Moving an established starter only helps Notre Dame’s defensive line depth

Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Notre Dame Athletics

Notre Dame once had two returning starters at defensive tackle in 2021. No longer. Now, the Irish have a returning starter at defensive tackle and another one at defensive end. Which is all to say, Notre Dame has removed the conditional tenses from fifth-year lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s move outside. Every mention of him at end now comes across as definitive, not temporary, not a trial, not part of a sub-package.

“Myron’s doing great,” Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston said Thursday. “The move for him has been very beneficial. He’s trimmed down and leaned out in his weight. He looks really good with speed and agility off the edge. Probably the most productive guy right now up to this point throughout the spring.”

Tagovailoa-Amosa made the move because the next three names Elston mentioned as producing along the defensive line this spring were all nose tackles: fifth-year Kurt Hinish, junior Howard Cross and sophomore Aiden Keanaaina. Nose might not be the same position as Tagovailoa-Amosa left — the more penetrative three-technique tackle duties — but Notre Dame’s depth and ability on the defensive interior is an unquestioned strength at this point while there was arguably a bit of a vacuum at end after Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji headed to the NFL.

Ironically enough, at either three-technique or “Big” end, Tagovailoa-Amosa splits time with an Ademilola twin. Jayson remains on the inside, backed up by sophomore Rylie Mills and early-enrolled “Volkswagen” freshman Gabriel Rubio. Justin now works with Tagovailoa-Amosa on the outside.

“It’s been awesome just getting an opportunity to work with Myron,” the latter said earlier this month. “We’re both playing D-end this year, and it’s going to be a crazy, 1A-1B punch right there.”

In most years before the current four-years-and-counting Irish resurgence, Notre Dame would have been fine starting Justin Ademilola as a primary pass-rush threat in his senior season. The fact of the matter is the Irish coaching staff has long had plenty of trust in his abilities. If Justin’s recruitment seemed like an add-on enticement to his more-heralded brother, that skeptical suggestion lost credibility when Notre Dame managed Justin’s freshman year usage such that he could play in the Playoff without losing a year of eligibility. More impressively, on an afternoon when the entire Irish roster seemed out-classed by Clemson, Ademilola held his own, making two tackles.

With 35 tackles and 24 games of experience, Justin Ademilola is not in over his head, even if he lacks the hype of Ogundeji or Khalid Kareem before him. By no means is the once overshadowed recruit meek about his personal expectations.

“I guess you can say I was a little underrated in high school,” he said. “I just let my tape speak for itself. If people think I’m under the radar this year or in the shadows, you guys are going to feel this year on the field.”

In Elston’s view and Notre Dame’s track record the last few seasons, moving Tagovailoa-Amosa and subsequently cutting into Ademilola’s snaps should serve to only help him, as well as the team. His brother Jayson has shown himself to be a bona fide contributor for a few years now, and creating a defensive end tag team assures the Irish of depth at a position that was otherwise going to depend on junior NaNa Osafo-Mensah, with all of two appearances in his career thus far.

“We’re going to play hopefully 10, 11, 12 guys,” Elston said. “What that does is the culture that you create, the buy-in during the week, the effort and energy they put into the practices and the meetings, everybody’s bought in because they know they have a chance to play.”

If the operating expectation is 10 contributors along the defensive line, at a minimum, then that sets up to be two at each end position and three deep at each tackle. Moving Tagovailoa-Amosa created that balance without having to throw someone like Osafo-Mensah into a primary role on Labor Day Eve (142 days).

Hinish is well-known — presuming health primed to set an unbreakable record for appearances in the Notre Dame uniform thanks to the pandemic-granted extra season of eligibility — but the rest of the defensive line is a bit less proven, though also not doubted, given the defensive front has become the second-most consistent Irish piece the last four years (behind only the offensive line).

Isaiah Foskey
Isaiah Foskey (Notre Dame Athletics)

The next best-known would be junior end Isaiah Foskey, though those accolades are largely for his punt blocks to date. He hopes to continue contributing on special teams, but that work may diminish with Foskey now in a starting role, not to mention being arguably the most NFL-ready of the Irish defensive linemen. Foskey has made technical improvement a priority this offseason, to complement that NFL-ready frame.

“I need to be more consistent with pass rushing and trying to get around the blocks or going through the blocks,” Foskey said last week. “… Even though I’m considered one of the better pass-rushers on the team, I need to be more consistent with that.”

That consistency may be masked, at least statistically, by new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s multiple-front scheme. While the Drop, now known as Vyper, end occasionally dropped into coverage in Clark Lea’s scheme, it was more a wrinkle than a consistent deployment. Now, Foskey (and backup sophomore Jordan Botelho) will find himself in coverage against running backs and tight ends with some frequency.

“I’ve been working on a lot more drops and a lot more covering, but I’m still a pass rusher,” he said. “… But covering, there are just new techniques I need to learn. I always see corners doing it with chasing their head and staying with [receivers]. It always looks easy when they do it, but when you actually go out there, it’s a little bit more challenging.”

The obvious benefit of Foskey proving adept in pass coverage will be sending pass rushers from other, unexpected spots on the defense, part of Freeman’s preferred aggression.

“We can move [Foskey] all over the field now,” Elston said. “… The multiple front and the fluidness of coach Freeman’s package is really fun to work with and add to.”

The defense can then supplement Tagovailoa-Amosa’s new work, or just as likely, Justin Ademilola’s.

Jayson Ademilola on himself: “I’m a guy who is going to attack the football, go find the football. I’m a head-hunter, and then when it gets to third-down, I’m a pass-rusher. That’s what I do. I could do a little bit of everything, and I try to pride myself on everything.”

Elston on sophomore tackle Rylie Mills, the primary backup to Jayson Ademilola: “Rylie is progressing and doing a nice job. He’s cross-training and doing some different things, but progressing well and doing a nice job.”

Elston on sophomore Botelho, the primary backup to Foskey: “Jordan had a long way to go in maturity and accountability (when he arrived in 2020). The best thing for him was that he was sent home (before last season). He realized that we’re here about a holistic development and this isn’t just about him getting sacks on Saturday, which he’s going to be able to do because he’s a very talented player.”

Elston on early-enrolled freshmen ends Devin Aupiu and Jason Onye, and freshman tackle Gabriel Rubio: “The freshmen have done a really nice job. They’re all very aggressive and learn really well. They’ve integrated very well into the defensive line. … It’s been a really seamless transition for those guys. I don’t know that we’ll have to utilize them in the depth (chart) this season. Some are progressing and we’ll see, but right now, everybody is on track and we’re excited about their progress.”

Elston on junior nose tackle Howard Cross: “Howard Cross is just a dynamic accelerator. Speed off the ball, low pad level, he finds his way into creases and gaps. He’s always in the backfield and he’s quick with his hands. He’s got good speed and really good agility. He’s been a load to block. He’s going to have a breakout season and I’m excited for him.”

Elston on injured junior nose tackle Jacob Lacey: “I don’t expect to get Lacey back this spring. Hopefully, we can get him involved in some footwork and drill work. He’s working hard in our pit, staying in shape. He’s leaning out his body, he’s focused and he’s got to make some progress this offseason with strength, even before the shoulder injury.”

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    40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

    TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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    Notre Dame did not get there in any way expected, but the Irish season ended about where anticipated in the preseason. Psychological studies could spend hours disagreeing if it would have been better for Notre Dame to go 10-3 with its three losses coming to three top-10 teams or if a 9-4 season with a top-10 upset is better for Marcus Freeman’s program in the long-term.

    But either scenario was going to end with the Irish in the Gator Bowl, a likelihood as far back as August.

    To finish this recap of 40 preseason predictions

    32) “A freshman defensive back will intercept a pass this season, becoming just the second freshman to do so” since 2017. Notre Dame’s defensive backfields have been far from liabilities during this resurgence since the 2016 faceplant, but they have lacked young playmakers, Kyle Hamilton aside.

    Enter Benjamin Morrison and not one, not two, not three … but six interceptions in his freshman season. Unfortunately for your prognosticator, that does not equal six correct predictions. (15.5/32)

    33) “The spread when the Irish visit the Trojans will be more than a field goal but less than a touchdown.” And indeed, USC was favored by four when Notre Dame visited the weekend after Thanksgiving, in what may have been the last visit the weekend after Thanksgiving. Logic says the Irish and Trojans will continue playing regularly, but USC’s joining the Big Ten in 2024 could change the timing of the meetings, and NCAA rule changes have removed Notre Dame’s want to be on the West Coast that particular week.

    The Irish used to disperse their coaches from Washington to Arizona to recruit the Pacific time zone immediately after the season-ending game in California. In a literal sense, it saved those coaches 12-24 hours to not have to travel to Seattle or Phoenix from South Bend, particularly vital in a crucial recruiting window.

    But now, the days after Thanksgiving are a dead period, so the coaches cannot make those visits. They flew back with the team this year.

    Combine that with the Big Ten flux and perhaps Notre Dame starts heading to USC at a different point in the calendar in 2024. (16.5/33)

    34) “USC will not make the College Football Playoff.”

    Between this, suggesting Ohio State would make the Playoff and mistakenly thinking Clemson would, as well, these preseason predictions accurately predicted the season conclusions for two of the three biggest Irish opponents in 2022. Already suspect the 2023 version will include none of the three making the Playoff. (17.5/34)

    35) Sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles’ disappointing 2022 — 30 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown — cost him any semblance of NFL draft buzz a year before he is eligible for the draft. A breakout 2023 would obviously change that, but that was not the prediction. (17.5/35)

    36) Blake Grupe fell two makes short of the predicted 80 percent field-goal rate, finishing at 73.7 percent on 14-of-19. A career 74.4 percent kicker before he arrived at Notre Dame, the Arkansas State graduate transfer’s 2022 fell in line with his career. (17.5/36)

    37) Arguing Notre Dame would score fewer than 32.8 points per game in 2022 was based on the lack of depth at receiver, subsequently underscored by Styles’ struggles. Expecting the Irish to slow things down made a lower-scoring season a strong thought, though perhaps not as low as the 31.4 scored per game in 2018, the low of the last six years.

    Notre Dame threaded that needle with 31.8 points per game, a number buoyed, though not shockingly, by the punt-block unit and Morrison’s contributions. (18.5/37)

    38) The Irish had gone 54-10 in Brian Kelly’s final five years in South Bend, winning at least 10 games each year. Predicting a sixth season of double-digit wins was a mistake largely thanks to Audric Estimé’s fumble in the fourth quarter against Stanford. (18.5/38)

    39) This final stretch of predictions focused on hitting a few tight windows. The spread against USC, the exact scoring average and … where Notre Dame would play in a bowl game.

    “Notre Dame will play in Florida before New Year’s.”

    As complicated as bowl scenarios get during the season and then even the week of selections with the Holiday Bowl in San Diego reportedly campaigning hard for the Irish, sticking with initial expectations would have been a smart travel-planning strategy. (19.5/39)



    40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
    Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
    Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

    40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

    Clemson v Notre Dame
    Getty Images

    Recapping these preseason predictions bit by bit has emphasized how much of a see-saw Notre Dame’s 2022 was. They expected decent Irish success at Ohio State to open the season, which was realized. They then plainly assumed Notre Dame would continue to wallop overmatched opponents as Brian Kelly made the default.

    Instead, Marcus Freeman stubbed his toe twice as first-year head coaches are wont to do, rendering that stretch of predictions largely flawed.

    Now, the predictions tilt into early November, expecting little from the Irish. Of course, that was exactly when Freeman delivered the defining moment of his debut campaign.

    21) “Notre Dame will top last year’s 41 sacks, which was a Kelly Era high. The Ademilola twins, junior defensive end Rylie Mills and at least one linebacker will each make at least three sacks.”

    The first part of that fell inarguably short, 38 clearly less than 41. But the next sentence held more merit. Defensive end Justin Ademiloa and twin brother tackle Jayson Ademilola each had three sacks while Mills added 3.5. No linebacker reached three unless willing to still count Jordan Botelho as a linebacker with his 4.5 sacks. Given two of those came in the Gator Bowl when Botelho was clearly a defensive end, that would be generous grading. Instead, this entire prediction should be considered wrong, alas. (12/21)

    22) Did this space continue publishing as planned after the Minnesota Timberwolves home opener? The running content calendar says a “Leftovers & Links” column ran on Oct. 20, the day after. Take the wins where you can find them, especially as a Timberwolves fan. (13/22)

    23) The Irish had won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents entering the season. Predicting that would reach 27 meant predicting Notre Dame would beat North Carolina and Syracuse. Check and check. (14/23)

    24) That did not push the Irish into the top 10 of the initial College Football Playoff rankings, as predicted, thanks to the mishaps against Marshall and Stanford. (14/24)

    25) And here comes a stretch of predictions predicated in pessimism, focused on how Notre Dame would fare against Clemson. The Irish had won 16 straight games in November entering the 2022 season. Suggesting that would end at 16 was suggesting Notre Dame would lose to Clemson on the first weekend of November.

    Rather, that was the win in Freeman’s first season that will be long remembered. (14/25)

    26) That expected loss was based on Clemson’s defensive front holding Notre Dame’s ground game in check. There was no expectation the Irish would dominate there with 264 rushing yards on 46 carries after adjusting for a single one-yard sack. Logan Diggs ran for 114 yards on 17 carries while Audric Estimé took 18 rushes for 104 yards. (14/26)

    27) That loss did not knock Clemson out of the College Football Playoff. The Tigers messing around and finding out against South Carolina did that. But regardless, predicting Clemson would return to the Playoff was ill-fated. (14/27)

    28) Notre Dame was 30-1 in its last 31 home games entering the season. Predicting that would reach 35-2 in step with suggesting the Irish would lose to the Tigers was wrong in all sorts of ways, most notably in that the stretch is now 34-3 after Notre Dame went just 4-2 at home last season. Again, Marshall and Stanford. (14/28)

    29) Boston College receiver Zay Flowers did not have the predicted 40-yard catch on Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium. He had a long of 39 yards on a snow-covered field playing with a backup quarterback.

    The spirit of the prognostication was valid, but alas. (14/29)

    30) Former Irish tight end George Takacs did not catch a touchdown in his return with the Eagles. No one did. (14/30)

    31) And former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec did not have a “perfectly adequate day in his return to South Bend, not dramatic enough in any regard to confirm or deny anyone’s expectations for him that day.”

    Jurkovec did not play at all, so let’s call this wager a push. He did, however, make some headlines from the sideline.

    There is a strong chance this prediction is rerun in its entirety in 2023 with Jurkovec and Pittsburgh heading to South Bend on Oct. 28. (14.5/31)

    Leftovers & Links: Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents

    COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Notre Dame at Ohio State
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    The first two notable dates of college football’s offseason passed last week, the deadline for players to enter the transfer portal before the spring semester and the deadline to enter the NFL draft. The former hardly warranted much notice at Notre Dame, only three players entering the portal after the 2022 season. While plenty did transfer from other programs, a mid-May look at that movement may better serve Irish purposes, as plenty of names will eventually leave Notre Dame.

    The NFL deadline has no second passing. Players are either headed toward the NFL draft by now or they are not.

    The Irish lost five players to early entry to the NFL, though two of those instances were offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and defensive end Justin Ademilola, both of whom would have been returning for sixth collegiate seasons in 2023. So in a more genuine sense, Notre Dame lost only three players early to the NFL draft: tight end Michael Mayer, defensive end Isaiah Foskey and safety Brandon Joseph.

    All five would have started for the Irish next season, obviously. But at most, Ademilola’s and Joseph’s declarations were surprises, and even those were only mild at most.

    College football will slowly churn back toward college careers following “normal” timelines and more tenable roster management the further it gets from the universal pandemic eligibility waiver from 2020. That will not take all the way until the 2025 season. Coaches are already leaning toward it.

    While Notre Dame would have gladly welcomed back Patterson and/or Ademilola, it also knew two realities.

    1) Patterson should be a second- or third-round draft pick who could have gone to the NFL a year ago. His time is now.
    2) A year of Ademilola’s production would come at the expense of the development of younger players that may already be on the verge, somewhat deflating the value of his return.

    In a parallel way, coaching staffs fall into two categories.

    1) Either they are doing well and trust they can recruit better players than any draft debaters now. Leaning into continued successful recruiting lengthens the timeline these coaches expect to continue to succeed.
    2) Or they are failing and soon fired. A new coach would rather bring in new players, “his players,” to reboot the program.

    In both scenarios, fewer and fewer sixth-year players will be seen around college football long before the 2025 season rules them out entirely.

    All of that is to say, when discussing entrants into the NFL draft, it is more and more accurate to focus on the juniors (like Mayer) and the seniors (Foskey, Joseph) rather than the half-decade veterans. Those losses from Notre Dame’s 2023 opponents, in order of most severe to least …

    Ohio State: Losing quarterback C.J. Stroud would top this list no matter who else was on it. Stroud alone would have made the Buckeyes the title favorites next season. Receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba also jumped to the NFL, though his final collegiate season was effectively nullified when a Joseph tackle in the season opener injured Smith-Njigba’s hamstring to an extent he never genuinely returned in 2022.

    Center Luke Wypler and offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. headed to the next level, as well, along with defensive tackle Dawand Jones and defensive back Ronnie Hickman.

    But those latter losses are anticipated at elite programs. Ohio State has recruited to replace most of these players. The Buckeyes barely missed Smith-Njigba in 2022, and he may be the best receiver in the draft. Stroud, however, is a loss that will throw the early part of Ohio State’s 2023 into some question.

    Clemson: Similarly, the Tigers losing three defensive linemen in Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and K.J. Henry along with linebacker Trenton Simpson may be too much to overcome in stride. As Clemson has so terribly struggled — throw some sarcasm on that phrasing — to just 10 and 11 wins the last two season, it has leaned on its defensive front.

    The Tigers gave up only 102.7 rushing yards per game in 2022, No. 13 in the country, and 20.9 points per game, No. 22 in the country. A year ago, Clemson ranked No. 7 and No. 2 in the respective categories.

    Replacing 29.5 tackles for loss from the 2022 season including 16 sacks will be a difficult task. Perhaps “terribly struggled” will no longer warrant sarcasm.

    Pittsburgh: Not many programs saw two All-Americans jump to the NFL, but the Panthers did in running back Israel Abanikanda (1,431 yards on 5.99 yards per carry with 20 rushing touchdowns) and defensive lineman Calijah Kancey (14 tackles for loss with 7 sacks in 11 games). Safety Brandon Hill also provided Pittsburgh’s defense some versatility.

    USC: The Trojans also lost two All-Americans to the NFL — which, come to think of it, Notre Dame did, as well, in Mayer and Foskey — in receiver Jordan Addison and defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu. To be more clear, Addison was not a 2022 All-American, but one at Pittsburgh back in 2021. Injuries slowed him a touch in 2022, but overall, his talent is All-American in caliber.

    Stanford: The Cardinal’s talent drain this offseason will warrant a deep dive. It is one to behold. The first line on it is quarterback Tanner McKee heading to the NFL with some draftniks thinking he should be an early-round pick.

    When Stanford upset Notre Dame in October, McKee led the way with 288 yards on an impressive 26-of-38 completion rate. Losing him will drastically change the Cardinal ceiling in 2023, which is saying something considering how low that ceiling already was.

    Central Michigan: Running back Lew Nicholls III did not have the statistical profile of someone who should head to the NFL already, with all of 616 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 2022, but look back to 2021 and his choice makes more sense. He ran for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns with another 338 receiving yards and two touchdowns through the air.

    Navy, Tennessee State, North Carolina State, Duke, Louisville and Wake Forest did not lose players to any early NFL decisions.

    If this list seems abbreviated, that’s because it is throughout college football. Name, image and likeness rights have made it more enticing for players to return to school Reportedly, fewer players entered this draft early than at any time in the last decade.

    To think, so many people insisted NIL rights would ruin college football. Here is hard evidence it has upgraded the talent in the sport.

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    40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part II: Upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach

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    40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach

    Marshall v Notre Dame
    Getty Images

    To continue a final look back at Notre Dame’s 2022 season through the lens of preseason predictions and the expectations they framed …

    11) The most underappreciated part of the Irish resurgence since 2017 and thus Brian Kelly’s final years coaching in South Bend was that Notre Dame won 42 straight games against unranked opponents, the longest streak in the country. It was so taken for granted, this prediction thought the Irish would run that to 50 games in 2023.

    Instead, Marcus Freeman lost his very first game against an unranked opponent. (8 correct predictions out of 11.)

    12) A few predictions always delve out of college football, for variety’s sake. Maybe that should be forgotten moving forward, considering the Packers neither beat the Vikings to open the season nor won the NFC North. To make matters even worse for this scribe of a lapsed Packers fan, they also were not bad enough to draft a good quarterback in 2023. (8 out of 12.)

    13) North Carolina leaned on dynamic receiver Josh Downs to prodigious amounts in 2021. An early-season injury slowed him this year, thus ruining any chance of him having “the most catches in a game against the Irish this season, though not the most yards.”

    He caught five passes for 32 yards.

    Ohio State receiver Emeka Egbuka set the catches mark with nine for 90 yards to open the season, while BYU’s Kody Epps caught four passes for 100 yards, the season high in yardage against Notre Dame. (8/13)

    14) Notre Dame played a multiple-look defense this season, a layup of a prediction given the linebacker depth and versatility led by Jack Kiser and (eventually injured) Bo Bauer. That was emphasized at USC when the Irish leaned into a 3-3-5 look without both cornerback Cam Hart and nickel back Tariq Bracy. Kiser’s speed became the defense’s best chance.

    It was not enough, but it was a valiant effort, and one to keep in mind in 2023. (9/14)

    15) “The math says at least one Irish player will be ejected for targeting in 2022.”

    Enter JD Bertrand, twice. (10/15)

    16) “Notre Dame will beat BYU in Las Vegas.”

    Despite a lackluster second-half, check.

    “… This space will miss at least one day of publishing the following week. Who can say why.”

    Let’s check the running content calendar. For Tuesday, Oct. 11, it reads, “Vegas won this round.” Sometimes it is best to foresee your own personal failures. (11/16)

    17) Marcus Freeman’s recruiting emphasis never waned, underscored by the last two years of recruiting topping anything the Irish have ever done. (12/17)

    18) The only area in which Michael Mayer fell short in his Notre Dame career was of this prediction, one saying he would casually break two of his own three Irish single-season records. To do so, he needed to exceed 71 catches, 840 receiving yards and/or seven touchdowns.

    The surefire first-round draft pick merely caught 67 passes for 809 yards and nine scores.

    Would he have reached all three metrics if he played in the Gator Bowl? Almost assuredly. But then again, he played in only 12 games in 2021, too. The prediction was wrong, regardless. (12/18)

    19) Another thought about an individual record, defensive end Isaiah Foskey did not exceed Justin Tuck’s record of 13.5 sacks in a season. He did take down the quarterback 11 times, reaching double digits for a second consecutive season while setting the Notre Dame career mark. (12/19)

    20) Similar to prediction No. 11, an underappreciated part of Kelly’s final five years in South Bend were that the Irish won 39 straight games when favored at kickoff, covering all of the 2018-21 seasons.

    Both to suggest that would continue and to guess how many times Notre Dame would be favored in 2022, arguing that streak would reach 48 was right in that the Irish were favored in nine of 13 games. They just happened to lose the first of those (and then again against Stanford, the fourth time they would be favored this season).

    Such blunders should have been expected from a first-year head coach. Those missteps seem to catch just about every such rookie. But forgetting or overlooking that led to dashed expectations in 2022. (12/20)