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Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s foundation of ‘a good, a tough football team’ in 2022

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Notre Dame at Ohio State

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 03: Ohio State Buckeyes defensive tackle Michael Hall Jr. (51) sacks Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) during the fourth quarter of the college football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Ohio State Buckeyes on September 3, 2022, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, OH. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Marcus Freeman would not claim a moral victory on Saturday night, and he still would not on Monday. No. 5 Notre Dame fell short at No. 2 Ohio State, and no matter how close the entire game was despite the 21-10 final margin, the first thing Freeman sees is a loss.

“The goal is to win, we didn’t do that,” he said Monday. “As I said after the game, there’s no moral victories around here.”

But it should still be acknowledged, the Irish stood up to one of the top-three programs in the country. They went on the road under a first-year head coach and a first-time starting quarterback and did not struggle in front of 106,594 fans.

“We have a good, a tough football team,” Freeman said late Saturday night.

“A good, a tough football team” will be Notre Dame’s definition in 2022.

The Irish were never going to be able to outscore the Buckeyes. Even if two veteran receivers were not sidelined with injuries and one sophomore was not full-go, and even if two pledged receiver recruits had not left the class of 2022 just before December’s early signing period, Notre Dame was never going to win Saturday by opening up the ballgame.

Instead, the Irish took the air out of the ball in a way that would make Navy envious. Notre Dame ran 48 offensive plays on Saturday, a low during this six-year Irish resurgence.

2021-low: 59 plays against Georgia Tech, a game marked by multiple defensive touchdowns for Notre Dame.2020-low: 58 against Clemson in the ACC title game.2019-low: 53 plays against Navy.2017-low: 49 plays against Navy.

That may have been an extreme, but it was an extreme created by Notre Dame’s dearth of healthy or dynamic playmakers while facing an opponent overflowing with them.

Half that equation will remain the case for the Irish this season, even when fifth-year receiver Joe Wilkins and sophomore receiver Deion Colzie rejoin the lineup in earnest. They knew that long before Saturday, hence the game plan that has left many outside the program frustrated with its conservative nature. But that was by design; it gave Notre Dame its best chance against a roster with far superior skill talent.

“I’m proud of the way we prepared, I’m proud of the way our coaches had our guys prepared, I’m proud of the way the kids played,” Freeman said. “They played hard. They battled that team for almost three quarters. … They really, really did a good job of executing the game plan that we had going in.”

While that game plan should not be as necessary moving forward — only No. 5 Clemson and No. 14 USC have receiving corps anywhere near Ohio State’s stratosphere — its effectiveness warrants scrutiny. The first-year head coach and his new staff crafted a scheme that put the Buckeyes on their heels for at least the first half, if not the three quarters (minus 17 seconds) Freeman touts.

Of Ohio State’s first seven possessions — not including the 11-second kneel-out before halftime — only two were quality. In that same stretch, three of Notre Dame’s six possessions were of quality. (In this instance, relying on the analytical definitions used at cfb-graphs.com, provided by Parker Fleming, a “quality possession” is one that has a first-down inside the opposing 40 or scores a touchdown from further than that. “It’s more likely than not you score on this drive.”)

To that point — the 8:36 mark in the third quarter — the Irish had controlled 61.5 percent of the game, though they had also scored only 3.33 points per quality possession. (The advantage to doing this math via drives rather than via time of possession is the success or failure of a drive is what matters, not how long it takes.)

“I don’t think we were trying to preserve anything, we were trying to continue to find ways to score, to prevent them from scoring,” Freeman said Saturday. “That’s our mindset. We can’t preserve anything. You have to continue to attack. You have to be able to run the football. That wasn’t something we were able to do in the second half as well as we were in the first half.”

The first crack in the “continue to attack” ethos came on Notre Dame’s final quality possession. An Ohio State unnecessary roughness penalty gave the Irish a 1st-and-10 from the plus-35-yard line. The next three plays moved backward one yard. Notre Dame punted on 4th-and-11 from the 36. It would never again get more than three yards past midfield.

Ohio State controlled the final 83.33 percent of the game, and that sixth that is outstanding was also very much controlled by the Buckeyes, their final drive running out the final 3:42 of the game. By this math, and granting Ohio State that final drive, the Buckeyes controlled 57.9 percent of the entire game.

“We didn’t execute late in the game when we had to,” Freeman said. “We didn’t execute when we needed to. We had a challenge to win the fourth quarter, we didn’t win the fourth quarter.”

Winning the fourth quarter will be the next challenge for Freeman. He has put together a coaching staff, he has navigated an offseason without any major concern, and he had his team ready to upset a national title contender.

Notre Dame is a step below the national title favorites in 2022. There are only three or four. They all have more skill position talent than they do talent in the trenches, which is hardly lacking.

The Irish lack that talent on the perimeter, not to mention they have a first-year head coach and a first-time starting quarterback. When Notre Dame did not press for a score when it got the ball with 36 seconds left before halftime, that was a reflection of the new coach.

“I have to do a better job of being able to click over from one side to the other and make sure I’m communicating with both sides,” Freeman said. “It happened right before halftime. I’m on the defensive side of the ball, we’re talking about getting things corrected … and by the time I click over to tell [offensive coordinator Tommy Rees], ‘Hey, I want to take a shot,’ — I want to take a shot, I want to be aggressive — it wasn’t communicated in time.

Hence an Irish handoff to start that drive and then a timeout to sort out the confusion before punting two plays later.

Those lessons wil come in time. Freeman has time, in part because he has confidence in sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner, who finished 10-of-18 for 177 yards.

“For a second-year guy in his first collegiate start, in that type of environment, in that type of game, I was really pleased,” Freeman said Monday. “... They said on the sidelines that he was the leader, getting guys going, positive.

“We got ourselves a quarterback. There’s a strong belief in what he can do for this football program.”

That is not a moral victory. That is a reason to expect success this season.

“This hopefully is the floor,” Freeman said. “This is the foundation of what we have to build off of.”

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