Notebook: Baker, Notre Dame O-line ooze confidence heading into clash with Wisconsin

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Tosh Baker runs a drill during football practice, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Darlings of social media in the summertime, when NIL deals from barbecue to “dude wipes” were coming their way, Notre Dame’s offensive linemen have largely stayed away from checking their Twitter notifications and Facebook feeds for the past month.

“We don’t need someone to tell us that we need to play better,” grad senior right tackle Josh Lugg said earlier this week.

The insulation from the outside seems to be working, at least from an attitude standpoint.

Heading into a Saturday matchup with the nation’s No. 2 team in total defense and No. 1 against the run, 18th-ranked Wisconsin (1-1), Lugg was upbeat — even bullish — about the progress he said the Irish offensive line has made even since Saturday’s 27-13 ND victory over Purdue.

Especially sophomore left tackle Tosh Baker, who’s likely to start at left tackle for the 12th-ranked Irish (3-0) at Chicago’s Soldier Field in the 10th-ever Shamrock Series game and the first one to be staged since 2018.

Kickoff on FOX is noon EDT, and both FOX and ESPN will be on location with their popular pregame shows leading up to kickoff.

“His confidence in the last week and a half has soared,” Lugg said of the 6-8, 307-pounder, who last week became the third different player to start at the position in three games, with freshman Blake Fisher out until sometime in November following knee meniscus surgery and sophomore Michael Carmody “a gametime decision” Saturday for the second week in a row because of an ankle injury.

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“Things have slowed down for (Baker) immensely,” Lugg continued, "and I think he has the confidence going in now each week that he can get the job done. 

“It's because he goes against Jordan Botelho in practice for 10 to 15 reps. He goes against Myron (Tagovailoa-Amosa) for 10 to 15 reps. Building that up over time and seeing you execute that on film is really what’s going to lead to that confidence and production that you’re going to have.”

Baker began the season as the fourth option at tackle, taking reps on the left and right sides. 

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“We’ve cross-trained him,” Lugg said, “and he accepted that better than anybody else. Sometimes, in the back of your head, you’re saying, ‘I just want to solidify a spot here.’ But for him, he never makes excuses about having to go back and forth.”

The Irish are tied with Louisiana for 126th place out of 130 FBS teams in sacks allowed, while the national ranking for the Irish in rushing offense is 115th.

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“We’re developing right now,” Lugg said. “Everyone’s effort on the offensive line has never been in question. Now it’s how do we execute our fundamentals and go back to the basics each day? 

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

Buchner up to speed

After playing 19 impactful snaps in his collegiate debut Sept. 11 against Toledo, Notre Dame freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner was limited to eight plays in the 27-13 win over Purdue last Saturday because of a tight hamstring.

He did, however, notably convert a 3rd-and-17 play with a 20-yard run on a QB draw.

"Buchner is improving,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said during a Thursday Zoom call with the media. “His miles per hour in terms of full-out sprint (Wednesday) was where we wanted it to be. We'll add more to his load with the expectation of preparing him for his role at quarterback on Saturday."

The goal is to be able to rotate him in as a complement to starter Jack Coan, a less-mobile, more experienced option. Coan will be making career start No. 22 — and fourth in an Irish uniform — against the team he played for, for the first four years of his college career.

Notre Dame’s Jordan Botelho (12) and Caleb Offord (21) tackle Purdue's Andrew Hobson (21) during the Notre Dame-Purdue game, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

More Botelho on defense

Sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho made a quiet season debut last Saturday against Purdue, playing only on special teams, after missing ND’s first two games of the 2021 season for undisclosed reasons.

"I think Jordan is much further along than he was last week,” Kelly said. “Just getting back on the practice field, (he) didn't really have his legs underneath him last week. He should play a much more, I would say, important role in what we do defensively.”

And what makes the 6-3, 245-pound Hawaii product such a potentially impactful addition for first-year Irish coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defense?

“The main thing about Botelho is you never know what you’re going to get each rep,” said Lugg, who’s faces Botelho in practice regularly. “He has speed. He has power. He's very good with his hands, and so he makes me better.”

Family traditions fuel Ferguson

Wisconsin senior tight end Jake Ferguson’s streak of 36 straight games with at least one catch is the nation’s third-longest among active players.

Given his background, it’s not exactly a surprise. His brother, Joe, played safety for Wisconsin from 2013-17, and dad Brad played football at Nebraska in the late ‘80s.

The winningest coach in Wisconsin history, Barry Alvarez, is his grandpa, who shared recently on the ND Insider Pod of Gold podcast that Jake grew up with an unusual “toy” in his room.

A tackling dummy.

Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84). catches a pass in front of Eastern Michigan Eagles defensive back T.J. Peavy (8) during their football game on Saturday, September 11, 2021, in Madison, Wis.

Alvarez was Wisconsin’s athletic director when this meeting with the Irish and the one last year at Green Bay, Wis., postponed to 2026 due to COVID-19, were contracted. Alvarez was also Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator the last time the Irish won a national title in football (1988).  

Jake Ferguson in 2020 was a Mackey Award semifinalist, an award recognizing the nation’s top tight end, and a first-team All-Big Ten selection. 

Austin playing catch-up

After more than doubling his career catch total with eight receptions (for 154 yards and a TD) in ND’s first two games this season, senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. was targeted a team-high nine times in the Purdue win.

And came away with zero catches.

"Kevin works as hard as anybody that we have in our program,” Kelly said. “He probably didn't play up to his standards. I don't know that anybody needed to remind him of that. He's a guy with a lot of pride and wants to perform at the highest level. 

“He went back to work and practiced real hard and prepared real hard with in mind that he wants to make an impact in this game." 

Notable numbers

Saturday will be the 17th clash between Notre Dame and Wisconsin, but the first since 1964. A 31-7 Irish uprising at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., that year was the first game of coach Ara Parseghian’s regime and set the tone for a long renaissance for Notre Dame football after a protracted down cycle.

One of the previous meetings took place at Soldier Field in 1929. That’s where the Irish played three de facto home games that season while Cartier Field was being razed and Notre Dame Stadium was being built.

Coach Knute Rockne’s Irish prevailed, 19-0, on their way to a 9-0 season and a national title.

• Notre Dame is 9-0 in the previous nine Shamrock Series games, winning by an average of 23 points.

• ND head coach Brian Kelly is 22-21 vs. AP Top 25 teams while at Notre Dame, and 30-26 in his career.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI