Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense ahead of its offense, but all carry competitive energy into the summer

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Marcus Freeman could not get through his pregame sideline interview without rattling off his favorite buzzword.

“I want to see how competitive they are,” the Notre Dame head coach said before Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

If that was Freeman’s goal, then he at least learned his No. 3 or 4 quarterback is exceedingly competitive, as early-enrolled freshman Steve Angeli ended the Irish spring practices with a dive into the end zone for the winning touchdown as the clock reached zero, Gold beating Blue 13-10.

That should be the closest moment Angeli has in 2022 to a meaningful play, but the freshman putting his body on the line in an exhibition was emblematic of the ethos Freeman is trying to instill throughout his program.

“To end it like that, you couldn’t have scripted it a better way to end it on the last play,” Freeman said. “This group has a lot of momentum right now. Continue to form our identity, but it’s really good to end it that way.”

What does not have a lot of momentum right now is the rest of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks and offense as a whole. Angeli finished 11-of-17 for 180 yards with a touchdown pass and the 10-yard scoring rush. Meanwhile, junior Drew Pyne went 22-of-33 for 185 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions, a third undone by an offsides penalty but immediately leading to one of the pair that stood. Playing for both the Blue and Gold teams throughout the first half, Pyne could not find anything resembling a rhythm, and his interceptions came from misdiagnosing coverage or panicking under pressure.

His first pick, the one invalidated by defensive penalty, was the closest to simply a bad throw, overthrowing his intended receiver and instead finding sophomore Justin Walters. Pressures and not noticing linebackers dropping into coverage led to his others.

“A little up and down,” Freeman said of Pyne’s showing. “… It’s not always on the quarterback. We know we have to take care of the football, but it’s a collective part. We’ve got to be on the same page. There has to be guys that make the quarterback look good, too.”

With a mere glance at Notre Dame’s roster, it is clear there are few such players, from a literal numbers perspective. And on a day when junior tight end Michael Mayer and senior receiver Braden Lenzy were both expected to be somewhat limited — for no reason other than established veterans do not need to take the injury risk of an intrasquad scrimmage just before the summer — there were even fewer players for Pyne to lean on. Sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas shined most, finishing the day with four catches on five targets for 39 yards.

This was not what the Irish offense will look like on Sept. 3 at Ohio State. Sophomore quarterback and expected starter Tyler Buchner did not even put on pads Saturday due to a rolled ankle. Sixth-year receiver Avery Davis and fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins should both be healthy by then. Incoming freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather figures to factor in.

But as far as momentum goes, the first-string offense does not have much currently.

The defense does. It tackled well, some young linebackers showed potential depth, and the secondary clearly was ready to annoy the quarterbacks. Junior defensive lineman Rylie Mills finished with three tackles for loss for 14 yards, while sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie added two more for seven yards lost.

After his freshman season was disrupted by COVID, Kollie establishing himself in 2022 will go a long way toward solidifying Notre Dame’s defense, along with senior linebacker Marist Liufau flashing his playmaking skills once again and junior linebacker Jordan Botelho not only playing within the defense, but excelling within it.

“The ability in the plus territory to create turnovers is huge,” Freeman said. “The ability to keep teams out of the end zone was big.”

In his first season as a head coach, at only 36, it was always likely the former defensive coordinator would pin the year on the Irish defense. Saturday showed what that could look like, though it should be acknowledged, the Blue-Gold Game favors the defense by its inherent design. Quarterbacks are easier to down when in a red jersey. Offensive playbooks are more restrained, keeping their best wrinkles behind closed doors. In this instance, the defense not only had more starters available but also more veteran backups.

Not that any of those advantages mattered when white jersey-wearing Angeli needed to find the end zone.

“Watching the clock, I know we have to get a play off,” he said. “We were in our tempo calls. I got the play, looked up at the clock, saw it at about nine seconds and I was like, I gotta get going. Took the snap, went out, saw the corners kept backing up, gave a few pump fakes, they kept reacting. And then I just went for the front pylon.”

He got there, and even if he is only the No. 3 quarterback, that joyous and competitive ending mattered more to Freeman and Notre Dame than any of the rest of the day.