I cannot believe that the performance last week by Notre Dame Fighting Irish football was so disappointing that leadership canceled our W.I.N. call for the week, and instead just asked me to send out a quick weekly update email while they had some high-level meetings to figure things out. I swear to God if I hear the word “re-org” this week I’m quitting before I find out what they mean by that. Oof.
Anyway, I guess I’m glad they saved me an hour of my Monday today — considering it’s another bye weekend coming up, this was a pretty easy update to put together, especially considering leadership asked me not to put together any Charts and Graphs and said “please don’t write anything more about cheeseburgers either” — this is simply going to be a quick little business recap of last week and then we can all go about our weeks as we wait for the hammer to drop from the C-suite (sorry in advance, Gerad — it was fun working with you and you’re a great guy...I’m sure you’ll land on your feet somewhere and I’d be happy to help you with a reference for any TE Coach openings you apply for).
Let’s do this — time to blast this garbage out to the squad and hope for the best.
*clicks “Send” button*
TO: Project W.I.N. Listserv <ProjectWINListserv@onefootdown.com>
CC: Marcus Freeman <firstname.lastname@example.org>; Gerad Parker <email@example.com>; Al Golden <firstname.lastname@example.org>; Marty Biagi <email@example.com>
Subject: W.O.O.F. (Whiffing On Offense Fantastically) — Weekly Update, Bye Week #2
Good morning Project W.I.N. Team,
In lieu of a full project meeting this morning, we have instead decided to give everyone an hour back in their Monday while the leadership team deliberates on next steps following the disappointing and frustrating 31-23 loss to the Clemson Tigers on Saturday. So, please see below for a quick weekly update recapping last week’s results and detailing What’s Important Now for the team as we build our Long Range Plan to recover from this setback, learn from the obstacles and opportunities we’re encountering, and emerge from this as a much stronger organization in 2024.
Due to this being an email update, the weekly deck has an abridged agenda focused on lessons learned from the week prior and removing a handful of the typical slides we cover:
Due to the loss last weekend, there will be a slightly different focus when looking at Last Week’s Results, although we will still revisit What’s Important Now at the end of this week’s update. But for this upfront portion of the deck, this week we will instead be focusing on Whiffing On Offense Fantastically and what that meant for the team last weekend and what it should mean going forward.
Okay, so let’s dive into Last Week’s Results, with a heavy focus on how the Irish performed quite poorly (one again) on the offensive side of the ball, but also highlighting where they fell short elsewhere, as it’s always a team effort and we can all certainly agree that no portion of the team was blameless for Saturday’s defeat.
We don’t want to bring the vibe down too much in this email, so let’s try to work through all the negatives from the loss as efficiently as possible. We can start with Sam Hartman’s performance at QB, which was pretty abysmal. The experienced vet completed just 13 of his 30 passing attempts on the day for 146 yards, averaging a paltry 4.9 yards per attempt and throwing two interceptions on the day, including that back-breaking pick-six that helped put the Irish in the hole they were unable to dig themselves out of for the remainder of the game.
Hartman’s QBR was 39.6 on the day, which was his 2nd-worst of the season (he had a 30.2 mark against Louisville), and which was topped by Cade Klubnik despite going just 13/26 for 109 yards and throwing a pick of his own. Those two QBRs from Hartman vs. Clemson and Louisville are his two worst since December of 2020, by the way.
I do not want to trash a single player too much, especially one who’s been a great leader and representative of ND in his short time on campus, but I also do think we’ve been giving Hartman a bit of a pass all year due to the shortcomings at Offensive Coordinator, wide receiver, offensive line, etc. And of course, all those folks performing poorly makes Hartman’s job way harder — but let’s also not sit here and act like Hartman has been a warrior absolutely crushing it despite all his teammates and coaches failing around him. His big games have almost exclusively come against the dregs of the schedule, while against Ohio State, Duke, Louisville, USC, and Clemson, Hartman has averaged just 185 passing yards, 56% completion, and a QBR of 58.5 in those 5 games while having a 1:1 TD-to-INT ratio.
Was he a massive improvement over the Tyler Buchner/Drew Pyne combo of 2022? Of course. And he’s still had a super strong and accomplished college career. But there’s a reason he was willing to come back for a 6th season and unable to go to the pros — he’s simply not the elite level of QB that the Irish will need if they want to truly compete for a title.
Moving past Hartman, let’s talk about the failures around him on Saturday — because he passed poorly, but also didn’t get much help. The offensive line did a poor job protecting him, with Tigers players constantly in his face and in the backfield in general. It’s actually a miracle he was only sacked twice, but the 6 TFL allowed on the game weren’t ideal for the Irish, nor was their inability to consistently get a push up front after that first successful drive where Audric Estime looked like he was going to have a career day. Zeke Correll was getting dominated in the middle before going down with a concussion, and then Andrew Kristofic replacing him and proceeding to also get hurt was just icing on the cake at center.
The Irish receivers also continued to put on their magnificent disappearing act, with the young guys still a year or so away from being capable of carrying the load and the more experienced guys putting together some combination of being unable to get open, putting in some questionable effort at times, and still being hurt and unable to help out. The tight ends also sorely missed Mitchell Evans, as expected, with no one really stepping up at the position as a go-to target on 3rd downs.
Speaking of 3rd downs, the Irish were once again horrible in that regard, converting on just 3 of their 13 attempts. They also were 0-of-1 on 4th down, and picked up just 13 total first downs on the day in just a master class of not moving the ball down the field hardly at all. This isn’t anything new from Parker’s offense, and when you look at their ability to convert on 3rd down over the last month-plus, it’s a scary view:
Since Ohio State, Notre Dame is 16/59 on third down, 27%.— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) November 5, 2023
That is literally Iowa levels of offense, who is at 27% for the season, 131st nationally. https://t.co/6BrF6T70X7
Plenty of the blame there can be attributed to the coaching staff and not just placed on the players. Of course, it all comes back to Gerad Parker, whose play-calling and lack of imagination in his offense continued to lead to stalled drives and even more drives that never even got started. Almost no play-action was used despite Clemson keying on the run, several 3rd-and-long play calls were screens that never had a chance (with no intention of going for it on 4th down, either, which would be the only justification for that call on 3rd down), and Audric Estime only got 3 carries in the second half, which even when playing from behind after the pick-six seems just absurd considering how effective he was early on.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine Marcus Freeman sticking with his buddy at OC, despite there not even being a full season of data yet on Parker’s abilities as the head of the offense. They’ve simply been too bad for the amount of talent at their disposal, and his inability to adapt to what he’s had (or not had) and to his opponents’ strengths and tendencies just shows he was not ready for this job and CANNOT be the answer going forward.
Hartman threw two picks on the day, as mentioned, and the Irish lost the turnover battle 3-2 thanks to Chris Tyree basically having the exact opposite day as he had against Pitt, muffing a punt in the first quarter to give the Tigers a short field and an easy 3 points. This also felt like the first game in a while where Tyree didn’t have at least one big play on offense as well — just not a great day for a guy who seemed to really be coming into his own at a new position this year.
One more negative to note on the offense — if I told you the Irish would out-gain Clemson and average nearly 6 yards per carry, you’d assume ND won the game, even if in a slugfest/rock fight, right? Such a waste.
On the other side of the ball, Al Golden’s group did enough down the stretch to give the Irish a chance, but they did NOT play well for the entire game and gave up a really tough touchdown early in the 3rd quarter just when it felt like the Irish were building momentum and going to maybe even end up winning a game they didn’t really have any business winning. They lost contain on the edge too many times, had linebackers blocked completely out of plays, and even Cam Hart and Ben Morrison had some bad moments in coverage.
They allowed the Tigers’ backup running back Phil Mafah — by every objective measure a very good backup, but still a backup to the concussed Will Shipley — to run wild for 186 yards and 2 TDs on 5.2 YPC. Plus, they only managed to sack Cade Klubnik once. Clemson’s offensive line was missing guys and not even good this year at full strength, so that was a really disappointing performance overall by the ND defense, of whom we admittedly expect elite execution from at this point. They were not elite on Saturday.
Finally, special teams was not a great portion of the game for the Irish either. Not only did ND settle for field goals multiple times when they shouldn’t have, but Clemson punter Aidan Swanson looked like an All-American all day, dropping 5 of his 6 punts on the day inside the 20 yard line, with several pinning the Irish inside their own 5-yard-line. Swanson was so good that he inspired Clubnik to pin the Irish deep with a pooch punt of his own at one point, adding some insult to injury for the offense’s starting field position.
Finally, we need to quickly mention the penalties — ND had 5 for 40 yards, which somehow feels like way fewer than they were called for as the Irish had multiple nice plays called back due to penalties and also 1-2 pass interferences that helped extend Clemson drives. It also probably seems like a lot because the Tigers were flagged precisely 0 times on the day. I honestly don’t think the referees were uniquely bad in this game, nor are they even remotely close to the top reasons ND lost, but it also feels unlikely that Clemson didn’t commit a single penalty in 60 minutes of football (there were a few holds, etc. that appeared to go unseen/ignored), so that’s a tough pill to swallow.
Okay, with all the above said, there were a few small positives we can take away and try to focus on and retain some optimism for the remainder of the games on the schedule and the future of the talent in this program. Estime was awesome in the limited carries he got (87 yards, 5.1 YPC, 1 TD), especially with how he set a great tone early by single-handedly driving ND down the field. Unfortunately, the drive was squandered into being just a field goal, and Estime’s later carries were infrequent and ill-timed, setting him up for failure as the Irish also looked to throw less and less as they trailed by double digits for a lot of the second half.
Rico Flores Jr. and Jordan Faison each made 1-2 nice plays in the passing game, and although he had a bad day passing the ball, Sam Hartman did have a nice day scrambling, running for 68 yards on 7 carries and scoring a 38-yard touchdown with his feet.
Defensively, despite some iffy moments and a drive where the backup corners being in the entire time led to an easy TD, there were still some nice performances by individuals and the overall stats were still pretty strong. Golden’s group held Clemson to just 285 total yards, and you can’t blame them for 10 of the Tigers’ 31 points, considering 7 came from Jeremiah Trotter Jr.’s pick-six and 3 came after the ND defense forced a field goal following Tyree’s muffed punt. The defense also really put the clamps on Clemson in the final 20 minutes of game action, keeping ND in the game despite no help from the offense. Clemson’s drives following their TD to go up 31-16 with 8:08 left in the 3rd quarter:
- 5 plays, 34 yards — PUNT
- 3 plays, -14 yards — PUNT
- 5 plays, 16 yards — PUNT
- 3 plays, 2 yards — PUNT
- 5 plays, 13 yards — PUNT
- 2 plays, 10 yards — FUMBLE
- 4 plays, -2 yards — TURNOVER ON DOWNS (and end of game)
The defense wasn’t perfect, especially in the first half against a bad offense — but they still did plenty of good things. Jack Kiser was flying all around in leading the team in tackles with 9 on the day. Rylie Mills had a great game in the middle with 8 tackles, 1 TFL, and a recovery of the fumble Gabriel Rubio forced late to give ND one final chance. Javontae Jean-Baptiste had another really nice game (5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack), Howard Cross III added 7 tackles, and Benjamin Morrison had 3 passes defended on the day (including the broken-up-pass that led to a pick) to go along with 4 tackles and 1 TFL.
Oh, and Xavier Watts got himself YET ANOTHER interception, returning a Klubnik pick 33 yards to set up a score early in the second half to get the Irish back in it. He now has 7 on the season and still leads the country in that metric.
7️⃣.4️⃣.0️⃣— Oliver Hodgkinson (@ojhodgkinson) November 4, 2023
Xavier Watts 7th interception of the season as Notre Dame try to find their way back into this game
On special teams, Spencer Shrader hit all 3 of his field goal attempts, and Bryce McFerson had a not-bad, very active day, punting 6 times with an average of 50.2 yards per punt and a long of 56 despite constantly having to boot the ball from deep-ish in ND territory.
Alrighty you guys, despite the rough performance, we do believe this kind of time is as important as ever to recognize and celebrate our successes — even the small ones. So, it’s time to name our Team Members of the Week...
I don’t think our choices will come as a surprise to you all — congrats to Audric, Rylie, Javontae, Xavier, Jack, Benjamin, Gabriel, and Spencer for your accomplishments on Saturday. We truly appreciate all the great work you do for our company/family!!!
Be sure to look at your inboxes after this call, as you will each receive a special digital gift card to Arby’s to use at your leisure. Congrats again!
Okay folks, now let’s take a quick peek at our Project Timeline to understand where we are now and what we have on the horizon this week and beyond...
It’s Bye Week #2, AKA another excuse to sit at home and eat cheeseburgers!
Since we already covered cheeseburger insights plenty just a couple weeks back, we will instead skip that for this week and pick it up next week for Wake Forest/Senior Day. So, we can jump to our final slide of this week’s update — What’s Important Now as we enter this bye week with lots of angst and questions and disappointment/frustration.
The slide says it all, so we’ll just reiterate the points here for anyone who doesn’t want to or cannot open the attached deck at the time of reading this email:
1. Figure out a way to pull it together for the rest of the season. Wake Forest and Stanford are bad teams, but they could still cause some issues – especially the Cardinal, who’ve played a couple good teams close (Washington, Arizona) and have also beaten Colorado and Wazzu. Make sure you beat these last two opponents and give yourself a chance for double-digit wins with a mediocre bowl opponent.
2. Start reaching out to Offensive Coordinator candidates ASAP, and let Guidugli call plays for the remainder of the season. Kick the tires on top guys and find someone who’s a proven play-caller and leader of an offense who can pair with Golden in 2024 (assuming he sticks around for another year) to give the Irish two actually competent coordinators at the same time.
3. Do your best over the next couple months to retain Al Golden, and if you can’t then either promote Mike Mickens immediately or go find a proven stud DC in the same fashion as the OC search needs to be managed. No more crony hires, this ain’t a Brian Kelly program and shouldn’t be run like one. Mickens has proven himself capable as an exceptional CB coach, so he can be considered but needs to wow in the interview – can’t have a Parker promotion all over again.
4. It would be very reactive and probably dumb to bench Sam Hartman, so he should be allowed to finish the season strong against his former team and Stanford. But for the bowl game, heavily consider giving Angeli the start or at least some series – think Malik Zaire vs. LSU in the Music City Bowl. This is important whether or not you go get a transfer QB from the portal – the backup will need to be ready in 2024.
5. Change who gets targeted in the passing game and how you’re getting the ball to them. Jaden Greathouse has to be targeted more, while Jordan Faison and Rico Flores continue to be productive and deserve more touches. Actually utilize play-action and give these guys, along with Chris Tyree, some opportunities to make plays in space. The current play-calling is doing nothing for them, period.
6. Marcus needs to spend the week studying game management decision making best practices. Figure out how best to manage clock at the end of halves, when to kick field goals vs. when you need to take some chances, etc. He’s coaching scared and that simply cannot be his M.O. Get the basics figured out so 2024 is less about learning how to count players on the field and more about play-calling/scheme.
Okay folks, that’s it for this week — let us know if you have any questions...
And otherwise the deck for this week is attached, so please feel free to peruse that at your leisure and let us know if there’s anything you think we missed or should note as we proceed into this bye week.
Thanks and see you all next Monday for our regularly scheduled Project W.I.N. conference call!
Project W.I.N. Project Manager
One Foot Down