30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Night games return, ‘Crazy Train’ debuts

Notre Dame USC 2011
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Alllllllll aboard! *Cue maniacal laugh*

That’s the lasting memory. All anyone remembers of Notre Dame’s first night game at home in 21 years is Ozzy Osborne’s opening cackle. No one remembers the late George Atkinson running untouched for a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown. Only when seeing a similarly-catastrophic moment does anyone recall the Irish muffing a snap one yard from the end zone and USC returning the fumble for a touchdown.

Even the other primetime amenities are overshadowed by the sets of dual beats following whatever joke Osborne told himself.

For the record, Notre Dame lost 31-17 to the Trojans in 2011, snapping a four-game winning streak and essentially ending quarterback Dayne Crist’s Irish career. Atkinson’s kickoff return score cut into a 17-0 lead, a margin Notre Dame would reduce to 17-10 by halftime before that botched snap ruined hopes of tying the game late in the third quarter.

Also for the record, “Crazy Train” was released in 1980 on Osborne’s debut solo album, “Blizzard of Ozz.” But for Irish fans, “Crazy Train” was born on October 22, 2011, and it might as well have died that night, too.

It wasn’t the song’s fault. It’s a decent song, frankly, an appropriate introduction to ‘80s rock. The University simply did not have enough of an inventory of songs licensed to play in the first instance of piped-in music at Notre Dame Stadium. While the night game had been hyped for weeks and months — including Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick visiting both campus dining halls two weeks earlier, immediately before fall break, imploring, “help us on that Saturday night to make the loudest, most raucous, but safe environment in college football” — the music element was kept under wraps until the speakers opened with the unmistakable bass chords of “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys.

Notre Dame played that new aspect so close to the vest, even the few undergraduate students in the know wondered if something had gone wrong when no music greeted the Irish return team as it took the field before the opening kickoff. Only as they lined up did Notre Dame Stadium set a new first.

Maybe the song choice was a bit on the nose, but it was also undeniably electrifying at the time. Only Atkinson’s return made the sold-out crowd more, to Swarbrick’s wording, raucous. Of course, that length-of-the-field 14-point swing of a fumble return was equally deflating. What was supposed to be a play-action pass to a releasing tight end instead became a debacle.

“I didn’t dribble it,” Trojans safety Jawanza Starling said of his fumble return. “I just had to wait for the perfect bounce because I didn’t want to try and go for it too soon and miss it. I was just taking my time with it. Scoop and score, everything we do in practice and I took it to the house.”

(Jump to the 2:25 mark.)

Yet, there was a full quarter remaining, and after gaining only 14 first-quarter yards, the Irish had put together two consecutive lengthy drives; adding a third of 5 plays and 62 yards for a touchdown on the next possession to cut the margin once again to a touchdown. Notre Dame was in position to come from behind at home, much like it had in 1990 against Michigan when Rick Mirer found Adrian Jarrell for a winning touchdown with fewer than two minutes remaining, the last night game in South Bend.

Instead, “Crazy Train” happened, again and again and again. With only five songs licensed to play in the Stadium, someone designated Ozzy’s laughter as the ideal soundtrack to rile up the crowd before critical USC third downs. In an alternate reality, the Irish defense stopped the Trojans in the fourth quarter, and that boisterous howl became a Notre Dame tradition.

In this world, though, USC went 4-of-6 on third downs in the fourth quarter and held the ball for 12:36, draining away any Irish hopes bit by bit. “Alllll aboard” became a call of desperation, a nod to the inevitable, an audial white flag.

The brief clip never even got to the all-too fitting opening lyrics …
“Crazy, but that’s how it goes
Millions of people living as foes
Maybe it’s not too late …”

For the Irish, it was too late against these particular foes. Two fourth-quarter turnovers were the final undoing, the last an interception thrown by current offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, injured plays before Crist’s lost snap but able to return on the next possession. The Trojans out-gained Notre Dame 443 yards to 267, won the turnover battle 3-0 and averaged 5.0 yards per rush while the Irish ran for a total of 41 yards. Any Rees-led comeback would have been memorable, but the better team won that night, and “A HA HA HA HA” became the lasting memory.

“It was just not executing,” Irish tight end Tyler Eifert said. “You can make all the excuses you want, that we had time off, that we were rusty or that they hyped this game up so much and took our focus off what was really important, but I don’t think any of that. We just didn’t execute and go out the way we had to.”

Fortunately for fans and television broadcast partners, that failure to execute did not dissuade Notre Dame from continuing to play a night game or two every season. That’s also fortunate for nearly any player you ask, past, present or future. (The following quotes are pulled from a 2011 article previewing turning on the lights, written by yours truly, but now lost to the cobwebs of the internet.)

Mirer: “Under the lights is just kind of a bigger stage. I think a lot of guys would agree.”

Jarrell: “When they turn the lights on the field in sports, it kind of adds excitement. Football is already exciting, and Notre Dame football is already exciting, but playing at night creates an extra aura. Everybody gets a little extra-hyped for the game.”

Golden Tate, 2007-09: “I’m jealous they get to play at night against SC. It sucks that I didn’t get to experience that.”

Harrison Smith, 2011 safety and captain: “It’s the kind of an environment that you never see at Notre Dame, a night game. [The fans] are going to be, I don’t know, pretty rowdy.”

Since that loss, the Irish have gone 8-2 in night games at Notre Dame Stadium, including a 4-0 mark against USC, reversing what had been a five-game home losing streak to the Trojans. But since then, “Crazy Train” has been heard in only less-crucial moments, parodying the anguish brought about by its Irish debut.

30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC
Blowing out USC completes Irish return
Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated
The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11
Godsey heroics provide Davie hope
Last-minute Golson-to-Koyack TD beats No. 14 Stanford in the rain
A dramatic, Pyrrhic victory over LSU in 1998
Beginning with ‘ultimate greed’ in 1990 and Indiana in 1991
Honorable Mentions

Las Vegas trip will offer Notre Dame fewer distractions than most; secondary injury updates

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Las Vegas may distract Notre Dame fans plenty, but Irish head coach Marcus Freeman expects no such problem from his roster. For one thing, Notre Dame will arrive in Las Vegas late enough on Friday to cut into any distractions before facing No. 16 BYU (7:30 ET; NBC).

The Irish will then take a quick site visit to Allegiant Stadium before calling it a night, and Freeman himself will make sure everyone on the team has called it a night, as he does each Friday before a game.

“They got the head coach that’ll be doing bed coach at 8:30 Pacific Time on Friday night,” Freeman said Monday. “So I’m not real concerned.”

Freeman has often argued games away from home actually elicit fewer distractions than ones at home, something heard often around college coaches. Generally speaking, more family is in attendance at each home game, not to mention friends with typical college parties. On the road, the players arrive in town, perhaps check out the stadium, and then they head to the hotel for the night.

The loss of the comfort of sleeping in your bed is universal; Notre Dame has stayed in a hotel the night before home games for decades.

“The Shamrock Series is what makes Notre Dame unique,” Freeman said. “It’s one of our distinctions. The chance to go play a home game in Las Vegas is an extremely exciting opportunity.”

The Irish will be without senior linebacker JD Bertrand for the first half after a targeting penalty led to his ejection in the second half at North Carolina. Notre Dame appealed Bertrand’s one-half suspension but did not win the appeal.

The Irish should have both junior safety Ramon Henderson and fifth-year safety DJ Brown back in the lineup, after an ankle and a hamstring limited each nine days ago.

“Our head athletic trainer texted me this morning that both of them looked really good today, expect them both to go and practice …,” Freeman said. “I would expect both of those guys to be ready to go.”

Whether they are or not, junior Xavier Watts will be a part of the safety rotation and only the safety rotation. After Avery Davis tore his ACL in the preseason, leaving Notre Dame with just six healthy receivers, including fifth-year former walk-on Matt Salerno, Watts handled double-duty. The former receiver played both sides of the ball during at least one preseason scrimmage.

But Freeman said Watts is working at only safety these days, despite moving to the position less than a year ago.

“He’s getting better, he has a lot of natural ability we have to continue to coach and mold,” Freeman said. “… He’s all safety now. We just felt his role had more value to our team on defense than to go on offense and really compete to try to get playing time. Defensively, we knew there was already a plan for him to play.”

BUCHNER IN THE BOOTH
Most injured players roam the sidelines on Saturday, but sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner has been in the coaches’ booth since injuring his shoulder against Marshall on Sept. 10. More than learning the system from above and helping coaches chart plays, Freeman said that was a safety precaution initially.

“We didn’t want him in harm’s way,” Freeman said. “He was fresh, two or three days, out of surgery. We wanted to get him away from anywhere he could be in harm’s way.”

Freeman would not rule out Buchner moving to the sideline yet this season, where he and junior starting quarterback Drew Pyne could talk things through more actively, but for now, Buchner likely will remain up top.

ON THE QUICKENING NATURE OF COACHING CHANGES
After Wisconsin shockingly fired head coach Paul Chryst on Sunday, a surprise such that it will now be the poster child for early-season firings, Freeman was asked for his thoughts on those pressures and how it could impact his assistants. None of them figure to be in the mix for any of the current job openings (six, in total), but the concept holds enough merit to be discussed.

“We have a job to do, every single week,” Freeman said. “Anything that is going to distract us from getting our job done, we don’t want it, but I’m always going to be in a position where I want to make sure I’m helping every single person I’m surrounded by reach their goals.”

So Freeman would not stand in the way of an assistant coaching talking about an opening sooner than usual. Consider it unlikely right now and too abstract to ponder in the future. Of the six job openings, UAB’s interim coach is being given a valid chance at keeping the job, and Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees would know better than to pick up the phone if Georgia Tech called, not that this year’s offense has Rees atop many coaching lists.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden presumably needs to succeed at the collegiate level for a few years before landing another head coaching gig, and while running backs coach Deland McCullough has explicitly said that is his goal, he is not established enough to be viewed as a contender for any Power Five job, which five of the six now open are.

That hypothetical aside, Freeman knows well the reality of a coaching firing and the frustrations that come with it. Just about anyone in the coaching industry does, and thus they feel great empathy when discussing such moments.

Freeman felt it in 2016, as the defensive coordinator at Purdue when head coach Darrell Hazell was fired after six games. Current Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker was the Boilermakers’ interim coach for the final six games of the year, going 0-6.

“It’s tough. You feel for the guys in your occupation,” Freeman said. “I’m sure it’s not a lack of effort, but we’re in a results-driven business. That’s a part of the profession we chose. We chose this profession. But you never want to see that.

“People with families — it not only affects the head coach, but it affects all those assistants with them.”

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.