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Things We Learned: Notre Dame OL’s second-half surge against Cal a step forward despite ‘a long way to go’

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After spearheading a dominant defensive effort for Notre Dame in their win over Cal, Isaiah Foskey discusses the unit's improved intensity in practice this week and what it meant to get Marcus Freeman his first win.

Marcus Freeman’s verb tense caught back up with the present, and it was no coincidence that came immediately after Notre Dame (1-2) found the first win of his head-coaching career, beating Cal, 24-17.

“We are an O-line, D-line -driven program,” Freeman said Saturday. “Got to be able to run the ball, but you can’t just say this is what we’re going to do, that’s it. You have to be able to adjust to what is having success and to what an offense or defense is giving to you.”

A week ago, Freeman had to couch his aspirations for the program with an “if” qualifier. For the first half against the Bears, it looked like that would again be the case offensively, though the offensive line’s biggest issues early were repeated false starts and not failed blocks.

Instead of constant pressure plaguing him, the Irish skill-position players could not buoy junior quarterback Drew Pyne in his first career start. Dropped passes made his first few possessions look worse than they were, as did him missing a few open looks to preseason All-American junior tight end Michael Mayer. Less obvious but just as problematic, freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather failing to motion presnap when expected to led to an aborted third-down attempt deep in Cal territory.

“We have to have people that make the quarterback look good,” Freeman said. “A lot of the result of play falls on the shoulders of the quarterback, but there’s so much that happens during a play that really dictates the outcome.

“But the quarterback is going to have to answer to it.”

While a few moments of a particular phone call between Pyne and Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees garner most of the attention and were clearly aimed at Pyne’s mistakes, reminding him of others’ mishaps was assuredly a fine line to toe on the sideline. Giving the quarterback some leeway in acknowledging the stagnation was not entirely on him could not come at the cost of cutting into his trust in his teammates to make plays.

Regardless of who to blame, Notre Dame managed just seven points in the first half for the second consecutive week.

“We got to offensively start faster,” Freeman said Monday. “We just didn’t execute really those routine plays early in the game. A lot of the fault will fall on the shoulders of Drew, but it wasn’t all Drew. We had some drops, we had a couple penalties. Drew had some uncharacteristic throws.

“We just could not get it going early in the game. To really look at how it got flipped in the second half, we were able to establish a run game. What does that do? It opens up areas in the pass game.”

The Irish gained 109 yards in the first half on 30 plays. They gained 189 in the second half on 31 plays (not counting the final three-and-out for a loss of a yard as Notre Dame drained the game clock). Their first four possessions were three-and-outs, followed by a fumble before finally mounting a 10-play, 60-yard march for a touchdown. Six of Notre Dame’s seven first-half possessions were the exact opposite of “quality drives.”

Its first three second-half possessions resulted in scores, with only one genuine possession considered a waste.

What changed? That ground game, as Freeman said. “If” became “now.” Sophomore running back Audric Estimé and junior Chris Tyree combining to take 18 carries for 75 yards (again before that final three-and-out somewhat designed to pin Cal deep in its own territory) is far from glamorous, but a 4.2 yards per attempt average is a viable offensive approach.

It was no coincidence Pyne went 10-of-11 for 93 yards in the second half. Compared to his 7-of-12 for 57 yards in the first half, it was a difference of night and day, both in production and confidence.

“First, you’re like, ‘Okay, he’ll get it,’” Freeman said Saturday of Pyne’s early struggles. “You tap him on the shoulder pad.

“And then that’s not working, kind of went to the other end of the spectrum, ripped his butt a little bit. That didn’t work too much.”

Pyne finally relaxed, thanks in no small part to Estimé, Tyree and his offensive line.

“It helped, because you gain a little confidence in the running game in the second half, and then you start making those passes,” Freeman said.

That combination put enough points on the board for Freeman to now have every coach’s favorite opportunity, coach his team after a win. The Irish made plenty of mistakes Saturday, perhaps most notably in trying to intercept Cal’s heave on the final play rather than spiking it to the ground. Freeman had to restrain himself from pulling the defensive backs aside immediately and walking through that oversight.

Instead, he enjoyed the win for a moment.

“We didn’t execute for 60 minutes straight, but there was the execution when you needed it most,” he said Monday. “There’s a lot of good learning from the film. It’s always better to use those teaching opportunities after wins than it is after a loss.”

Not all the defensive backs made that mistake. Just a few plays earlier, it had been senior Cam Hart stepping in front of junior Clarence Lewis as Lewis dabbled in an interception return. Hart convinced Lewis to hit the turf, though the play was eventually invalidated by a targeting penalty on senior linebacker JD Bertrand that not only leaves Notre Dame yet without a forced turnover this season but will also sideline Bertrand for the first half at North Carolina (3:30 ET; ABC).

Similarly, for all the offensive line’s success in the second half, enough to change hopes of progress into tangible signs of it, the Irish could not hold onto the ball in the final minutes to remove any Bears’ chance of that tying touchdown. The second-half stats may offer a more accurate description of the game flow when ignoring that final drive — three Estimé rushes for four yards before a delay of game penalty, intentionally drawn, led to a punt into the end zone — but forgetting that drive’s failure glosses over the work still ahead of Notre Dame to become the O-line and D-line -driven program Freeman demands.

The defensive line responded by pressuring Cal quarterback Jack Plummer, including the final sack of its six in the game. But the reality was, the Bears never should have gotten back possession.

“You’re starting to see some consistency out of that group,” Freeman said of the offensive line. “[Fifth-year left guard Jarrett Patterson], this is his second game. Those guys have been together for three games. They’re getting better.

“They’re improving. The fundamentals, the execution, the techniques they’re playing with are improving. They have a long way to go.”

A long way to go while driving Notre Dame as far as it will go in 2022. In Saturday’s second half, they drove enough.

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