Anytime you win 56-3, there will be a lot to like, regardless of the opponent. In this case, the opponent was an FCS foe, so I’ll try looking a little bigger picture with this week’s 5 things I liked now that the Irish have exited the “preseason” portion of their 2023 schedule.
Notre Dame’s redzone defense looking good again
Notre Dame was dreadful in the redzone last year. Statistically, they were one of the very worst teams in all of college football when it came to stopping opponents in the redzone. Through two weeks, the Irish have only allowed scores on 40% of times opponents reached the redzone and have yet to give up a touchdown. Tennessee State was just 1 of 3 with a single field goal. Their other two trips to the redzone resulted in a blocked field goal and a missed field goal.
Everything to this point needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but after giving up scores on 94% of redzone opportunities a year ago, any progress is a welcomed sight. The stops will get more challenging as the competition level rises, but I’ll take any signs of improvement here after last year.
The end of 1st half touchdown drive
Notre Dame’s last touchdown of the first half was a thing of beauty for a few reasons. For starters, it was set up by Marcus Freeman using his timeouts wisely to even give the offense a chance. We saw Brian Kelly be too comfortable with a lead, like 28-3, going into a half too many times, so Freeman being aggressive was promising, as was his clock management for a second-year head coach.
Once Notre Dame got the ball, we saw Sam Hartman cook. He led the Irish 80 yards on six plays in 38 seconds without needing to use a timeout. The word “efficient” has been thrown around a lot to describe Hartman through two weeks, but that drive was more than efficient; it was explosive.
Notre Dame hasn’t asked Hartman to do much so far because they haven’t needed him to do much. The one drive was one of the few instances where they needed Hartman to be “that guy.” He was. And that should have Notre Dame fans excited for what we’ll see once the Irish open up the offense more.
Steve Angeli getting reps with the first team
Past coaching regimes probably would have had Hartman out there with the starters to start the second half and then eventually given backup Steve Angeli some late reps with other backups and let him hand it off. This staff put Angeli in the game with the starting offense and let him run the offense. That was huge for Angeli’s development.
If Notre Dame is to ever need Angeli for more than mop-up duty, he needs reps like the ones he got on Saturday to be ready. He didn’t look perfect, but no one should have expected him to. Angeli did not attempt a pass in 2022. Once he settled in, he made some plays with his feet to buy time and ended up with a pair of touchdown passes and 130 yards.
I’ve been trying to think of another example of a Notre Dame backup getting to essentially play an entire quarter with the starters in a blowout, and I am drawing a blank. Usually, the backup comes in and plays behind a backup offensive line and throws to backup receivers. Angeli getting reps with the first-team OL was a great move by this staff.
Josh Burnham coming off the edge
He’s only played a total of 30 snaps this season, but sophomore EDGE Josh Burnham has flashed in his limited opportunities. He had a sack last week against Navy, and this week, he picked up a tackle for loss where he came flying off the edge to stuff out a play in the backfield.
On Saturday, Notre Dame sent a lot of pressure that almost got there but didn’t quite get home. It wasn’t the most promising sign for the Irish pass rush moving forward, though some advanced metrics tell a better story. They did register 16 pressures despite picking up just one sack.
Burnham has a future and a present in this defense. He might not be a 30-snap-a-game player at any point this season, but he looks like an asset Al Golden can deploy in spots to generate a pass rush.
Sam Hartman spreading the ball around
Hartman completed passes to 10 different receivers in the first half of Saturday’s game before he wore a baseball cap for the rest of the day. Unlike other recent quarterbacks at Notre Dame, he can go through all his progressions and hit third or fourth options with the time the Irish offensive line affords him. That is very difficult for defenses to account for – especially when that same team has a power-rushing attack with a running back like Audric Estime.
The Hartman to Jayden Thomas connection is clearly developing well, but he also hit Jaden Greathouse, Rico Flores, Chris Tyree, and Tobias Merriweather among his receivers. He got the tight ends involved on the scoring drive at the end of the half, with Mitchell Evans getting the Irish down the field and Holden Staes finishing it off.
This offense isn’t built to go through a single receiver, and it has a quarterback capable of being an elite facilitator. That’s a scary combination and one that is going to light up scoreboards this fall.