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Reflecting on a Whirlwind Regular Season for Notre Dame Football

Or: what happened?

Photo by Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Was it the week-zero start that had the schedule reach its halfway point in September, or the fact that the Irish had only four games left to play on October 15th? Was it the roller-coaster emotional ride of the season and several games within it? Was it, perhaps, simply a product of this season coinciding with my 30th birthday and thus the realization that I am, while not old, certainly across that nebulous Rubicon separating “young adulthood” from regular, no-qualifiers adulthood and thus experiencing the faster passage of time that is an inevitable product of aging itself?

Whatever it was, the 2023 Notre Dame football season seemed to go by even faster than normal, ripping through the fall like a tornado. The season opener in Dublin simultaneously feels like years ago, and like yesterday. Sitting amid the debris of dashed expectations and roster/coaching staff uncertainty, Irish fans are left to ask: what happened?

The Sam Hartman Hero’s Journey

The hype heading into 2023 for Irish fans centered around Sam Hartman. More than any individual player since Manti Te’o, Hartman was set up as the protagonist of this football season. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to examine the story of the season from that lens.

Coming on the heels of a 2022 season in which most Notre Dame fans (including yours truly) felt the team was a quarterback away from greatness, Sam Hartman’s transferring to Notre Dame felt like a dream come true. Given his long tenure at Wake Forest, Hartman was likely the most statistically accomplished quarterback you will ever see in the transfer portal. He felt like a sure thing who would be empowered by Notre Dame’s potent rushing attack and in turn empower a young-but-talented receiving corps to build a dominant offensive machine. If we’re using the Hero’s Journey framework from Hartman’s perspective, this was his call to adventure, his invitation on the path to glory.

And for the first few weeks of the season, that path rose to meet him. A dazzling debut in Dublin was followed up by three more weeks of excellence - albeit against hapless-to-okay competition - in which Hartman and the Irish offense appeared to be everything that was promised. A powerful running game led by Audric Estime set the table for Hartman to distribute the ball to a wide range of targets, and it looked like the Irish had built a playmaking stable that would allow them to win nearly any way they needed to.

Then the Ohio State Buckeyes came to town. Failure is inevitably part of the hero’s journey, and while Hartman was not the primary reason the Irish lost that titanic clash it certainly qualifies as the first test that highlighted some of his flaws.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 23 Ohio State at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Unfortunately - in large part because he was not in actuality a lone hero but rather one member of an 11-man offense led by a large coaching staff - this is where Hartman’s journey derails from the Campbell/Vogler template, as he was not able to transcend that defeat and emerge stronger for it. This was not primarily Hartman’s fault, although the flaws in his game from poor reads to struggling getting the ball over taller defenders persisted. Mostly, however, the Buckeyes exposed shortcomings in the Irish offense as a whole that its players and coaching staff were, collectively, unable or unwilling to fix.

As a result, what could have been a stepping-stone loss that saw the Irish grow stronger and continue toward their goals ended up as the beginning of a tumultuous and yet ultimately stagnant middle stretch of the season. This stretch still saw moments of heroism from Hartman - most notably his gutsy 4th-and-16 scramble to thwart an upset bid by the Duke Blue Devils, and also endearing moments of emotional leadership in the defense-led slaughter of the USC Trojans - but also saw him continue to struggle with the same demons that arrived on September 23 and even earlier in his career. His past nemeses the Louisville Cardinals and Clemson Tigers again proved insurmountable and brought out the worst aspects of his game.

Hartman closed the season with two victories, including a personally significant one over his former team, but both felt small in the shadow of those earlier failures. Rather than the closure and satisfaction of the classic Hero’s Journey, Hartman’s ended with a note of melancholy - with the laments for what might have been louder than celebrations of what was.

What Was Real, and What Wasn’t

Now that we’ve gotten that pretentious artsy nonsense out of the way, let’s dive into the why - specifically, why was Notre Dame not simply a Sam Hartman away from being a championship team, and why did the explosive offense we saw in the first four weeks fizzle out, thoroughly and without remedy? Of what we saw in that dominant early part in the season, what was real and what wasn’t?

Anything related to the Irish defense can be included in the “for real” category, as apart from a nagging issue with missed tackles the Irish were dominant on defense and consistently so, putting forth a championship-worthy effort. The secondary in particular was outstanding against some really solid passing offenses, as Xavier Watts emerged as a game-changer to supplement the lockdown corner play of Cam Hart and Ben Morrison. Notre Dame’s veteran linebackers did not shrink from any challenge, and its defensive line stayed stout up the middle and dangerous off the edge throughout the season. Collectively, the defense delivered the best win of the season when they powered a 48-20 drubbing of USC.

The offense is where we can start to weed out the real and unreal from Notre Dame’s promising start, and even there we must draw distinctions. Certainly Audric Estime was no flash in the pan, and the Irish backs in general performed at a high level. Its offensive line was usually able to get pushes in the running game. It was in the passing game where the Irish were revealed to be far behind where we thought at Week 3. How did this happen?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Notre Dame at Duke Photo by Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The essential backdrop here is the hiring of Gerad Parker as offensive coordinator, the most consequential hire of Marcus Freeman’s tenure and the biggest question mark for the Irish entering the season. Parker’s schemes and play-calling have endured enough abuse here and elsewhere that I do not need to recite it all again, but is a crucial part of the explanation for how the Irish offense went so wrong.

With that being said, Parker cannot be held solely responsible here as the Irish did not suffer solely from his playcalling, or struggle evenly across the board. After the Dublin debut, I remarked here that I had never seen an Irish team with this level of depth and preparedness at skill positions, but later games revealed me to be only half right. Because while Notre Dame’s running backs continued to excel, its receivers shrank from the extended challenge the season posed. A number of Irish receivers racked up crooked numbers in early-season action, but those numbers froze in amber as the wideouts disappeared from Notre Dame’s offensive output. Injuries to Jaden Greathouse, Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas explain some of this; revelations about Chansi Stuckey’s coaching style subsequent to his firing explain still more, as we saw Irish receivers with obvious potential regress or stagnate over the course of the season.

A more surprising area of failure for the Irish was in pass blocking. Although the Irish were solid overall in pass protection, they had a tendency to surrender crushing sacks against more athletic defensive lines and creative schemes. Against Louisville (5 sacks), NC State (4) and Clemson (2, with frequent pressure throughout), the Irish offensive line showed it could be be blown off the ball up the middle or beaten around the edge with speed. It is worth noting that in some of the toughest of these games, such as Duke and Louisville, the offensive line was ineffective in the run game as well.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Notre Dame at Louisville Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

These two sets of issues contributed to an acute and extremely impactful weakness on third down, where pressures and/or the inability of receivers to get open often forced sacks or incompletions by Hartman and even moved the Irish to frequently run the ball on third and long, leading to a woeful conversion rate and countless stalled drives. The Irish were also ineffective running the ball on 3rd- and 4th-and-short, again contributing to numerous drives being cut short.

This brings us at last to Hartman himself - while I have the utmost respect for him and am very glad he was Notre Dame’s quarterback this year, he was not the savior we hoped for or even the prolific producer we saw in the first few weeks of the season. While he continued to make good plays throughout the season, his struggles reading defenses and working through progressions against more complex fronts were documented, and his clean play in the first few weeks of the year gave way to a rash of puzzling interceptions that were a primary cause of Notre Dame’s last two losses.

This is an area where I think Notre Dame fans have to come to grips with the fact that we - and I do say we, because I was guilty of this as well - put too much hope on Hartman’s shoulders, taking a solid and helpful quarterback transfer who could play quite well given the right supporting cast on the field and in the booth and expecting him to be a transcendent, game-changing player on the order of Trevor Lawrence. He was not that player and probably was never going to be, and pinning our hopes on him becoming that player was likely where we went wrong.

The Uncertain Aftermath

Some of the turnover necessary to turn around these offensive failures has already taken place, though the waiting may have cost the Irish a significant portion of its receiver room; some of it (Gerad Parker) we will likely not see. The Irish now face a tall task in replacing players who did not develop in 2023 as well as those who excelled, with key vacancies opening at the tackle positions, running back and possibly tight end.

One of the things that made this season so disappointing was how many veterans Notre Dame had on both sides of the ball; accordingly, turnover is affecting the defense as well. The Irish will likely have to replace two if not all three of their linebackers, an edge rusher, an experienced nickel defender, a lockdown corner and possibly also the nation’s leader in interceptions.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 14 USC at Notre Dame Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On both sides of the ball the Irish will have to restock their roster in ways that feel unconventional and uneasy to Irish fans, hitting the transfer portal hard and processing a level of roster churn that was unthinkable in years past. This uncertainty adds to the feeling of tumult and disappointment coming out of the season, as the fervent belief of the early season quickly gave way to the realization that nothing in this new world of college football lasts for long, let alone forever.

What Was the 2023 Season?

It was an emotional hurricane, a massive missed opportunity and yet also not without its great bright spots and important wins. The win over USC in particular was a massive one for Marcus Freeman in his second year, even if the Trojans did self-immolate immediately after - the Irish can claim credit for that as well. It was a season where it felt like the Irish were simultaneously close to being elite and incredibly far from it, where some parts of the team were at the top of their game and others almost laughably behind. It was a season that yielded a record I would have been perfectly happy with several years ago, that also contained some of the unhappiest moments I can recall as a Notre Dame fan. Now, there is only one direction left to go: onward.

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