Post-Spring Update: Northwestern

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As we continue our meander through Notre Dame’s 2014 opponents, we arrive on the much-anticipated game with Northwestern. No, this won’t be a candidate to host College GameDay, but for ND grads and the city of Chicago, this will be a game that’ll likely determine bragging rights on the North Side.

(At the very least, it’ll make for a fun tailgater and a lot of charter buses heading back for a nightcap.)

Last year was the first slip up for Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The former All-American linebacker who essentially put the Wildcats back on the map as a player, Fitzgerald took over the program after the sudden death of Randy Walker. Learning on the job, Fitzgerald built on Walker’s momentum and brought the program to a consistency it had never before seen.

Wildcats fans are hoping to return to that more-than-average place, maybe even getting back to the 10-win plateau that saw the 2012 season capped off with a victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

Getting us up to speed on all things Northwestern is Jay Sharman, the editor of Lake the Posts, a long-running Northwestern football blog. Jay was nice enough to answer questions not just about the Wildcats on the field, but the relationship between two schools and football programs off of it.

 

Can you help us figure out what went wrong for the Wildcats in 2013? After a 10-win 2012 and a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State, Northwestern lost seven straight, finishing the year 5-7. Was it a matter of injuries or bad breaks? Regression to the mean?

This is the stuff that makes off-seasons so damn long. It’s not like I brood over this question regularly (ahem, ahem…every day), but since you asked anything that comes after this sentence is an excuse. At least that’s the take those of us that believe NU has arrived to the place where any year that isn’t a bowl game is a disaster. Are we more the 10-win 2012 program or the middle of the pack B1G team that our B1G record under Fitz would suggest? Great question.

It’s hard to believe that at one point we were 4-0, #16 in the country and on the game-winning drive against Ohio State (after leading most of the game) in primetime when Kain Colter fumbled a 4th down snap (he still got the first down, but the refs didn’t see it that way). The emotions surrounding that biggest game in Evanston since 2000 took the air out of the balloon and the season. Honestly, it was a combination of bad luck, injuries and poor coaching in clutch time all rolled up in to one tidy ball of a hot mess.

Keep in mind NU lost on a Hail Mary to Nebraska (no one deeper than the deepest?), in OT at Iowa after being in the red zone in the final minute with the score tied and then the world’s zaniest FG by Michigan to send us to an OT loss. We’d like to think at least two of those three were once in a generation kinda plays (and over the past 20 years we’ve had our fair share).

Injuries were a big part, but so was the lack of depth. NU’s offensive line was pretty miserable, but we also lost All-American heart-and-soul PR/RB Venric Mark, along with a host of linemen and somehow inherited Iowa’s AIHRBG (angy Iowa-hating RB God) as one after the next we started to learn what “sixth” on depth chart meant. Throw in some really conservative defense in key stretches with the lead and you have the recipe for the most disappointing season since 2001.

 

Did the frustration from last season carry over to spring?

Let’s hope not! The injuries sure did. NU’s spring roster resembled the cliched M*A*S*H unit and we struggled at time to even go full 11-on-11 due to injuries. Fitz has been overly cautious in the off-season and is working like crazy to limit injuries and ensure we’re at full throttle for 2014. The attitude was a good one – one with a chip on the shoulder, which all got overshadowed by what i’m guessing is…

 

It’s hard to talk football when the Wildcats football team took official steps towards unionization. This could probably be an entire discussion, but help me out here: Does a group of student-athletes at one of the finest academic institutions in American not understand the value of a full scholarship? Is this still moving forward?
…there it is – you’re next question. This is months and months of posts, vicious alumni debates and a topic that nearly had fans going at one another this off-season. NU fans (as well as ND fans) are no stranger to the front page and business section of the NYTimes and WSJ, but we’re not used to getting football headlines there. In March.

It’s impossible for me to be objective on this question as I’ve stated my opinion numerous times that unionizing football at NU isn’t the solution. However, it is really hard to argue that Kain Colter and CAPA didn’t win this battle. From a strategic standpoint, they had a Rose Bowl-level win. By forcing the NCAA and other private school institutions to address the issues that most all of us would agree on (medical coverage post college for injuries suffered while playing, concussion protocols, etc…) and not even touching the compensation argument, they were able to create seismic change in the legislative waters and had school ADs and presidents scurrying to really genuinely address some key issues. That being said, the way Kain went about it was less than something Jim Phillips, Fitz and many of the teammates feel good about.

What’s the reaction been like among alums, Northwestern supporters and former players?

It’s been ugly. Go ahead and scan the comments section on LTP in February, March and April. NU fans can’t go anywhere in the country without this topic immediately coming up in conversation. Former players are divided strongly on the issue, alumni are more anti-union in general and students,well, it’s tough to gauge exactly. Every one is fatigued by the issue but many felt hurt by the way things went down. NU prides itself on family atmosphere and transparency and this process didn’t exactly play out that way. Fitz and Phillips publicly lauded Kain for taking a leadership position and supported him and then he promptly bad-mouthed the school saying they made it nearly impossible for him to pursue a medical degree. This topic is one that I have personally received numerous emails from former players-turned-doctors who are incensed at that notion. Bottom-line it’s been a rough, rough off-season and the boom coming over is all of that media coverage and distraction for the current team this fall. It’s naive to think it won’t be a factor.

 

Back to the football field, from a distance it looks like part of the problems last year were at quarterback. With Cain Kolter gone (though hardly out of the spotlight), is the quarterback job Trevor Siemian’s? Is one-time Notre Dame target and former blue-chipper Matt Alviti challenging for playing time?

There is no doubt this is Trevor Siemian’s job. Siemian is a very good passer and while no Kain Colter or Dan Persa, he is more mobile than one may think. Make no mistake about it, Siemian will be throwing downfield a lot for many reasons. We’ve got a bevy of veteran receivers and well, he can throw. Siemian suffered a foot injury that none of us knew he had which hampered him severely through the meat of the schedule. Throw in the constant platoon system (Kain thrived in this) and you had a guy searching for his rhythm last year. I expect a huge year out of Siemian in 2014.

The fan base has been lauding Matt Alviti as the next Dan Persa since the day he committed (and yes, thanks for throwing in the fact we beat out ND for his services). After redshirting last season there was a lot of fan speculation that we’d retain the two QB system and platoon Alviti similarly to Colter. Not happening. NU is returning to its more traditional spread offense and while he will likely see some action, I expect it to be limited. By most reports he had a very up and down spring and junior Zack Oliver is very much in the hunt for the back-up role.

 

Former five-star recruit Kyle Prater is now playing for the Wildcats. Are there other receiving weapons that can help this offense make big plays in the passing game?

Kyle played last season and has been disappointing on the field in general. It’s not everyday NU gets a five-star USC transfer, let alone a guy who just looks like a Sunday player on the field as he towers over most. Prater is likely fourth or fifth on this year’s WR threat list. Christian Jones led the way in 2013 with 54 catches and 668 rec yards and made many dazzling catches along the way. Tony “no relation” Jones was the second most productive ‘Cat receiver with 55 rec and 634 yards yet his junior year seemed to be a bit understated. Expect Cameron Dickerson to make a big jump in 2014 (11 rec, 125 yards) and we’re banking that Phil Steele knows what he’s doing by slating Kyle Prater on the All Big Ten second team. There is a slew of younger talent on the team pushing these veterans and our Superback (think hybrid TE) Dan Vitale is one of the best in the B1G and always a threat as the release valve. He’s a fan favorite and a bulldozer (34 rec, 382 yards) and first team All YAC. The wildcard on this team is transfer Miles Shuler who is Venric Mark-like in speed. He transferred from Rutgers last year.

NU has weapons at receiver and most fans are hoping we continue where we left off with the aerial antics from the season finale against Illinois (yes, we know it was Illinois).

 

The running game looks like it should rebound as well. What do you expect out of Venric Mark and the uber-experienced offensive line?

I read that NU’s offensive line is 19th in FBS in returning total career starts. To me, the O-line and our D-line are the season make-or-breaks. Venric is our energizer. He’s been dinged up quite a bit, but man is he explosive. People forget he earned first team All-American honors in 2012 as a punt returner, not at RB, where he put up 1,300+ yards. As you’ll see, he is simply incredible. He’s tiny, but turns sliver creases in to gaping holes and BOOM he’s gone. NU is solid at RB with the likes of Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley, both of whom impressed last year before injuries saddled them. Fans are super excited about incoming freshman and Illinois Player of the Year, Justin Jackson, who will likely redshirt unless we get the injury bug again.

 

For a team that did a decent job getting after the quarterback, a 101st-ranked pass defense doesn’t make a lot of sense. What improvements have been made in the secondary? There seems to be talent back there, led by Ibraheim Campbell.
The secondary is our best unit, hands-down. It may very well be the best secondary since the 1995 Rose Bowl team. Ibraheim Campbell will be playing safety at the next level and he’s just a lock down kind of player. Traveon Henry, like Campbell has been playing since his freshman year and creates a helluva force in the middle of the secondary. At CB we’ve got lots of depth and very good competition. Matt Harris filled in at CB last year admirably (yes, more season-ending injuries) for Daniel Jones while the key guy to watch might be the other CB Nick VanHoose who had a sophomore slump in my opinion. Fitz and fans are pretty huge on incoming freshman Parrker Westphal, a four-star CB and a head-to-head recruiting “W” over Michigan. Westphal is the first ‘Cat to enroll early as a freshman in Fitz’s tenure which shows you how unique he is. I expect him to compete from day one.

As good as the secondary is, that many questions surround the D-line, particularly the interior. With the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraksa’s Ameer Abudallah all in our division you can bet the gameplan is going to be to test the interior of our line early and often.

 

Let’s talk Pat Fitzgerald. Last season was one of the first blemishes on his resume. How do you view Fitzgerald? As one of the best young coaches in the game? Or as a guy that’s done a very good job winning cupcake non-conference games and getting to eight victories?

Fitz is viewed as the ultimate brand ambassador for NU. He does everything the right way, the players relate to him and he’s no-nonsense in terms of running a program. He’s become an excellent recruiter, but the knock on his coaching is late game philosophy and decision making. The rap is we go in to ultra-conservative mode with a lead (lost all three 4th quarter leads in 2012 when we only lost 3 games) and 2013 compounded that (see: Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan).

After years of winning an uncanny amount of close games, we can’t seem to win the marquee games when we have the lead. It’s fair to knock his sub .500 B1G record, but it may not be fair to call the non-conference wins cupcakes. NU plays as many power conference teams as anyone, and while it may not be Alabama, Florida State and Oregon, just check out the schedule. Vanderbilt from the SEC, Syracuse was a regular, BC. Candidly the teams we’ve scheduled have dipped since we scheduled them (read: Cal), but future schedules have Stanford annually, Duke and other like-minded academic schools including this two-game series. Considering NU is going to a 9-game conference schedule, I believe most NU fans would happily trade schedules with Notre Dame.

 

More than a few ND fans think the latter, pointing out that he’s never lost less than three conference games, and routinely collects wins against programs like Maine, South Dakota and Western Illinois. Do you think that’s fair criticism, or Irish fans annoyed at the stability in Evanston?

I think it is fair – to a point. NU hasn’t competed for the B1G championship with the exception of 2012 when we laid three eggs in the 4th quarter. Consider the fact that NU lost late leads to Nebraska and Michigan two years in a row, Ohio State, Penn State and you know why we’ll be nervous as hell if we have the lead against you. When you consider that we were beating both Nebraska and Michigan last year with 0:00 on the board – and lost both games, you start to get a sense of the inability to close the “name games” frustration. It’s become an epidemic.

Lastly, can we get a state of the union on Northwestern football? You mentioned that the Wildcats’ upset of the Irish almost 20-years ago kicked off this modern era, but where do things stand today?

Things are remarkably better, but those of us that know the pre-1995 reputation are a sensitive bunch. The first five years of the Fitz regime, we were better than Stanford and they blew past us as a program. We felt we were pretty much the equivalent of Sparty until last year. Going to bowl games and winning them is now the minimum expectation for a good season.

Fitz is in year eight and the bar continues to rise. Should he not get to seven games this season the noise will get very loud from disgruntled fans. Again, it is perhaps misguided based on all of the challenges and obstacles that make NU unique, but there is no excuse for this team to not take that next step and go 6-2 or 7-1 in the West Division very soon. i think most fans are hoping the uber-loyal coach would finally make a change with Mick McCall and should the offense struggle again this year I think he’ll have to. Things were good up until early October 2013 and now many fans are asking whether 2012 was a blip or the aberration.

The program is still the only Big Ten school that doesn’t average 40k a game. But some have called the program healthier than Notre Dame’s. Are things still on an upward trajectory?

From a marketing standpoint it’s arrow way up. Indeed, NU is averaging just under 40 k per game, but that will change this year with a home slate that is pretty darn juicy. NU’s private school status, 8K students, dispersed alumni base and ridiculous competition with the Chicago marketplace all make this a challenge for the tradition-deprived school. However, NU began investing in marketing big time about four years ago and have set back to back season ticket sales records.

The fans get frustrated by Sea of Red invasions (sound familiar?) but we’re 11th out of 12 (soon to be 11th out of 14) in terms of actual Chicago alumni base in the B1G. It’s hard to get mad that opposing fans get tickets the second they go on sale as we’d all do it if we lived in the marketplace. I think BC is one of the best analogous situations and I’d love to have their 40K-size stadium. Even if it meant leaving money on the table. NU regularly has 30K+ of the fans and Ryan Field is next up in terms of a major overhaul after NU completes its downright ridiculous $225 million lakeside practice facility which is set to break ground imminently (or so we’re told).

Should NU go 8-4-ish this year and win a bowl game, the momentum will be pretty good moving forward. Fitz’s most recent recruiting classes are at the Top 20 level in terms of quality and you can see the talent uptick. We still simply lack the depth of the big dogs and must rely on staying healthy to compete.

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For more on Northwestern football, check out Lake the Posts or give them a follow on Twitter @LakethePosts.

Leftovers & Links: Idle-week thoughts on Notre Dame and its difficulties in the transfer portal

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It has become a common complaint among Notre Dame fans, that the Irish coaching staff failed to capitalize on the transfer portal this offseason. Particularly after Marshall’s influx of Power Five Transfers spurred the Herd to a 26-21 upset at Notre Dame Stadium and junior Drew Pyne was thrown into starting duty after Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, the dearth of transfers on Notre Dame’s roster created angst, particularly at quarterback.

Aside from Northwestern import Brandon Joseph at safety, Harvard graduates Chris Smith and Jon Sot at defensive tackle and punter, respectively, and Arkansas State graduate Blake Grupe at kicker, the Irish do not have any contributing transfers this season.

It is not a coincidence three of those players are graduates, and it is not a coincidence three of them came from schools that could be considered academic peers to Notre Dame.

Coincincidences will not explain this dynamic to the masses, though, at least not enough.

“Can you point me to where and how I could read your complete take on [why Notre Dame can’t or won’t participate fully in the transfer portal opportunities]? Maybe this is a topic worthy of a full column given the current problems that the Irish are experiencing at receiver and perhaps other positions due to recruiting failures?”bostonjan two weeks ago.

Knowing Marcus Freeman’s thoughts on this will not satiate the masses, realizing a non-football-related example will not make clear the difficulties, and overlooking the reality that Notre Dame’s lack of receiver depth goes well beyond the transfer portal and into losing two veterans for either the season thus far (Joe Wilkins, mid-March Lisfranc injury) or the season entirely (Avery Davis, preseason ACL tear) after most portal thoughts were spoken for … let’s answer that question.

The NCAA requires players remain on track for graduation. “On track” can be an ambiguous phrase, but there are bare minimums attached to it. Thus, any player Notre Dame welcomes as an undergraduate transfer must arrive and remain on track for graduation by those definitions as they apply at Notre Dame.

The University is notoriously challenging in that regard for imports. To break a personal rule and use a first-person pronoun here, one friend of mine — and details will be vague here because they are not necessary for the point and his academic process is not the debate here — who transferred into Notre Dame halfway through his junior year from a rather prestigious Northeast institution. Yet, Notre Dame denied so many of his credits, when he arrived in South Bend, he was now entering the second semester of his sophomore year. As sure as the sun rises in the east, this was coming from a place with a lofty enough academic standing, you would all expect every single one of his credits to transfer. Instead, he was no longer “on track” to graduate by athletics standards, though let it be known, this friend could not less resemble a Division I athlete, no offense intended.

Coming from Northwestern, Brandon Joseph faced a similar issue. If the senior safety were to jump to the NFL after this season, it would almost assuredly be easier for him to return to Evanston to procure his degree than to Notre Dame.

Freeman recognizes this reality, and he also recognizes this is part of the University’s fabric. Holding its own courses in higher esteem than the vast majority of other schools’ will not change, for better or worse.

“Our people here at Notre Dame want us to be in a position to be successful,” Freeman said a couple weeks ago. “But at the same time, we want to make sure we protect the integrity of this education here at our University. Nobody is just going to ‘win’ this. ‘Athletics wins.’ ‘Academics wins.’ No, we have to work together to do what’s best for both parties.”

Having enough credits accepted as a transfer to remain on track for graduation is only the second hurdle. The first hurdle, the one Freeman does intend to change, is the timing of that process.

The Irish chased a few receiver transfers this offseason. Now who knows where those players would have gone if Notre Dame’s transfer admission process was lightning quick, perhaps still not South Bend, but it would have become more plausible. Right now, the transfer transcripts have to be procured, whatever academic school at Notre Dame the player wants to enter has to review those credits and eventually a decision on eligibility is reached.

In the modern era of the transfer portal, that delay may be more costly than the strict admissions standards. Joseph was in the portal for hours before he was considering the Irish and just days before that decision was made. Most transfers do not even visit the campus of the new school they commit to. Freeman has identified that sluggish process as something to improve since he was hired in December.

“It’s a process that we’re in constant communication with,” he said this month. “Our admissions, our faculty here at Notre Dame and with multiple head coaches of athletic programs — it’s not just football. It’s just, right now, a period in college sports where transfers and transfer portals are a big part of roster enhancements.”

Freeman was hired the first week of December. You may remember that was a chaotic stretch around the Irish program. His first priority was keeping together the recruiting class set to sign two weeks later. His second was readying Notre Dame for the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.

That timeline was never going to allow Freeman a chance to accelerate the transfer admissions process at the University before most transfers were off the market by February. The inability to chase most transfers this past offseason was not a reflection of Freeman and his coaching staff; it was a reality of a large institution’s momentum and of time’s relentlessness. Freight trains take miles to stop and then much time to reverse course, and in many regards, Notre Dame operates like a freight train.

But Freeman is still trying to turn that freight train around.

“It’s a process that we continue to have discussions about and look to continue to enhance it.”

By no means does that assure things will move quicker this coming winter, but if anything is certain, it is that they will not be slower.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame offensive explosion puts North Carolina on its heels early
Highlights: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32 — Irish RBs spur offense, Pyne finds downfield attack
Things We Learned: ND’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

OUTSIDE READING
Who are college football’s most surprising impact transfers? Marshall RB Khalan Laborn, former Notre Dame OL Quinn Carroll lead list
Don’t call USC overrated after its best — and ugliest — win of the season
Does college football have an attendance problem? Lane Kiffin’s fan gripes bring up fair point
Here’s the funniest opponent each P5 school has never beaten
Isaac Rochell riding unconventional wave of opportunity with Browns this season
Northwestern unveils plan for Ryan Field rebuild

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

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While Notre Dame takes the weekend off, some will take the chance to spend time with their families. Others will go to other games across the country, maybe dabble in an FCS matchup. Most, however, will keep watching the full Saturday slate, and this weekend there are a few notable chances to watch coming Irish foes.

It would be too objective of an exercise to list the below games by order of intrigue, but the first game on that list would not be up for debate: No. 5 Clemson hosts No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC) in a game that could confirm the Tigers’ Playoff aspirations.

No. 19 BYU (3-1): The Cougars had no trouble with up-and-down Wyoming, winning 38-24, led by quarterback Jaren Hall’s 337 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-32 passing. Receiver Puka Nacua caught only three of those passes for just 26 yards, but his return from a battered ankle gives BYU one of its two best receivers back, and the other may play this weekend, Gunner Romney coming back from a lacerated kidney suffered early in preseason practices.

That offense does not need to be at full strength to ease by Utah State (8 ET on Thursday; ESPN), but it may be needed to cover a 24.5-point spread, per PointsBet on Wednesday night. More notably, this will give Hall and Romney a chance to find their rhythm before facing Notre Dame in Las Vegas on Oct. 8.

Stanford (1-2): Losing to Washington, 40-22, was not too alarming. The Huskies may be back to the form that landed them in an early Playoff. And Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee continued the vague NFL buzz around him with 286 yards and three touchdowns on 17-of-26 passing. But it was still a bad week for Stanford. Head coach David Shaw announced Tuesday that running back E.J. Smith will be out for the rest of the season. In the first two games of the year, Smith took 30 carries for 206 yards and three touchdowns, adding 63 more yards and a score through the air. McKee will keep the offense functional, but Smith made it a bona fide two-dimensional offense.

Without him, it is hard to envision the Cardinal upsetting No. 13 Oregon (11 ET; FS1) late Saturday night as 17-point underdogs.

UNLV (3-1): The Rebels are not the scrubs many expected entering the season, including this space. A 34-24 win at even-more-woeful Utah State last weeked confirmed that, but let’s make no mistake: UNLV is still not necessarily good. SP+ ranks the Rebels as the No. 91 team in the country, two notches better than Boston College, but UNLV will not be the worst team Notre Dame faces this season. With Navy even further down those considerations, the Rebels will not even be the second-worst team playing the Irish this year.

How drastically have things changed for UNLV? Favored by 14.5 against New Mexico (11 ET on Friday; CBSSN) this weekend makes it three straight weeks that the Rebels have been favored. Before that, they were last favored against an FBS team in the second week of 2019, nearly three full seasons ago. They had not been a favorite in consecutive FBS games since late 2017, when they went 0-1-1 against the spread against Hawaii and BYU, losing to the Cougars.

The last time UNLV was favored in three straight games against FBS opponents? It was before 2006.

Syracuse (4-0): The Orange tried to gift Virginia a win on Friday, but it held on 22-20 despite four turnovers. All four of those were within Syracuse’s own 36-yard line, yet they resulted in only seven Cavaliers points.

Syracuse could probably get away with such shenanigans again this week, against FCS-level Wagner (5 ET; ESPN+).

No. 5 Clemson (4-0): The Tigers held off Wake Forest’s upset bid in double overtime. It may have been DJ Uiagalelei’s best career game, even better than his double-overtime showing at Notre Dame in 2020, throwing for 371 yards and five touchdowns. But those numbers do not do his play justice.

More of that is going to be needed against No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC). Clemson is favored by 6.5 points, and assuming that mark holds up to kickoff, this marks four of the Tigers’ last five games against ACC competition in which they have been favored by just single digits, going 3-1 against the spread in those games, winning all four. The game before those five, Clemson was an underdog to Pittsburgh, so call that five of six games in which the Tigers were favored by no more than nine points against conference opponents. In the previous 34 ACC games, only once was Clemson favored by fewer than 10 points, its trip to Notre Dame in 2020 in Uiagalelei’s first career start.

Navy (1-2): The Midshipmen found a win, and they needed only double overtime to do it, beating East Carolina 23-20. By no means did this reflect significant progress for Navy, still gaining only 2.9 yards per rush.

The Midshipmen will need to find a vintage offensive showing to upset Air Force (12 ET; CBS), entering that Commander-in-Chief game as 14-point underdogs.

Boston College (1-3): The Eagles fell behind 37-0 early in the third quarter at Florida State, and that does not begin to describe how bad things are for Boston College right now. The 44-14 final result was far closer than it should have been. Eagles quarterback Phil Jurkovec went 15-of-23 for 105 yards and one touchdown compared to two interceptions after opening the game 5-of-10 for 20 yards and those two picks.

Boston College now hosts Louisville (12 ET; ACCN), and it is foolish to think there is the talent on this roster to lose by as few as the 15.5 points suggested by the spread.

No. 6 USC (4-0): The Trojans found a way to win, and that may be the greatest testament to the change in mindset around that program. When its offense could manage only 17 points, that was still enough at Oregon State, prevailing 17-14.

The reality is, USC’s defense is playing with fire, relying on a steady stream of turnovers that cannot continue, almost literally.

The Trojans should not need such resolve against Arizona State (10:30 ET; ESPN), favored by a meager 25 points against a team lacking a head coach. (Insert reference to 2008 Syracuse here.)

No. 3 Ohio State: The Buckeyes crushed Wisconsin, 52-21, in another instance of the final score not representing how lopsided the game was. Ohio State led 45-7 entering the fourth quarter, completely dominating a team in the top half of the Big Ten.

Not much more time need be spent on the Buckeyes this week, given they now host Rutgers (3:30 ET; Big Ten Network) in a game that will make last week’s look tight.

Marshall (2-2): The Herd fell 16-7 at Troy, a loss that may doom any Marshall hopes of winning the Sun Belt in its first season in the conference. Star Herd running back Khalan Laborn still managed 118 yards on 30 rushes, but quarterback Henry Colombi attempted just 13 passes, completing eight of them for 49 yards. Put Laborn’s output into this context: Marshall ended the game with 96 rushing yards (sacks included) and 174 total yards.

Similar problems should not be a worry this week against FCS-level Gardner-Webb (3:30 ET; ESPN+).

Cal (3-1): The Bears ran through Arizona, 49-31, to a literal extent. Freshman running back Jadyn Ott is already putting his name into the record books. (Context: Ott rushed for 33 yards on 13 carries at Notre Dame.

More may yet come against Washington State’s average rush defense (5:30 ET; Pac-12 Network), ranking No. 64 in the country in EPA allowed per rush, per cfb-graphs.com.

North Carolina (3-1): The Tar Heels will look to rebound from their first loss of the season against Virginia Tech (3:30 ET; ACCN), favored by 9 points, a mark that perhaps puts too much faith into the Hokies’ defense replicating Notre Dame’s performance on Saturday, even if they can now benefit from seeing North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye hemmed in on film.

Thursday at 8 ET: Utah State at No. 19 BYU (ESPN)
Friday at 11 ET: New Mexico at UNLV (CBSSN)
Saturday at 12 ET: Navy at Air Force (CBS); Louisville at Boston College (ACCN)
3:30 — Rutgers at No. 3 Ohio State (BTN); Gardner-Webb at Marshall (ESPN+); Virginia Tech at North Carolina (ACCN)
5:00 — Wagner at Syracuse (ESPN+)
5:30 — Cal at Washington State (P12N)
7:30 — No. 10 North Carolina State at No. 5 Clemson (ABC)
10:30 — Arizona State at No. 6 USC (ESPN)
11:00 — Stanford at No. 13 Oregon (FS1)

Favorites: BYU (-24.5) vs. Utah State; UNLV (-14.5) vs. New Mexico; Clemson (-6.5) vs. North Carolina State; USC (-25) vs. Arizona State; Ohio State (-40.5) vs. Rutgers; North Carolina (-9) vs. Virginia Tech
Underdogs: Stanford (+17) at Oregon; Navy (+14) at Air Force; Boston College (+15.5) vs. Louisville

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Notre Dame knew it would need to lean on its running backs at North Carolina. That was less a reflection of the Tar Heels’ soft defense and more one of the Irish roster, though that defense was certainly ripe for exploiting.

With sophomore Logan Diggs healthy after missing Notre Dame’s win against Cal due to an illness, the Irish could rotate three backs throughout their 45-32 win at North Carolina on Saturday.

And they did, each of Diggs, junior Chris Tyree and sophomore Audric Estimé getting at least 13 total touches. Their 49 combined touches on 83 genuine offensive snaps gives a decent idea of how much Notre Dame depended on them. Add in junior tight end Michael Mayer’s nine targets for seven catches and 88 yards, and 70 percent of the Irish snaps are accounted for along with 76 percent of Notre Dame’s yards.

Irish head coach Marcus Freeman would have you believe Mayer’s leadership springs those backs loose, and given Notre Dame ran one play for Mayer out of the backfield, perhaps that is as much literal as it is figurative.

“Michael Mayer is in there making sure everybody is performing to a standard,” Freeman said Saturday evening. “Those guys have a standard and they’ll have to learn. This is going to be good to see his leadership.”

Freeman’s tone there had already shifted to one of pragmatism moving forward, despite the offensive explosion the Irish had just enjoyed. That is because Notre Dame’s already thin skill-position depth charts lost another piece last week when junior tight end Kevin Bauman tore his ACL. Bauman had caught three passes this season for 44 yards, including a 22-yarder at Ohio State and an 18-yarder against Marshall.

“We knew we were going to have to be kind of strategic in terms of what personnel we’re going to use,” Freeman said.

Moving forward, that will mean more of Estimé, Tyree and Diggs, as well as more Mayer.

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne may have connected with Mayer each of the last three weeks for a touchdown, but Saturday’s seven catches on nine targets was the most efficient showing of the year from the preseason All-American tight end. Obviously, one of those completions being a quick pitch behind the line of scrimmage helped the percentages, but even without that, Mayer would have outpaced his eight catches on 12 targets against Marshall.

“I was able to find Mike a couple more times this week and just execute and do my job,” Pyne said. “Get the ball to him.

“I’m very happy, because he’s such a great player. Getting the ball in his hands is something our offense can really benefit from.”

Talk about an understatement.

That emphasis on Mayer and efficiency getting him the ball will need to continue for Notre Dame’s offense to continue on these positive trend lines.

And they are positive trend lines. The 45 points at Chapel Hill were about a foot away from being 52 points, the kind of equivalency that can be misleading, but given Estimé’s goal-line fumble came in the closing minutes of the game, it is a valid assumption in this case. A week after Pyne’s first career-start was boggled by missed snaps and wild throws, an efficient showing complemented the running backs’ dominance nicely.

“Sometimes we’ll let the outcome mask things,” Freeman said. “Continue to look at it, is this a football team that’s getting better? It is.

“They’re playing better, they’re practicing better. That’s the challenge. Continue to get better.”

Improving as a season goes along runs counter to the world’s demand for immediate results, but it is a vital part of college football. These players are 18- to 22-year-olds. If in-season improvement is not emphasized, a third of the year is lost in their development.

Consider a player like Diggs, coming off a mid-April shoulder injury. He was limited through much of preseason practices. If he does not look better in mid-October than he did in early September, then Freeman’s coaching staff has failed.

Freeman has made it a recent habit to underscore how young Notre Dame’s offensive line is, and while he may not be precise in that description, he is not inaccurate. Sophomore right tackle Blake Fisher had played two games before this season. Sophomore left tackle Joe Alt was a tight end through most of his high school career and stepped in as a starter only halfway through last year against largely inferior competition.

Freeman somewhat leaves out that they flank a fifth-year veteran in his fourth season of starting, a sixth-year veteran who has started in parts of four seasons and a senior center who has started parts of three seasons, but then again, an offensive line is only as good as its communication throughout. Getting word from Alt to Fisher or vice versa requires both sophomores to be set in all facets.

That will improve from Fisher’s third start to his, barring injury, 14th. (Fisher left Saturday’s game early after getting poked in the eye, per Freeman. He suffered no long-term worries.)

“That’s a group in particular, that you see from game one to game four, it’s really gotten better,” Freeman said. “… They’re gelling. They’re doing a good job.”

Of the two tenets to successful talent population on a college football roster, Freeman has long proven himself in recruitment. The other half is talent development, something that cannot be neglected from September to November.

Notre Dame has relied on development the last three weeks to find an offensive groove, and with Mayer leading the way, that may pay off.

THREE MORE NOTES
— Some asterisk should be attached to the running backs’ dominance and the Irish explosion against North Carolina simply because it is clear, the Tar Heels defense is in utter disarray. Head coach Mack Brown may like to point out defensive coordinator Gene Chizik won a national title with Brown at Texas in 2005 and another as the head coach at Auburn in 2010, but coaching in only two seasons since 2012 may have caught up to Chizik in his return to Chapel Hill this year.

— The Irish have now won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents, a stretch dating back to a trouncing of a loss at Miami in 2017.

— An ankle injury sidelined junior safety Ramon Henderson on Saturday, and a hamstring strain pulled out fifth-year safety DJ Brown during the game. Freeman was optimistic about both prognoses given the coming idle week buys them some time to get healthy.

Senior linebacker JD Bertrand will most likely have to use that time to just stew. His second targeting penalty in as many weeks will cost him another first half, barring a review and overturned decision during the week.

“It’s targeting,” Freeman said. “You can argue all you want, but as I told JD on the field, it’s our job to learn from the situation. It’s an entire game he’s missed now. He missed the first half of this game, he’s going to miss the first half of the next game. We have to learn from it. We have to change, or you’re going to continue to get targeting called.

“No matter if we agree or disagree. So we have to understand, that’s the way the refs called it, so we have to practice different ways of tackling. You have to make sure you’re not leading with your head. One is safety, but two, you need to be on the field.”

A rule change this offseason allows teams to appeal such first-half suspensions during the intervening week, or in this case, two weeks. To this point in the season, this space is not aware of any successful such appeal, and presuming Bertrand will not be the first, he will have to sit out the first half of Notre Dame’s game against No. 19 BYU in Las Vegas on Oct. 8 at 7:30 ET on NBC.

Highlights: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32 — Irish RBs spur offense, Pyne finds downfield attack

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Notre Dame at North Carolina
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In his final two seasons at Notre Dame, Kyren Williams was one of the more complete backs in the country and certainly in recent Irish history. His durability, constant big-play threat and comfort as a receiver made him an offense all on his own.

It would be an overreaction to compare current Notre Dame sophomore running back Audric Estimé to Williams after just four games this season, even after Estimé took 17 carries for 134 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’s 45-32 win at North Carolina. But what Estimé did was rare enough to elicit such a comparison, if for only this week.

During this Irish resurgence, beginning with the 2017 season, only four running backs have led the team in carries against a Power Five opponent and averaged the 7.9 yards per carry Estimé did. Williams did it once in each of the last two seasons, Dexter Williams (no relation) did it twice in 2018 and Josh Adams’ brief Heisman campaign included two such moments in 2017.

So perhaps it was not an incredibly rare outing, but it should establish Estimé as Notre Dame’s bellcow moving forward and it reached the lofty standard of the best-looking moments from the Irish offense the last six years.

“It’s what you hope Notre Dame football is going to be about,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday evening. “That you’re going to have an O-line that can run the ball, even if a team knows we’re going to run the ball. To be able to get — I’m not saying we’re going to get 10 yards, those were added bonuses today, those big plays — but to be able to run the ball at will for four or five yards, that’s something you have to be able to do, especially with our current roster.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Make that players. Estimé combined with position-mates Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs to run for 264 yards on 45 rushes. Tyree and Diggs added 89 more yards on seven catches. All told, the trio averaged 7.2 yards per touch.

“The ability to use those three in different ways,” Freeman said. “… We knew we were going to have to be kind of strategic in terms of what personnel we’re going to use. To have a guy like Chris Tyree that you can use in the backfield, use in the slot, do some different things with, it really opens up things for our offense.

“They were just going on a roll.”

Of course, some credit should go to the heretofore-maligned offensive line. No matter the opponent and its clear defensive struggles, opening up enough space to gain 264 rushing yards warrants notice and praise. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne seeking out offensive line coach Harry Hiestand after the game underscored that understanding within the program, even if it may be disregarded by many outside.

“Every single day, [the offensive linemen] go in, they know it’s going to be tough because coach Hiestand holds them to such a high standard,” Pyne said. “But they want that, they want to get better and they want to succeed.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees noticed the chance earlier in the game. Pyne had rolled out as designed midway through the second quarter, looking for a receiver on the right side of the field. As a defender stuck with tight end Michael Mayer and two more pressured Pyne, he ended up throwing the ball away, seemingly a wasted snap.

But Rees made something of it. He noticed Tyree’s route to the left flat had gone uncovered by the Tar Heels, Gene Chizik’s defense entirely rolling with Pyne.

“We noticed and next time, Diggs was, no one was around him,” Pyne said, still almost struggling to understand how the back was so open. “It’s a pretty awesome feeling, except that ball feels like it’s in the air for 20 seconds.

“Again, credit to coach Rees. He called an unbelievable game, put us in great position to succeed.”

For the record, Pyne’s pass to Diggs hung in the air for only two or three seconds, but when it came down, it gave Notre Dame a three-possession lead early in the third quarter and control of the game.

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish won the coin toss for the first time with Freeman as head coach.

Okay, that’s not really the stat of the game.

How about Pyne going 5-of-9 for 123 yards on passes traveling 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, after attempting only three such throws last week?

“Just execution,” Freeman said of the difference. “You saw last week in the first half, Drew makes the right decisions. It’s never a decision issue. It’s the execution. Early in the game last week, he wasn’t executing the way he would want or we would want. But today, he continued to make good decisions, he executed, put the ball where it needed to be. Some guys made some plays.”

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Not enough time has been spent around Freeman yet, particularly in postgame environments, to know whether this was said with his tongue wedged in his cheek or if it was an unexpected angle to offer sincerely. Both would fit, oddly enough.

“I try to tell the team all the time, when things go bad, it’s bad play calling,” Freeman said. “When things go well, it’s great play calling.”

Freeman probably had his tongue wedged in his cheek, acknowledging there has been far too much overreaction to blown plays. Play calling can do only so much, especially when the quarterback is missing throws to a wide-open preseason All-American.

“I believe in the game Tommy Rees has called from Ohio State to Marshall to Cal to now,” Freeman said. “We were able to execute better, and that’s to me, the sign of a leader.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
As impressive as the Irish offense was, and it was as it gained 576 total yards and 6.8 yards per play, led by those three running backs, Notre Dame was not going to be stopped by North Carolina, particularly not this rendition with a defense masquerading as an open door.

But the Irish still needed to stop an offense averaging more than 50 points per game and a quarterback quickly lessening the memory of the best passer in Tar Heels history. North Carolina had little trouble scoring on its first drive. Then came a three-and-out. Notre Dame holding the Heels to a 50 percent success rate might be enough.

But quarterback Drake Maye still slipped out of the pocket for an eight-yard gain on their next possession, earning a first down in doing so. Three plays later, facing a 3rd-and-12, a designed quarterback draw might have beaten the Irish again. Maye had ample space up and to his left, until Notre Dame senior linebacker Marist Liufau beat both a running back and the left guard to stand up Maye, one of Liufau’s six tackles.

Senior linebacker Jack Kiser and fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola helped clean up the play, but Liufau had done the work, most notably beating two blocks.

“We just decided to stick to our keys,” Liufau said. “Those are plays we let him loose a little bit — have to tighten up on the inside, in terms of our D-line and caging, keeping him in the box.”

Maye finished with 36 rushing yards, more accurately 56 when adding back in his yards lost to sacks. That was exactly on par with his first three games, when he averaged 55 yards per game, so by no means was Maye thoroughly stymied, but his yards per rush fell to 5.6 from 8.25 in his first three games (all sacks adjusted).

Hemming him in, or “caging,” to use Liufau’s parlance, stalled North Carolina’s offense enough for the Irish to outscore them even if the running backs were not turning in an all-around dominant performance.