Three Things returns a week late this year, as I missed the season opener while vacationing with my family in Ireland. While I had some fomo about not getting to participate in the post-opener take-stravaganza, I did look forward to coming home and settling into a clean, breezy season-opening win over a G5 pushover from which to glean 2022’s initial set of observations.
That expectation went about as well as my ongoing attempt to recover my luggage from British Airways (#neverHeathrow), and now here we are at 0-2, staring down the barrel of a possible nightmare season. Saturday’s 26-21 loss to the Marshall Thundering Herd was a nightmarish viewing experience that I write about here with great pain.
I have no good news to bring you about this game. I can, however, offer you a recommendation if you are like me and are getting the sense that a few more postgame pours are going to be on the menu this fall than in years past. While visiting my great-grandparents’ hometown of Ballina, Co. Mayo, and spending some time with extended family, I got an opportunity to take a tour of Connacht Whiskey Distillery. Connacht is part-owned by Tom Jensen, an ‘82 Notre Dame alum and friend of the family who arranged to open the place up for a private tour and tasting. I highly recommend trying all of their fine distilled products, in whatever quantity is necessary to make you feel less bad about having seen this:
Responsibly, of course.
Alright, let’s do this.
Losing the Battle in the Trenches...to Marshall
Expectations were high for Notre Dame’s offensive line coming into this season, with loads of talent and beloved coach Harry Hiestand returning. Struggling against the Ohio State Buckeyes on the road was unfortunate but understood; this time, however, we saw the Irish front get absolutely bullied and dominated at the point of attack all game long. The Irish running backs were being met in the backfield on every carry, while Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne faced constant pressure and took a pair of soul-crushing sacks in high-leverage situations. There is no excuse for this type of performance in this game, and Harry Hiestand must take immediate action. Put Jarrett Patterson back at center where he belongs. Stop trying to make Zeke Correll and Josh Lugg happen, it’s not going to happen. Bring in players who proved themselves capable last year (Andrew Kristofic) or at least haven’t shown themselves to be abysmal (Rocco Spindler) because the Irish are not going to win a game for a long time if this type of performance continues.
On the other side of the ball, Al Washington’s vaunted defensive line unit, widely thought of as one of the most talented and fearsome units on this team, was sliced and diced by a Marshall running game that was missing its lead back and operating a simple running scheme with almost no vertical passing threat (50 rushing attempts!). I am a little less judgmental because this is likely in large part a product of Notre Dame’s offensive futility, which gave Marshall the ability to run an absurd number of plays and gradually wear the Irish down, but still just a horrific showing in a game where the Irish should have been able to impose their will and with seemingly no adjustments made when it was clear how Marshall was going to attack the Irish.
I have been a Tommy Rees fan for a long time, but it is getting harder and harder to justify and ask for second chances for him as the Irish continue to generate absolutely nothing and show little ability to adjust when faced with defenses that refuse to lay down. Looking back at Notre Dame’s offensive efforts in this game, I sincerely don’t know what Tommy was hoping for in this game other than for Marshall to simply lay down and let the Irish score. Your offensive line isn’t creating a push, so do you get more creative - perhaps by getting some quick touches on the outside to one of the two guys you have that are the fastest players on the field for either team? Do you try running more misdirection or option plays to create some uncertainty? What are you, a nerd or something?
In the second half, you finally find some success with a combination of the quarterback run and your security blankets tight-end passing game. Now holding the ball down four, with a young quarterback who has already turned the ball over leading your potential go-ahead drive, do you stick with this safe-but-successful approach to close out the game, escape with a W and live to work on the broader playbook another day? Certainly not. You opt to run the same play on which said quarterback threw his first interception, and so it goes:
Going back to the second half of the Fiesta Bowl, we have now seen ten quarters in which Notre Dame’s offense put up a total of five touchdowns and no Irish ball carrier topped fifty yards. This is a recipe for a disastrous season if dramatic changes aren’t made.
The Juice Was Not Brought
One thing I thought would be a guarantee in the Marcus Freeman era would be the Irish coming out motivated. I believed in Freeman’s ability to motivate his players and their willingness to lay it all on the line for him. That ability may still be there in the long term, but in this game the Irish looked soft, unprepared, undisciplined and simply unready. To play Marshall. Blown off the ball, bullied with it in the air, scared confused and waiting for something to happen to save them (narrator: it didn’t). That falls squarely on Freeman’s shoulders, and the Irish will need him to help find their focus and aggressiveness again if this season is to be redeemed.
Whether Jarrett Patterson’s anger at the end of the game - in which he is most certainly not alone - was the kind that sparks a turnaround or the kind that leads a person to check out remains to be seen, but Irish fans had better hope it is the former. There is still a chance for this season to be something other than a disaster, but it has to start with the Irish rediscovering a fighting spirit.