Count me as one of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans who came out of the Shamrock Series game thinking this team had coalesced after a hellish start, and actually managed to get excited about the team looking forward. The offense had shown increasing efficiency and production and the defense had performed well against a pair of good offenses and with two weaker opponents heading into some big games in the back half of the year there was a real path back to a decent stature on the national stage...
In a flash, the Stanford Cardinal arrived in Notre Dame Stadium and exposed those visions for the vapor they were, knocking the Irish down to 3-3 and again establishing that this team has quite a bit of growing to do before it can be relied upon to win week in and week out - regardless of the competition. A week after defeating a ranked team on a neutral field, the Irish were utterly shut down and defeated at home by an abysmal 1-4 squad whose coach was likely on his last legs prior to the game. What do you even say to that? Let’s put my last three brain cells to work and try to find three coherent thoughts:
The Great Offensive Disappearing Act
Dispatch - put out APBs on the following individuals:
- Drew Pyne, 70-80% accurate quarterback
- Lorenzo Styles, playmaking wide receiver
- Braden Lenzy and Chris Tyree, known owners of game-breaking speed
- Zeke Correll and Josh Lugg, adequate players of interior offensive line positions
- Tommy Rees, creative and responsive play-caller
Subjects were last seen boarding a plane departing the city Las Vegas, NV on the night of Saturday, October 6. They were thought to be headed back to their home in South Bend, IN but have not been seen by friends, family, game attendees or television viewers.
Indeed, only Michael Mayer and Tobias Merriweather seemed to remember who they were on Saturday night, with the rest of the Irish offense sleepwalking their way to defeat. Sloppy, undisciplined, confused - practically every member of Notre Dame’s offense regressed on Saturday night, and it’s a testament to how bad Stanford is that the Irish still probably would have won this game if not for Audric Estime’s soul-crushing fumble in the fourth quarter. It’s hard to pick any person or phenomenon to blame for the offensive abomination we saw on Saturday night, so let’s just say for now: it’s all of them, and it’s all of it. It’s coaching and play-calling and execution and everything else one might imagine - because Saturday night this team showed none of it.
Those were the words I found myself shouting time and time again as Stanford plodded along on offense Saturday night. The Irish defense was not the primary culprit in this defeat - indeed, their performance was the only reason the Irish were in this game at all - but they did allow Stanford to chew up a huge portion of the clock (time of possession favored the Cardinal 36:07 - 23:53) on non-scoring drives where they nonetheless racked up tons of yards and converted one first down after another. These conversions frequently came on slow-mesh runs by Casey Filkins or short passes where ball carriers for Stanford eluded multiple Irish tacklers and stretched short plays into just-long-enough gains.
This was a problem on a night where the Irish were clearly working some kinks out offensively and needed additional possessions to get points on the board. Add to that no turnovers, despite the fact that the Cardinal were not exactly careful with the football (I counted three different occasions on which the Stanford either recovered their own fumble or were saved by rule technicalities or officiating) and you have a defense that merely succeeded in not losing the game for the Irish rather than helping them win it. The aggression, pressure and playmaking we had seen the last few weeks simply were not there.
No doubt part of this is a result of mounting injuries and, again, this effort still should have been sufficient to win the game. But with the offense as Jekyll-and-Hyde as it is, the Irish will need more from their defense moving forward.
There is No Standard
Halfway into Marcus Freeman’s first season at the helm for Notre Dame, we have seen the following outcomes:
- Ohio State: Valiant effort in close road defeat vs. elite opponent
- Marshall: Inexplicable loss at home vs. G5 nobody
- Cal: Just-good-enough win at home vs. mediocre Power 5
- North Carolina: Dominant win on the road vs. now-ranked, above-average Power 5
- BYU: Solid win at neutral site vs. ranked independent that now has three losses
- Stanford: Home no-show vs. bottom-tier Power 5
Looking at these results, there is only one pattern that is even somewhat coherent: this is a team that plays worse when when the pressure and stakes are lower. Put them on the road against difficult opponents and they can play at their opponent’s level. Put them at 0-2, staring down the barrel of a disaster season and needing a win to save their coaches’ jobs, and they will find a way to pull the game out. Put them at home against a bad opponent with things looking up and they will...still play to that opponent’s level, and there’s absolutely no guarantee of them pulling it out.
Notre Dame fans have been fixated for many years on winning the big games, as the team repeatedly disappointed under the brightest lights while consistently winning overall. And we hoped that Freeman would be able to motivate his teams to show up in those games where his predecessor’s teams had shrunk, and to some extent we have seen that. We know the Irish can play at a higher level than what we saw on Saturday because we saw it against North Carolina, BYU, and Ohio State. But one of the most underrated challenges of coaching at a high level is keeping your team focused and intense even when the pressure isn’t on and the odds are already in their favor. Because in college football, where every opponent is gunning for you even - no, especially - when you are the favorite, you have to bring that to every game or you will be beaten.
In this, Freeman has so far been a failure. In the games where everything should be going their way, the Irish look flat, soft, uninspired and, bizarrely, scared. Consistently playing to a high standard is the difference between great teams and forgotten ones, and it is something that eludes this team. Until Freeman figures out how to bring that out of his players, this season is going to continue to be a roller coaster for the Irish.