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Ineffective offense, turnovers doom Notre Dame vs Marshall in Marcus Freeman’s home debut

Marcus Freeman took full ownership of Notre Dame's shocking loss to Marshall and promised that the Irish will improve quickly.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame could not run the ball when it needed to. It could not throw the ball efficiently. The Irish could barely stop Marshall’s ground game, and then they could not even do that.

Struggling in all facets, No. 8 Notre Dame (0-2) lost to the Herd (2-0) on Saturday, 26-21, making Marcus Freeman the first Irish coach in history to start his career 0-3. On a day when Notre Dame could barely move the ball in the first place, Marshall eliminated any chance of an Irish comeback with an interception return for a touchdown in the final five minutes, giving it a two-score lead to withstand a last-gasp Notre Dame touchdown.

“It starts with me as the head coach and looking at myself and saying, ‘What do I have to do to help this football team?’” Freeman said after his first home game as the Irish head coach. “Really look at everything we’re doing because the performance isn’t where it needed to be.”

From the outset, the Herd bullied Notre Dame. It took a second-quarter lead with a long touchdown drive, a 10-play march on which six Marshall rushes gained 27 yards on the drive, the Irish able to render only one ground attempt as ineffective.

Similarly, to retake the lead in the fourth quarter, the Herd ran eight times for 64 yards on a drive that took 11 plays to cover 94 yards.

“If you can’t stop the run, get after the quarterback when it’s crunch time — if you can’t run the ball and protect the quarterback when it’s crunch time, we’re not where we need to be,” Freeman said. “... We have to be able to stop offenses when it matters the most.

“Our defense did a good job, but when it matters the most, we didn’t get the stop that we needed. We didn’t get that stop — when the ball was on the five-yard line and we’re up. We needed the stop last week when we’re down four points and the ball is on the five-yard line.”

On the drive a week ago mentioned by Freeman, Ohio State took 10 rush attempts for 64 yards, part of a 14-play, 95-yard game-clinching possession.

“I feel like at the end of the game, it’s interlocking as a group, as a defense, just tackle,” fifth-year safety DJ Brown said. “The end of the game drive is what has killed us the past two weeks. Goijng forward, when it’s crunch time, when guys are tired, we need to push through that and execute and tackle.”

Notre Dame did stop the Herd inside the five-yard line twice between those two touchdowns, Marshall making two field goals in those fourth-and-goal moments, leaving crucial points on the board in its upset bid. But even that conservative approach provided too much scoring for a struggling Notre Dame offense to match.

That game-clinching turnover aside — though, obviously, that was a critical mistake that eliminated any genuine lingering Irish hope — sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner combined with junior tight end Michael Mayer to be essentially the entire Notre Dame offense.

On the first two Irish touchdown drives, the only two before the game was decided, Buchner found Mayer for 60 yards on three catches, plus another nine yards and an automatic first down when Mayer drew a defensive pass interference flag. To get to the edge of the end zone on the second scoring drive, Buchner connected with sophomore tight end Kevin Bauman for 18 yards when Mayer drew double coverage and Bauman’s defender was also looking Mayer’s way.

Those two drives also featured six Buchner rushes for 30 yards including both scores, not to mention the two-point conversion to put Notre Dame up by three.

The other two plays on those two possessions gained no yards.

Mayer finished with eight catches for 103 yards, including a five-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Drew Pyne, while Buchner completed 18 of 32 passes for 201 yards before an apparent shoulder injury knocked him out of the game; Freeman did not provide details on the injury other than to say it was a shoulder injury. Buchner added 52 yards and 15 Irish points on 12 rushes (sack adjusted), along with two interceptions.

Otherwise, Notre Dame skill-position players managed just 79 yards on 21 rushes, and Mayer aside, they put together 118 yards on 25 passing targets.

Marshall outgained the Irish by only 13 yards, 364 yards to 351, the biggest difference in offensive productions coming from Notre Dame’s three turnovers. (Pyne also threw an interception.) But while the Irish threw the ball inconsistently — 5.8 yards per attempt is inefficient at best and ineffective more truthfully — the Herd ran the ball with repeated success. Marshall finished with 236 yards on 47 rushes (sacks adjusted).

Running back Khalan Laborn, a Florida State transfer and one of 24 transfers on the Herd roster, led the way with 31 carries for 163 yards, highlighted by a 42-yard dash on the drive that provided the final lead change of the afternoon.

“What would any team be? They would be down in the dumps. What are hey going to do? But this is how great teams are made. They pick up the pieces, put it back together. …

“It’s Notre Dame. Everybody can say something because we lost. It’s an upset, it happens. But we have to get our stuff together. Everyone, from coaches to starters to scout linemen, everybody needs to get their stuff together and move on and fix this, because we can. We know we can. We can be a great team.”
— Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle


Second Quarter14:18 — Marshall touchdown. Khalan Laborn 4-yard rush. Rece Verhoff PAT no good. Marshall 6, Notre Dame 0. (10 plays, 79 yards, 3:56)3:00 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tyler Buchner 1-yard rush. Blake Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Marshall 6. (5 plays, 56 yards, 2:03)0:15 — Marshall field goal. Verhoff 21 yards. Marshall 9, Notre Dame 7. (12 plays, 74 yards, 2:40)

Third Quarter3:54 — Marshall field goal. Verhoff 20 yards. Marshall 12, Notre Dame 7. (9 plays, 46 yards, 4:10)

Fourth Quarter14:57 — Notre Dame touchdown. Buchner 1-yard rush. Two-point attempt successful. Buchner rush. Notre Dame 15, Marshall 12. (8 plays, 75 yards, 3:57)5:16 — Marshall touchdown. Devin Miller 3-yard pass from Henry Colombi. Verhoff PAT good. Marshall 19, Notre Dame 15. (11 plays, 94 yards, 5:06)4:35 — Marshall touchdown. Steven Gilmore 37-yard interception return. Verhoff PAT good. Marshall 26, Notre Dame 15.
0:14 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 5-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Two-point attempt failed. Marshall 26, Notre Dame 21. (7 plays, 32 yards, 1:42)

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