SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No. 9 Notre Dame pulled away in the second half for a 41-17 win against Central Michigan on Saturday, setting up a likely top-10 showdown with Ohio State next week. Here are some initial thoughts on the win against the Chippewas by the Fighting Irish (4-0):
Big plays carry offense
With 184 points through four games, Notre Dame is off to its most prolific four-game scoring start to a season since 1914, thanks almost entirely to Sam Hartman. The graduate transfer went 16-of-26 for 330 yards and four total touchdowns against Central Michigan as offensive coordinator Gerad Parker put together another boom-or-bust game plan that let Hartman take plenty of shots down the field. Hartman’s deep ball was near perfect, starting with hitting Tobias Merriweather for a 75-yard touchdown on Notre Dame’s fourth play of the game.
SEE. YOU. LATER.
The Irish strike first. #GoIrish
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) September 16, 2023
Hartman came back to hit Chris Tyree for a 76-yard touchdown early in the second quarter and also connected with Jayden Thomas for a 39-yard competition and Rico Flores for a 42-yard gain.
As explosive as Notre Dame’s offense appeared, averaging nearly 9 yards per play, it also felt oddly laborious. With a seven-point lead coming out of halftime, Hartman needed a 1-yard sneak into the end zone after Audric Estime was twice stuffed at the goal line. Hartman also could have been knocked out of the game in the second half when right guard Rocco Spindler got flattened by a pass rusher. Holden Staes had a holding penalty that wiped out a 72-yard Estime touchdown, too.
As with NC State last weekend, Notre Dame’s offense delivered on the scoreboard, even if the performance didn’t always feel on time. Against Ohio State next weekend, that all-or-nothing approach feels like a gamble, no matter how accurate Hartman can be with the deep ball.
Defense faces key questions before Ohio State
Notre Dame’s tackling let down the defense for much of the game, and the Irish finished down two starters, missing JD Bertrand (concussion) after a hit last weekend and losing safety DJ Brown (hamstring) during the game. The linebacker reshuffle proved more problematic than expected, as Notre Dame shifted Jack Kiser into Bertrand’s role at middle linebacker and inserted Jaylen Sneed at rover. The sophomore struggled for much of the game as Central Michigan showed versatility in attacking Notre Dame’s defense horizontally and vertically, even with backup quarterback Jase Bauer standing in for starter Bert Emanuel Jr. (illness).
The Chippewas never looked threatening enough to come back against the Irish, as Bauer finished 10-of-20 passing for just 137 yards. But Notre Dame didn’t look like the defense that held its first two opponents without a touchdown and put the clamps on NC State’s Brennan Armstrong.
Ohio State will prove a much tougher test for Al Golden’s defense, which needs Bertrand back and some help at safety. The return of defensive tackle Gabe Rubio (knee) would help the cause, too. Being at full strength for the Buckeyes feels like a must. So is the defense as a whole snapping back to its early-September form.
Estime shouldering the load
Notre Dame’s five-headed monster, as running backs coach Deland McCullough put it in preseason, was again a one-man show. Estime finished with 20 carries for 176 yards, dwarfing the rest of the running backs in not only production but also workload.
Jadarian Price, Jeremiyah Love, Devyn Ford and Gi’Bran Payne combined for nine carries that netted 38 yards. It’s not that the Irish need to spread the carries now with Estime, but it’s worth acknowledging that Notre Dame is halfway through a stretch of eight games in eight weeks. Giving Estime a lighter load against a MAC opponent would have been ideal considering what’s to come.
Still, Estime was dynamic, hurdling multiple defenders and putting up a 41-yard run in the second half. As much as keeping his hits down would have been preferred, Notre Dame didn’t play well enough all around to afford itself that luxury.
Putting 20 carries per game on Estime the rest of the season will challenge even a 227-pound back like the Irish junior. But if the Irish aren’t clicking and the younger backs aren’t ready, Notre Dame might not have a choice.
(Photo of Tobias Merriweather: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)