Marshall came into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday with a mature group of confident athletes and a well-conceived scheme on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish turned in their most inept offensive performance since 2007 while the defense broke down again with the game on the line. The result was a 26-21 victory for the Thundering Herd over a Notre Dame squad that looks completely lost.
The Herd ran for 220 yards against 130 for the Irish. They picked off three passes and returned one for a touchdown. Notre Dame has not forced a turnover in its two games but has surrendered crucial 95-yard fourth quarter scoring drives to each opponent. To make matters even worse, starting quarterback Tyler Buchner suffered a shoulder injury in the final minutes and had to leave the game. Unconfirmed reports from the sideline indicate a broken collarbone. His status will be updated as official information becomes available.
Coach Marcus Freeman wanted a fast start from his offense but they stumbled through a scoreless first quarter. One drive ended in a failed fourth down attempt and another was stopped by a sack. Marshall got going late in the period with a mix of effective runs and passes that covered 79 yards. Khalan Laborn, who ran for 163 yards on the day, scored from four yards early in the second quarter. The Herd led 6-0 after a missed extra point.
The Irish offense finally began to show flashes of competence late in the half. Buchner ran effectively and hit Michael Mayer twice to lead a scoring march. Buchner finished the drive with a short run and the hosts led 7-6 with three minutes left before intermission.
Freeman wanted a defensive stop and another scoring opportunity. He used a timeout on Marshall’s next series to preserve time. Much to his dismay, the Herd kept moving the chains. They embarked on a well-executed march that stalled inside the Irish ten yard line. Rece Verhoff hit a 21-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining to put Marshall back in front by 9-7.
Notre Dame eschewed a kneel down and took a shot downfield. Buchner barely missed a wide open Braden Lenzy on a deep post. The 80,000 fans saw the play develop and were ready to explode. Instead, the half ended with a whimper.
The Irish appeared to be fired up and stopped quarterback Henry Colombi and the Herd to open the third quarter. Buchner and Audric Estime picked up first downs before Notre Dame faced a fourth and one near midfield. Marshall rose to the occasion as they did most of the afternoon to stuff Estime. Colombi took advantage of the field position by leading a drive that ended with another short field goal with four minutes left in the period
Trailing by 12-7, Notre Dame got a break on a pass interference penalty to keep the ensuing drive alive. Buchner then hit Mayer for 25 yards. Another pass to Kevin Bauman moved the ball to the one yard line as the quarter ended. Buchner barrelled in on a sneak to open the final stanza and followed up with a successful run for a two-point conversion.
The Irish led by 15-12 but a full quarter of football remained. The teams traded punts before the Herd took over on its own six. Marshall stuck mainly to the running game and simply ran it down the throats of the Irish. Colombi mixed in a couple of passes to keep the hosts honest, and the Herd found themselves in scoring territory. On third down and goal, Colombi rolled to his left and hit tight end Devin Miller for the go-ahead touchdown with 5:16 left in the game.
The game and quite possibly Notre Dame’s season unraveled moments later. Cornerback Steven Gilmore picked off a Buchner pass on the next series and returned it 37 yards for a score. The Irish offense took the field again trailing 26-15 with 4:35 on the clock. Buchner moved the team across midfield and ran for a first down when disaster struck. A defender fell on him and he walked of the field in pain with his left arm hanging by his side.
Drew Pyne entered the game with no time to warm up. The junior quickly threw an interception to kill the drive and the Irish hopes for a comeback. Notre Dame did get the ball back as time ran low. A late touchdown pass by Pyne to Mayer with 14 seconds left made the final score look a bit less disastrous. The Irish then tried a desperation onside kick but were slow to pounce on the ball when it might have been recoverable.
The Herd earned this victory by being the better team from a preparation, execution and physical standpoint. There are no excuses to be found or invented. It was a great win for Coach Charles Huff and his program. Notre Dame’s offensive scheme was exposed as a Mickey Mouse abomination and will only become more predictable if Buchner is lost for any length of time. The receivers other than Mayer and Lorenzo Styles are no factor whatsoever. The line cannot create holes for the running backs even when the defense does not stack the box.
Defensively, the front seven was purported to be a strength. They have been consistently moved off the ball and the linebackers have failed to fill their gaps. Opposing backs are running downhill and keeping their team out of third and long situations. More worrisome, however, is the failure to stop teams in the fourth quarter. Is conditioning a factor this early in the season? It should not be.
Let’s review the answers to our pregame questions:
- Will Notre Dame’s receivers have success against the talented Marshall cornerbacks? Each cornerback had an interception and dominated the Irish receivers most of the afternoon.
- Which offense will produce the most effective ground game? Laborn outrushed the Irish by a wide margin. A sad tale indeed.
- Can the Irish defense create and capitalize on third and long situations? They had a few good stops over the first three quarters but faltered again in the fourth.
- Which special teams will contribute impact plays? Notre Dame actually won this category. Chris Tyree had a nice kick return, Brandon Joseph chipped in with a punt return and the Irish partially blocked a punt. Marshall missed an extra point. There were no great momentum changing plays though.
- Will the Irish secondary build on its strong performance last week? Led by Tariq Bracy, the secondary held up reasonably well.
- Can Tom Rees silence his critics with inspired play calling? Last I checked, most Irish fans were calling for his head on a spike. That would probably be letting him off too easy.
- Which defense will be able to force turnovers? Three interceptions for Marshall while Notre Dame is still not sure how to spell t-u-r-n-o-v-e-r.
- Can Freeman ever convince ND to return to a grass field in the stadium? He should, because the Irish receivers were slipping all day. Unfortunately, Freeman has bigger fish to fry right now. Holding onto his job this week would be a good start. Evaluating the ineptitude of his Offensive Coordinator is a close second. If he has to find a new starting quarterback for a couple of months, neither of those tasks is likely going to matter.