressure on FSU QB. Play to win instead of playing not to lose. Then, NDs first play of 2nd half -time out. You don’t even know what play to call ur 1st play of the second half? Great preparation !!
    (We’ve been used to Lea’s adjustments to save ND from their “play not to lose” mantra on O’
    We seldom see what we took for granted until it’s gone)
    3. 40 seconds left in regulation w/Tyree and you don’t try a kick return run back !
    What have you got to lose? You’re going to OT anyway. More of “playing not to lose”!

    Here’s hoping future teams throw 3 INTs and multiple OL miscues to keep ND ahead. This looked more like Fla. St. lost than ND won. And a special thank you to Coach Norvell for a ridiculous gamble on your own 33 on fourth down, then taking points off the board in the OT. Give him the game ball.

    Agreed on Hamilton’s outstanding play, assisted by Foskey, Ademilola(s), and Bertrand . . .
    And what do you expect from ACC refs; more of the same coming @ VT and @ Va. Count on it, which makes attempts at an aggressive O’ and D’ scheme necessary, especially on the road.
    And please don’t tell me ND has ACC refs for home games, too- not that they are likely to have an attitude vs. ND for leaving the conference after one year. Refs would never be that way, right?

  5. Looks like a 9-3 season w/ a minor bowl/
    Freeman’s experience should have dictated a better defense, At least, enough common sense to stop rushing 3 when you see FSU march up and down the field methodically for TD’s w/ zero QB pressure and inability to stop the run.
    Zero excuse for the above and worry about the DC’s judgment.

    Offensive line looking very offensive. Not creating lanes for runners and not great pass blocking (4 sacks) However, I’m optimistic that this can be improved. not really a coaching problem as it may be just a new line playing together
    for 1st time protecting a not mobile QB


    QB Play was very good.
    Running backs did well considering line’s limitations.
    Kicker was awesome.
    Kyle Hamilton may have saved us from shocking defeat.

    1. “…9-3 season w/ a minor bowl…”
      Kelly would call that a resounding success: total wins record set, job security still intact, and another year closer to retirement.

  6. Oh,. but for one missed field goal…..

    The posts here now —- vitriolic mob outrage —– would really be something to behold. And y’all know it, so don’t bother with the faux denial.

    But no.. A lucky break after another monumental collapse, and all is just peachy in the Land of Delusion.

    Maybe next week….

  7. SNL will no doubt be suing Notre Dame football.
    For unauthorized use of its trademarked “The Not Ready for Primetime Players” .

  8. When Milton was throwing the ball away at the end of regulation, there was a receiver in the area (#11). I originally thought the same thing, but saw it on the replay. No excuse, however, for the second one in the overtime to not be called.

  9. When Milton was throwing the ball away at the end of regulation, there was a receiver in the area (#11). I originally thought the same thing, but saw it on the replay. No excuse, however, not the second one in the overtime to not be called.

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