These five plays helped Marshall upset No. 8 Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — Marshall’s 26-21 upset of No. 8 Notre Dame Saturday may have come as a surprise, but it was no accident.
The Thundering Herd, despite being anointed a nearly a three touchdown underdog, played as if they were the ranked favorite. And for pretty much the full 60 minutes of football, Marshall was every bit the better team. It outgained the Irish 364-361, rushed for nearly 100 more yards (219-130) and made the crunch-time plays Notre Dame was expected to, but couldn't during head coach Marcus Freeman's home debut.
Not that that's lost on Freeman.
"It's disappointing that we didn't execute," he said after becoming the only Irish head coach to lose the first three games of his tenure. "It comes down to execution and we did not execute the way we needed to to win this game."
This upset wasn't because of a lucky play. It was meticulous from the start and precise to the finish. You got your first whiff of it when The Herd shutout the Irish in the first quarter, holding them to a pedestrian 46 yards on 19 unimpressive plays.
Early in the second quarter Marshall struck first. And even though it was early, it seemed the minds of Irish fans traipsed back to Toledo last year (32-29) and Ball State in 2018 (24-16). Both were home escapes that were in doubt well into the final minutes.
As the game progressed, the sense that Marshall could finish what the Rockets and Cardinals could not only grew stronger. The smell of an upset hung in the Northern Indiana air.
And the blueprint of that improbable and deserving surprise — for both teams — can be traced the following five plays:
Isaiah Foskey's facemask leads to a Marshall field goal
Marshall proved early that it was ready to capitalize on what Notre Dame gave it.
Irish defensive end Isaiah Foskey seemed primed for his statement game after a mostly quiet performance in last week's loss at Ohio State.
And while the vyper recorded his first sack of the season, it was a penalty that left more of an impression on Saturday's outcome.
Leading 7-6 in the second quarter, Foskey was called for a facemask on a Marshall first-down from its own 37. The penalty moved the ball to the Notre Dame 46.
Then came an 11-yard pass from Texas Tech transfer QB Henry Colombi to WR Corey Gammage. Then an 11-yard run by RB Khalan Laborn, a Florida State transfer who would finish with 163 yards and a touchdown. That was followed by and 17-yard strike to WR Jayden Harrison to the Irish 4.
Notre Dame's defense managed to hold the Herd to a Rece Verhoff field goal to trail 9-7. Still, it felt like a hollow victory, a lead that should not have been relinquished.
Notre Dame running back Audric Estime stopped short on fourth down
Since the abandonment by Brian Kelly, who left Notre Dame in December 2021 to coach LSU, Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees' play calling has grown suspect by many in Notre Dame’s fanbase dating back to the second half collapse to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl Jan. 1.
Nothing that happened in Columbus a week ago, or Saturday will alleviate that as the Irish trailed the Herd 26-15 with fewer than 30 seconds left in the game. Some of Rees' play calls with Freeman at the helm have been puzzling at best.
Take for example when Notre Dame led 12-7 in the third and was driving toward midfield. A score on that drive would have pushed the momentum toward the Irish sideline. But the Herd defense stopped running back Audric Estime on both third and 2 and fourth and 1 to snuff out the threat.
For a program dubbed Offensive Line-U, it should find those two yards on those two plays against Marshall?
Estime finished with just 33 yards on 10 carries. Buchner was the leading Irish rusher with 44 yards on 13 carries.
There seems a lack of creativity flowing from Rees’ play sheet, not just in that situation but others. Was that a good time to take a shot downfield on third down? Maybe a run to the perimeter? What about a run-pass option utilizing Buchner’s legs? Play-action, anybody?
What it looked like was an obvious lack of confidence in Buchner's decision making and an over reliance on an offensive line and run game that doesn't deserve it to this point.
Jarrett Patterson false start ends another Notre Dame drive
This was a microcosm of Notre Dame’s afternoon.
When Notre Dame's offense managed to move the ball as many expected it should, the rhythm would almost always fall flat. Sometimes play calling, other times just a straight up shot in the foot.
With momentum back in its favor following Buchner’s second rushing touchdown for a 15-12 lead, a perfectly-timed blitz by Notre Dame safety Ramon Henderson forced a Marshall three-and-out and the Irish took over near mid-field with 13:16 to go.
Facing a third-and-3 from the Marshall 38, LG Jarrett Patterson, who missed much of fall camp and all of the Ohio State game with a foot injury, was flagged for a false start, pushing the Irish back to a third-and-8, which resulted in an incomplete pass, followed by a punt.
The penalty essentially took the Irish out of scoring position and limited its play-calling options. Maybe, if Notre Dame hadn't picked up the first down, Freeman would have elected to go for it on fourth-and-short. Or turn to Blake Grupe for a long field goal attempt to potentially extend Notre Dame’s lead to six.
The penalty was not something you would expect from a senior captain. And while Jon Sot's punt pinned Marshall deep, the Herd would embark on an 11-play, 94-yard drive capped by a 3-yard touchdown pass to Devin Miller for a 19-15 lead they would not relinquish.
Khalan Laborn’s 42-yard run sets up game-winning touchdown
It was the second time in the past two weeks Notre Dame's defense has wilted down the stretch.
First it was the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe driving 95 yards in 14 plays to put the final nail in the Irish coffin with a fourth-quarter touchdown. On Saturday it was Marshall in Notre Dame Stadium with 5:16 to go.
"The biggest thing was the lack of tackling," Freeman said of the long touchdown drive. "Too many times, run or pass, we didn't get the ball-carrier down. We can't let an offense drive 95 yards at any moment, but especially in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line and you are up. ... When it matters most we have to execute."
The Herd rushed for 65 yards on that drive, including a 42-yard burst from Laborn that set Marshall up first and goal from Notre Dame’s 6. From there Colombi found Miller in the end zone and the pressure was on Notre Dame's offense.
Buchner’s pick-six seals Marshall’s upset
The moment the upset became official before it was official was thanks to Marshall's Steven Gilmore, brother of Indianapolis Colts’ CB Stephon Gilmore. On the ensuing do-or-die drive by the Irish, the younger Gilmore intercepted Buchner's sideline throw and returned it for a 37-yard touchdown to put Marshall up 26-15.
It was Buchner’s second pick of the game. He would finish 18-for-32 for 201 yards, two rushing scores and two interceptions before being replaced by Drew Pyne for what Freeman said was a shoulder injury.
Both interceptions were similar, with Buchner throwing into the flats, telegraphing a pass and allowing a defender to jump the route. The first was targeted for Braden Lenzy when the Irish had moved to Marshall’s 40-yard line, ending that first-half scoring opportunity. The second, in the direction of Jayden Thomas, essentially ended the game.
The extent of Buchner's shoulder injury was not disclosed by Freeman, but no matter how serious it might be, the past two weeks have proven Notre Dame has a quarterback issue. And a wide receiver issue, an offensive line issue and a running game issue.
As for the coaching issue, there's a long way go, but many more games to work with.