Entering the first of two bye weeks, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hold a 6-2 record. That’s one game better than last year’s mark at this point and comes without the two embarrassing home losses they suffered last season. With the exception of their trio to Clemson on November 4, the remainder of the Irish schedule should add at least three more victories to the regular season win column.
Getting to this point has involved taking care of business against outmanned opponents while dealing with slumps in certain areas of the team’s offense. On the defensive front, the effort has largely been strong, with the final margin in the Louisville loss matching the points allowed off Notre Dame turnovers in the game.
Below are some of the key aspects of the Irish’s first eight games:
Prior to the start of the season, the Notre Dame receiving corps had a number of question marks attached to a host of talented players. Many of those concerns have been calmed by the insertion of Sam Hartman as the Irish signal-caller with the veteran quarterback connecting with seven receiving options on 100 of his 143 completions on the year.
Increased contributions from the tandem of Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse would help offer Hartman more choices in passing situations. Both were held out of the Duke game due to hamstring issues, something that blunted Thomas’ strong start that saw him catch 12 passes in the first five games. Since then, he’s had just two receptions against Louisville. Greathouse also started out with 12 grabs in his first five games but has not caught any passes since returning.
Offensive Line Stumbles
In Notre Dame’s eight games this season, the Irish offensive line has only allowed 11 sacks. Delving deeper, that number shows that all 11 of those sacks came on the road in unfriendly environments, which led to snap count issues and some costly turnovers. It’s a concern that will need to be addressed with the matchup against Clemson taking place in the cauldron of Death Valley, an unforgiving locale for most teams.
Last year after eight games, the Irish had also allowed 11 sacks. However, the breakdown there shows that the takedowns were not so pronounced and were spread out over six contests. In their final five games last season, the Irish gave up 10 more sacks, with the near-collapse at Navy accounting for half of those takedowns.
Tight End Tandem
Trying to replace a player like Michael Mayer was going to be a challenge for the Irish and is something that’s largely required the efforts of two players. Starting off with sophomore Holden Staes and really picking up speed with Mitchell Evans, Notre Dame has remained strong at this position.
Staes matched his 2022 output with one four-yard touchdown grab in the rout of Tennessee State, then was a key part of the weather-delayed win at North Carolina State. Against the Wolfpack, he caught four passes for 115 yards and two scores before catching just one pass in the next three games. He’s snagged a pair of passes in each of the past two contests to supplement the output of Mitchell Evans.
In that North Carolina State clash, Evans sustained a concussion that kept him out of the subsequent game against Central Michigan. Returning against Ohio State, the third-year receiver has since hauled in 19 passes for 293 yards and one touchdown, becoming a favorite option for Sam Hartman in the process. Both Evans and Staes offer large targets for Hartman and offer one explanation for the uptick in passing output.
Third Down Slippage
In their first five games of 2023, Notre Dame was able to move the chains effectively in third-down situations. Converting 29 of 54 opportunities, the Irish managed to win four of those games and lose the other on the final play from scrimmage. Yet, in the past three matchups, the numbers have shifted in the wrong direction.
The Irish have won two of those three games, though one of those victories required a dramatic late drive to make it happen. Overall, converting just nine of 38 chances in this area is an indication that something needs to be fixed, especially before Notre Dame takes the field against Clemson.
Even though the opportunity to compete for a national title effectively died with the loss to Louisville, Notre Dame is still in a position to be selected for a major bowl game. The final result at Clemson will likely answer that question, considering that the other three opponents for the Irish have a collective record of 7-11. In addition, two of the contests will be played under the Golden Dome. Marcus Freeman’s second season at the helm is still in the midst of emerging from midseason struggles, with questions about the conclusion still waiting to be answered.