Did I call it, or did I call it? The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Marcus Freeman got the first wins of their season and career, respectively, over the California Golden Bears by a 24-17 margin. It started extremely rough and was never pretty, but the Irish improved enough in a few key areas to escape. Let’s look at a couple of those areas, as well as some ways the Irish can continue to improve moving forward.
The Trenches Step Up
The Irish offensive line took no shortage of criticism over the past week for their performance against Marshall. And there were still struggles for the Irish against Cal, particularly in the first half: in addition to inconsistent pushes and protection, the line also committed some soul-crushing false-start penalties that set the Irish back on multiple drives. But as the game progressed, we saw moderate improvements in play: more consistent pockets for Drew Pyne - who we will get to later - and enough of a push in the run game that the Irish were able to string together some a couple impressive drives to seal the deal. Was it dominant, or even above average? No, but it was enough to carry the day for one game, and that’s all we can hope for each week at this point.
If the offensive line took a step from awful to mediocre, the defensive line took a similar one from mediocre to excellent. We finally saw that vaunted aggressiveness and depth from the Irish line, with Jacob Lacey providing a welcome spark (and 2 sacks) off the bench, and Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola both coming up huge late after sustaining injuries earlier in the game. The line also held up significantly well against the run, as the Bears would have been held well below 100 yards on the ground if not for a couple very long scrambles by Jack Plummer.
It was far from perfect, but we started see some of that physicality we heard about all offseason, and it made a huge difference on both sides of the ball.
Progress in Play-Calling
Speaking of people who got deservedly roasted in the post-Marshall fracas, Tommy Rees also showed a marked improvement in this game. It didn’t always show up on the scoreboard, as the Irish failed to execute well-conceived plays on numerous occasions - again, we’ll get to that later - but there was a noticeable trend toward more common-sense decisions and responding to in-game trends. Chris Tyree got significant touches and showed why he deserved them, impressing both as a runner and a receiver. When weaknesses appeared in the Bears’ defensive scheme the Irish seized on them, notably in their emphasis on the run and short-passing game in the second half.
There were still some shortcomings - two catches on only a few targets for Michael Mayer isn’t great, there was hardly an attempt at establishing a downfield passing game and the game’s two leading receivers were both running backs - and your mileage on his...delivery in coaching may vary, but in this game Rees at least showed an ability to make adjustments and increasingly target his best players. For his sake as much as anyone else’s, one hopes more are coming.
Getting Out of Our Own Heads
For all the struggles the Irish had, this game did not have to be close. Indeed it is likely the case that we would feel a lot better about Tommy Rees’ play-calling in this game had the Irish executed in a few key moments. Drew Pyne was the leading culprit here, as the young QB in his first start (and living out a childhood dream, as close viewers of NBC’s broadcast would note) seemed to be struggling against the man in the mirror as much as anyone else. Airmailing a rare downfield shot to a wide-open Michael Mayer, who might still be running now had the pass been on target. Missing gimme passes to open receivers in the flat. The less said about that fumbled snap the better. I don’t want to pick on Pyne too much because A) I can understand the pressure he was under, B) he got a lot better as the game went on, and C) he got it far worse from his own coach, but it is undeniably true that the Irish could have easily covered in this game had he been dialed in from the start.
It’s also important to note here that Pyne was far from the only offender here in terms of mental mistakes. There were the aforementioned false starts that killed promising series in their cribs (the first series of the game for the Irish saw Braden Lenzy of all people commit one that turned a 3rd-and-inches into 3rd-and-6). There were dropped passes for easy first downs. The miscues occurred on defense too - while it is impressive that the Irish notched 6 sacks on the day, it could have been easily been nine or ten had Irish pass rushers been able to routinely wrap up the not-particularly-athletic Jack Plummer. And don’t even get me started on J.D. Bertrand’s idiotic targeting penalty that caused the first of two negated walk-off turnovers, and could very well have sent this game to OT had the Bears capitalized.
The Irish clearly had a lot of mental hang-ups to work through after the first two games, and the good news is they were able to work through them while coming away with a W. A suddently-daunting road trip awaits, and we will get to see whether those problems were overcome or merely mitigated. Stay buckled in Irish fans, because every game is a potential roller coaster from here on out.