After three aggravating defeats to start his tenure, Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman has his first victory in that role after the Irish defeated the California Golden Bears, 24-17. The victory may have been a struggle that went down to the final gun, but aesthetics will eagerly take a back seat to get into the win column right now.
The debut of new starting quarterback Drew Pyne did have some hiccups during the first half that included finding the right touch on his passes. However, notching 17 points after the break and picking up the win should serve as a confidence boost for the remainder of the season.
Below are some of the important facets gleaned from the contest:
Earlier Wakeup Call Needed
For the third straight week, Notre Dame’s offense got off to a slow start that eventually resulted in a seven-point deficit. That inability to muster much of an early attack was again in evidence against the Bears, with a trio of three-and-outs for the Irish to start things off. Cal’s mutual futility at the outset eventually gave way after a Pyne fumble led to a second quarter scoring toss.
Those struggles are in stark contrast to the Irish’s first play from scrimmage for 2022 season against Ohio State. That contest began with a 54-yard pass play to Lorenzo Styles, success that Notre Dame has been unable to reproduce. Since that single play, Notre Dame has gained only 107 total yards over the remainder of their first quarters played, a span of nearly 45 minutes.
(Not) Killing the Clock
After Notre Dame scored what turned out to be the winning score with just over nine minutes left, Cal had three different opportunities to tie the game, with the first drive lasting 10 plays before the Irish stopped them on downs. The second pinned them deep near the goal line, while the final drive nervously began with four complete passes to reach the Notre Dame 29.
Even though that drive was also stopped, giving teams multiple opportunities to keep the game going isn’t a recipe for success. Part of the Irish problem has been a struggling offense to start the year, a concern that requires an effective running game that still appears to be taking shape.
A Better Running Engine
To eat up that time, Notre Dame needs to find runners who can chew up enough yardage when needed. Prior to Tyler Buchner’s season-ending injury, he offered the Irish one running option. With that consideration gone, Chris Tyree and Audric Estime combined for 140 yards on 35 carries against Cal, with Estime scoring once.
Both Tyree and Estime also served as receiving options, combining for eight and 87 yards receptions that included a score by Tyree. Prior to the start of this season, Tyree was seen as a potentially key part of the Notre Dame running game, a role that he can fulfill, with additional help from Estime and others.
Fixing the Sloppiness
Over the 60 minutes of action, the Irish committed eight penalties for 66 yards, a lack of discipline that needs to be smoothed over. The chief problem of false starts was something that was evident last year, with Notre Dame getting flagged four different times.
Braden Lenzy was responsible for the first mistake, getting whistled on the game’s first series and the Irish facing a third-and-one. That error was later followed by an embarrassing sequence in which offensive linemen Jarrett Patterson and Zeke Correll were nailed for those infractions.
Late Heat Surge
The Notre Dame pass rush has had some issues during the early going of the 2022 campaign, a concern that faded somewhat during the pivotal stages of the fourth quarter. With Cal facing fourth down on the Irish 22 and Notre Dame clinging to a 24-17 advantage, Isaiah Foskey notched a clutch sack that gave the ball back to the Irish.
After pinning the Bears back near their own end zone, one near-sack forced an incompletion. That was followed by a surge that nearly resulted in a safety when Foskey and Jayson Ademilola converged to bring down Cal signal-caller Jack Plummer at the Bear two-yard-line. On the final drive, Ademilola’s sack on third down forced a last-ditch Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game.
Notre Dame will take to the road for the second time this season when they face the North Carolina Tar Heels next Saturday in Chapel Hill. The Irish have a commanding 20-2 lead in this series, though the Tar Heels have the benefit of a week’s rest and hold a 3-0 record entering the contest. Despite a change behind center, North Carolina still has a potent offense. However, their defense has a number of holes that Notre Dame is hoping to exploit.