No. 8 Notre Dame vs. Toledo: Time, TV — Peacock — Preview & Prediction

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With absolutely no offense intended to Toledo — the favorite to win the MAC and a darkhorse to reach a New Year’s Six bowl — No. 8 Notre Dame’s Saturday is not about its opponent.

It is hardly about the Irish (1-0), even as they look to establish their offensive line and running game while also finding some defensive stability.

Notre Dame’s 2021 home opener is about the fans, more than ever.

Nearly 78,000 fans will fill Notre Dame Stadium for the first time in nearly two years. They will line the sidewalks as the Irish literally walk into the Stadium. They will roar during a flyover shortly before kickoff (confirmed by the test flights around campus Friday evening).

The fans give college football its verve, its je ne sais quoi. (Somewhere here there is some combination of Notre Dame and je ne sais quoi that would be most appropriate. Is it le je ne sais quoi de Notre Dame?)

Fans rarely decide the outcome in college football, far less often than the obsession with home-field advantage insists, but they do provide the atmosphere. Without fans, college football is only marginally different than the Canadian Football League, the defunct Alliance of American Football and the latest rendition of the XFL. College football’s quality of competition is better than any of those, but otherwise, a fanless football game is a fanless football game is an exercise in existential wonderings about sport.

Those other leagues are all hollow attempts at profiting off a sport’s best qualities. Either football needs to be played by the absolute best (the NFL) or it needs to be surrounded by passion and energy that in turn stokes on-field drama and foolishness. The college football fan’s overbearing joy rivals that of the European soccer fan’s. The on-field ridiculousness that joy sparks mirrors professional wrestling. Combine them and the result tops rock plus roll, seven along with seven, chocolate joined by peanut butter.

Notre Dame still enjoyed drama in 2020, but it was short-lived. The rush of beating No. 1 Clemson in overtime and being joined by 11,000 students charging the field was almost immediately contradicted by the Irish players trying to evade the crowd and get away from the concern of a mass of bodies during the pandemic’s peak.

There is no version of beating Toledo that will elicit fans rushing the field at Notre Dame Stadium, but it is a good bet the players will so enjoy the energy of the fans, le je ne sais quoi de Notre Dame, that they will join those fans in the stands during or after the “Alma Mater” following the game.

There will be no stress at that point — in no small part because both the players and the students in the front row will know there is a greater than 95 percent chance each party is vaccinated — only a welcome return of the fan base.

Cathartic, community, caring. Loud, rowdy, joyous. Passionate, irrational, the force that inspires the moments that make us love this sport.

TIME, TV: Hopefully that passion conveys through the screen at 2:30 ET. It usually has.

But even before then, that buzz may start to take hold, and the Countdown to Kickoff pregame show on Peacock will capture some of that, hosted by former Irish receiver Corey Robinson and Jac Collinsworth. The pregame show will begin at 1:30 ET and will feature:

— Exclusive “Mic’d Up” segment featuring head coach Brian Kelly.
— In-depth feature profile of projected top-10 NFL Draft Pick Kyle Hamilton.
— A conversation between Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick and NBC’s Mike Tirico about Notre Dame and storylines around college athletics.
— Analysis of the college football season with Tirico and NBC Sports analyst Drew Brees.

Robinson and Collinsworth will also host a postgame show on Peacock that will feature Kelly’s postgame press conference.

PEACOCK: This game will not be on NBC. This game will not be on NBCSN. This game will not be on the USA Network.

This game is exclusively available on the premium level of Peacock, NBC’s streaming platform. To sign up for Peacock Premium, a Notre Dame fan should click …


Then click “Unlock with Premium” and use the code “NOTREDAME.” Sign on up.

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PREVIEW: Kelly described Toledo as the best MAC team he has faced while with the Irish. Notre Dame has gone 4-0 against MAC foes during Kelly’s 12 years in South Bend, so that may not come across as the strongest praise, but his point was intended to be less precise than comparing the Rockets to 2019’s Bowling Green or 2018’s Ball State.

It was to compliment Toledo, an experienced team, one returning 21 of 22 starters from a 4-2 pandemic season that came six points shy of 6-0. The Rockets rely on a bruising running game behind a veteran offensive line, a front that knows the Irish were repeatedly gashed by Florida State’s ground game just six days ago.

Notre Dame may have beaten its last four MAC opponents by an average score of 45.5 to 13.25, but this Toledo would have beaten them by a similar margin.

PREDICTION: With the Irish favored by 17 at PointsBet, as of the end of Friday, part of this is easy. Notre Dame should win today. When favored by at least 13 points, the Irish have won 26 straight games, dating back to a 38-35 loss to Duke in 2016. When favored by two full touchdowns, Notre Dame is 64-2 under Kelly, the losses being that Duke game (favored by 20.5 points) and the 2014 overtime loss, 43-40, to Northwestern (17-point favorites).

The Irish will beat Toledo, even without senior linebacker Shayne Simon (shoulder, done for the season), junior linebacker Marist Liufau (dislocated ankle, done for the season) and junior linebacker Paul Moala (Achilles, done for the season), even without sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho (week-to-week), even without freshman left tackle Blake Fisher (meniscus, eight weeks).

But all those injuries throw into doubt Notre Dame’s ability to win by more than 17 points.

To do so, the Irish may need to rely on an offensive explosion more than on a stingy defense. That fourth quarter against Florida State left too stark an impression to assume better without proof.

Quarterback Jack Coan showed an ability to stretch the field with his 366 passing yards and four touchdowns, including three scores long enough to be considered chunk plays, against the Seminoles. If he can do so again, then Notre Dame may not need to establish a rushing attack to beat the Rockets by at least three scores.

That would fit the Irish trend in their home openers, covering in six of the last seven (not to mention winning nine straight), but it also trusts the Irish defense will not make another costly mistake or two to give up a 60-yard score, as it did twice in week one.

Notre Dame had a short week thanks to that Sunday tilt, a week spent at least in part recovering from Florida’s heat. Chances to correct last week’s mistakes were few.

Another mistake will both allow Toledo to cover the 17-point spread and crack the overall point total over/under of 55.5, but it would take three or four such costly mistakes to endanger the Irish streaks of beating 33 consecutive unranked teams and winning 24 straight home games.

Notre Dame 41, Toledo 28.
(Straight up — 1-0; Against the spread — 0-1; Over/under — 1-0.)

PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner, and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.

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Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph


New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

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When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

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Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

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Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.