If Notre Dame’s 21-10 loss at Ohio State last weekend was the “foundation” of the program Marcus Freeman wants to build, leading a top-three team and clear national title contender deep into the third quarter serving as some proof of concept, then the design of the figurative first floor remains entirely unknown.
The No. 8 Irish (0-1) took a viable game plan to Columbus and it set them up well against the now-No. 3 Buckeyes (1-0), but it is not applicable to season-long success. The first-year head coach knows as much.
Notre Dame must develop a sustainable offensive approach, one that can produce all season and not simply keep the opposing offense off the field. Against Marshall today (2:30 ET; NBC), there is less reason to turn the Irish offense into its best defense and more reason to let it actually cut loose.
“The mindset maybe isn’t as much to control the clock this week and limit the offensive possessions,” Freeman said Thursday. “We want to be aggressive on offense. I look forward to seeing what our offense does on Saturday. They’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to take some shots.”
The few shots the Irish took at Ohio State largely fell incomplete. A slight overthrow of sophomore Lorenzo Styles, a miscommunication with fifth-year Braden Lenzy and a distinct overthrow of fifth-year former walk-on Matt Salerno were all moments that could have spurred the upset. Instead, sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner finished a respectable 10-of-18 for 177 yards.
But for the most part, Buchner was not tasked with looking downfield. His primary responsibility was to not turn over the ball, which he never did, and then to even keep the ball inbounds as often as possible. If the clock was ticking, Notre Dame’s defensive offense was succeeding.
Minimizing risk like that may work for Iowa, but there is a reason the Hawkeyes have not sniffed the College Football Playoff. Cautious play is not tenable in the long term. The Irish will need Buchner to consistently show all the talent that made him such a coveted recruit, if not this week, then still sooner than later.
“The playbook is open,” Freeman said. “The parameters probably from the head coach aren’t as tight as they were last week in terms of wanting to continue to control the clock, keep the ball in play, keep the clock running. …
“Have a plan and not be afraid to take shots and not be afraid to take advantage of those opportunities that they’re going to give us.”
One presumes those opportunities should begin with junior tight end Michael Mayer. It is difficult to believe the Thundering Herd has the personnel to limit the preseason All-American who caught five of Buchner’s 10 completions last week for 32 yards (on eight targets). But still, a successful Notre Dame this season will feature more than Mayer.
Who else the Irish can offensively feature remains unknown. Even if Notre Dame can open things up against Marshall in a way it dared not risk against Ohio State, Freeman insists things begin with the ground game.
“Our identity starts with the run game and the ability to run the football,” Freeman said. “But we will be aggressive on offense.”
Setting aside the thoughts of sophomore Audric Estime rushing for 100 yards after a summer of hype, the Irish identity may start with the ground game, but it will have to go beyond that.
Enter offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, lauded by Freeman this week for being a “teammate” last week, sacrificing what may have been his preferred offensive approach to help the defense.
“It can’t be easy being an offensive coordinator and the head coach comes and says, ‘Hey, we’re going to have to limit their possessions, we’re going to have to huddle, we’re going to have to make sure — I don’t want to snap the ball sometimes until there’s five seconds on the clock,’” Freeman said Monday. “It can’t be easy to do that. … He believed that’s what it takes for us to have success against a team like Ohio State, so he didn’t bat an eye.”
If that was all catered specifically for slowing the Buckeyes, then what kind of offense does Rees want to deploy, now freed from both those restraints and the oversight of Brian Kelly?
Rees may have been the offensive coordinator in 2020 and 2021, but Kelly still had plenty of say in the offensive design. That was what brought Kelly decades of success, after all.
In retaining Rees, Freeman and Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick assured him broader “autonomy,” something that first showed with the return of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand but something that should also extend to Saturdays in the fall.
Rees and Hiestand will need to buoy an offensive line that could not set a tone against Ohio State. Freeman pointed to the offense’s youth — Buchner a first-time starter, Styles and Estime as sophomores, a pair of sophomores at tackle — but neither Rees nor Hiestand will lean on that excuse.
They should have a two-time captain back at left guard this week with Jarrett Patterson’s expected return, and 106,000 opposing fans will no longer be in Buchner’s ear. But above all else, the offense will simply need to play better in a design applicable to the long-term.
“They have talent, but we have to develop them,” Freeman said. “Then we have to execute. It still comes down to execution.”
Then Freeman may have an idea what he can build on last week’s foundation.
WHAT NOT TO LEARN
One aspect of special teams frustrated Freeman last week, as junior Chris Tyree attempted to return two kickoffs and gained all of 11 yards on each, putting the Irish offense in a bad position on both. Tyree’s returns stuck Notre Dame at the 15-yard-line and the 13-yard-line. While four Buckeyes’ punts also pinned the Irish deep in their own territory, those two poor starting field positions could have and should have been avoided.
“We have to improve our execution on kickoff return,” Freeman said. “I think [special teams coordinator Brian Mason] would be the first to admit — I think we overthought a little bit in terms of our plan vs. Ohio State.”
Even if Notre Dame has corrected those mistakes, there is a preferable alternative: Deploy the kick return unit only once.
Maybe shutting out Marshall is an order too tall; Irish shutouts in recent years (Georgia Tech in 2021, South Florida in 2020, Bowling Green in 2019) have come against teams ranking well below the Herd on a national scale, ranked No. 56 in the most-recent SP+ rankings. But if the Irish do not show off an improved kickoff return, that is not inherently a bad thing.
Similarly, Freeman fretted a bit that Marshall rushed every punt last week with hopes of blocking them. There is one way to render that threat completely moot. Never punt.