SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s greatest highlight Saturday came long before the Irish (3-3) fell to Stanford, 16-14, in the biggest upset at Notre Dame Stadium since … last month against Marshall.
A few hours earlier, consensus four-star running back Jeremiyah Love (Christian Brothers College High; St. Louis, Mo.) committed to the Irish class of 2023, the kind of long-term development that does not erase Notre Dame’s loss to the Cardinal but does offer a reason for Irish fans to be optimistic about first-year head coach Marcus Freeman’s tenure, nonetheless.
Love chose Notre Dame over Alabama, Texas A&M and his homestate Missouri, not to mention visits to Michigan, Georgia and Oregon. The No. 3 running back in the class, per rivals.com, and the No. 51 prospect overall, he has seen the Irish lean on three running backs this season, making it clear there will be opportunities for him in the future.
“Notre Dame does a good job at rotating their running backs,” he said to Inside ND Sports’ Kyle Kelly. “They said they want to get the ball in my hands. So, I’ll be playing receiver and running back, not just strictly running back. But (wide) receiver, slot (receiver), all that type of stuff too. Special teams.
“All of those things just to give me the ball.”
Love may not have the literal fastest top-end speed, but as a track star, he has timed 100-meter dashes of sub-11 seconds. Part of that success comes from his ability to reach his top-end speed with just a few long strides, that acceleration often turning five- or six-yard runs into long touchdown jaunts.
Love has a habit of using side-to-side cuts to evade tacklers, something that works at the high-school level but may be too much time spent moving horizontally against college defenses. He will also presumably need to work on his pass blocking, simply because his high-school team focuses more on putting the ball into his hands than having him protect someone else with it, understandably so.
Love is the third running back to commit to this Irish class, further underscoring the impression made by Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs and Audric Estimé sharing the workload this season. He joins four-stars Dylan Edwards (Derby High School; Kan.) and Jayden Limar (Lake Stevens H.S.; Wash.). At 23 commits, Notre Dame’s class ranks No. 2 in the country, per rivals.com, behind only Alabama, though Ohio State, Georgia and Texas are all within range of passing the Irish and all have two or three fewer pledges to this point in the cycle.
As for Notre Dame’s actual game on Saturday, that second deflating loss of the season, second home loss under Freeman, fourth display of a scuffling offense, there may have been only one Irish highlight.
Freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather ran two routes as the primary focus for junior quarterback Drew Pyne. Halfway through the third quarter, Pyne missed a deep shot to Merriweather, overthrowing him by a few feet at the Stanford goal line. The Irish eventually scored on the drive courtesy of an Estimé 10-yard touchdown run.
On their next possession, Pyne connected with Merriweather. It was not by coincidence that the play came from a similar area on the field (the plus-41 on the second, the plus-31 on the first), and it was not a surprise to see Merriweather line up in the same spot of the formation, the slot of the wide side of the field. Merriweather needed to read the defense to decide if he should break his route inside or outside, the first rendition heading outside, the second inside, and he needed to run it such that the defensive back was then poorly positioned.
“Tobias is a speed demon,” Pyne said. “He runs really good routes, is a big target, has great hands. He’s been working his tail off to go make a play like that. You saw earlier, I missed him on a route earlier in the end zone that we could have scored on as well. He’s a great target for us and we’re going to need him to build on his role.”
STAT OF THE GAME
That Merriweather score came without Notre Dame ever reaching the red zone. Big plays render long drives unnecessary, but big plays have not been an Irish staple this season like they were in, let’s say, 2017 when running back Josh Adams’ repeated and regular long touchdown dashes spurred a brief Heisman campaign.
The Irish have reached the red zone just 18 times this season, exactly three times per game, after getting inside Stanford’s 20-yard line only twice on Saturday, for Estimé’s touchdown and turning over the ball on downs in the first quarter at the 5-yard line.
That pace is far below any of the last five season’s.
2017: 3.46 red-zone possessions per game, while scoring 34.2 points per game.
2018: 4.0 red-zone possessions per game.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
“It’s just frustrating,” Freeman said. “We have to be better. Just have to be better. We’ll find a way, trust me.
“We’re 3-3, we’re going to evaluate and we’re going to do it better. We have no other choice. We have a head coach and a whole bunch of coaches and a bunch of seniors, they’re dying to improve. They put great work in. Today’s result wasn’t what you wanted.”
“The last two weeks, they did a heck of a job. We have to swallow this pill and get our heads back up, which we will.”
New 2023 Notre Dame RB Jeremiyah Love in the building. pic.twitter.com/pSD9WNJqtY
— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) October 15, 2022