SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s passing game misfired for most of the day, to offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ understandable chagrin. Snapping the ball sometimes became an Irish worry, the most basic part of an offense suddenly concerning. Third downs were repeatedly compounded with false starts. But when Notre Dame (2-1) needed an efficient, game-winning drive, all those offensive worries disappeared.
Irish quarterback Drew Pyne found star tight end Michael Mayer for a 6-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to give Notre Dame a 24-17 win against Cal (2-1) on Saturday, the first victory of Marcus Freeman’s head-coaching career coming in Pyne’s first-career start.
“It’s hard to win football games,” Freeman said. “It’s hard. You’ve seen it in these first three games.
“I’m so proud of that group of guys to find a way to finish. Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do. We have to get better, but tonight is going to be about celebrating this victory.”
That victory was not assured until quite literally all 60 minutes had passed, with the Bear’s final heave toward the end zone bouncing around varous players’ hands for so long it may have felt like another week of anxiety on the Irish sideline. When it escaped the grasp of the last Cal receiver, Freeman could finally breath easier, even if his core nature wanted to leap right into coaching up his team on its many miscues and mistakes.
“I keep trying to tell myself to enjoy it,” he said. “There’s a lot of coaching that happened on that field today that we can learn from, but if you don’t take a minute to enjoy these things, you’re going to regret it.
“That’s what I keep reminding myself, enjoy this victory.”
The one offensive drive that should elicit no coaching notes was the seven-play, 66-yard drive culminating in Mayer’s second touchdown of the year. That third-quarter march was the first display of offensive efficiency from Notre Dame not only all afternoon, but all season.
Sophomore running back Audric Estime began the possession with a simple three-yard run, but by that point, the Bears needed to respect the threat of Estime’s physical ground game after he had powered the previous Irish touchdown drive. Rees and Pyne then alternated Estime touches with plays for more dynamic Notre Dame playmakers — junior running back Chris Tyree gained 11 yards on two plays while sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles caught a six-yard pass, perhaps meager numbers on the surface but ones that kept a drive moving and multi-dimensional.
Estime then caught a quick pass and rumbled for 32 yards before stumbling untouched to just short of the 5-yard line. Cal may have expected the bowling ball in cleats to get a few carries on the ensuing snaps, as he had run twice from inside the 3-yard line on the previous Irish touchdown drive — “You give the ball to Audric, he falls forward,” Pyne said — but instead Pyne found Mayer wide open.
The preseason All-American would finish with only two catches for 10 yards, while Pyne threw for 150 yards and two scores on 17-of-23 passing. Though they connected just twice, Pyne targeted Mayer as much as anyone else, one of three players with five targets from Pyne (Tyree and Styles). The two scores — the first coming on a 21-yard seam route to Tyree — made Pyne’s day look better on paper than it was. He lost a fumble on one snap and narrowly dodged that fate on another. But in his first start against a stout Cal offense, things could certainly have gone worse.
Until that drive culminating in the Mayer touchdown, it seemed things would. Pyne twice missed Mayer for significant gains within three plays in the first half, prompting Rees to express distinct frustration from the coaches’ booth. To sum up his day in a way only understood by those who paid attention to the NBC broadcast, “I saw that video,” Pyne said with a grin of Rees’ coaching displeasure.
Not that the issues were Pyne’s alone. Dropped passes were among his six incompletions. On four separate third downs in the first half, Notre Dame false starts turned manageable distances into stretches, with three of the culprits being seniors or fifth-year veterans. While the Irish defense was holding the Bears largely in check — Cal’s first touchdown drive covered only 33 yards following Pyne’s fumbled snap — Notre Dame’s offense scuffled and stymied itself to a halftime deficit.
Estime’s straight-forward approach for four straight carries in the third quarter provided the first sign the Irish offense would find a way Saturday.
Trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, Notre Dame needed to gain a yard at the goal line to prove its offense had some measure of potency. A targeting call against the Bears prolonged an Irish drive, gifting Rees’ offense a 1st-and-10 at the 14-yard line. Rees then called upon Estime four straight times, and he delivered, taking the fourth of those carries across the goal line for a brief Notre Dame lead.
Cal would respond in relatively short order, but the Irish had found a proof of concept. Estime finished with 76 yards on 18 carries, a 4.2 yards per attempt average that became Notre Dame’s backstop against another all-too-familiar ineffective showing and the primary piece of a ground attack that gained 157 yards on 39 rushes, a 4.03 yards per carry average (sacks adjusted).
“I wanted to run the ball,” Freeman said. “I felt like we were moving the ball and let’s continue to run it, but you can’t run the ball the whole game. To me that opens up some holes in the pass game.”
Including the hole to Mayer for the win.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
After telling NBC’s Zora Stephenson this win would be “one of many to come,” Freeman was already thinking about the week that was and the week that thus will be.
“It was a tough week, for all of us, for me on down,” he said. “We had to really look at ourselves and really say what do we have to do to enhance. Sometimes you don’t want to hear it, you don’t want to know where the negative aspects of what you’re doing are. …
“We didn’t play a perfect game, but we found a way.
“We’re going to have do that after a victory. We’re going to have to go back on Sunday — enjoy this thing tonight — and take a deep dive into where can we execute better.”
14:27 — Cal touchdown. J. Michael Studivant 18-yard pass from Jack Plummer. Dario Longhetto PAT good. Cal 7, Notre Dame 0. (4 plays, 33 yards, 0:26)
8:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 21-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Blake Grupe PAT good. Cal 7, Notre Dame 7. (10 plays, 60 yards, 5:28)
4:11 — Cal field goal. Longhetto 34 yards. Cal 10, Notre Dame 7. (10 plays, 69 yards, 4:43)
9:14 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estime 1-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Cal 10. (9 plays, 60 yards, 4:00)
4:48 — Cal touchdown. Plummer 1-yard rush. Longhetto PAT good. Cal 17, Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 75 yards, 4:26)
14:48 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 47 yards. Cal 17, Notre Dame 17. (10 plays, 46 yards, 5:00)
9:16 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 6-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Cal 17. (7 plays, 66 yards, 3:46)