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State of the Season Address: Where Does ND's Season Stand and Where is it Going?

Written by Mike Stacey|Writer|X (Twitter): @MikeStaceyIT IG: @mikestaceyit

Photo via Notre Dame Athletics


The roller coaster ride that has been the Notre Dame football season had finally reached it's first bye of the year in week 8 and then rolled on against Pitt this weekend at home in week 9. The Irish are the only team to have played 8 games before having a bye, a bye in which they desperately needed after 4 straight night games against ranked opponents. After coming off that well needed rest, the Irish thumped Pitt by their widest margin of victory against the Panthers since 1996, 58-7. They currently sit with a 7-2 record and ranked 12th in the country by the AP, and 15th by the playoff committee. Even though their playoff hopes have fallen to the way side, they still have a chance to capture the ever illusive New Year's 6 Bowl win that Brian Kelly chased his entire career without catching. The Irish came very close in 2021, but ultimately saw a big lead and win fade away like a mirage in the dessert against Ok State in Arizona. The good thing for the Irish is that the most difficult part of their schedule has passed, and with Clemson receiving their 4th loss on Saturday, the Irish won't play a ranked team again this season. So will this be the year the Irish finally bring home a big bowl game win? Or will inconsistent play continue to haunt them and cost them another big opportunity? I am hopeful that with this defense, and the potential we have on offense, that the Irish will be up to the challenge. However, for that to happen, this team needs to continue to stay focused and improve. With that in mind, let's take a look at what the Offense, Defense, and Special Teams has done thus far in the season to get a better idea of what is working and what needs improvement.



Offense:

The Irish offense currently ranks 41st in Total Offense, 44th in Passing Offense, 57th in Rushing Offense and tied for 33trd in Turnovers lost. The offense was a tale of two teams throughout the first 8 games of the season. In the first 4 games the Irish scored 42, 56, 45, and 41 points while averaging 408 yards per game. The next four games they scored 14, 14, 20, and 48 while averaging 320 yards per game. Now, it has to be stated that those last 4 games came against much better opponents, but nonetheless the regression of the offense over that stretch was obvious, mainly in the passing game where the Notre Dame wideouts needed to be put on a milk carton. In those last 4 games the most yards by a wide receiver came by Chris Tyree with 62 yards on 2 catches against USC. After that? Jordan Faison, the walk on, with 48 yards on 2 catches against Louisville. Those numbers simply are not going to get the job done, and even though several of the wideouts have been fighting hamstring injuries (cause for concern?) these numbers are inexcusable. The output, or lack there of, has become a great concern over the season and one that is going to have to change if this team is going to win out and take home a big bowl victory. Many have pointed fingers at first year Offensive Coordinator Gerad Parker for the offensive woes that have developed during the season. However, when asked at his press conference last Monday about what the difference on offense was from the first four to last four games, Marcus Freeman's response was "execution." He also stated that he wanted to simplify the offense by saying "We have to simplify so the execution is where it needs to be. It's not more, more, more, it's clear, clear, clear." He also talked about taking more shots downfield, specifically to Tobias Merriweather for 50/50 balls. The good news is the offense responded this past weekend by putting up 535 yards of total offense, with 380 of those coming in the passing game. Rico Flores had 72 yards, Christ Tyree 62, and Tobias Merriweather had 50. Hopefully this is another big step in the right direction for an offense who has now shown notable improvement in their last 2 games.




Defense:

The Irish Defense ranks 11th in Total Defense, 3rd in Passing Yards Allowed, 37th in Rushing Defense and tied for 3rd in Turnovers Gained. Simply put, the Irish Defense has been the foundation of this program and carrying the load for the majority of the season. The Defensive Line, which was a concern at the beginning of the season, seems to get better every week with the best performance coming two games ago against USC. Against the Trojans, the D-Line kept Caleb Williams under duress the entire game which helped lead to 6 sacks for the Irish. (Linebackers share a lion share of that success as well) If this unit can continue to progress, they are going to be a handful for any opponent. The linebackers boasted a ton of experience but still had question marks coming into the season, especially for Marist Liufau, who struggled in his first year under Al Golden's system. This year, however, Marist has played to his potential and the rest of the linebackers have been flying around the ball all season. This unit has great experience and leaders like JD Berstand, who are doing a terrific job of being assignment correct and leading this defense. The difference from last year's backers who couldn't seem to get off a block to this year's disruptive unit has been very apparent and a major reason why the defense continues to perform at a high level. The corners have been as advertised, PHENOMENAL. This unit helped hold the Trojans to under 200 passing yards in a game where Caleb Williams was playing from behind, and held Marvin Harrison Jr to 32 yards! Both Hart and Morrison have potential to be very good corners at the next level, even though for some odd reason Cam Hart does not get the recognition he deserves. And with both Hart and Morrison out against Pitt, the back ups showed exactly how deep this team is at the position. Highlighted by a Jaden Mickey pick six and an acrobatic interception by Christian Gray, the Irish have the best corners in the country, period! Behind them at safety is another position group that came into the season with question marks, but we have seen steady progress that absolutely exploded onto the scene against USC and continued this weekend against Pitt with Xavier Watts cashing in on 4 picks, a fumble return for a TD and a forced fumble in the past 2 games. The entire defense seems to be gelling right now and Al Golden deserves a great deal of credit. A guy who many Irish fans wanted out of the building last year is going to be a highly coveted coach after this season. If the Offense can catch up to the Defensive side of the ball, the Irish are going to be a force for anyone who has to deal with them down the stretch.





Special Teams:

The Irish rank 8th in Kickoff Returns, 18th in Punt Returns, 96th in Kick Return Defense, 94th in Punt Return Defense, and 91st in Net Punting. After ND's juggernaut special teams unit last season that was an absolute nightmare for opposing punters, this years Special Teams unit left a lot to be desired through the majority of the season. However, the past 2 weeks have shown marked improvement which has included both a punt and kick return for a touchdown. The Irish rankings have improved in every category after their strong showing against Pitt this past weekend. As far as field goals go, Spencer Shrader has show- cased that he has an absolute LEG and can hit from 50+ with ease. This is a huge asset for Notre Dame moving forward and although you would like to see some more accuracy from the 40-49 range, (1-3) his range from 50+ (4-6) has been fantastic. The other positive is Jadarian Price in the kick return game. We all caught a glimpse of what he can do against USC and saw some more explosiveness on his touchdown run against Pitt. He finally appears to be healthy which should only lead to more success in the kick return game. The big special teams player this weekend was Christ Tyree, who had an absolutely incredible punt return for a touchdown where he ran through several Pitt defenders before speeding away for a big Irish touchdown. Tyree is best known for his return against Wisconsin last year, and this past weekend showed that was not a fluke. With both Price and Tyree getting hot right now, this special teams unit that was concerning early on may be a strength moving forward.


All in all, there have been plenty of ebbs and flows for this team up to this point. However, their dominate win over USC and Pitt in consecutive games has been their best showing so far this season. The Irish have a golden (pun intended) opportunity to show the country what they can do when operating at full force for the rest of the season. The only question is, will they? Will some of the old inconsistencies come back to light next week against Clemson? Or will the Irish continue to play sound football and beat the Tigers in their stadium? Depending on the answer to those two questions, this can either be a season in which the program takes a step back or a step forward. Only time will tell...



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