I’m not going to say I called this because I didn’t get it exactly right...but I came pretty close to calling this. Sh*t got weird and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish had to claw their way out in overtime, but thankfully escaped from Tallahassee with a 41-38 win over the Florida State Seminoles. This game tracked almost exactly with 2016’s Sunday-night opener against the Texas Longhorns, all the way down to the dramatic quarterback storyline of the sleeping-giant blue-blood home team told at ponderous length in the ultra-animated stage voice of Joe Tessitore. The Irish, however, flipped the script at the last minute and headed back to South Bend 1-0, their lofty hopes still very much alive. Let’s cover the three biggest lessons for Irish fans to take away from this wild night.
Marcus Freeman is not the risen Christ
There has likely never been a Notre Dame coordinator who entered a season with as much as hype as Marcus Freeman received this season, with many fans ready to anoint him head-coach-in-waiting before he had even called a play. There were times when we saw what that hype was about. Especially early on, we had glimpses of an Irish defense that was nasty and aggressive: harrying Jordan Travis and living in the ‘Noles backfield, generating big turnovers and looking, despite some glitches, like it had a lid on the game near the end of the third quarter.
But in the late third and fourth quarters, Freeman appeared to let his foot off the gas. The Irish shifted into a prevent scheme that effectively ceded the line of scrimmage to Florida State, who wisely seized it. This change of approach, combined with lots of infuriating-but-common-in-week-one miscues - missed tackles, poor angles and gap discipline, coverage mix-ups and a noticeable failure to get off blocks from the secondary - allowed Florida State to climb back into the game and nearly win it.
I expect there are far more edifying conversations than what I could offer going on in the Gug about what mistakes were made and how to avoid them in the future, but it’s fair to say we learned on Sunday night that Freeman is indeed a mortal capable of grossly miscalculating a situation. But while it was not the debut he would have liked, Irish fans can still be hopeful that the promise we saw at various points in Saturday’s game will become the norm.
Notre Dame has a passing game, if they want it
One person who did prove himself worthy of some hype was Jack Coan, who shed his JAG/game manager label with style. Coan set a school record for passing yards in a season opener and quickly developed winning connections with Michael Mayer and Kevin Austin. With his speed, physicality and impressive hands, Austin looked every bit the part of a #1 receiver. It’s a testament to Mayer’s star power that he was singled out for scrutiny by fans (the ones I watched with, at least) for a couple of painful drops, but still led all receivers in the game in yards (120) and receptions (9), in addition to scoring a touchdown.
While less prolific, Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins each made their presence felt in this game, with the latter making one of the best catches by an Irish receiver since Miles Boykin rumbled down the sideline against the LSU Tigers. Longtime followers of OFD surely also appreciated the brilliant execution of a 55-yard screen pass on a 3rd-and-17, during which I could have sworn Kyren Williams was Darius Walker in 2005. The Irish passing game in Tallahassee was dynamic, multi-faceted, and lethal. One imagines many tears were shed in the state of Wisconsin while watching Coan light up Doak Campbell after Graham Mertz’s anemic performance the day prior.
The only complaint I have here is that I didn’t get to see this passing game enough in Sunday night’s game. Similar to his counterpart on defense, Tommy Rees seemed reluctant to adjust his gameplan to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses, and similarly got too conservative when the Irish seized an 18-point lead. We saw entirely too many runs straight into stacked boxes with the Irish offensive line not clicking (more on that below) and stalled drives where the team all of a sudden couldn’t get five yards in two or three plays. The offense certainly isn’t your primary issue on a night when you score 41 points, but there were opportunities early and late in this game to seize commanding leads that the Irish didn’t exploit due to this strange play calling.
The offensive line has work to do
Notre Dame fans have grown accustomed to offensive lines that can bully their opponents, creating tons of room for their running backs and time for their quarterbacks. That was not the case against Florida State, as the Seminoles racked up nine TFLs and four sacks. Struggles were particularly apparent in the running game, as the line was unable to generate a consistent push and the dangerous duo of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree was held to just 73 yards rushing and one touchdown.
This unit also sustained an injury to left tackle Blake Fisher, who had acquitted himself relatively well prior to his exit. Michael Carmody proved an adequate substitute in protecting Coan’s blind side; where the Irish defense really needs to improve is on the interior, creating and maintaining running lanes, as well as on the furthest edge - there was a noticeable drop-off in tight-end blocking with Tommy Tremble no longer in the mix.
The good thing is that none of these issues lost the Irish the game, and they are all fixable with enough practice and game action. A couple weeks of home cooking with the Toledo Rockets and Purdue Boilermakers may be just what the doctor ordered before this team heads into a tough midseason stretch run.