Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 25, 2023

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

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6 NOV. 25, 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED UNDER THE DOME BY TYLER HORKA A t halftime of Notre Dame's 31-23 loss to Clemson, the Fighting Irish had run the ball 12 times on first down. Quarterback Sam Hartman had at- tempted just one pass. The attempt, intended for freshman wide receiver Jaden Greathouse, sailed incomplete. It was as if once that ball hit the well-manicured grass in South Carolina with nearly seven minutes left to play in the first half, any idea of Notre Dame offensive coordinator Gerad Parker calling more passing plays on first down stayed in the dirt along with it. That was, until the fourth quarter when Notre Dame was down by just eight points but still elected to go pass happy. Irish passing plays on first down d o u b l e d r u n n i n g plays, four to two, in the final frame. Rather than em- ploy a mixture of run-pass first-down looks throughout the game, Notre Dame went almost exclusively with the run early and nearly all pass late — a chronology of calls that played right into Clemson's upset-minded hands. The Tigers often knew what was coming no matter the cir- cumstances, no matter the time of game, no matter Notre Dame's field position. "They did a good job of changing what they were doing against our base run plays," Notre Dame head coach Mar- cus Freeman said. "We've got to block it better. We've got to make sure that we have the answers when they're doing some twist stunts or they're bringing an extra man in the box that, if we're going to run that play, then we have to be ef- ficient and block it and execute it. "It's a good defense that adjusted re- ally well to some of our run schemes." The adjustment was a latching onto of predictability. Clemson won a game in which the Ti- gers' offense only averaged 4.1 yards per play. Notre Dame averaged 5.4, which ranked 84th nationally as a season-long average through Week 11. It was the exact mark held by Mississippi State, a pro- gram that fired its head coach Nov. 13. Obscure stat, but that's the kind of company Notre Dame has found itself sharing in 2023. The Irish offense has been inconsistent to a fault, a trend Freeman cannot let linger into 2024. But it's also a trend he openly admitted to not having a cure-all answer for. Parker hasn't had one either. "I think if it was just one play call or something like that, I'm sure he would do it," Freeman said. "It's just how do we continue to have a game plan that we feel can be effective and make those small ad- justments? The answer isn't always plays." Against Clemson, the answer clearly was not running plays. Seven of the aforementioned 12 first-down rushing attempts in the first half against the Ti- gers went for 3 yards or fewer, including four in a row and five of six to take the game into halftime. Yes, junior tailback Audric Estimé had runs of 25 and 21 yards on first down against Clemson. But he was also bottled up more times than not. And you only need a peace sign to count how many times Notre Dame faked the run and went to the air. Two. It ran all of two play-action passes over the course of the entire game. Freeman and Parker's pushback on that number was concerning. Freeman said it isn't as simple as choosing the PA play on a videogame like Madden. Parker said he got in touch with the Notre Dame sports information director to make sure reporters understood that Clemson played a lot of man coverage. He insisted play action isn't as effective against man defense. "If we could guarantee running play-ac- tion passes were going to get us first downs and yardage, we would do it," Freeman said. "That's what we have to understand … if there was a quick fix, an easy answer — just do this and you're going to win and get first downs — we would do it." Coaches remain adamant that feeble outputs have had more to do with execu- tion errors than the system and scheme. Players have certainly contributed to problems, but coaches should not be free of liability. A run-pass ratio of 12 to 1 over the course of an entire half of high-level football is not a recipe for success. Remember when Notre Dame almost beat Ohio State, one of the two or three best teams in the country? The Irish ran the ball four times and threw the ball four times on first down in the first quar- ter. That included back-to-back pass- ing gains of 12 yards and a gain of 10 on the ground immediately thereafter. Notre Dame had 105 first-quarter yards. Ohio State had 41. The Irish didn't trail through 15 minutes like they did against the Tigers, and they'd have been winning if not for a costly turnover on downs. It's balance that the Notre Dame of- fense is seeking. It's proven to work. That balance, which clearly has been lost, needs to be found and imple- mented. The future depends on it. ✦ UNDER THE DOME STUMBLING ALONG Notre Dame showed versus Clemson how far away its offense is from figuring it all out Marcus Freeman has learned the difficulties of dealing with both sides of the ball as a collegiate head coach. PHOTO BY LARRY BLANKENSHIP

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