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Notre Dame Football: W.I.N. (What’s Important Now) — Tennessee State Tigers Week

Not too shabby of a start, y’all — now let’s get ready for that FIRST EVER FCS OPPONENT

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*groggily lifts head up and realize I slept through all my alarms while recovering from all the Hamm’s I drank in rural Indiana on Saturday*

Ohhhhh man, my call starts in about 8 minutes. Better quickly make some coffee and conveniently leave my camera off and claim it’s because my WiFi is being spotty.

Woof, day drinking is still fun but it just doesn’t leave me feeling like I used to even just a few years ago...hitting your 30s is TOUGH.

Alright, pull yourself together and let’s speed through this call so you can spend the rest of the morning rewatching the highlights from last weekend and generally zoning out and avoiding using my brain until after lunch!

*clicks “Join Call” button*

Good morning everybody! How’s everyone doing today — did you all have a good weekend?

Jeff, how was your trip last week? We missed you while you were out, glad to have you back!

Okay, do we have everyone we need? Hmm, looks like Cheryl and Austin and Donovan are all on. Does anyone know if Sam is joining?

Oh, speak of the devil, hey there Sam! Okay, so I think we have a quorum if we wanna go ahead and dive into it — plenty to cover after our first official week on the project...

Can you all see my screen?

Perfect, let’s do this. Per usual, here’s the agenda for today:

Same basic topics and portions of material as always, so I think we can keep moving — I can probably flip through these next two refresher slides as well, considering just about everyone saw these last week. Please let me know, though, if you have any questions and I’m happy to take it off-line!

Okay... *hums to self as I click through the next couple slides*

Ooookay, so now let’s just walk through a quick synopsis of Last Week’s Results, taking a look at both the positives and the negatives from a fun and satisfying opening weekend of Project W.I.N. There were definitely more positives than negatives, which is always nice to see.

Let’s actually start with the negatives, since there are only a handful to cover and we can get those out of the way so we can sink our teeth into the good stuff afterward and really savor it.

First, we had a couple fumbles on the day from Audric Estime and Chris Tyree, and Estime especially needs to get that cleaned up as we get into the heart of the season and stronger competition. He’s had some history of fumbling in his time at ND and although the Irish recovered both of these fumbles and it didn’t impact the game because of how overmatched Navy was, there will be opponents later in the year where a fumble from these key guys could be devastating or back-breaking, especially against the likes of Ohio State, USC, and Clemson.

Tobias Merriweather was one of the only wide receivers to not show some flashes, as he went reception-less on the day and really wasn’t even targeted as Hartman spread the ball around to everyone else. The other receivers stepping up was nice and makes this seem less urgent, but considering Merriweather’s mix of size, speed, length, and athleticism, it would really be nice if he could get more involved as the season goes on.

Similarly, it’s not really a bad thing that the Irish didn’t need a single reception from tight ends to win 42-3 against any opponent, but I still would have liked to have seen some flashes from Holden Staes or any other tight ends just to get an idea of where they’re at. Hopefully they’ll be way more involved as the season progresses.

Defensively, it was a pretty dominant display by Al Golden’s group, but if we want to nitpick a bit, we can look at Navy going 3-for-4 on 4th down conversions and the fact the Irish didn’t force any turnovers as areas of improvement. Yeah, it’s hard to force turnovers when the opponent only throws 7 passes, and obviously those 4th down conversions didn’t lead to anything negative for the Irish, but those are two areas where better performances will be important against better competition.

Finally, it’s one kick so it’s nothing to panic about, but Spencer Shrader starting his ND career with a missed field goal isn’t ideal, so hopefully over the next few weeks he’s able to get some more chances and build some confidence, in case they need him against Ohio State, etc.

Okay, that’s really all I had for negatives, which is understandable, I think, with how dominant ND was in this one.

So, let’s turn to the positives and just bathe in the awesome season opening victory for a bit, really soak it up.

Sam Hartman’s debut in an Irish uniform was nearly perfect — of course it was against Navy and so it’s smart to not get too excited about crushing a team with such a talent and size disadvantage, but Navy coach Brian Newberry’s specialty is defense and his defense was pretty solid in 2022. This year’s version lost a couple key guys but many thought could still be pretty solid, and Hartman’s offense sliced through them like a hot knife through butter.

Hartman’s stat line was 19-for-23 for 251 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions, with one of those incompletions being an occasion when he clocked the ball, and another 1-2 of them were drops by receivers. Although the opponent talent level was a bit different, Hartman’s performance had shades of Malik Zaire’s 2015 season opener, when he just absolutely carved up the Texas Longhorns.*

*Pat Rick Note: Knocking on all the wood in my apartment that the similarities between Sam Hartman in 2023 and Malik Zaire in 2015 end right there with their first games.

Hartman was decisive, comfortable, patient, and accurate, and it was just so damn refreshing to watch an offense run by such a competent and talented quarterback. No matter how some of the bigger games go this year, that alone is enough to make me VERY excited to watch these guys this season.

Speaking of the offense looking so strong and making things look so easy, shout-out to Gerad Parker for a near-perfect first game as offensive coordinator. Yeah, yeah, Navy isn’t exactly Georgia, but we’ve seen so many Irish offenses over the years be befuddled by Midshipmen defenses for stretches of games or even entire games, so it was refreshing to see the unknown and unproven coach do a great job, including ND scoring a touchdown on every one of their first 5 possessions, and our boy Steve Angeli getting a small amount of playing time and being PERFECT passing the ball, going 1-for-1 for 2 yards on the day.

That great job was obviously headlined by Hartman’s performance through the air, but the ground game is still what really set the tone for the Irish, and the offensive line looked as dominant as they should against a small defensive front. ND ran for 191 yards at a 6 yards-per-carry clip while picking up 2 rushing touchdowns. Audric Estime had a great first game (besides the fumble), running for 95 yards and a score on 5.9 YPC, and we saw nice little flashes from Jadarian Price (25 yards and a touchdown on 6.3 YPC), Jeremiyah Love (40 yards on 10 YPC), and Gi’Bran Payne (31 yards on 5.2 YPC). Having 4 different running backs averaging at least 5 yards per rushing attempt is pretty darn encouraging, y’all.

The offensive line didn’t just do a great job paving the way for Estime and co., though, as they also kept Hartman from being sacked even once (barely allowing him to be pressured most of the game), which is a nice improvement over the 5 sacks they allowed against Navy in 2022.

That strong pass protection gave Hartman the time he needed to find a bevy of wideouts who made some plays, with WR1 Jayden Thomas snagging 4 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown and showing how solid and consistent he’s going to be all season in leading that group.

True freshman Jaden Greathouse was awesome as well, catching 3 passes for 68 yards and 2 scores in his first ever game in a gold helmet — he looks every bit the part of what we’d been hearing about him during camp and what we saw in the Blue-Gold Game last spring, so that’s super encouraging to see him already showing the ability to step up and deliver, especially considering guys like Merriweather haven’t yet.

Chris Tyree looked pretty solid in the slot with 3 catches for 36 yards, and then the biggest surprise in the wide receiver group was almost certainly Deion Colzie showing something with 3 catches for 45 yards, including a screen pass he turned into a 25-yard touchdown. Reports from camp were largely that he was disappointing and failing to step up and seize a role in the rotation, but you couldn’t tell based on his play on Saturday. Hopefully he continues to provide that as the year goes on, as Hartman could use that kind of big, reliable target at wideout — especially to help move the chains.

Defensively, it wasn’t a flashy game in terms of forcing tons of turnovers or anything, but Al Golden’s group was super disciplined and successful against the Midshipmen, holding them to 171 total yards, including just 128 yards rushing on 2.7 yards per carry. The Irish defense had pitched a shutout until Brian Newberry made the call to run the Dino Babers Special to get a late field goal, so that was nice to see.

Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau led the team in tackles while playing solid games from the linebacker position, and ND held Navy to just 4-for-14 on 3rd down conversions. Furthermore, Joshua Burnham and Rylie Mills both managed to pick up sacks on the rare occasions when Navy dropped back to pass, and Javonte Jean-Baptiste, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and Cam Hart all added a tackle-for-loss each.

Finally, special teams positives included Chris Tyree getting an 11-yard punt return and the Irish never having to punt the entire game.

So, all in all, it was a pretty darn complete and impressive start for this team — the vibes are GOOD right now.

Okay, let’s keep moving because we still have plenty to cover and I know a number of us have a hard stop at 10 AM. Let’s take a look at a few key charts and graphs related to the team’s performance thus far.

This one is pretty straightforward, but I just wanted to point out how awesome it is that Jaden Greathouse is currently scoring a touchdown on 66.67% of his receptions, which currently leads the country for anyone with more than one catch on the season (there were a few guys with one catch for one touchdown, but I don’t think they deserve to take this top spot from Greathouse and NMSU legend Trent Hudson).

Not sure you could ask for a better start for a freshman wideout we were all already expecting way too much from — it’s a great sign for things to come. Oh also, just for fun — Greathouse’s current TDs to Snaps Played ratio is 1:4, which is also crazy. He’s scoring a touchdown every 4th play he’s in on!!!

This second graph is fun to see — last week we discussed how Hartman’s career accomplishments were already as good or better than most ND QBs of the last 20+ years. Now, just one game into his Irish tenure, Sammy H has already plopped himself into a Top 12 of all-time Irish quarterback single-game performances with his completion percentage of 82.6%. Also, remember that a couple of his incompletions weren’t even his fault, so he could have landed somewhere in the top 2 or 3 in this list otherwise.

Also, I want to give a massive shout-out to Drew Pyne, especially considering things aren’t going super his way at Arizona State — last week revealed that Drew Pyne had the best TDs-per-attempt rate of any ND QB since 2000, and this week we are reminded that he has the 2nd-best single-game completion percentage of all-time for Notre Dame football with his wildly good 23-for-26 game vs. USC last year. Heck yeah, Drew...and Godspeed.

Finally, I will submit this chart without comment, as I think we can all just revel in it and enjoy the similarities and also how funny it is that one of these two opponents that only managed a 4th quarter field goal was ranked 12th in the country at the time. Whoops!!!

Alrighty friends, now let’s move on and celebrate the Team Members of the Week, who really put forth some excellent accomplishments on Saturday.

I want to give a massive congratulations to Sam, Audric, JD, Gi’Bran, Jeremiyah, Jaden and Jayden, Deion, Joe, Pat, Zeke, Rocco, Blake, and then the entire defense — Joshua, Rylie, Javontae, Jack, Howard, Marist, Nana, Cam, etc. — for their excellent accomplishments! Please check your inboxes after the call for your complimentary Chipotle e-gift card, which should be good for one free burrito or burrito bowl.*

*Pat Rick Note: when purchased with another burrito or burrito bowl at full price

One final slide to cover before we close up shop on discussing this week — I’m going to bring back Pat Rick’s “Live Journal” to show my unfiltered thoughts, without context, as I followed along with the action. Here’s that:

For some context, I made plans to go out to the country to spend a day hanging by the pool amidst a bunch of corn fields, drinking Hamm’s and enjoying the company of friends with whom I annually get together with at something we call “Tent City.” The original idea was for us to go drink in the country, hang by the pool, and sleep in tents — I don’t think I’ve ever slept outside at this event, but it’s the name we assigned it and it’s now what we will forever affectionately call it.

I didn’t realize when I agreed to do Tent City on 8/26 this year that it was the same day as ND’s Week 0 game vs. Navy, so I didn’t really get to watch much of the game live — I was checking the score occasionally, but otherwise #LivingInTheMoment with my friends. So, sorry about the lack of interesting insight in this one!!!!

Alright, now let’s turn the page to this week’s competition. As a reminder, here’s the project timeline to show where we are and the results thus far...

So, we’re now at the Tennessee State Tigers matchup, with the Irish taking on their first-ever FCS opponent by hosting the HBCU coached by a familiar name/face for any football fan...

I’ll let you guys peruse this slide in detail offline, but just a few things I’d like to note:

  • A motto of “Think. Work. Serve” is fine enough, but very boring. I miss the Navy’s seapower-themed one
  • Tennessee State now plays in the Titans’ Nissan Stadium, but before that they played in Hale Stadium, which had a capacity of 10,000 and would be a cool place for ND to visit and play. Similar to with Navy, I have always wished the Irish would occasionally play small opponents in their little venues for a unique, wild game experience. I get why they don’t, but I wish they did.
  • The Tigers’ mascot being named Aristocat is a nice touch, love that for them
  • I learned some fun facts about Eddie George’s personal life and post-football-playing life while researching here:

- he owns a restaurant in Columbus called Eddie George Bar and Grille 27

- he is married to Tamara “Taj” Johnson, a singer/rapper/actress/author who is best known for being a part of the group SWV (Sisters with Voices) and for being a contestant on the 18th season of Survivor

- he earned an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management

- in 2015 he guest starred on an IFC episode of Comedy Bang! Bang! titled “Eddie George Wears a Navy Suit and Half-Zip Pullover”

- in 2016 he appeared on Broadway in the musical Chicago as the hustling lawyer Billy Flynn

  • They have some awesome famous alumni, including Oprah Winfrey, a bunch of Olympians, a trio of great nickname guys in Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Joe “Turkey” Jones, and Leonard “Truck” Robinson, a guy named U.L. “Rip” Gooch who sounds like an aviation LEGEND, and of course we can’t forget to mention Young Buck, star rapper and member of G-Unit

Okay, now that we’ve got that strong base of really understanding Tennessee State as an institution and as a program at a high level, let’s get to the nitty-gritty details we really care about — names!!!

I won’t read all these off to you, but we got a guy named Karate, a Boogie and a Mecca, the perfect superhero alter-ego in Abraham Alabi, a fancy-ass name in Fondren Hollis III, a really fun name in Lathun Snipes, and of course the perfect offensive lineman name in Denzel Holder, among plenty of other gems here.

Shout-out to Eddie George and his staff for really assembling a strong roster of names, especially a top 10-15 that can compete with just about anybody across the country.

Okey dokey, now let’s get to the less important information — the key competitive insights to know about this Tennessee State team the Irish will be squaring off against in the home opener this weekend.

It’s a little more difficult to find great info on an FCS team whose season hasn’t started yet, but one of the first things I did in looking at this team was see how they performed in 2022, who their key contributors were then, and who will still be there this season.

The short answer to how they did in 2022 was: not so great. The Tigers went 4-7 in Eddie George’s second season as head coach, going 2-3 in Ohio Valley Conference play and finishing somewhere from 75th-85th nationally in the FCS, depending on what rankings/ratings you want to look at. They averaged just over 18 points per game offensively while giving up almost 25 points per game to their opponents, which is obviously not a great combo if you want to find success on the field.

They do return some solid production on both offense and defense, but also will have lost a lot of key guys, especially at receiver and in the front seven on defense. They bring back their starting QB in Draylen Ellis, though, and he will look to keep improving on his 1,806 yards, 55% completion, 6.5 YPA, 8 TDs, and 6 INTs from the year prior. He’s also certainly hoping for a bit better protection, as he was sacked 35 times in 2022, constantly running for his life out there. The Irish will likely have plenty of opportunity to get to him this weekend considering their talent advantage, but hopefully Ellis will be able to enjoy a more peaceful season in the pocket after this weekend. He was named to the conference’s preseason watch list.

The Tigers also bring back their top rusher from 2022 in Jalen Rouse (613 yds, 2 TDs, 4.8 YPC; 12 rec, 158 yds, 1 TD), and although 3 of their top 5 WRs from 2022 have also moved on, they do bring back WRs Karate Brenson (25 rec, 329 yds, 1 TD) and Da’Shon Davis (19 rec, 210 yds) as solid options for Ellis to throw to.

Defensively, the key guys coming back include some solid secondary talent like S Josh Green (56 tackles, 3 PD, 3 INT) and CBs Bryce Phillips (35 tackles, 10 PD) and Boogie Trotter (29 tackles 3 PD, 1 FR), and they hope to get a step up in production from DBs like Jalen McClendon (23 tackles, 1 PD), Jashon Watkins (21 tackles, 3 PD, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR), Fondren Hollis III (17 tackles, 6 PD), and Darius Harper (17 tackles, 1 PD, 2 INT, 1 INT TD, 1 FR).

Up front, the names to know are defensive linemen Terrell Allen (36 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 PD) and Chris Walker (22 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF), as they lost a few key guys from 2022 in Terray Jones (37 tackles, 4 sacks), Tadarrius Patterson (35 tackles, 3.5 sacks), and Davoan Hawkins (31 tackles, 1 sack, 2 FR).

Meanwhile, Tennessee State lost a lot at linebacker with Jahsun Bryant (80 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FF), Michael Crawford (40 tackles, 1 PD), and Terry Straughter (27 tackles) moving on — but look for Ohio State transfer K’Vaughan Pope (62 tackles, 4 PD, 1 FF) to be the key guy there, and for James Green to potentially emerge as well. Both were named to the league’s preseason watch list.

For 2023, the Ohio Valley Conference that Tennessee State is a member of has merged with the Big South conference (Gardner-Webb, Bryant, Charleston Southern, and Robert Morris), and the Tigers were picked to finish 5th out of the now 10 teams involved in the preseason poll.

Okay folks, with all that said, and with our time coming to a close on this call very shortly, What’s Important Now for this Irish team as they head into this Tennessee State game?

I’m keeping it pretty simple and pretty similar to last week, considering it’s yet another opponent the Irish have a massive advantage over and should be able to beat easily. Bill Connelly projects ND will win by more than 50 points this weekend, for crying out loud:

So, let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing...

1. Set the tone up front again with the ground game — the Irish have a massive physical advantage and should be able to ride the offensive line and this awesome group of running backs to a big lead in the first half.

2. Continue to also let Hartman build in-game rapport with his receivers when it makes sense. Yeah, he doesn’t need to do anything crazy and they should certainly just let the running game do the heavy lifting, but Hartman continuing to build in-game rapport with guys like Greathouse and Thomas and Colzie is going to pay dividends in more competitive games, so it’s good to get the reps in now.

3. Get some more guys involved more (Tyree, Merriweather, Staes, Flores, Love, etc.). This one is straightforward — get some more of the skill players more touches and more opportunities to get their feet wet with some plays (especially Merriweather, Staes, Flores, and Love) so that when they’re called upon in bigger games, they’ll be a bit more ready.

4. Force some turnovers now that it’s not a triple option team. This defense played a masterful game against the triple option last week, and now it’s time to have some fun against an overmatched normal offense that should leave plenty of room for sack-fumbles, tipped passes, easy picks, etc. Have a field day and break the turnover seal this week.

5. Step on their throats early to enable more PT for the reserves, including Angeli. I don’t think that will be an issue here, but just don’t toy around with Tennessee State or let it stay within 3-4 touchdowns later into the game. Put them away in the first half, get the starters off the field, and give the backups some substantial PT.

6. Stay healthy for the first real test, NC State. This and Navy are great tune-up games, but the most important thing is getting out of there without any significant injuries or losses before the Irish even hit the meat of the schedule. Play a clean game, win it handily, and get ready for the Wolfpack.

Alrighty y’all, that’s it for this week. Does anyone have any questions or comments before we sign off?

*silence and blank stares*

Fantastic! As usual, I will send out the link to the deck after we hang up here — please review the deck in more detail and let me know if any additional questions or concerns pop up!

Thanks guys, have a great rest of the week, and GO IRISH, BEAT TIGERS!

*Clicks “End Call”*

Okay I need to either chug a coffee and a Powerade or just go back to bed — either way, I need some help to make it through today, let alone this next week. Happy Monday to me!!!