A loss in the Fiesta Bowl to a top-5 foe after being named head coach three weeks prior wasn’t great but was explainable. A loss to another top-5 opponent on the road in a game they led in the 3rd quarter wasn’t ideal but was understandable. A loss at home to a Group of 5 opponent that was nearly a 20-point underdog? There’s no excuse, no explanation, and no reason for that. That is the reality of the situation for Marcus Freeman, however, at this early yet suddenly critical juncture of his tenure following one of the worst Notre Dame losses in decades on Saturday.
Notre Dame’s lines – both of them – are now officially concerning
Neither offensive nor defensive line looked great for Notre Dame against Ohio State last weekend. Against Marshall, both units should have gotten themselves right. That did not happen. Notre Dame failed in multiple short-yardage situations because the offensive line created no push upfront whatsoever.
Notre Dame averaged just 3.5 yards per carry on the day, which is inflated by a 22-yard run by Lorenzo Styles. Audric Estime ran for just 33 yards on 10 carries. Logan Diggs totaled 7 yards on 7 carries. Chris Tyree 17 yards on just three carries. There was nowhere to run for any of them. Against an opponent like Marshall, Notre Dame should have been able to own the line of scrimmage. They couldn’t, and Notre Dame never established any offensive identity for the second week in a row.
On the defensive side of the ball, Marshall could do what Notre Dame couldn’t – run the ball when it mattered. Notre Dame’s defensive front couldn’t generate much pressure again this week. Isaiah Foskey did notch his first sack of the season, but the line didn’t generate pressure like we thought they would be able to this season. Notre Dame has an experienced and talented defensive line that should be much more disruptive than they’ve been the last two weeks. Al Washington, Al Golden, and Marcus Freeman have a lot to figure out and not a lot of time to figure it out before their next game and without a bye week for two more weeks.
Struggling against Ohio State was one thing. Struggling against Marshall is a whole other. While there isn’t a lot of time to figure things out, there is still time for both lines to get right. Remember how bad the offensive line looked in the first five games last year before figuring it out? The same can happen this year, but the big difference now is Notre Dame is looking for answers with two losses.
Tommy Rees isn’t helping Tyler Buchner
Tyler Buchner was not very good this afternoon. That much was obvious. His second interception that got returned for a score essentially lost the game. His first set up Marshall’s first score. That said, Tommy Rees isn’t putting him in the best of positions right now. It seemed clear that Buchner got more comfortable after making a few plays with his legs. Rees has been reluctant to call designed runs which is understandable given Buchner’s injury history. Still, it doesn’t look like they can be reluctant any longer – assuming Buchner doesn’t miss any time after getting injured at the end of the game.
Buchner doesn’t look comfortable as a pocket passer yet, but he was asked to be that most of the afternoon. On this week’s preview pod, we were asked if Notre Dame might force Buchner into a pass-heavy gameplan ala Brandon Wimbush against Ball State in 2018, and we didn’t think they would. Unfortunately, that is kind of what feels like happened today.
The Notre Dame offense is, in a word, a mess right now. Through two games of the year, it’s still tough to see what kind of offense Tommy Rees wants Notre Dame to be. Against Ohio State, we saw an offense it felt like Notre Dame thought it needed to be to win. Against Marshall, it felt like we saw an offense that Notre Dame was still tinkering with. Hopefully, against Cal, we start to see an offense that Notre Dame can sustain for the rest of the season.
There were plays to be made for Notre Dame
As bad as the offense looked for most of the game, Notre Dame left plays on the field that would have allowed them to at least eke out the win. At the end of the first half, Buchner had Braden Lenzy wide open for a touchdown with 11 seconds to go but put just a touch too much air on the ball, and Lenzy couldn’t come down with it.
After Notre Dame fell behind 11 following the Buchner pick-6, Buchner had Watts for another long touchdown for the taking, but the two couldn’t connect. Hit those both and the outcome and narrative from today are very different.
Defensively, Notre Dame had a chance to get off the field with the lead in the fourth quarter but let up a 3rd and 10 because of a blown assignment. Marshall went on to score the go-ahead score on that drive. Even the final onside kick of the game it looked like Notre Dame had a chance to recover it but didn’t quite execute.
A close win over Marshall wouldn’t have been a reason to jump for joy, but it still would have been a win.
Marcus Freeman is now at a critical juncture
No one envisioned Freeman starting his career 0-3 when he was announced amid a lot of fanfare in December, but here we are. Again, those first two losses can be explained. This one can’t. Brian Kelly lost games like this early in his Notre Dame tenure, and he got rightfully roasted for them. Freeman will get roasted for this one, but that’s part of the gig.
Nick Saban lost to Louisiana Monroe in his first season at Alabama, and he arrived in Tuscaloosa with a natty on his resume. Brian Kelly lost to Tulsa, Navy (twice), Duke, and South Florida over the years at Notre Dame and LSU gave him $100m. Jimbo Fisher has a mega-contract and lost to Appalachian State just today. Good coaches have moments like these and still go on to be successful.
We knew there would be some growing pains for Freeman as a first-time head coach, but I don’t think even the most vocal critics could have envisioned what we saw today. Unfortunately, the honeymoon was short for Freeman, but after losing a home-opener as a nearly 20-point favorite to Marshall, it ends pretty abruptly.