Late Overreactions: Notre Dame Survived Unimaginative Offense to Beat Duke

A week after Notre Dame coughed up a late lead, it was the Irish stealing the lead late to pull out victory after it looked bleak. Notre Dame saved their season with a late drive from Sam Hartman and the Irish offense on a night the offense would otherwise like to forget. Obviously, it’s always better to win, but there were still several concerns raised amid some strong positives as well. Let’s overreact.

Apologies for the late posting. I started this on Sunday morning and just didn’t have time to finish it up until tonight.

What is Notre Dame doing offensively?

To say that Saturday night was a frustrating performance from the Notre Dame offense would be putting it mildly. The Irish entered the game with just three healthy wide receivers who had played meaningful downs and did not activate anyone else, so they weren’t dealing with a full deck, but what was Gerad Parker trying to accomplish? Reports surfaced that Notre Dame knew Jaden Greathouse was doubtful on Thursday, and everyone knew there was no chance Jayden Thomas would play the way Freeman spoke about him on Monday. Parker had time to adjust. He did not.

Notre Dame continually ran the ball into the teeth of a stout Duke defense on first down with hardly any success. The Irish averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on first down as Audric Estime was met with a sea of Duke defenders as the Blue Devils crowded the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame opened the game by firing downfield to soften the defense and missed a deep shot to Tobias Merriweather. After that, Parker returned to running, running, and running some more on first down.

What made Saturday so frustrating was the utter lack of imagination in any of the passing schemes. It looked like Notre Dame was running a week one of fall camp base offense all night long with simple route concepts and simple runs. There was no misdirection, very little motion to scheme open receivers the way Duke did to score their go-ahead touchdown, and very few outside runs capitalizing on the speed of Jeremiyah Love and Jadarian Price.

If what we saw was not just an uber-conservative gameplan due to the injuries that Notre Dame suffered, Irish fans should have serious, serious questions about the capabilities of Parker as a play-caller moving forward.

Sam Hartman saved the day

Despite all of the offensive ineptitude on display, Sam Hartman was able to rally Notre Dame with a play that will live on for ages if the Irish can make any noise the rest of the season. Facing a 4th and 16 with the game – and season – on the line, Hartman saw one of the few three-man rushes of the night. Duke head coach Mike Elko decided to go conservative on the play – perhaps he did not see Notre Dame’s 3rd and 17 defense against Ohio State last week. With no one in his way, Hartman took off and threw his body forward for a first down – a week after he didn’t go all out for a 4th and 1 against Ohio State. From that point on, it felt like destiny that Notre Dame would win.

Hartman didn’t have his best night, but he was hampered by a game plan that called for him to dink and dunk his way down the field for the second week in a row. The only way that philosophy will work in two weeks against USC’s porous defense is if Hartman is perfect.

As if Hartman’s heroics weren’t enough, he stopped his postgame interview early to check on Riley Leonard to ensure the Duke quarterback was alright after the injury he suffered to end the game. Hartman just shot up the all-time Notre Dame quarterback power rankings with his performance on and off the field Saturday night.

No timeouts used at the end of the first half was telling

Earlier this season, Marcus Freeman aggressively used time-outs in end-of-half situations to give Sam Hartman the ball back – sometimes with less than a minute on the clock. Freeman had two opportunities on third downs to use his timeouts to get the ball back for Hartman, and instead, he took timeouts with him into the half. Reminder: you can’t take timeouts with ya to the next half.

Freeman’s decision was very telling for his level of confidence in the Irish offense at that time. Freeman used those timeouts earlier this year and tried to get the ball back for a last-minute score. He chose not to. Was that a one-week thing with the injuries at receiver? It will be interesting to see how that plays out this weekend.

Al Golden had Riley Leonard seeing ghosts for a while

Notre Dame would have lost this game if the Irish defense did not have Duke bottled up for most of the night. Riley Leonard hadn’t thrown an interception all season long and enjoyed excellent pass protection until Saturday. By half-time, Al Golden’s defense had Leonard seeing ghosts.

Notre Dame only registered 2 sacks on the night, but the Irish defense was credited with 19 total pressures on PFF. Javontae Jean-Baptiste finally got his first sack of the season after being so close all year long. He had 4 hits on Leonard on the night as well.

Duke and Leonard finally figured some things out in the second half, but to have expected much more out of the Notre Dame defense would have been to expect perfection. Leonard is a great quarterback and is projected to be a potential 1st round NFL Draft pick. The Blue Devils were going to score some points. The defense carried the weight all night long until the offense finally woke up.

Howard Cross was a MONSTER

One of the biggest reasons the Irish defense had Leonard in knots was Howard Cross. The senior interior lineman played the game of his life with 13 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and a game-sealing sack. PFF graded him out at 87.8 – by far the highest-rated defender for Notre Dame in the game. He had 6 total pressures and forced two fumbles. The Irish finally recovered one of the fumbles they forced to end the game.

PFF has Cross graded out at 90.7 on the season – the 2nd highest rating for any interior defensive lineman in all of college football. He’s played more than 100 more snaps than the highest rating. Only two interior defenders have more pressures on the season, and no other interior DL has forced more than one fumble so far this season. Howard Cross is straight balling out.

And so was Mitchell Evans

Mitchell Evans proved that his breakout game against Ohio State was legit by playing even better against Duke. Evans had 6 catches for 134 yards, including another ridiculous one-handed grab. Evans was the Notre Dame passing game on Saturday night, with the Irish receivers unable to pick up the slack due to their own drops and the unimaginative game plan.

Evans looked like Michael Mayer out there on Saturday night. In some ways, that wasn’t the best since the offense also looked like the one that was totally reliant on Mayer to catch everything and move the chains from last year, but again, let’s hope that was just because of the personnel issues the Irish faced.

We need a conversation about the ACC officials

The ACC officials are terrible. There is no kinder way to put it at this point. They are just totally inept. Notre Dame deserved most of the penalties they drew on the night from a lack of discipline, but the egregious errors they make on a weekly basis are impossible to ignore.

The review of Bryce McFerson’s punt that, by rule, is unreviewable should be a firable offense for whoever in the ACC crew called for the review and then reversed the play. That simply cannot happen in a game. Ever.

Picking up the pass interference flag that was called on one of the few deep shots to Merriweather was also ridiculous. Merriweather would have had a chance to come back to the ball if the Duke defender had not run him over. The ball was still in the vicinity, and the call to rule it uncatchable was more projection than judgment at that point.

Both of Duke’s touchdown drives featured long Riley Leonard runs that had clear holding at the point of the opening for the run as well. Holding happens on almost every play, so I try not to get too upset over it, but both runs had holds right in the hole that Leonard exploited.

Notre Dame has a kicking problem

Notre Dame has a kicking problem right now. Spencer Shrader can kick the ball further than maybe any other kicker in Notre Dame history. Right now, he is just wildly inaccurate. He was 20 of 26 on field goals the last two years at USF. He’s just 5 out of 10 so far for Notre Dame. Two of his misses are from 50+, but he’s 1 for 3 from 40-49 and just 2 of 3 from 30-39. He missed a 37-yarder that could have been costly had the Irish not rallied late beings, as they were down just one point before their final touchdown.

Notre Dame doesn’t have a ton of internal options at the moment. Both Zak Yoakam and Marcello Diomede are preferred walkons at kicker. Yoakam handles kickoffs now, so it would seem logical if he got a crack at field goals first, but Freeman hasn’t given any indication a change is coming. Notre Dame changed holders this week in an attempt to jump-start Shrader, but a missed 37-yarder does not instill too much confidence.

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  1. I didn’t see the whole game. But i caught enough to know the concerns are valid.
    There are plays in the playbook already that would be more creative to insert in a game and would keep a defense off balance.
    Notre Dame is going to need a creative playbook this week or Louisville will get the upset.
    There’s no reason to hold back as USC won’t learn much other than to be confident on D if the Irish offense goes in the tank.

  2. By ignoring holding, the refs can enable a drive that otherwise would stall. I do think that influences games.

  3. Howard Cross and Mitchell Evans, with a great first half by LB Marist, and assists from Sam Hartman’s and Audric Estime’s big rushes, a beautiful fake punt that led to NDs first and only TD until the last 31 seconds, were all highlights that led to the W. The D was consistent in keeping ND in the game.
    Well stated, Michael, that Duke’s two biggest chunk plays leading to their TDs were assisted by obvious uncalled holding. Ignoring the rule about overturning a called coffin corner kick in was more of the same. It’s less about what the ACC refs called, and more about what they didn’t call that again reinforced the obvious weekly officiating- the ACC refs are more than inept, they are partisan.Versus ACC opponents, ND has been called on the average for 11 penalties totaling 76 yards. Their ACC opponents have been called on average for 5 penalties, totaling 41 yards.
    Non-ACC games ?
    ND has been called on average for 4.25 penalties totaling 42 yards, while non-ACC opponents have been called on average for 3.75 penalties totaling 31.5 yards. That’s a difference of 6.75 more penalties per game with ACC refs totaling 34 more penalty yards per game favoring ACC opponents.
    “Just the facts, M’am”. Joe Friday, Dragnet

    1. * Credit where credit is due. That was Frank who pointed out the ignored Duke holding calls that greatly assisted Duke’s two TDs.

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