After being dealt a jarring upset loss to Marshall, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish seek to finally break into the win column as they take on the California Golden Bears this Saturday. The two schools haven’t met for 55 years as Cal enters this game with a 2-0 mark, following victories over Cal-Davis and UNLV.
In his first three games, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman has watched his team either stumble down the stretch or simply struggle to maintain any level of consistency. Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite in this contest, but given their 2022 performance, taking anything for granted is no longer even a passing thought.
Below are some of the key matchups between the Irish and Golden Bears:
QB Drew Pyne vs. California Defense
Tyler Buchner’s season-ending shoulder injury officially elevates Drew Pyne into the starting role. Pyne has never started a game for Notre Dame, getting most of his on-field experience in two games last year. He took over for an injured Jack Coan against Wisconsin and helped the team defeat the Badgers, throwing his first collegiate touchdown pass in the process. One week later in the loss to Cincinnati, he entered after the half with the Irish down 17-0 and led the Irish to two touchdowns. In this game especially, Pyne needs to follow that script from the opening kickoff and get both the passing and running units into gear.
The Golden Bears have only allowed 23 points in their two games, though the level of competition pales in comparison to what they’ll be facing against Notre Dame. Cal-Davis was able to rack up 387 yards of offense against them, including 145 on the ground. However, the Bears have collected a trio of interceptions, including a pick-six in their opener. They also shut down UNLV twice in the closing moments of their matchup, the first time stopping them within Cal’s 10-yard-line.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Jack Plummer
Unlike last year, the Irish pass rush has yet to make its presence felt. Collecting just four sacks in the first two games of 2022, the Notre Dame defense has also failed to force a turnover this year. Cal has allowed six sacks in their two games against a pair of weaker schools. That fact offers the Irish a golden opportunity to finally start delivering heat to an opposing passer.
Plummer transferred from Purdue during the offseason and has thus far offered a mixed bag of production that’s included four touchdown passes and a pair of interceptions. In the opening clash against Cal-Davis, the Cal offense struggled through the opening quarter before delivering 27 points over the next two periods. Last Saturday, Plummer’s passing gave the Bears a quick 14-0 lead, but they managed just two field goals the rest of the way.
TE Michael Mayer vs. S Craig Woodson
Mayer is again serving as the main target of the Irish passing attack, with 13 catches in his first two games. He scored his first touchdown of the season against Marshall, but needs help from some of the other Irish receiving options. He’s a huge target who lines up on both sides of the ball and is following in the footsteps of some former Notre Dame standouts at the position.
During the shortened 2020 season, Woodson managed to make an impact before then sitting out last season with a knee injury. He quickly showed that he was back by returning an interception for a touchdown in the opener. Bringing down eight ballcarriers in 2022, he’s also broken up a pass and should have a busy afternoon on Saturday.
DE Isaiah Foskey vs. LT Ben Coleman
Foskey will line up on both sides of the ball during the course of the contest, though for this game, he may be most active when he lines up on the right side. He’s had a relatively slow start to the 2022 campaign, finally collecting his first sack in the Marshall defeat. He’s got nine stops on the year and needs to get back into his 2021 form.
Coleman spent last year one spot over as the Golden Bears’ starting left guard and showed inexperience early against Cal-Davis. He’s still a work in progress, though he has the size to offer Plummer solid protection on his blind side. He’ll likely get a stiff challenge battling Foskey, who’s due for a breakout performance.
MLB J.D. Bertrand vs. RB Jaydn Ott
Bertrand has combined with Jack Kiser for a total of 27 stops on the season, but bringing down the opponent’s top rusher has been a challenge thus far. Notre Dame has allowed an average of 4.6 yards on every rushing carry in 2022, a number that has to be lowered if the Irish have any hope of getting back on track.
Ott is in his first season with the Golden Bears and only has 24 carries on the year. However, he’s averaging 6.5 yards per carry and has scored one touchdown on the ground, albeit against lesser opponents. In addition, he’s a receiving threat out of the backfield, with five catches thus far, scoring a touchdown in each of Cal’s first two games.