CHAT TRANSCRIPT: Talking targets, leaky lines and must-wins as Notre Dame tries to move past opening loss at Ohio State
SOUTH BEND — It's Marshall Week!
You know what that means. There's still plenty to rehash in the wake of now No. 8 Notre Dame's 21-10 loss at second-ranked (and subsequently dropped a spot) Ohio State in the season opener. Thanks to you and your inquisitiveness, we covered a lot of ground in this week's Live Chat. (Edited for clarity and length.)
Mike Berardino: Good morning, Irish football followers. Thanks for all the questions. I'll do my best to answer them all. And away we go.
Joe: Did Isaiah Foskey actually play on Saturday? I thought Notre Dame had great depth on the defensive line that did not show up at the end. What happened?
Mike Berardino: Hey Joe, thanks for the question. I'm sure Foskey's every move was watched closely by the 43 NFL scouts from 27 different teams that were in attendance. He certainly drew extra attention from the highly regarded Ohio State offensive line (as well as the tight ends and backs). Aside from "Fast Hands" Howard Cross III sacking C.J. Stroud on the first defensive snap of the game, it was a fairly quiet night for the Irish D-line in general. Stroud's elusiveness is next-level stuff, as he showed when Foskey chased him to the sideline only to see Stroud find Emeka Egbuka for 16 yards to start the go-ahead TD drive late in the third quarter.
I'd also note that Foskey was the one player on defense that Ryan Day said during the week the Buckeyes had to know where he was "at all times." New DC Al Golden did try to keep Day guessing. Foskey's 40 snaps on defense (per PFF-College.com) were split almost equally between the left (19) and right (21) sides of the Irish front. Even so, Foskey was credited with just one QB hit on 20 total pass rushes and finished with the second-lowest pass rush grade of his 30-game career (only BC in 2020 was lower).
Left tackle Paris Johnson Jr. and right tackle Dawand Jones certainly had plenty to do with that, although I will note Jones was called for three false starts. (Not sure if Foskey was lined up over him on all of those.) Bottom line, Al Washington's group, starting with Foskey, should come away from that loss feeling quite salty. It won't see another O-line nearly that good until Clemson two months from now.
Chris: What’s your view on the why the Notre Dame run game wasn’t effective? Were you surprised Tobias Merriweather wasn’t more involved? TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Willams both averaged over 6 yards a carry. Worrisome or just good backs on a good team?
Mike Berardino: Hey Chris, thanks for your question. I was half-expecting Merriweather to get some snaps in the opener, but Marcus Freeman mentioned a nagging hamstring or knee issue that slowed his progress during the second half of training camp. I'd look for Tobias as well as Staes and Raridon to make their first college catches on Saturday if the Marshall game goes as expected.
As for the Irish run game sputtering, Jarrett Patterson's absence can't be brushed aside, but I still think it's vital to mix up the first-down play-calling far better than Tommy Rees did on Saturday. That was the topic of my postgame analysis, and it's something to watch moving forward as the Tyler Buchner era unfolds. Notre Dame's run defense will be fine. The Buckeyes' O-line was simply better on Saturday, but there will be plenty of chances for Notre Dame's experienced front 7 — now including Chris Smith (3 tackles in his debut) — to impose its will moving forward.
Ryan, Mars, Pa.: Mike, thanks for following me. Why did (defensive coordinator Al) Golden call the blitz on third down? Irish need to play good this week. Go Irish.
Mike Berardino: Hey Ryan, you got it. Freeman gave a minute-long explanation on the thinking and execution behind that all-out blitz on third-and-11 from the ND 24. I posted the video clip on NDInsider.com Monday right after the presser and would invite you to check it out. Basically, Freeman had no regrets about the call, but it might've worked better if TaRiq Bracy hadn't been off the field for that one play after trainers had to assist him moments earlier.
Steven from Athens, Ga.: Hello, thanks for the chats, I was surprised Saturday night watching the offensive line. I AM NO EXPERT, I just felt that particular unit was gonna be something we could hang our hat on. I'm glad to have coach Harry Hiestand back and know he'll get us squared away, but how surprised were you watching the lack of blitz pick-up and lack of running room? Thanks again. Go Irish!🍀
Mike Berardino: Yo, Steven. I agree there was more confusion up front, right from the first offensive snap, than I would've imagined. Again, the combo of Patterson and Zeke Correll was a key part of Harry Hiestand's vision for what this line could be. Andrew Kristofic did his best, but he's not an All-American and he's not a two-time captain. I'd also note Michael Mayer failed to chip the blitzing linebacker on the first offensive snap. Buchner took a blow to the head but still got the ball out in 1.9 seconds for a 54-yard gain to Lorenzo Styles. Kyren Williams will be missed in many ways, not the least of which was his almost-flawless mastery of blitz pickup. Deland McCullough emphasizes that with his RB group daily. That aspect needs to improve quickly.
Brian Sontchi, Batavia, Ill.: Have you noticed that Freeman’s 0-2 record as head coach corresponds with no second-half offensive adjustments? Did you notice how Ryan Day adjusted his offense in the second half to run the rock more than throw it? And why did Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees continue to call East-West plays against a super fast defense like the Buckeyes? When do you think Marcus Freeman will wake up and force Rees to make needed adjustments during a game?!?
Mike Berardino: Hi Brian, I hear you. Maybe that's part of the "learning curve" for any rookie head coach, finding the right balance between sticking with the plan and pivoting when necessary. As for the line, losing Patterson removed 34 career starts from the group. The 5-man OL that started in Columbus entered that game with 45 combined starts: Josh Lugg (20), Zeke Correll (8), Joe Alt (8), Andrew Kristofic (7) and Blake Fisher (2). While the left side of the line was familiar with those spots and as a combo, Correll had only started at center twice before and Lugg and Fisher had one start apiece at the spots they will play this season. Hard to "see things through one set of eyes" under those circumstances. Give it time.
Freeman addressed this on Monday: "I think sometimes you get the misperception that we’ve got an experienced offensive line. No, we don’t. We’ve got a young offensive line and a new offensive line coach. I’ve been really happy with what I’ve seen. For them to be able to adjust to the different looks we were getting, the different pressures — they were bringing pressures and movement all over the place. They got it down and got it honed in. We’re going to have some mistakes. We have to limit those errors."
Sam - Philadelphia: Hey, Mike! Hope all is well with you! Obviously, tough loss at the Horseshoe but definitely things to take away from it. Firstly, I think it was pretty evident that the offensive line was a bit inexperienced as Freeman said yesterday, but also you would have to think the loss of Patterson hurt pretty good. That Ohio State defense has certainly improved from last year so definitely a big test out of the gate. I don't think it's anything to be too worried about. Secondly, my main question here is about Tyler Buchner's targets. I wanted to mention the O-Line because I think it was tough to get a real reading on these receivers with Buchner having such limited time in the pocket. You would have Michael Mayer as probably the go-to guy, but other than that no one really took the initiative of leading the charge out of the receiving corps. Who do you think we should see more of out of that receiving core this weekend? Do you think we get a glance at Tobias Merriweather?
Mike Berardino: Hey, Sam, how are things in Philly? Matt Salerno made the circus catch of the night with that 31-yarder but he also got hit with an ill-time offensive pass interference penalty on first down at the plus-41. Mayer was targeted on nearly half of Buchner's 18 pass attempts, and he remains the ultimate security blanket on third down. I'd like to see more from Styles, who was targeted just once the rest of the night after his big gain on the opening snap. And I agreed that Kevin Bauman and (see above) the freshman tight ends deserve more chances in the passing game. As for Merriweather, I addressed this earlier. He needs to be fully healthy, of course, and as Freeman laid out on Monday, he (and the young tight ends) have to be more precise in practice to earn their coaches' trust.
Bob:I was impressed with the hustle and effort of Notre Dame on Saturday. Is the offensive line a work in progress? There seemed to be breakdowns in pass protection. Your thoughts on a timeline for fixing this?
Mike Berardino: Hi Bob. Please see above. I'm thinking the line will be much less leaky over the next three games (granted, against lesser foes), whether Patterson returns or not. By the time the Irish get to Vegas after the bye week, assuming a healthy Patterson plugged into the rest of the opening-night lineup, I'd assume the Hiestanders will be highly functioning, if not outright dominant.
Scott: Notre Dame's defensive backs played surprisingly well. Cam Hart looked way overmatched and showed no instinct. Safetyies cannot tackle except Brandon Joseph. Experienced defensive line never got any pressure. Disappointed. And Foskey, preseason All-American and potential first-round draft choice, was handled. Experienced offensive line could not run the ball at all. I thought Golden did a good job as a defensive coordinator and Rees was predictable as usual. Hope we can improve. Actually could have won the game. Thank you.
Mike Berardino: Hi Scott. Your observations are duly noted. Hart and position coach Mike Mickens insisted the junior corner was healthy and a full practice participant ahead of the opener, but Hart still had an unexplained absence on the final Monday practice period (Aug. 22) that was open to the media. Stroud certainly targeted Hart several times on the first scoring drive for Ohio State, including the 31-yard touchdown pass to Egbuka. On the night, Hart was targeted 7 times and gave up four receptions for 54 yards. PFF-College gave him his worst coverage grade by far for any game in which he's seen at least 10 defensive snaps. Considering the level of competition, that's understandable. On to Marshall.
The Jet from Evansville: Is there any hope of someone stepping up to be a good wideout?
Mike Berardino: Yo, Jet. Yes, there's always hope. In particular, I'd direct you to my TikTok page (@mikeberardinoNDI) for some highly encouraging camp viewing of young Tobias Merriweather. A healthy Deion Colzie (aka Big Smooth) would be helpful as well. He's still recovering from a PCL strain suffered early in camp.
Frank Lakeside Park, Ky.: The one time Rees called Kevin Bauman’s number it resulted in a big play. With so much attention given to Mayer, wouldn’t the other tight ends be viable pass-game options.? Seems it would free Mayer up a bit as well. What say you?
Mike Berardino: Hi Frank. Bauman pronounced himself "tremendously improved" as a route runner late in camp, so he probably should've been targeted more than the one time that resulted in a 22-yard gain on Saturday. Have you seen #TheShrug? Mayer knows the score. He's more than happy to leave others open as he draws extra attention from defenses all year. Now it's on his cohorts to get open and do something about it.
Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: Mike, predictably and certainly disappointingly, the Notre Dame coaching staff was overwhelmed against Ohio State. In your opinion, why did Coach Freeman and Offensive Coordinator Tommy Rees not attack Ohio State's defense more, especially after opening with a 54 yard pass play?
Mike Berardino: Hello, Alan. I can sense your frustration, but I don't think "overwhelmed" is the word for what we saw. Maybe it was more about being too stubborn. I will point out that through the first 24 minutes of the game, I tweeted the Irish had held the ball for 16 minutes. That was precisely the game plan going in. Over the last 36 minutes of the game, Ohio State had the ball for roughly 25 minutes. That's how you end up running 21 more plays than your opponent. That's how, at least on Saturday night, you win.
Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: Mike, three years from this very day Brian Kelly will regret leaving Notre Dame. I am of the belief three years from this very day Notre Dame will regret that Brian Kelly chose to leave. Am I wrong? Thank you for answering my question.
Mike Berardino: Hello again, Alan. We don't normally double up on questions from the same reader, but your follow-up caught my eye. Are you wrong? Impossible to say, but did you catch the end of the Florida State-LSU game? Did you see the look on Kelly's face? When it comes to regret, he might already be there. As for the ND side of the equation, have you seen the rankings for the next two recruiting classes? If Freeman and Co. can keep that rolling, the rest should take care of itself. Talent wins.
Josh - Indianapolis: Hello Mike. Thanks for hosting the chats. I was at the game, and from the nosebleed section it looked like our secondary held up well (for the most part) against Stroud and company, especially with not much of a pass rush. I know their best receiver was off the field for most of the game but what is your assessment of the secondary? Pretty important unit given the nature of offenses these days.
Mike Berardino: Hello, Josh. My pleasure. We haven't talked enough about Jaxon Smith-Ngiba and the message hit Brandon Joseph put on him five defensive snaps into that game. Was it targeting? I don't know. But JSN's helmet went flying and Joseph went high-stepping back to the ND huddle. That seemed pretty significant at the time. The Heisman Trophy candidate and top receiving threat for the Buckeyes had just two catches for 3 yards before exiting with what has been reported as a "low-grade hamstring injury." He's expected to miss a couple of weeks. Even after an improved second half, Stroud finished with just 6.6 yards per attempt and 223 total passing yards. Personally, I think Joseph is far too important to this secondary and this defensive identity in general to put him back there on punt returns. He's a sure tackler, a proven ballhawk and a game-changer on the back end of the Irish defense.
Claire - Alexandria, Va.: I honestly think Marshall has a great chance this week against the Irish. If Marshall somehow wins, do you see any chance of the HC seat getting warm for Marcus Freeman? Is it a must-win for him?Mike Berardino: Whoa. Look at you, Claire from Alexandria, shaking it up! Let me remind you, first off, that Toledo — destined to lose to Middle Tennessee State in the Bahamas Bowl — still clung to a five-point lead until the final 69 seconds at Notre Dame Stadium in Week 2 last season. I'd be stunned if that memory doesn't get Notre Dame's attention this week and propel the Irish to a bounce-back showing. The Freeman Era is just getting started. He's still in the honeymoon period. And don't forget, Brian Kelly's first season included losses to Navy and Tulsa (at home). Year 2 began with a home loss to South Florida as 10-point favorites. The Tulsa line also opened at 10. Kelly still managed to stick around 12 years, win more games than Knute Rockne and leave of his own volition.
Irish Rob, Scranton Pa.: For years, the vaunted O-line has failed to show up for the biggest games. Why is this happening? The OL looked unprepared and ineffective throughout the game. I understand OSU has a very good defense, but I would have liked to see a less-lopsided effort from what should be a strength of this team. I understand Patterson not playing hurts, but could that be the sole reason for their struggles? It was disappointing to see a team so focused on running the ball not be able to do so effectively.
Mike Berardino: Good day, Irish Rob from the home of Dunder Mifflin. And thank you for the question. This has been addressed earlier in the chat, and no one is saying Patterson's absence was the "sole reason" for a leaky line on Saturday. But even once he returns, there will be some growing pains as this particular unit (at these particular spots) becomes more familiar with the requirements of a Hiestand system.
Ty from Texas: Why can't ND recruit elite QBs??? Jimmy Clausen was the last BIG ND QB recruit. Everyone since JC plays with a very cautious confidence. Why can't ND recruit the likes of a Justin Fields, Bryce Young or Caleb Williams?
Mike Berardino: Howdy, Ty from Texas. As you know, the Irish already have a nonbinding commitment from 2024 QB C.J. Carr. He's pretty good. (Five-star 247Sports Composite, No. 3 QB in his class). They did stick their nose in late on Baylor commitment Austin Novosad, a 4-star prospect in the '23 class. And, of course, for months they were the leaders in the clubhouse for 5-star QB Dante Moore — from the same Detroit King High School program as Marcus Freeman-protege Sauce Gardner — until Phil Knight started quacking. It's the NIL era, my friend. That genie isn't going back in the bottle, and for now, at least, it's become quite expensive to recruit at the 5-star QB table.
Ken - Pensacola: Mike - One loss does not make a season, right? OK, it seemed to me that the ND defense looked bushed in the fourth quarter. If that was the case, how will the defense be better prepared for Marshall and the rest of the season? Thanks & GO IRISH!!!!!!!!
Mike Berardino: Hi Pensacola Ken, thanks for checking in. As mentioned earlier, 21 additional snaps for the Ohio State offense certainly had something to do with the fatigue that you saw out of the Irish defense in the fourth quarter. Really, it started with 5 minutes left in the third, so the final third of the game went according to script. Extra adrenaline flow is exhausting. When even Harvard-educated punter Jon Sot is dealing with cramping issues — "Holy Cow!" — that should tell you something right there.
David: Is Peyton Bowen gone from the ND recruiting class and we are just waiting to hear? Most of his likes on Twitter are about OU football. He hasn't liked anything ND in a couple weeks.
Mike Berardino: Hi David, that's high-end obsession there on the recruiting front. Notre Dame is still projected to hold onto its Double-Bowen (Drayk and Peyton) defensive recruiting haul, but I can see why you'd be concerned. Since announcing his nonbinding commitment on New Year's Day, Peyton Bowen has taken three unofficial visits to Texas A&M (a 3 1/2-hour drive from his Denton, Texas home), plus made visits to Tuscaloosa and Norman. We're still a long way from Dec. 21 and the start of the early signing period, but Peyton Bowen's Instagram bio still has a shamrock and the description of "Notre Dame Commit." Then again, the highly rated safety lists a Bible verse of Isaiah 40: 29-31, which reads in part: "Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall." Talented as they are, these are still kids and they are pulled daily in a thousand directions. We should never forget that.
Frankie from Va.: Good morning! My thoughts — offensive line needs discipline and communication. They should keep trying to run the ball to get habits — tough, nasty, physical. Offense needs to be more aggressive and (make) big plays. I have noticed on defense there is problem communication and very poor tackling. Too soft. Don't accept. They need more discipline, mental and physical, and integrity to play a full 60 minutes. Plus, the coaching staff must adjust its play calls.
Mike Berardino: Frankie, Frankie! Slow down, dude. I think you're typing way too fast. Not sure if this will make you feel better, but you should know Marshall finished 77th in rushing defense (4.27 yards per carry) last season, right between Purdue and Central Florida. The 18 rushing touchdowns the Thundering Herd allowed were tied for 56th. (Stanford gave up 33 ground scores, along with 5.74 yards per carry —122nd out of 130 FBS teams last year). So, yeah, I think you'll see ND run the ball a little better moving forward.
Jonathan: Is there any chance that ND will find the NIL money that is needed to get the 5-star talent they need to defeat the best teams in college football? Ohio State had 10 5-star recruits on the sidelines watching Saturday's game. ND is lucky if it gets one.
Mike Berardino: Hi Jonathan, that's not the stated mission of FUND, the charity-based NIL collective fronted by Brady Quinn and Tom Mendoza. Nor is NIL designed to be used as a recruiting inducement, although to date the NCAA and its member schools have had a devil of a time putting out that dumpster fire. I'd say Notre Dame is well-positioned to survive, if not thrive, in the NIL era once the car dealers and the ambulance chasers are shamed back into the underground economy. However, there's just no way you'll ever see Notre Dame publicly "load up" for a 5-star prospect with an eye-popping NIL package. If I'm right about that, it should be a source of pride, not something to lament, for those who care about the school and its sports programs.
Steven from Athens Ga.: Just because I love these chats so much, I got a hypothetical question for you. With the size and power ability of Audric Estime and Logan Diggs, do you see us moving Chris Tyree to WR more consistently as the season moves on and try to get more power running plays than outside zone?
Mike Berardino: All right, Steven, just for that you get the last word. I like how you're thinking. Per PFF-College.com, Tyree was on the field for exactly half of Notre Dame's 48 offensive snaps on Saturday. Of those 24, he was in the slot eight times and split out wide two others. Unfortunately, Tyree was targeted just once: a 6-yard reception on 2nd-and-8 from the ND 29 to end the first quarter. He did have six carries, including one jet sweep that went for no gain on 2nd-and-19 at midfield early in the fourth quarter.
Route precision will be key for him this year, but there's no denying his ability to stretch the field, both vertically and horizontally. Buchner's first career TD pass went to Tyree on a 55-yard rail route with 11 minutes left in the Toledo game. Tommy Rees mentioned that play specifically this spring during a media session. I'm with you, Steven. More touches for Tyree. I'm thinking you'll get your wish.
OK, everybody. Looks like we've made it through all the questions in the queue. Thanks as always for keeping me on my toes. The transcript will be online soon, and a condensed version will in the print editions of the South Bend Tribune on Thursday. Enjoy the week. See you right here next Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 11 a.m.
Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and on TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.