5 ND football observations: Defense to be Irish's strength in 2022. Special teams, not so much

SOUTH BEND — Everybody expected sophomore tight end Andrew Yanoshak to score the first touchdown of Saturday's Blue-Gold Game.

Right?

And that two early-enrollee freshman — running back Jadarian Price and quarterback Steve Angeli — would engineer a second-half comeback for the Gold team capped by Angeli's diving, 10-yard touchdown run as time expired.

For sure. 

The annual scrimmage that served as the 15th and final practice session of the spring for the Irish under first-year head coach Marcus Freeman ended in a dramatic 13-10 win for the Gold in front of 33,754 fans at Notre Dame on a 80-degree afternoon. 

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Other than the picture-perfect day, the contest was far from a work of art, as its broad brush strokes highlighted the same clues about this team that most had already gathered. The holes seems to be where we thought they'd be, as are the strengths.

Here are five observations from Saturday's game:

1. Quarterback Drew Pyne's rollercoaster performance 

Quarterback Tyler Buchner did not play because of a minor ankle injury suffered last week. Therefore, Drew Pyne started for both the Blue and Gold teams.

Neither offense showed much until Gold's third drive. Pyne marched Gold into Blue territory by completing passes of 24, 11, 10, and 7 yards to four different players.

But Pyne floated his next pass into double coverage and it was picked off by Justin Walters. 

Gold was spared the turnover as an offsides penalty by defensive end Lacey nullified the play.

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But on the next play Pyne was intercepted again, this time by linebacker Jordan Botelho who returned it into Gold territory, setting up the first score of the game. It was a bad read by Pyne.

Notre Dame linebacker Jordan Botelho (12) and defensive lineman Jacob Lacey (54) celebrate during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

A couple Gold drives later, Pyne tried a screen pass to his running back, but threw it right at linebacker Marist Liufau who returned it 25 yards.

Pyne regrouped, and led a nice drive for Blue before halftime, hitting passes of 20 and 11 yards to put them in the red zone. He capped it off with a 3-yard touchdown to Yanoshak for a 10-0 Blue lead.

Pyne didn't play in the second half. He finished 14-of-23 passing for 129 yards  and two interceptions for the Gold team. For Blue he was 9-of-12 for 56 yards and a touchdown. Combined he went 23-of-35 for 185 yards, one touchdown, two picks, and one sack combined.

"It was up and down," Freeman said of Pyne's performance. 

Freeman is putting some of that on the offensive weapons.

"There's got to be guys that make the quarterback look good," he said. "That's the challenge. It's all about making the perfect throw, we have to have some guys that can make it look good."

Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne (10) drops back to pass during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

2. Mistakes cost teams victories

There was some sloppy play today by both squads. The Gold team had seven penalties while the blue had four.

Right tackle Blake Fisher had a false start on the opening offensive drive for Blue. Offensive lineman Caleb Johnson had two false start penalties for Gold. 

Penalties cost ended up costing Blue a victory, which can serve as an important lesson in a inconsequential game.

On the final drive, Angeli completed a 10-yard pass to Charlie Selna, and while two defenders began to tackle him, Ryan Barnes hit him above the head, so a targeting penalty added 15-yards. It set up the game-winning touchdown scramble four plays later.

Notre Dame has to erase silly mistakes — like a targeting personal foul in the closing minute of its spring game. 

3. Defensive unit looked strong

The defense for both sides played well, as expected. 

Blue's defense started with a 10-yard sack by defensive lineman Rylie Mills. It was the only sack of the game.

Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau (8) grabs an interception during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Each defense showed it could get off the field on third-down, forcing 22 punts — 11 each — combined.

The defense is expected to be the heavy hitter of this team, and nothing that happened Saturday suggested otherwise.

"The ability in the plus territory to create turnovers is huge," Freeman said. "There were times I think the offense was running the ball and running the ball, and they tried to create a pass, but the ability to keep teams out of the end zone was really big."

4. Brandon Joseph multi-positional player

The acquisition of safety Brandon Joseph from Northwestern through the transfer portal looks like a great fit.

Joseph was plugged in right where Kyle Hamilton played last season, and has been one of the better defensive players on the field during practice.

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We know about his pass defense, but he showed fans what he can do against the run.

On the second drive for the Gold defense, Blue running back Audric Estime took the handoff, and Joseph came up quickly to fill the hole and tackled him for a 5-yard loss. In the second quarter, Estime was met again by by Joseph up the middle for no gain.

If Saturday is an indication, Joseph may not only play at safety this season. Numerous times Joseph was in the slot helping out with a tight end or another receiver. He even batted down a pass.

Joseph was used as a punt and kickoff returner numerous times. He didn't have any chance to return any of them because he called for a fair catch each time.

Freeman and special teams coordinator Brian Mason said during spring practices that Joseph has a possibility to be the punt and kickoff returner this season.

5. Not so special teams performance

Speaking of special teams, There looks to be plenty of room for  improvement. 

Freeman didn't mince words.

"We got to improve," he said. "If we want to be a championship-caliber football team, we got to improve in the kicking game."

Josh Bryan missed both his 48- and 37-yard opportunities. Transfer Blake Grupe made one from 36 yards but missed a 41-yarder.

Hitting just one of four very makeable field goals in ideal weather conditions is concerning. 

In the punting game, Chris Salerno had an average of 32.6 yards per punt for Gold  while Bryan Dowd averaged 42 yards per punt for Blue. Notre Dame will be adding Jon Sot during the summer as a transfer graduate from Harvard.

Notre Dame tight end Charlie Selna (89) comes up with a loose ball during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

There was a terrible special teams error in the second quarter when Gold punted and Blue returner Jaden Simonson misjudged the ball while trying to call a fair catch. He had to run up and try a baseball slide to catch it, but instead fumbled it away to Gold. 

Special teams as a whole needs improvement. Saturday's performance all-around was negative, and the coaches took notice.