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Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development

Notre Dame v North Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 24: Logan Diggs #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish scores a touchdown against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the second half of their game at Kenan Memorial Stadium on September 24, 2022 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Notre Dame won 45-32. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame knew it would need to lean on its running backs at North Carolina. That was less a reflection of the Tar Heels’ soft defense and more one of the Irish roster, though that defense was certainly ripe for exploiting.

With sophomore Logan Diggs healthy after missing Notre Dame’s win against Cal due to an illness, the Irish could rotate three backs throughout their 45-32 win at North Carolina on Saturday.

And they did, each of Diggs, junior Chris Tyree and sophomore Audric Estimé getting at least 13 total touches. Their 49 combined touches on 83 genuine offensive snaps gives a decent idea of how much Notre Dame depended on them. Add in junior tight end Michael Mayer’s nine targets for seven catches and 88 yards, and 70 percent of the Irish snaps are accounted for along with 76 percent of Notre Dame’s yards.

Irish head coach Marcus Freeman would have you believe Mayer’s leadership springs those backs loose, and given Notre Dame ran one play for Mayer out of the backfield, perhaps that is as much literal as it is figurative.

“Michael Mayer is in there making sure everybody is performing to a standard,” Freeman said Saturday evening. “Those guys have a standard and they’ll have to learn. This is going to be good to see his leadership.”

Freeman’s tone there had already shifted to one of pragmatism moving forward, despite the offensive explosion the Irish had just enjoyed. That is because Notre Dame’s already thin skill-position depth charts lost another piece last week when junior tight end Kevin Bauman tore his ACL. Bauman had caught three passes this season for 44 yards, including a 22-yarder at Ohio State and an 18-yarder against Marshall.

“We knew we were going to have to be kind of strategic in terms of what personnel we’re going to use,” Freeman said.

Moving forward, that will mean more of Estimé, Tyree and Diggs, as well as more Mayer.

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne may have connected with Mayer each of the last three weeks for a touchdown, but Saturday’s seven catches on nine targets was the most efficient showing of the year from the preseason All-American tight end. Obviously, one of those completions being a quick pitch behind the line of scrimmage helped the percentages, but even without that, Mayer would have outpaced his eight catches on 12 targets against Marshall.

“I was able to find Mike a couple more times this week and just execute and do my job,” Pyne said. “Get the ball to him.

“I’m very happy, because he’s such a great player. Getting the ball in his hands is something our offense can really benefit from.”

Talk about an understatement.

That emphasis on Mayer and efficiency getting him the ball will need to continue for Notre Dame’s offense to continue on these positive trend lines.

And they are positive trend lines. The 45 points at Chapel Hill were about a foot away from being 52 points, the kind of equivalency that can be misleading, but given Estimé’s goal-line fumble came in the closing minutes of the game, it is a valid assumption in this case. A week after Pyne’s first career-start was boggled by missed snaps and wild throws, an efficient showing complemented the running backs’ dominance nicely.

“Sometimes we’ll let the outcome mask things,” Freeman said. “Continue to look at it, is this a football team that’s getting better? It is.

“They’re playing better, they’re practicing better. That’s the challenge. Continue to get better.”

Improving as a season goes along runs counter to the world’s demand for immediate results, but it is a vital part of college football. These players are 18- to 22-year-olds. If in-season improvement is not emphasized, a third of the year is lost in their development.

Consider a player like Diggs, coming off a mid-April shoulder injury. He was limited through much of preseason practices. If he does not look better in mid-October than he did in early September, then Freeman’s coaching staff has failed.

Freeman has made it a recent habit to underscore how young Notre Dame’s offensive line is, and while he may not be precise in that description, he is not inaccurate. Sophomore right tackle Blake Fisher had played two games before this season. Sophomore left tackle Joe Alt was a tight end through most of his high school career and stepped in as a starter only halfway through last year against largely inferior competition.

Freeman somewhat leaves out that they flank a fifth-year veteran in his fourth season of starting, a sixth-year veteran who has started in parts of four seasons and a senior center who has started parts of three seasons, but then again, an offensive line is only as good as its communication throughout. Getting word from Alt to Fisher or vice versa requires both sophomores to be set in all facets.

That will improve from Fisher’s third start to his, barring injury, 14th. (Fisher left Saturday’s game early after getting poked in the eye, per Freeman. He suffered no long-term worries.)

“That’s a group in particular, that you see from game one to game four, it’s really gotten better,” Freeman said. “... They’re gelling. They’re doing a good job.”

Of the two tenets to successful talent population on a college football roster, Freeman has long proven himself in recruitment. The other half is talent development, something that cannot be neglected from September to November.

Notre Dame has relied on development the last three weeks to find an offensive groove, and with Mayer leading the way, that may pay off.

THREE MORE NOTES
— Some asterisk should be attached to the running backs’ dominance and the Irish explosion against North Carolina simply because it is clear, the Tar Heels defense is in utter disarray. Head coach Mack Brown may like to point out defensive coordinator Gene Chizik won a national title with Brown at Texas in 2005 and another as the head coach at Auburn in 2010, but coaching in only two seasons since 2012 may have caught up to Chizik in his return to Chapel Hill this year.

— The Irish have now won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents, a stretch dating back to a trouncing of a loss at Miami in 2017.

— An ankle injury sidelined junior safety Ramon Henderson on Saturday, and a hamstring strain pulled out fifth-year safety DJ Brown during the game. Freeman was optimistic about both prognoses given the coming idle week buys them some time to get healthy.

Senior linebacker JD Bertrand will most likely have to use that time to just stew. His second targeting penalty in as many weeks will cost him another first half, barring a review and overturned decision during the week.

“It’s targeting,” Freeman said. “You can argue all you want, but as I told JD on the field, it’s our job to learn from the situation. It’s an entire game he’s missed now. He missed the first half of this game, he’s going to miss the first half of the next game. We have to learn from it. We have to change, or you’re going to continue to get targeting called.

“No matter if we agree or disagree. So we have to understand, that’s the way the refs called it, so we have to practice different ways of tackling. You have to make sure you’re not leading with your head. One is safety, but two, you need to be on the field.”

A rule change this offseason allows teams to appeal such first-half suspensions during the intervening week, or in this case, two weeks. To this point in the season, this space is not aware of any successful such appeal, and presuming Bertrand will not be the first, he will have to sit out the first half of Notre Dame’s game against No. 19 BYU in Las Vegas on Oct. 8 at 7:30 ET on NBC.

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