Notre Dame will battle the University of California at Berkeley in South Bend on Saturday afternoon. This is the first meeting of these teams since 1967 and it comes at a time when the Fighting Irish are reeling from a pair of losses on the field and a devastating injury. The Bears won their first two games against lower-level competition but are 6-2 in their last eight games dating back to last fall. Cal and Notre Dame have three common opponents scheduled this year in UNLV, Stanford, and USC but very little is known about the Bears at this point. The game will be nationally televised by NBC starting at 2:30 PM Eastern time.
The Bears are coached by Justin Wilcox, who is 28-28 in his sixth season. Despite the pair of victories this month as heavy favorites, he is unhappy with the performance of his team. “We played well enough to win, but not near where we’re capable of playing,” Wilcox said. “We need to improve significantly.” Cal will face a much sterner test at Notre Dame before shifting to PAC-12 conference play for the remainder of the season.
The beleaguered Irish offense lost its starting quarterback last Saturday when a tackler landed with full force on Tyler Buchner and broke his collarbone. Junior Drew Pyne finished the game and has been named the starter this week. He inherits an offense that has struggled to establish a competent rushing attack.
The ground game has been beset by slow-developing plays and the inability of the linemen and tight ends to sustain blocks. The play calls are often telegraphed by the formation and personnel. Defenses have been sending linebackers and safeties into gaps without any negative consequences. Offensive Coordinator Tom Rees has yet to call a screen pass this season. The one misdirection run the Irish tried last week was successful but Rees never went back to it.
Up front, the line often has more bodies to block than is possible. Even when that is not the case, however, poor communication and whiffed blocks have blown up potential gains. While the coaching staff has earned a share of the blame, the players are not exempt from scrutiny. They failed to protect Buchner with any consistency and the sophomore was continually battered before being broken.
The disconnects in the passing game were due in part to pressure on Buchner, his accuracy issues when the protection held, and the inability of receivers to gain separation. Surprisingly, play action passes have worked well. Buchner hit on 13 of 16 such throws and often used the middle of the field. He was just 15 of 34 on all other throws. The disparity points back to Rees, who must modify his strategy to suit Pyne’s strengths and emphasize what is working.
Defensively, the front seven other than tackle Howard Cross have been a collective disappointment. Runners have repeatedly gained positive yardage before meeting contact. The pass rush has exerted very little pressure and the group has yet to force a turnover. The linebackers are late to the ball as they struggle to get off blocks or are unsure of their assignment. Defensive Coordinator may have to simplify his schemes further or give younger players more snaps. Or both.
Besides Buchner, the Irish depth chart is intact from last week. Cal’s best defensive lineman, Brett Johnson, was preparing to return to the field after missing all of last year before misfortune struck. A lower body injury suffered days before the season opener will cause him to miss 2022 as well. He and Notre Dame’s Avery Johnson seem to share the same bad luck.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. CAL’S DEFENSE
The Bears have played two clearly inferior teams to date so statistics from those contests can be misleading. Even against weak foes, they have shown a vulnerability to the run that Notre Dame must exploit. Cal uses a 3-4 front but will move up an outside linebacker or even two to rush the passer. The Bears rotate Braxton Croteau, Myles Jernigan or Xavier Carlton for that purpose. Massive nose tackle Ricky Correia (6’4” 335) occupies blockers and enables his teammates to make plays.
Inside backers Jackson Sirmon and Oluwafemi Oladejo are also plus-size players for their position. They lead the team in tackles. Veteran safety Daniel Scott is a quality player who anchors an otherwise ordinary secondary. Cal’s corners are the least experienced the Irish will have faced so far this season. The receivers will have no excuses if they cannot make Pyne’s job easier.
Given Pyne’s relatively small stature and arm strength, I expect the Irish passing game will be limited to short zone tosses and intermediate throws toward the sideline. Cal will try to force Pyne into third and long situations. They will likely gamble by keeping at least one safety close to the line to defend the run and clog the short passing lanes. Rees must devise runs and screens that will counter this aggression and get the ball to his speedier players on the perimeter.
Notre Dame must be able to handle Correia in the middle and its linemen and tight ends must make blocks at the second level. This has not happened with any consistency through the first eight quarters of the season but it is well past time to start.
CAL’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Bears dipped into the transfer portal for starting quarterback Jack Plummer. Notre Dame fans will recall that Plummer started for Purdue against the Irish last season. He was replaced in that game and later lost his starting job to Aidan O’Connell. With Cal, Plummer has a young but capable set of receivers led by Jeremiah Hunter and J. Michael Sturdivant. Tight end Keleki Latu is 6’6” and presents an imposing target downfield. Plummer is not a threat as a runner but is generally accurate with short passes.
Aside from Plummer, the most impactful new face for the Bears is freshman running back Jadyn Ott. He is the leading rusher by a wide margin and has scored the only rushing touchdown for the team to date. Ott’s success and playing time has come at the expense of incumbent starter Damien Moore, who is still listed as the starter. He has a total of nine carries in two games.
Wilcox has put together a large front line to pave the way for points. Left tackle Ben Coleman moved over from guard this year and has handled the transition well. Last year’s left tackle, Brayden Rohme, has moved to the right side. Veteran center Matthew Cindric begins his fourth season as a full-time starter. Despite the size and experience, this group has managed just 3.6 yards per attempt on the ground and has had some difficulty protecting Plummer in the pocket.
This battle in the trenches is one Notre Dame can and should win. We said that last week, however, and Marshall pushed them around. A better defensive performance this week is a must because the Irish do not figure to score many points with Pyne getting acclimated at quarterback.
Notre Dame’s Jon Sot has punted so well (and often) this season he is gaining support as the team’s most valuable player. That’s great for Sot but not such a good sign for the state of the offense. Kicker Blake Grupe has been solid although he could use a little more work. Brandon Joseph managed a good punt return last week and Chris Tyree had a noteworthy kick return. Irish fans hope after a decade of semi-hibernation that special teams can deliver big plays once again.
Dario Longhetto has hit four of five field goals and all six extra points. He also drives his kickoffs into the end zone more often than not. Punter Jamieson Sheahan is even more impressive. He sports a 48-yard average thus far. Neither of Cal’s return teams has put up significant numbers. Neither side has an advantage on paper but game changing plays from these teams tend to arrive without warning.
Both teams rely on a successful running game to set up short and intermediate passes. Plummer does not take many shots down the field and the Irish are less likely to do so with Pyne at the helm. The team that wins up front and stays out of third and long situations will come out ahead. Notre Dame has a talent advantage but much will depend on the play calling by Rees and the energy level of the defense.
You know the situation is desperate when Notre Dame pulls out the green jerseys for a game that has no special significance. It would be worthwhile if the day produces Freeman’s first victory but there isn’t anywhere else to go for inspiration if the team flops for the third consecutive week.
Here are a few questions that will help determine the outcome:
- Will Pyne be able to connect with his receivers on play-action passes?
- Which defense will apply the most effective pressure on the quarterback?
- Can Tom Rees devise a ground game without Buchner to run the zone read?
- Which special teams will contribute impact plays?
- Will the Irish finally discover a reserve of energy in the fourth quarter?
- Can Plummer maintain his 69% completion rate against the Irish?
- Will Notre Dame’s defense finally force a turnover?
- How much should NBC pay for the privilege of broadcasting ND Football?
The Irish should win if they approach their potential and demonstrate the sense of urgency that has been lacking. No starting positions have been lost as yet except to injury but another poor performance should result in lineup changes. Cal presents some challenges but does nothing well enough on either side of the ball to dominate. Coach Freeman and his staff can find weaknesses to exploit. It is a matter of putting the players in the best position to succeed. Unfortunately, games are not won on paper and there are no sure things this season. Expect another close game decided not by great plays but by the team making the fewest mistakes.
Freeman became a Roman Catholic this week, so it would be fitting to see him receive a post-game baptism of sorts from his players with a bucket of Gatorade. This one could go either way but the Irish defense should avoid giving up another 95-yard drive with the game on the line.