Analysis: Notre Dame again falls into predictable pattern on offense

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tyler Buchner’s first snap as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback could hardly have gone better.

Three-step drop. Quick release in 1.9 seconds. Safe pass on the perimeter to speedy Lorenzo Styles, who slipped a tackle and raced downfield for a 54-yard gain.

A late-hit penalty moved the ball down to the 16. And then, inexplicably, the fifth-ranked Irish ran three straight times and settled for a field goal.

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There was a lot of settling in Saturday night’s 21-10 loss at second-ranked Ohio State. That’s not how you beat a powerhouse outfit like the Buckeyes, who have lost just four home games in the past decade.

After taking a three-point lead early in the second quarter and sending a detectable panic through the crowd of 106,594 at Ohio Stadium, Notre Dame did the following on its final six offensive series.

Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt.

That made for a memorable Irish debut for punter Jon Sot, the Harvard graduate transfer, but it was lousy viewing for those tuning in to see a 17-point favorite fall in the season opener.

Sep 3, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) drops to throw during the first quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive letdown

Yes, Notre Dame failed to finish, as coach Marcus Freeman lamented repeatedly afterward.

True, Al Golden’s defense wore down in the final quarter after frustrating the Buckeyes and Heisman Trophy candidate C.J. Stroud for much of the night.

And, no doubt, field position was rarely in the visitors’ favor, thanks in part to breakdowns on the kickoff return unit.

Yet, you could make a solid case this game was lost on offense. Not with turnovers, which both teams avoided, but with predictability.

Even after Buchner hit tight end Kevin Bauman for 22 yards on first down to set up the go-ahead score, this was how the Irish approached first down until their opportunity was squandered:

Run. Run. Run. Run. PASS. Run. Run. Run. Run.

That’s no way to beat a wily defensive coordinator like Jim Knowles, hired away from Oklahoma State last winter for $5.7 million over three years.

When Buchner was finally allowed to throw again on first down, Braden Lenzy laid out for a 32-yard grab.

Sep 3, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Braden Lenzy (0) makes a catch against Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Denzel Burke (5) in the third quarter of the NCAA football game between Ohio State Buckeyes and Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY Sports

When passing on first down, Buchner finished the night 4 of 6 for 108 yards — 18 yards per attempt. The rest of the time he went 6 for 12 for 69 yards — 5.8 yards per attempt.

Asked if more first-down variety would’ve helped, Freeman shook his head.

“That’s exactly what we wanted to do,” he said. “That was our plan going into the game: Be able to control the clock, limit their offensive possessions and run the football. That was our mindset for this game. That’s what our keys to victory were. We knew we weren’t going to try and outscore them.”

Maybe not, but what were the odds a 10-7 lead would hold up for 60 minutes? There was a better chance of NBA superstar LeBron James AND Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow making it through the night without being asked for yet another selfie from starstruck attendees.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, and Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman, right, shake hands after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Freeman, now 0-2 as a head coach after building his reputation on the defensive side, bristled a bit when asked about the delicate balance of preserving a slim lead on the road against a heavily favored foe.

“Preserve what?” he said. “I don’t think we were trying to preserve a lead. We can’t preserve anything. We’ve got to continue to attack. … Don’t hold on. And I felt that a little bit in me as a coach.”

If you’re wondering about halftime adjustments, well, basically there weren’t any. At least not in terms of offensive focus and the overall message.

“It was the same thing,” Freeman said. “Do not turn the ball over, take care of the football, try to continue to run the ball vertically and create some misdirection and (passing) shots like we did in the first half.”

How the points were scored:No. 2 Ohio State 21, No. 5 Notre Dame 10

Hard to do that when left guard Jarrett Patterson, the two-time team captain and fourth-year starter, was unable to make it through a test of his sprained right foot during warmups. Andrew Kristofic, making his eighth straight start at left guard, did a solid job filling in for Patterson, but this wasn’t the pound-the-rock, five-man wrecking crew rehired line coach Harry Hiestand envisioned all offseason.

Notre Dame averaged 2.5 yards on its 30 carries. Even Buchner as a running threat wasn’t as dangerous as normal (18 yards on 11 carries), although the tape on his right ankle as he walked off the field might have had something to do with that.

“I’m pleased with him,” Freeman said. “He got hit a couple times, he hurt his ankle a little bit and he continued to be tough and continued to run the ball. He’s going to be a really good football player and a great leader for us as we move forward.”

A win at Ohio State would have been a great way to expedite that process and vault the Irish solidly into the early College Football Playoff conversation. Instead, Notre Dame essentially played not to lose once it put itself in position to win at The Horseshoe for the first time in 86 years.

Pleased with punting

Consider Freeman’s account of his headset conversation with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees early in the third quarter.

“Probably the first or second drive of the second half, I told Tommy we did a really good job milking the clock,” Freeman said. “We ended up punting the ball, and I was pleased with that.”

Pleased with punting?

How many road upsets, especially in the modern era of video-game point totals, include those words in the postgame news conference of the winning coach?

Sep 3, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes safety Lathan Ransom (12) attempts to block a punt by Notre Dame Fighting Irish punter Jon Sot (39) during the second quarter of the NCAA football game at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

Rather than have Blake Grupe try a 54-yard field goal that would have stretched the lead to six, Freeman sent in Sot and the punt team. After the next possession ended after just one first down, the Irish punted again.

Rinse and repeat.

“I think all of that was sort of part of the plan coming into the game,” Buchner said of the run-first approach. “As the game unfolded, we stuck to the plan.”

Now in his third season as a coordinator, Rees should know better than anyone the perils of predictability after the Irish wasted a 28-7 first-half lead in the Fiesta Bowl against the Knowles-crafted Cowboys offense.

While letting Jack Coan throw a school-record 68 times, Notre Dame finished that 37-35 loss with 35 called pass plays out of its final 37 offensive snaps.

The Irish offense was out of balance on New Year’s Day. The same could be said after this missed opportunity on Labor Day Weekend.

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and on TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.