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Things We Learned: Change in tone around Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines the underlying issue to Irish concerns

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. — Marcus Freeman changed his verb tense. From the first day of Notre Dame’s preseason practices to five weeks later following the 26-21 Irish loss to Marshall, his primary message remained the same, but the verb tense told all the difference.

“We are an O-line and D-line driven program,” Freeman said on Aug. 5, the day of his first preseason practice as Notre Dame’s head coach.

“If we want to be the program we aspire to be, we’re going to have to be an O-line and D-line driven program,” Freeman said Saturday, Sept. 10, the day of his first home loss as the Irish head coach. “That’s not going to change, but we’re not where need to be. We know that.”

Of Notre Dame’s myriad issues that led to this 0-2 start and its first loss to an unranked team since 2016, that verb-tense change stands out most. The Irish offense needs to find some semblance of regular production, and it may now need to work in a new quarterback after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a shoulder injury late in Saturday’s defeat. (UPDATE: Buchner will miss the rest of the season.)

Notre Dame’s defense has now twice buckled in the game’s most crucial moments despite field-position advantages. Failing to force a turnover through the first two weeks of the season runs counter to just about everything Freeman installed defensively last season.

“It’s an evaluation of everything we’re doing,” Freeman said. “Schematically, personnel-wise, everything, to look into how we can improve.”

Everything may need improvement, but the Irish losing the struggle on both sides of the line of scrimmage to Marshall is the fault line that leads to the rest of those problems.

This space has long maintained the simplest definition of a potent offense is, “If you want to or need to gain one yard, you gain that one yard, every time.”

Yet when Notre Dame faced third-and-two in the third quarter on a drive near midfield, sophomore Audric Estime could gain only that one yard rushing up the middle. On the subsequent fourth-and-one, he could not even muster that. Estime finished with 33 yards on 10 carries, part of the Irish running back trio gaining 57 yards on 20 rush attempts, a 2.85 yards per carry average.

“I didn’t feel we could run it at will,” Freeman said. “So how do we get it to the point where we feel we can stay consistent, stay in rhythm by the ability to run the ball.”

Junior tight end Michael Mayer adamantly insisted the Irish run the ball well in practice, but a skeptic could then point out, that success comes at the expense of the Notre Dame defensive line.

That defensive front-seven was expected to be the greatest Irish strength this season. Geting bullied by Ohio State in the fourth quarter lowered those expectations, but that was in front of 106,000 fans and against two NFL-caliber running backs buttressed by a Heisman-candidate quarterback. Coming out on the wrong end of that drive was not a portent for the season, until it was.

The Herd ran for 236 yards on 47 carries, a 5.02 yards per rush average (sacks adjusted). Its two touchdown drives featured 21 plays covering 173 yards; 14 of those plays were runs for 91 yards, an intentional approach from Marshall head coach Charles Huff somewhat mirroring Notre Dame’s from a week ago in Columbus.

If the definition of a potent offense hinges on one-yard gains, then the respective definition of a stout defense focuses on the opposite. If you need to stop the opponent from gaining one yard, you stop the opponent from gaining that one yard, every time.

Notre Dame did stop Marshall running back Khalan Laborn — a Florida State transfer and one-time five-star recruit — on one fourth-and-one attempt, but he also converted two such third-downs on two different drives that both produced Herd field goals, part of Laborn taking 31 carries for 163 yards. In a five-point loss, those two field goals linger in an Irish memory.

“We have to be able to stop offenses when it matters the most,” Freeman said. “Our defense did a good job, but when it mattered the most, we didn’t get the stop that we needed.”

The Irish have a pile of issues to sort out. Freeman can challenge the leaders to keep the team focused, ignoring outside noise. He can put the onus on the man in the mirror. Notre Dame can adjust its offense on the fly for the second season in a row and third time in five years.

Veteran captains can display frustration on the sidelines and bluster in midweek interviews. Receivers can lament missed deep balls. Platitudes can be leaned upon.

But until Freeman’s verb tense changes back to the present regarding the Irish lines, the other fixes will be superficial in effect. Notre Dame needs to be an offensive line and defensive line driven program. This season that may be more true than ever given the years in coming dearth of receiver depth. Through two weeks of 2022, Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines have not driven opponents off the ball and thus have not driven the Irish to Freeman’s first win.

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