Marcus Freeman intends to treat the month of December like a week before the season opener coming off preseason practices rather than entirely focus on the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 (3:30 ET; ABC) against No. 19 South Carolina. The Irish could spend every practice preparing for the Gamecocks, but that would come at the expense of younger players’ development.
By the end of this week, though, Notre Dame (8-4) will start actively thinking about South Carolina (8-4).
“Your only focus as you get closer to this game is to win the game,” Freeman said Saturday. “Right now, being 20 days away, you still have time to truly just go into game planning, right? …
“It’s no different than fall camp. You’re spending a part of fall camp developing your roster. That’s what we’re doing now. Part of that is giving those guys that have played a tremendous amount of reps this season time for their body to recover. … As you continue to get closer and closer to the game, it’ll be all South Carolina.”
That recipe has failed Freeman twice to date, once in last year’s Fiesta Bowl faceplant and once heading to Ohio State to open his first season as a head coach. Those were, of course, top-five opponents. The Gamecocks are neither that nor at full strength anymore, losing two more players to opt-outs on Monday.
Freeman can wait another week before devoting much practice time to South Carolina, but this space has no obligation to younger players whose practice improvements will go unseen until the spring, at the earliest, with possible exceptions at quarterback and tight end.
South Carolina has two top players opt out on defense (CB Cam Smith and DL Zacch Pickens). Now have their top two leading rushers and top two TEs in the portal https://t.co/lDZ2jXCMt4
— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) December 12, 2022
And while Freeman is waiting to dissect everything about the Gamecocks, any college football fan, Freeman included, noticed some things about them at the end of the season as they upset No. 6 Tennessee and No. 10 Clemson in back-to-back weeks. Freeman’s first observations in watching some of those games were what one would have expected in the preseason. South Carolina has one of the more talented, if also inconsistent, quarterbacks in the country in Spencer Rattler.
“I remember watching a couple of plays (of the 63-38 win against the Volunteers on Nov. 19) with my kids and saying, ‘Wow, this team is explosive.’ They’re extremely talented,” Freeman said a week ago shortly after learning of Notre Dame’s bowl opponent. “… I did take a couple minutes to peek at just the offense vs. Clemson and then obviously watched a little bit of the Tennessee game.
“[Rattler] is special. Their offense is explosive. … It all starts with their quarterback. Spencer is an extremely talented individual. I’ve seen him extend some plays with his legs, the ability to throw the ball into tight spaces, make good decisions. He is a talented quarterback.”
If that quarterback-play description sounds similar to the most recent one the Irish faced, it is worth pointing out the same coach signed Rattler out of high school as sought Caleb Williams, bringing them into the same system at Oklahoma. Lincoln Riley likes his quarterbacks to be able to pick up first downs with their legs, throw while on the run and, if need be, dance in the pocket. While not as consistently or as dazzlingly as Williams does, Rattler checks all those boxes.
Rattler: 13 games, 66.6 percent completion rate, 7.9 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns, 11 interceptions; 191 yards on 38 rush attempts with three touchdowns.
Rattler in the last two games, those top-10 upsets: 798 yards on a 72.4 percent completion rate and 10.5 yards per attempt with eight touchdowns and two interceptions; 33 yards on 6 rush attempts with one touchdown.
Those season-long numbers may seem modest, but South Carolina’s passing offense adds 0.049 expected points per its average play, according to cfb-graphs.com. To put that into Irish context, Notre Dame adds 0.111 expected points per its average pass play.
The Gamecocks need an efficient passing game, because their rushing attack is dismal, and that was before losing their top back to the transfer portal. South Carolina averages 3.8 yards per rush and only 123.3 yards per game. There is a reason it ran the ball only 32.4 times per game, No. 106 in the country. Despite its five-game losing streak in the second half of the season, Syracuse’s rushing offense was more efficient than the Gamecocks’, as was Cal’s.
South Carolina points per game: 31.7, No. 45 in the country, one point per game more than Notre Dame.
South Carolina points allowed per game: 27.5, No. 78 in the country.
Defensively, the Gamecocks’ weakness is clear and one Notre Dame will enjoy. In every way, South Carolina’s rush defense ranks in the bottom-30 of the country.
South Carolina rushing yards allowed per game: 192.4, No. 113 in the country.
Yards allowed per rush attempt: 4.85, No. 112 in the country.
Rushing attempts against per game: 39.7, No. 103 in the country.
The Midshipmen fired 15-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo over the weekend after their double-overtime loss to Army. That defeat likely sealed a fate that would have been at best delayed by a year with a different result. And none of it may not be Niumatalolo’s fault.
Navy is 2-5 in its last seven matchups against Army and the same is true against Air Force, and that may be the only metric that matters around Annapolis moving forward. There are just too many disadvantages stacking up against the service academies to compete with anyone else consistently.
While the NCAA seems to limit cut blocking a little bit more every few years, a new head coach may stray from the triple-option, anyway. However, off-field hurdles will stifle any offensive approach preferred by the next head coach.
Navy does not add transfers, so its best players may depart but the Midshipmen have no recourse to replace them similarly. There is no graduate school, so players cannot mature into a fifth-year surprise, not to mention the current marvels of sixth- and even seventh-year players.
Lastly, it will be only harder to recruit to the service academies moving forward, already a high bar to clear. Players are considered graduate employees and thus may not seek outside employment, as in, they cannot receive money through name, image and likeness deals.
One might think that would not impact the typical Navy football recruit, but consider how often someone enters the military because that is the only way they can afford college. There are increasingly alternative options. If nothing else, an improving player already at Annapolis may realize he has improved to an extent he could make five figures elsewhere on top of his scholarship, and the idea of $20-30,000 of income before the end of his college career could spur a transfer.
Niumatalolo is one of only two Navy head coaches to defeat Notre Dame since 1964 and the only one to do it multiple times. That may be true for a long time to come, with the current Irish winning streak in the series already at five.
Hadn't checked the #NotreDame-South Carolina line in a week. Down to the -2 or -2.5, though still in Irish favor.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) December 11, 2022
INSIDE THE IRISH
— Transfer portal opens fast, but slow for Notre Dame … for now; Mayer & Foskey status TBD
— Things We Learned This Season: Notre Dame’s culture created progress, though inexperience begat losses
— Notre Dame lands dazzling athlete recruit, Brandyn Hillman, with signing day just two weeks away
— Michael Mayer headed to the NFL, opts out of Notre Dame’s appearance in the Gator Bowl
— Isaiah Foskey heads to NFL, joining Michael Mayer in opting out of Notre Dame’s Gator Bowl appearance
— Gator Bowl prep can wait for Notre Dame, aside from at quarterback
— Zacch Pickens won’t play for South Carolina in Gator Bowl as he prepares for NFL
— Navy after Ken Niumatalolo: What do Midshipmen face as sport continues to change?
— ‘I wasn’t ready for it to be over’: Ken Niumatalolo surprised by dismissal as Navy football coach
— Inside Deion Sanders’ first 4-star flip to Colorado: ‘Nobody is safe’
— Western Michigan hires Louisville OC Lance Taylor as coach
— Notre Dame’s got ‘Milk’ for a sixth season as Vinson elects to return
— Behind the scenes at Heisman weekend with Caleb Williams, the face of the new college football
— How “Football Guy” Brian Mason revolutionized Notre Dame’s special teams units
— College football’s 2022 unsung heroes: Influential athletes, staff you probably don’t know
— Legends to reopen in January
.@NBCSports plans to use @MariaTaylor as its studio host on Saturdays for its @bigten primetime college football package debuting next fall 🏈
Welcome back to college sports, Maria Taylor 🎉
(via @AndrewMarchand) pic.twitter.com/N24HOaORF5
— Sports Business Journal (@SBJ) December 12, 2022