Is Notre Dame blitzing too much? Is the OL ahead of schedule? Fighting Irish mailbag


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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Welcome to the week before The Week.

With Ohio State over the horizon but Central Michigan in the near view, Notre Dame’s season has some ground to cover before the sport’s spotlight takes a break from Boulder and heads to South Bend. Is there anything the Irish can do on Saturday to increase their chances against the Buckeyes? You’ve got questions about that. And how has the season already taken an unexpected turn, even if the record was predictable? You’ve got questions about that too.

Let’s get started.

What ended up being different about NC State than you thought? You (and other media) were a bit worried going into this one. Notre Dame struggled early, but then after the rain delay the result was never in doubt. 

Postgame on The Independent you dismissed NC State as “the Purdue of the ACC.” That’s not how you felt at 11:59 a.m. before kickoff. So … is this Notre Dame team actually that good, or was there something really lacking from NC State that you thought they had? Bonus points for not saying “a little bit of both.” — Ross S. 

The biggest misread of the game (for me) was Brennan Armstrong the passer, although his receiver play had something to do with that whiff. I was expecting to see something closer to Armstrong at Virginia under Robert Anae, and he wasn’t even close to the all-field thrower he used to be.

Notre Dame’s game plan against Armstrong was outstanding, particularly against the scramble/screen game. Armstrong was 7-of-7 for 63 yards on screens against UConn and just 2-of-6 for 3 yards against Notre Dame, per Pro Football Focus. Those backs will have nightmares of Marist Liufau crashing the line for weeks. Al Golden’s plan to stop Armstrong the runner put defensive linemen and linebackers in the same spaces NC State wanted to go with screens. Credit Notre Dame’s front seven for blunting NC State’s biggest threat.

I don’t know if this was a misread as much as healthy skepticism, but I also wanted to see Marcus Freeman deliver in a road spot against a Power 5 opponent. It’s not like the Marshall and Stanford games were five years ago. He checked that box. It’s going to be a minute before I’m as confident in Freeman’s version of Notre Dame beating mid-level teams with the consistency of Brian Kelly. But if he gets Duke, Louisville, Pitt and Wake Forest … then he’s on his way.

Before the season, I thought Notre Dame would fall between 9-3 or 10-2. After Navy, I moved toward 10-2 because of Sam Hartman. After last weekend, the idea of Notre Dame going 10-2 feels more probable than aspirational.

At this point, you could argue Notre Dame has a better quarterback than Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and LSU. Do you think it’s a fluke or a sign of things to come with NIL and the portal preventing those teams from hoarding generational talent year after year? — Brendan B.

More fluke than trend. But only sort of. Hear me out.

Because of the transfer portal, those programs will be more aggressive in accumulating quarterbacks, not less. In other words, if you can lose a quarterback at any moment for any reason, you’d better figure out how to add an elite one every cycle instead of going every other year.

Ohio State signed/landed seven quarterbacks from the 2020 through 2024 cycles, and all but one of them has been a top-50 overall prospect. Barring some catastrophic misevaluation, that means the Buckeyes will have a top quarterback.

But misevaluations can happen, just look at Alabama. It signed four quarterbacks in the previous three cycles, including five-star Ty Simpson. It’s got five-star Julian Sayin committed in the ’24 haul. And yet, the Tide still took Tyler Buchner from the transfer portal.

If you’re not sure if you have a bona fide starter, sign as many quarterbacks in recruiting and the portal as you can. And even if you are sure, sign as many quarterbacks as you can.

Here’s the “sort of” that I referenced at the top. Notre Dame is about to go from Kenny Minchey to CJ Carr to Deuce Knight/Bear Bachmeier over a three-year span. That’s three straight cycles with a four-star quarterback commitment if everything goes to plan. The portal is always there, but there it not always a Hartman in it. But the point is Notre Dame is now hoarding quarterbacks similar to other programs. You either play that game or you end up in a Drew Pyne situation.

This is going to sound crazy given how the scoreboard has looked through three weeks, but is there reason to be concerned about Al Golden? I don’t know the exact metrics, but all he seems to want to do is blitz, blitz, blitz. I, too, love our corners, but constantly sending players to blitz instead of dropping in coverage has led to the other team getting guys open — they just didn’t have the QB play to take advantage. With teams like Ohio State and USC on the horizon, is the result of the scoreboard covering up a potential problem that’ll get exposed down the road? — Jake S.

It’s an interesting question. You’re right, it does seem like Notre Dame blitzes a lot without a ton of payoff in terms of sacks. Four sacks through three games doesn’t get your attention, even after accounting for Navy being an option team.

But look at the quarterback statistics based on pressures applied. When I go back and watch the games, I track the number of pass rushers deployed on every pass attempt. As much as Golden wants sacks, it’s worth noting that incompletions and interceptions work just fine.

For the season, when Notre Dame sends six pass rushers, opposing quarterbacks are 4-of-12 of 32 yards and three interceptions. When Notre Dame sends five pass rushers, opposing quarterbacks are 11-of-24 for 98 yards and one interception. Both of Armstrong’s touchdowns last week came against four-man pressures.

I’m not sure there’s evidence Notre Dame blitzes too much or too little through three games. But the key against Ohio State and USC is to mix up those pressures, both in terms of the number of rushers and where they’re coming from in the scheme. If Notre Dame tried to repurpose the NC State game plan for USC, the Irish would get torched. And Caleb Williams may torch them anyway. As for Ohio State, more coverage makes sense for a more drop-back passing offense with a young quarterback like Kyle McCord.

College football is usually a game of mistakes. Pressure creates those. As long as Golden doesn’t dust off the double safety blitz against Ohio State with a backup nickel in the game, bringing pressure makes sense … as long as you stay unpredictable about it.

A bit off-topic, but what were your thoughts on how the Alabama offense and its players last weekend? How vindicated were the Rees haters? — Stephen O.

For one night? Somewhat vindicated, although that assumes you knew something about Tommy Rees that Nick Saban did not.

Look, there’s a reason why Rees took Buchner from the portal, even though Buchner had three career starts and a negative TD-to-INT ratio. Alabama didn’t evaluate well at quarterback in previous cycles and it’s showing after an absurd run of first-round picks. And if you don’t have a good quarterback, you don’t have a dynamic offense. Anyone who’s watched Notre Dame football for the past decade knows this.

Would the “Rees haters” have been vindicated if Alabama had Harman? Guessing not.

Rees is in a tough spot in Tuscaloosa now. When Saban is talking about how the offense tipped plays in his press conference, that puts the offensive coordinator under tremendous pressure. Rees may be digging himself out of a hole for a while.

Born a Fighting Irish fan and a Central Michigan alum. I’ll be decked out in maroon and gold and green this Saturday as three of my college friends and I travel to South Bend for an overnight stay Friday before cheering on the Chippewas to a … touchdown?  Anyway, do you have any tips and tricks or recommendations on what three first-timers should eat/drink/visit on Friday before game day? This will be my third visit to Notre Dame, but oddly enough my first overnight stay. — Jason S.

My advice would be to hang around campus as much as possible on Friday, hit Trumpets at the Dome (4:10 p.m.) and the Midnight Drum Circle outside the Dome (you can guess the time). There’s a Tunnel walk at noon that requires a $10 entry fee. Get a couple of beers at The Linebacker just to say you did. If you’re looking for a better quality of adult beverage, the patio on the back of Rohr’s at the Morris Inn is fantastic. Maybe I enjoyed two (or three?) Father Hesburgh Manhattans the night before Tennessee State back there around a fire pit. There are the obvious staples — visit the Basilica, walk the lakes, light a candle at the grotto.

As for food, that depends on your taste. I love The Cooked Ewe, just a couple of miles south of campus. The menu is creative and maybe not for everybody, although the beer and patio are. The Bucket has a similar river view and is more straight burgers and beer. Get a Guinness at Fiddler’s Hearth downtown. The Lauber is a decent downtown option with an excellent beer garden. For barbecue, Fat Cap (close to campus) or Prized Pig (over in Mishawaka) are both legit.

I know you’ve alluded to doing a piece on Notre Dame’s efforts to prevent a Georgia-style sea of red on Sept. 23. Is there any more information you have on that front? Should we expect anything close to that or more like Clemson last year? — Matthew C.

That story will run early next week.

It’s hard to say exactly what the stadium will look like for Ohio State, but Notre Dame is optimistic that there won’t be a replay of Georgia or Cincinnati. And they have data to back it up.

But there’s going to be plenty of red.

If you could add one player from the BK era to this team, who would it be and why? Initially, I thought Kyle Hamilton, because he rules, but the safety play has been solid. Is it an offensive lineman? A receiver? — Alex S.

None of the above. This is a very specific selection, but freshman year Aaron Lynch against Michigan State would make Notre Dame’s defense a legitimate national title contender. Would I love to see Michael Floyd or Will Fuller catching passes from Hartman? Of course. But to put Lynch at the peak of his powers on this defense … goodness. That would put Williams on notice, never mind McCord and Cade Klubnik.

For those not versed in 12-year-old box scores, Lynch finished that game with one sack and six (!) quarterback hurries of Kirk Cousins, plus a forced fumble. A man amongst boys.

The offensive line always seems to take time to develop each season and the great lines improve throughout the year. Is this current group ahead or behind where you would expect this group to be? — Scott G.

Reasonable minds can disagree on this, but the offensive line feels a bit behind on expectations through three games. Not enough to sound alarm bells, but enough to acknowledge the group has not found its collective stride. It’s got one more game before it needs to arrive because Ohio State narrows the path to victory considerably.

I asked offensive line coach Joe Rudolph during training camp about the idea that lines always need three games to come together and if there’s a way to shorten that process. He thought I was asking because of the Navy game a year ago, but the question was more about the 2018 line that bombed in the season’s first three games (Notre Dame averaged 2.85 yards per carry against Ball State!) before turning into an elite group until Alex Bars’ injury.

“You know, can you get them really confident on the details of what they do?” Rudolph said. “Can you get them to honestly trust? I think however you line up defensively, no matter what you can anticipate as an offensive lineman, you can’t guess.”

There’s been a little bit of guessing through three games. Not a lot. But enough to get Hartman dirty. If Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher find another level this weekend (rewatch the first sack of Hartman at NC State), it might be the stuff of upsetting Ohio State.

Would love a quick three-game revisionist history. Looking at what you thought going into the season, where were you right, where were you wrong, and what is yet to be determined? Would be fun to do this at year’s end too. — Jonathan G.

Jonathan, you’ve been elected Notre Dame Mailbag historian, so I expect you to ask this question in the after Stanford, with receipts.

Right: Notre Dame’s linebackers are better than many fans believe … the receiver position remains a work in progress, particularly Tobias Merriweather … the red zone defense will improve … Spencer Shrader has a weaponized leg … Holden Staes will have a breakout year.

Wrong: Gerad Parker will need time to grow into the offensive coordinator position … Jack Kiser will take reps from Marist Liufau … Billy Schrauth will start at left guard … Rylie Mills will be the best defensive lineman on the team (it’s Howard Cross).

TBD: Hartman makes Notre Dame upset proof. I feel good about this one, but my hunch coming out of camp was Notre Dame’s probability of winning “the other nine” went way up with Hartman. His presence means the Irish will always have the better quarterback in those games (no offense, Riley Leonard). When you have that, it makes winning the games you’re supposed to win a lot easier. Ask me after Louisville.

(Photo: Joe Robbins / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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