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Marshall 26, Notre Dame 21: Highlights were few, but Irish lessons persist

Turnovers and an ineffective run defense sank the Irish in Marcus Freeman’s home debut as Marshall pulled off a shocking upset at Notre Dame Stadium.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The unknown severity of Tyler Buchner’s left shoulder injury notwithstanding, the vast majority of Notre Dame’s struggling offensive production was dependent on the sophomore quarterback in Saturday’s 26-21 loss to Marshall. Without Buchner, one may shudder at wondering how few points the No. 8 Irish (0-2) would have scored against the Herd (2-0).

Buchner took 12 carries for 60 yards (sack adjusted) while throwing for 201 yards on 18-of-32 passing. A 6.3 yards per attempt average is not one that will push an offense for an entire season, but on a day when little was working for Notre Dame, it was nearly acceptable.

And yet, Buchner was oh-so-close to so much more. Multiple times his throws deep bounced off his receivers’ hands. A fourth-and-four shot down the sideline to fifth-year receiver Braden Lenzy was caught but out of bounds. Just before the end of the first half, Lenzy could not hold onto a pass as he dove to get to it. This became the theme for Buchner, even before his fourth-quarter hope for Lorenzo Styles — not quite a desperation heave, but the Irish were beginning to trend that way — ended up a bit behind the sophomore receiver. A week ago, a similar look landed two yards in front of Styles.

“We’ve been working on trying to get better at that every single day,” Styles said. “It didn’t hit today, we just need to work to get better at it until we’re completing it in the game.”

Deep passes fail more often than they succeed. That much should be obvious. But the rewards of a completion generally outweigh the risk of an incompletion, as long as one can avoid an interception; both of Buchner’s turnovers against Marshall came on short routes that the Herd cornerbacks jumped, be it via impressive film study or gut instinct.

Assigning blame for such incompletions can be lost in ambiguity. On Buchner’s first attempt downfield, that fourth-down look for Lenzy, he was pressured as he threw. On the try just before halftime, Lenzy had two hands on the ball … as he laid out horizontal to the turf.

Styles put the blame on himself.

“I had a deep ball,” he said after finishing with seven catches for 69 yards. “I have to make that play. That’s going to be a big-time play. I need to make that play for my teammates.”

Perhaps Notre Dame is too dependent on Buchner. If so, that is a direct reflection of the offensive line failing to make space for the Irish running backs; the three Notre Dame running backs combined to take 20 carries for 58 yards.

“I felt really good about the game plan going in, and we didn’t produce the results that we wanted to,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “So we have to look and see.

“Is there too much on [Buchner’s] plate? Are we asking him to do too much?”

But if just one of those oh-so-close attempts connects, this question may never even be asked. Such hypotheticals are flawed in nearly every way, but add one 30-yard completion to Buchner’s day and his yards per attempt would have jumped to 7.2, a number that would suggest a season-long viable offense.

Losing to Marshall could go from bad to worse if Buchner is sidelined for a prolonged period. Freeman could not or would not offer any details on the injury, but junior quarterback Drew Pyne handled the short-lived end of the drive on which Buchner was injured as well as the final Notre Dame drive of the evening.

Pyne is more than a serviceable quarterback, but he also has his limitations. While Buchner’s legs could spur two Irish touchdown drives when no other ground option could be relied upon, Pyne lacks that mobility. It was a significant part of why Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees chose Buchner as the starter after only one week of preseason practice.

Maybe they foresaw some offensive line difficulties limiting the broader running game. More likely, they saw the possibilities such a dual-threat presented. Regardless, two losses have now made it clear, Notre Dame’s offense hinges on Buchner’s legs. If a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury costs the Irish that luxury, then Rees will need to reinvent his offense for the second time in two years.

For the Irish, not to be too blunt, the highlight of the game may have come before the game. The return of the walk from pregame Mass at the Basilica to the tunnel at Notre Dame with a brief stop in front of the Library, also known as Touchdown Jesus, was well-attended and well-received by Irish fans. More than the unique visuals it provided, as it always did, the ability to see the Notre Dame stars in a rather-open setting added to the game day experience on campus.

At least nine transfers from Power Five programs this offseason populate the Marshall roster. That sentence starts with “at least” because an entirely-inclusive transfer tracker is a pipe dream in the current climate of the NCAA newly allowing one-time transfers without an eligibility cost combined with the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.

Among them were not only quarterback Henry Colombi, via Utah State by way of Texas Tech, and running back Khalan Laborn, a Florida State product who took 31 carries for 163 yards, but also four defensive starters that produced 18 total tackles, not to mention a starting offensive lineman.

In a very noticeable way, this was not the typical Conference USA roster, and not just because the Herd program joined the Sun Belt this season.

“It’s not like it was in the past where you couldn’t build your team, just have lower-recruited guys or whatever it is,” Irish fifth-year safety DJ Brown said. “Everybody can upset a team any Saturday.

“They did a good job and props to them.”

Marshall outplayed Notre Dame. No disclaimers should be added to that thought. The Irish got beat by a better team on Saturday. Maybe the Herd would not be better next Saturday or any Saturday thereafter, but on this particular Saturday, it was.

A Buchner deep completion may have flipped the result, but nothing defined Notre Dame’s loss as much as the three interceptions gifted to Marshall while the Irish failed to force any turnovers.

“Above everything else, honestly, I think we’re more upset about that because we preach takeaways, takeaways, takeaways,” senior defensive tackle Howard Cross said. “We have a whole 10 minutes during every practice about takeaways.”

If betting on what player would reference Kobe Bryant this season, the only choice would always be Braden Lenzy. The fifth-year receiver’s Oregon roots — and thus Nike connections — introduced him to the departed NBA legend in his high school years.

But it was Cross who brought up Bryant in his postgame interview Saturday. If this is an optimistic view of a loss, it is also the best one for any athlete to take.

“I was actually watching a video about Kobe Bryant, who was interviewed and asked the same exact question,” Cross said when asked how the locker room would respond to Notre Dame’s third straight loss, particularly a locker room not accustomed to losing. “Obviously, it’s not very nice, but he said, which I’m going to take to heart, it’s exciting. You win, you see what you did well, you see what the other team didn’t do, and you keep doing what you’re doing. If you lose, it gives you an opportunity to learn.

“[Marshall] got outside, they ran the ball on us, so what gaps are open? Are we not tackling well enough? Are we not shooting the ball? This will get us prepared better for the next game.”

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