The Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter their bye week having gotten back to the .500 mark with two consecutive wins. Those victories have cooled off some of the criticism being directed at new head coach Marcus Freeman, even if the road ahead has some challenging contests for his team.
As always, the Irish squad is dotted with plenty of talent, with this unit still having an opportunity to reach double-digits in wins for the sixth consecutive season. However, for that to happen, Freeman and his staff need to work out some of the flaws that have surfaced during the first four games. Failing to do that could end up leaving Notre Dame with some less-than-desirable options when it comes to bowl games.
Below are some of the areas that the Irish need to work on during their time off:
Start From the Start
On the first play from scrimmage for Note Dame this season, Tyler Buchner connected with Lorenzo Styles on a 54-yard pass play. That led to an early 3-0 lead at Ohio State, offering a promising start to an upset bid that fell short. Yet, since that opening drive, the Irish have since been kept off the scoreboard during the opening quarter.
In addition, each of the last three games has seen the Irish trying to play catch-up with their opponent. Notre Dame found themselves down by a touchdown during those contests, while their offense struggled to simply move the chains. Establishing momentum from the outset would help tamp down this concern and lower the collective blood pressure of the Notre Dame faithful.
Big Play Drought
With regard to momentum on the defensive side of the ball, forcing a turnover is one key to making that happen. Unfortunately, the Irish haven’t gained a great deal of experience in that department this season, with their opponents only turning the ball over once. That came early in the third quarter of the win over North Carolina on Justin Ademilola’s fumble recovery.
The absence of any other turnovers during Notre Dame’s first 16 quarters of play glaringly stands out in comparison to the efforts of the opposition. Two fumbles and three interceptions have led to 20 points for Irish opponents, with the most devastating Notre Dame turnover being the pick-six that effectively sealed the game for Marshall.
Staying on the Run
Before the win over North Carolina, Notre Dame’s running game had largely struggled to make an impact. That inability to chew up the clock led to far too many three-and-out drives that kept the pressure on Irish defenders. Against the Tar Heels, the makings of a ground game emerged with Audric Estime and Chris Tyree, supplemented by the efforts of Logan Diggs.
Sustaining that part of the offense is a necessity as the potential for more perilous weather becomes more evident. Also, having multiple running weapons avoids having opponents focus on stopping the Notre Dame passing attack. Even though Drew Pyne doesn’t possess the running chops of Buchner, he has options in the backfield that can make a huge difference.
Despite the win at Chapel Hill, the Notre Dame secondary had mixed results in trying to stop North Carolina’s Drake Maye, who threw for 301 yards on the day. Maye managed to connect for the opening touchdown on fourth-and-goal, then connected in the third quarter on an 80-yard scoring toss in which the receiver simply blew past Clarence Lewis. Most embarrassingly, he threw a 64-yard scoring toss on fourth-and-21, thanks to Cam Hart’s blown coverage on the play.
In the opener at Ohio State, an early injury to the Buckeyes’ top receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, was negated. That was due to the Irish’s struggles to contain another Buckeye wideout, Emeka Egbuka, who grabbed nine passes for 90 yards and one score. Finding a way to address these concerns is important, with pass-friendly schools like BYU, Clemson, and Southern Cal still remaining on the 2022 schedule.
Pyne-ing for More Options
After Note Dame’s first four games, three players have accounted for roughly 70 percent of the team’s receptions. Tight end Michael Mayer and running back Chris Tyree entered this season as important parts of the passing attack and have lived up to those expectations. Styles currently serves as the main deep threat for the Irish.
All three players will be important in the weeks ahead. However, what’s needed is for other players to emerge so that opponents are prevented from zeroing in on that trio. Among the players who need to deliver in this area is Braden Lenzy, who currently has just seven catches after seemingly breaking out last year with 32 grabs on the year.