Stanford stalls Notre Dame offense and ends three-game Irish win streak in 16-14 upset


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Sometimes a trip to Las Vegas does not catch up to you until days after it is over. Notre Dame enjoyed its win on the Strip last week, but that hangover caught up with the Irish on Saturday in a 16-14 loss to Stanford. The win was the Cardinal’s first in its last 12 tries against FBS opponents.

“This one’s disappointing,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “You have to give credit to Stanford. They did a good job, they played well, but our lack of execution is frustrating.”

Notre Dame (3-3) fell behind 10-0 heading into halftime and showed some life in the third quarter, taking a 14-13 lead on a 41-yard touchdown pass to freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather from junior quarterback Drew Pyne, Merriweather’s first career catch and just his second career target.

Stanford immediately responded with a drive ending in a field goal, a summation of the entire day for the Irish defense, struggling to make tackles in the field but standing up firm deeper into its own territory. By no means did the Cardinal play particularly well. Six drives inside Notre Dame’s 40-yard line boosted Stanford’s total stats finishing with 387 total yards and an average of 4.8 yards per play before kneeling out the clock — but they resulted in only one touchdown, on the first Cardinal possession.

“Defensively, we can’t give them the touchdown on the very first drive,” Freeman said. “This is why it’s a team game. When there’s days your offense isn’t exeucting, your defense has to play better, we have to play perfect. Offense has been doing really well the last couple weeks when we haven’t been playing perfect defensively. Today was a day we needed the defense to play perfect, and we didn’t.”

In that respect, this Irish loss played out in a similar fashion as its first defeat at home this season, the 26-21 upset to Marshall in Marcus Freeman’s first home game as Notre Dame’s head coach. In both games, an early opposing touchdown established a deficit that the lackluster Irish offense could never quite overcome. The Herd also resorted to field goals, Notre Dame’s defense buying some time, but the offense never found enough firepower to make up for the slow start.

Pyne finished with 151 yards on 13-of-27 passing, connecting with star junior tight end Michael Mayer just five times for 60 yards on 10 targets. The running attack that had spurred the Irish to three-straight wins combined for 139 yards on 25 carries, but Audric Estimé fumbled away Notre Dame’s last genuine chance deep in Cardinal territory in the fourth quarter, breaking loose only to cough up the ball near the 20-yard line.

“You were moving the ball, you were rolling,” Freeman said. “Defensively, you have to step up, and they did.”

The Irish forced a Stanford punt four minutes later, pinning the Notre Dame offense at its own 10 to mount a game-winning drive. Instead, it petered out at its own 25-yard line. Its more genuine last chance ended with Estimé’s second lost fumble in three games.

“You hope on that drive before the last drive, you’re able to go and score,” Freeman said. “… It’s just frustrating.”

Of the five times the ball hit the turf on Saturday, all five ended up in Stanford’s hands, the odd reality of a sport played with an oblong ball. That tally does not include an errant snap that Pyne covered up without too much angst, the usual result of a bad shotgun snap, merely lost yards rather than loss of possession. And it does include Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee‘s apparent fumble in the fourth quarter, forced by Irish senior linebacker JD Bertrand, that was then overturned on review to McKee being down before losing the ball.

“That one where JD looked like he punched it out, right there with his knee touching, that was tough because I thought we had it,” Freeman admitted.

It is a sport played with an oblong ball. That creates the luck that can make it joyous and frustrating and comical and baffling.

Yet, Notre Dame’s inability to force turnovers this season has proven costly. The Irish had a negative-four turnover margin entering the weekend, putting them at No. 104 in the country. Losing two fumbles and forcing no turnovers against Stanford will obviously lower that standing.

A turnover gives you more momentum, it gives you a sense of emotion,” Freeman said. “When you’re close and you don’t get it, I wouldn’t say it’s deflating, but those are the moments we have to get them. We have to find a way to get them.”

The absurd part? The Cardinal had forced just two turnovers all season. Its negative-11 turnover margin ranked dead last in the country before this weekend.

Of all games for the oblong odds to strike against Notre Dame, this was the least likely. And yet, it did. File this twist under the baffling category.

Finishing drives has been a problem for the Irish all season. Entering the weekend, they had gotten inside the red zone only 16 times in five games. Add in another two trips Saturday, and Notre Dame is averaging three trips inside the 20-yard line each week, hardly regular scoring opportunities.

If considering a quality drive one that reaches either the end zone or has a first-and-10 inside the opponent’s 40 — when it is more likely a team will score than not — the Irish turn such drives into an average of only 2.44 points, again before this week.

Oddly enough, they converted them better against Stanford, scoring 14 points on three such drives, the outlier being a turnover on downs at the Cardinal five-yard line in the first quarter. But those were the only drives Notre Dame threatened on, of 11 possessions.

Stanford controlled 63.6 percent of the game, when measuring by quality possessions. It may have outgained the Irish by only 84 yards and reached the red zone just once, but it still dictated most of the game.

That turnover on downs at the Cardinal five-yard line initially looked like a touchdown drive, Notre Dame tying the game at seven before the end of the first quarter. Not that it was yet clear how much of a defensive struggle the whole night would be, but even then, the lost opportunity stood out.

Mayer caught a touchdown on the drive, before an ineligible man downfield penalty on sophomore Mitchell Evans waved off the score. The flag was assigned to Evans, but the mistake came from junior running back Chris Tyree’s positioning. Lined up as a receiver along the sideline, Tyree was on the line of scrimmage, making Evans — in a traditional tight end alignment, attached to the offensive line — unwittingly ineligible.

Instead of a touchdown, the Irish then faced a 2nd-and-18 from the 21. A third-down scramble from Pyne put them into a fourth-and-two, at which point a Jayden Thomas end-around went nowhere, but the costly moment came from Tyree’s alignment.

First Quarter
10:05 — Stanford touchdown. Casey Filkins 2-yard rush. Joshua Karty PAT good. Stanford 7, Notre Dame 0. (8 plays, 66 yards, 3:28)

Second Quarter
0:00 — Stanford field goal. Karty 45 yards. Stanford 10, Notre Dame 0. (6 plays, 18 yards, 0:42)

Third Quarter
8:44 — Stanford field goal. Karty 43 yards. Stanford 13, Notre Dame 0. (9 plays, 48 yards, 3:00)
6:22 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 10-yard rush. Blake Grupe PAT good. Stanford 13, Notre Dame 7. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:22)

Fourth Quarter
14:53 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tobias Merriweather 41-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Stanford 13. (6 plays, 60 yards, 2:42)
10:20 — Stanford field goal. Karty 43 yards. Stanford 16, Notre Dame 14. (10 plays, 51 yards, 4:33)

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.