Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 4, 2023

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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24 NOV. 4, 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 1. Notre Dame Flips Halftime Switch Despite building a 17-0 lead, Notre Dame did not play its best football in the first half of its win over Pittsburgh. And Irish head coach Marcus Freeman knew it. Freeman said after the game that he did not feel like Notre Dame performed to its standard, particularly on offense, in the first half. The Irish moved the ball well, but 2 interceptions, an er- rant throw on fourth down and an offensive pass interference penalty that negated a touchdown prevented them from finishing drives. The second-year coach didn't hold back in his halftime speech. "I challenged every person in the locker room that we got to come out with a sense of urgency and on fire to perform the way we should," Free- man said. That's a credit to Freeman for not just accepting a three-score lead. He could have easily patted his players on the back and told them they did a great job — because, largely, they did — but he pushed them to be better. It's also a credit to the Irish for responding. Two of the three offensive drives in the third quarter ended in touchdowns, and the rout was on. Notre Dame, borrowing a Freeman-ism, played to its full potential in the second half. 2. Xavier Watts Barges Into All-America Conversation The ball always seems to find the best ballhawks. When your first instinct says, "He threw it right to him," the reality is often, "He put himself in a position to make the play." Senior safety Xavier Watts embodied that against Pitt, manning the center field spot so effectively. He now has 6 in- terceptions, which leads the nation, pending the remainder of Week 9 games. Watts earned a second-team midseason All- America shoutout from The Athletic after the USC game. I suspect he'll receive much more recogni- tion five weeks from now. It's not just the past two games (although they're a big part of it; he's play- ing out of his mind) and it's not just the intercep- tions. Watts has developed into an all-around stud. 3. Al Golden, Fighting Irish Defensive Front Hit On All Cylinders Again Good defensive coordinators know how to dial up pressure without sending more than five rush- ers, and Notre Dame's Al Golden is a good defen- sive coordinator. Two examples stand out, and No. 1 was the first play of the game. Golden had graduate defensive tackle Howard Cross III slant inside, drawing the right guard's at- tention to him. As a result, no one blocked gradu- ate student linebacker Marist Liufau, who blitzed and took down Pitt redshirt sophomore quarter- back Christian Veilleux. Second, in the third quarter, Golden called an overload blitz to the offense's left side and had se- nior vyper Jordan Botelho drop into coverage. Be- cause the Panthers' right tackle had to account for Botelho, the Irish outnumbered them on the blitz side. The pressure forced Veilleux into an inaccu- rate pass that sophomore cornerback Jaden Mickey caught and easily returned for a touchdown. That being said, the players deserve a ton of props, too. They consistently won their battles and were relentless in their pursuit of Veilleux. 4. Notre Dame Passing Game Is Best When Sam Hartman Spreads Ball Around Eight different players caught 2 or more passes for the Irish and four others caught 1 pass apiece. The result was 11.5 yards per attempt for graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman. For reference, Pitt allowed 7.7 yards per passing attempt enter- ing the game. Notre Dame got back to what worked for its passing game early this season: spreading the ball around with an effective quick game, play action and the occasional deep shot. Clemson — the No. 7 pass efficiency defense in college football — will be a much tougher test, but Hartman and offensive coordinator Gerad Parker should remember what they did well against a solid Panthers secondary. 5. A Win Next Week Would Be Huge For Marcus Freeman's Program Yes, Notre Dame should beat Clemson. Even though the game is in Death Valley, the Tigers proved — if they hadn't already — that they are not a good team this year by losing 24-17 to North Carolina State Oct. 28 and falling to 4-4. But it's still a road game. The Irish were a fourth- and-16 away from losing their last two away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium. It's still Clemson. And winning it would essentially seal a 10-win regular season, given the lackluster opponents (versus Wake Forest and at Stanford) in Notre Dame's final two games. A win over the Tigers would all but lock in a suc- cessful season and positive momentum entering 2024. A loss would eliminate it. That's what's on the line next week for Freeman and the Irish when they travel to Clemson, S.C. FIVE THOUGHTS BY JACK SOBLE Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman threw for 288 yards and averaged a healthy 11.5 yards per attempt against Pitt. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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