Fuming Irish Tackle the Bears

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.

Drew Pyne steps in as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback

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.

Safety Daniel Scott leads the Bears secondary

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.

Speedster Chris Tyree should get more touches this week

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.

Jaydn Ott has become the go-to tailback for the Bears

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.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

SUMMARY

Jack Plummer returns to South Bend with Cal to play Notre Dame

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?

PREDICTION

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.

NOTRE DAME 20  CAL 17

33 thoughts on “Fuming Irish Tackle the Bears

  1. As always, a great preview…one slight nit; I don’t believe the Irish are resorting to wearing green jerseys as a means to rally the team. Rather, the green jerseys were reported back on June 30th so this was planned in advance. That being said, I’m not in favor of this team wearing green. It unnecessarily boosted BC’s spirits in 2002 and we all know how that game ended. Enough with the green jerseys and gimmicks. Wear the blue and gold and win a freaking game.

    • Frederick Wieseman says:

      I agree Freeman has a lot of learning as a head coach. I’m getting upset that the Administration
      Is playing the training ground. Some of FREEMANS COACHES WERE FAILURES IE;
      AlGolden just to mention one. Let’s get an established coach or at least get a winning
      Coach to show Freeman how it’s done to
      Support his lack of head coaching. This administration has put Markus Freeman on
      A track to fail.

  2. If they don’t play PISSED they shouldn’t wear the uniforms, and their “Captains” shouldn’t be “Captains”.

    This is not on Freeman – it’s on every guy on that team.

  3. Good to know Marcus is on The Team. Agree with the green jersey comment above. We are the Blue and Gold.

    As for the game, about time for the OL to show some dominance and push people around. And time for the Dee to make some big plays. Both units have underperformed. I hope they are indeed fuming when it’s game time.. And please let Tyree touch the ball.

  4. I remember back in the 80s when Chris Zorich played for ND. It was said that a lot of the players played as hard as they did because they were afraid of Zorich if they didn’t.

    In the pre-game last Saturday there he was – wearing a kilt.

  5. Green jerseys for this game is pretty lame. It will really look bad if ND loses to Cal wearing green jerseys.

    It looks like Tommy Rees was in reality just an apprentice to Brian Kelly the last two seasons and not really the offensive coordinator. Now that Kelly has left and is not looking over his shoulder he is little boy lost.

    Marcus Freeman is a good man and I think everyone agrees but I feared his inexperience as a HC would cost us at least 2-3 games but now it looks like it will cost us the entire season.

  6. Excellent analysis, as always, John.

    I see this week as can the Irish persevere in a game that is tougher than it should be. The irish’s level of play trajectory, and their businesslike (unemotional) game demeanor, from the Ohio State game to now, are all wrong- can the Irish turn it around? Ree’s play calling is critical, as John points out. So are tackling abilities.

    I think John’s score prediction is right- one team will have 20 and one team will have 17- well, Irish, whatcha gonna do?

  7. Irish are a huge disappointment so far. Freeman is serving his OJT time at the team’s and the fans’ expense. Either Rees keeps calling runs into stacked boxes or the QBs don’t have the sense to check out of those plays. Receivers are NAIA level at best, and we got nobody from the portal to help. Lines and LBs are meh. DBs, not bad so far. Same with special teams. Looks like a long, crappy season.

  8. Amazed by the amount of discussion over the color of the Irish jerseys for the game. Talk about majoring in the minors. They could be pink, for all I care. It’s really very simple. We need to go out there, play fundamentally sound football and win the game.

  9. Caroline’s Dad says:

    I just haven’t been able to comment for the first two games. First one, OK, I accepted the hostile crowd in Columbus and a first-time starter, etc. no reason to comment. Second one last week, left me more stunned than angry. So disappointed to see the team outplayed so badly.

    Then why comment ahead of tomorrow’s game? I can’t figure out why I am still expecting a win. What’s wrong with me? Am I so blinded by fandom that I can’t see the writing on the wall? Or am I actually understanding that not everything works the way we want it to in hype videos, and sometimes it just takes a lot longer to get out of neutral than we all want it to?

    I really am not sure anymore….

  10. I am afraid that a loss here means a total collapse of the season. A win is a must but doesn’t mean a turnaround. Crunch time comes soon on the road with NC and BYU. Maybe the green jerseys will give them the little spark they need but even if it does remember this just Cal not USC.

  11. There will be no victory baptism. First, we have to win, and we’ve proven that is no certain thing. But also, you don’t celebrate with Gatoraid when a head coach raises his career winning percentage to 25%.

  12. JVAN,

    I’m still on the Freeman bandwagon!!
    BUT:
    Tommy Rees is lost and will have very few answers for a well coached, disciplined D that Justin Willcox oversees..

    No separation from our WR is the biggest problem facing our O this weekend.. Not to mention no push from our OL. Pyne will be forced into bad decisions…

    And like Marshall, CAL is loaded with 4th, 5th and 6th year Seniors (over 30 of them)… They will not be denied on this HUGE stage..

    CAL 27
    ND 17

  13. And we are an 11 point favorite? Don’t get it. If TR doesn’t open up the playbook, other than having Pyne running the naked reverse, and the defense plug some holes, we’re done for. I’m still the optimist, and hope we’ll send Cal back to Berkeley with a loss and our first win. Thank heavens the kicking game has been solid. We’ll need it if the game is close in the 4th.
    My heart goes out to Buchner. I grew up in Connecticut and was a HS football there for many years, so I really have high hopes for Drew. May he channel his inner Pete Demmerle.

      • Irish in the South says:

        You guys are all downers. Pyne has leadership skills that can make a difference now that he knows he is the guy. I think he will find Michael Mayer all day long Saturday.

      • Rees may be afraid to start Angeli because he is too inexperienced; but Pyne is
        – too small
        – too careless
        – too flabby
        – too slow
        – too weak
        – too ineffectual

        Hopefully by the second half it will be toodle-oo Drew and hello Steve.

        • F.A Wieseman III says:

          We are told over the last few
          Years how good the recruitment of these young
          Men has been. Is the problem coaching? I look at other programs and youngsters are playing roles
          And seeing success.
          I look at ND football and we
          Are hearing a lot of pep
          Rally speeches and not a lot
          Of commitment. We have heard so many excuses.
          Look back too the era of Ara.
          Did he excuse over and over
          With a ND loss ? He was a
          Coach that was successful
          Every where he coached. How about Holtz he won with
          With the ND spirit when things got tough. No excuse
          Or crying over a call that went against hits teams, his
          Way was play on tougher.

  14. Like Book replacing Wimbush, and Rees replacing Crist, Drew Pyne is going to provide a huge spark. The offense will be better from her forward. Freeman and Co will make the same defensive adjustments they did last year after surrendering 70 points to very bad Florida St and Toledo teams.

    • Personally, I don’t know what leadership qualities Rees sees in Buchner. When they are down, he has zero urgency to rally the troops. Granted he should see the field more, but not as the starting QB. Make him a slot receiver and get him the ball in space.

      On the flipside, I am not sure Pyne is any better in the leadership category. But, that is only because we haven’t seen much of him. I hope you’re right that Pyne will provide the spark. He did against Wisconsin last season and nearly rallied the team back against UC after both Coan and Buchner were floundering. I have a feeling, though, that Pyne is due.

  15. Jerome McKeever says:

    Coach Freeman and staff seem unable to make in-game adjustments, while the opposition coaches in the bowl game last year, and in the first two games this year made significant in-game changes that brought their teams back from behind to big, decisive wins. Is Marcus Freeman another Gerry Faust, the worst game-day coach ever? For the record, I love Freeman and Faust, they are both men of character, but I fear Freeman is Faust. Also, at Notre Dame at least, nice guys do finish last. I hope Freeman proves me wrong. Go Irish!

    • Was anyone as shocked as I was by Marcus Freeman’s post Marshall presser? The deer in the headlights analogy leaps to mind. And it’s not because he’s not intelligent or not motivated or not personable; it’s purely because right now, he’s not ready to be the head coach at Notre Dame or perhaps any other high profile program. Will he grow into the job? How long will we have to wait?

  16. Fuming Irish tackle? That would be something new for this defense. Apparently, they have been taught that running to the ball to whiff on the ball carrier is the name of the game.

    COME ON D…. FINISH THE PLAY!!!!

  17. Vinnie, usually your analysis passes me off, but that is only because you’re doing your job and being objective. Icannot dispute the facts as you lay them out. Thanks for all that you do with this site, man!

    GO IRISH!!!!

    • You’d be surprised at how many people would prefer that I blow sunshine up everyone’s collective butt instead of maintain a semblance of objectivity. Are you reading this, Irish in the South?

      Believe me, I hate to lose as much as anyone. I came through ND in the time of Ara Parseghian, though, so I know good football when I see it.

  18. Vannie,

    I am in Cincinnati. I have loved the Irish for a long, long time. My love began with the end of Ara, theb Devine, and then Lou (suffered through Faust, but Faust is a certified Notre Dame man…I have a TON of respect for him), so I know good football, too. Your watchful eye keeps me informed on the state of the program,

    Let’s hope the season is better than we anticipate.

    – Scott

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