The view from the stands showed a flat, unenthusiastic Irish for much of Saturday’s loss to woeful Stanford – slow to the ball on defense, uninspired on offense.
Notre Dame players were visibly fired up on the sidelines after taking the lead in the fourth quarter and after several fourth-quarter defensive stops. However, those sparks of energy were few and far between for a listless Irish team that lost to previously 1-4 Stanford.
This is how bad it was: Stanford had lost 11 straight games to FBS opponents. Their only win was against Patriot League Colgate. The Irish scored four more points than Colgate did against the Cardinal. Even after giving up only 14 points to the Irish, the Stanford defense ranks 97th in the country in team defense, giving up 6.29 yards per play and almost 410 yards per game.
Notre Dame averaged 5.1 yards per play, gained 311 total yards, and was shut out in the first half.
Irish fans are frustrated. Irish head coach Marcus Freeman and the rest of the staff are grasping for answers. Freeman was visibly upset in the post-game press conference – distressed, frustrated, at a loss for an explanation for how his Irish performed.
This article will take a close look at the current state of the Irish program, how Freeman’s first seven games compare to other coaches that have gone on to have success after difficult first seasons, and what characteristics of this team and coaching staff are cause for alarm and which are cause for a more positive outlook.
The Irish, under Freeman, have been a Jekyll and Hyde team – showing flashes of offensive brilliance against top 10 defense Oklahoma State in last year’s Fiesta Bowl and then getting shut out for the second half, showing the team can compete with #2 Ohio State in this season’s first game – on the road no less – yet coming out flat and uninspired in the first home game and losing to now 3-3 Marshall. Then, the Irish won three straight, including a solid win against 6-1 North Carolina and a win against previously ranked BYU, only to lose as an almost 17-point home favorite to Stanford.
So far, under Freeman, the Irish have played up to the level of their competition and down to the level of their competition. They get up for big games and fall completely flat in games they should win going away.
In Freeman’s post-game press conference, he looked exasperated and continued to point to a lack of execution. He responded “I don’t know” on several occasions when asked why the team played so poorly and snapped back quickly when asked if his team underestimated a rival.
There are bigger-picture narratives at play in a head coach’s first season. Here are a few.
Cause for Alarm
The offense is putrid. Putting up over 40 points against North Carolina was expected, solid, and needed, given the poor ranking of North Carolina’s defense. However, when the Irish offense looked explosive at times against BYU, fans were optimistic that the offense had turned a corner and that coordinator Tommy Rees might have found a groove. However, all of that optimism went quickly out the window with Saturday’s performance against a defense previously ranked 110 or worse in several categories.
The Irish were 3-12 on third-down conversions. Quarterback Drew Pyne was 13-27, far from his over 70% completion rate on the season, and had a QBR of a measly 30.7. In addition, the Irish turned the ball over twice in crucial situations, didn’t finish drives, had critical penalties including one that negated a first-half Michael Mayer touchdown.
Even the first play of the game was a false start by All-American Jarrett Patterson.
Six games into a season, at home, the mistakes, lack of execution, and poor playcalling is simply unacceptable for Irish fans and should be unacceptable to the staff and the team. Unfortunately, the slow starts and bipolar nature of the Irish offense is tough to analyze.
The defense fails to get stops when it needs them most. After the Irish took the lead against Marshall, the defense gave up a long touchdown drive. After the Irish took a 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter against Stanford, the defense immediately gave up a field goal drive.
Turnovers add to the misery. The Irish were -2 in turnover margin and failed to grab at least four fumbles that Stanford put on the turf.
The Irish moved the ball into position to take the lead after Stanford’s go-ahead field goal, but running back Audric Estime fumbled.
The Irish had one more chance, moved the ball to around their own 37-yard line but stalled with three failed pass attempts in a row.
There was no urgency all evening for the Irish offense. They repeatedly let the play clock run under five before snapping the ball, even after successful plays, and lethargically and lackadaisically approached the fourth quarter two-minute drill when trying to mount a game-winning drive.
Are the Irish playing tight? Are they flat? Are they unemotional? Is their coach too stoic?
Marshall and Stanford are 0-7 against FBS teams other than Notre Dame.
The tough questions will be asked in this crucial week before one last home game before a top-15 road showdown with Syracuse.
The positives, still, are plenty. Coach Freeman was upset, distraught even, after the game. You’d rather see a coach that is upset, and that cares than one who is unemotional. He was honest and raw. He knows he needs more from this team, from its leaders, and from its young players – in terms of execution and in terms of physical and emotional play.
Most recruits, including new recruit Jeremiyah Love, cite Freeman’s “energy,” “passion,” and “emotion” when discussing why they commit to Freeman’s Irish. Why isn’t that energy showing up in games when the Irish are favored? Where is that passion?
Though the outlook is cloudy, there were positives from Saturday. Freshman Tobias Merriweather caught his first pass – a 41-yard touchdown where he blew by his defender and made a nice grab. He should have had an earlier touchdown if Pyne had hit him in the other end zone – he beat that defender too.
The trio of sophomores Estime and running back Logan Diggs and Merriweather had 20 touches for 170 yards of offense at 8.5 yards per touch. The rest of the team had 41 touches for 131 yards of offense at 3.2 yards per touch.
Freshman linebacker Prince Kollie played more than ever and blocked a punt.
The running game picked up in the second half, and the Irish finished with over 150 yards on the ground – a rushing identity Rees and Freeman continually push for the team’s identity.
The big picture is that the Irish have a first-year head coach who is 3-3 and is favored against UNLV this weekend to get to 4-3. Former coach Lou Holtz was 5-6 in his first year. Nick Saban was 7-6 in 2007, his first year, at Alabama, and lost to Louisiana-Monroe. Dabo Sweeney went 9-5 in his first year but 6-7 in his second year. Kirby Smart went 8-5 in his first year, with losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. His first-year Georgia team beat 5-6 FCS school Nicholls State 24-22. Josh Heupel of Tennessee, currently #3 and coming off an upset of Alabama, went 7-6 last year in his first year.
If Freeman can keep this team together and continue to play the younger players, gain valuable experience for them, piece together some wins, and compete in the biggest games – though every game admittedly is big – at #14 Syracuse, #4 Clemson at home, and at #12 USC, Freeman will gain the respect and even more support of the fanbase. He will likely continue pulling in top recruits and keep the next two years’ top recruiting classes together.
This is year 1. The man has been recruiting to ND for barely over one year. He’s six games into his first full season. There’s plenty left to play for, and the Irish are a few plays away from being 5-1 and in the top 10, even though they played poorly for the Marshall and Stanford losses. They are also 3-3 with two bad losses.
The offense must improve and be consistent, the defense and special teams must play complementary football, and the coaches must bring more fire and emotion into this team.
Freeman was emotional in Saturday’s press conference. If he and the team learn to channel that into angry play on the field, perhaps they’ll play up to their own expectations rather than up or down to another team’s.
The Irish’s Jekyll and Hyde act must turn around into a consistent force – more like the brotherhood the team says it is than an unconnected unit of two or three groups of 11.