Notre Dame Notebook: Freeman not blaming OL amid running struggles

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND ― Jarrett Patterson's return to the football field ended with him holding his pads, not because of injury, but because of frustration following No. 8 Notre Dame's 26-21 home-opening loss to Marshall.

Patterson, who took off his jersey and shoulders shortly after Saturday's final play, tried to escape the Notre Dame Stadium field as quickly as possible before being called back on to sing the alma mater.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson (55) walks off the field without his jersey on after the Notre Dame vs. Marshall NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

At the center of Saturday's eye-opening loss (one of many across college football in Week 2 action) was Notre Dame's continued offensive struggles, scoring only 15 points before a garbage-time touchdown. And not even Patterson's return, after missing last week's game at Ohio State and replaced by Andrew Kristofic at left guard while still recovering from his right foot sprain in fall camp, was able to help the Irish run the ball at a much better better clip.

A week after Notre Dame ran for 76 yards on 30 carries against the Buckeyes, it recorded 130 yards on 37 carries against the Herd, good for just 3.5 yards per pop.

Still, after another week of struggles, head coach Marcus Freeman, who became the first coach in program history to lose his first three games, isn't putting all of the blame on his men in the trenches.

"I'm not going to sit here and say it's the offensive linemen's fault," Freeman said. From offensive line to quarterback to running back to wide outs to tight ends, there's multiple different levels of lack of execution."

But again, we are an O-Line-driven program. I've said that and it starts up front."

On Saturday, it was quarterback Tyler Buchner leading the way with 44 rushing yards and two touchdowns on a team-high 13 carries, many of which were designed runs. After him, Audric Estime added 33 yards on 10 carries. Lorenzo Styles, a wide receiver, recorded 22 yards on a jet sweep, while Chris Tyree added 17 yards on seven carries and Logan Diggs finished with seven yards on seven carries.

With a chance to possibly put the game away, leading 15-12 in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame was unable to run down much clock and forced to punt back to Marshall before it embarked on an 11-play, 94-yard drive, resulting in the game-winning touchdown.

This came a week after the Buckeyes shoved a game-clinching 14-play, 95-yard drive down the Irish's throat to finish their Week 1 win.

Following the loss Freeman continued to stress his expectation of having an offensive-line driven program, especially late in games. But through two weeks, the Irish's offense has stood on the sideline taking in that lesson from their opposition.

"I don't know, it is hard," Tight end Michael Mayer said of Notre Dame's running game. "We execute during practice. We do runs during practice and have great runs during practice, 15, 20, 25, 30-yard runs and at this point I think it is just coming out here and executing the runs. We know what we have to do, we do it every single day in practice and in fall camp. We ran the ball so much in camp and ran so good in camp, I think it is just about coming out here and executing."

Irish defense still search for first turnover

Last season, Notre Dame's defense forced 25 turnovers throughout the year and only had one game, its 34-6 win over Navy, without recording one.

Through two games in 2022, the Irish's defense is still searching for turnover No. 1.

"Above everything else, honestly I think we are more upset about that because we preach takeaways, takeaways takeaways," Howard Cross III said. "We just have to emphasize it more."

Notre Dame hadn't gone two games in a row without forcing a turnover since back-to-back games in 2019 against Southern California (30-27, Notre Dame) and a 45-14 loss at Michigan. It had been since at least the 2000 season that the Irish had forced a turnover in one of their first two games, per sports reference.

Special teams sees improvement

Freeman and special teams coach made one notable change on Notre Dame's kick return unit, moving wide receiver Jayden Thomas in, and safety Brandon Joseph out after being vocally frustrated with that group after the Week 1 loss.

The Irish, in turn, returned two kick returns (one from Tyree and another from Lorenzo Styles) for a combined 52 yards. Joseph, who continued returning punts, recorded one return for 15 yards.

Bo Bauer also blocked a later Marshall punt, setting up Notre Dame's final touchdown drive, and giving it one last-gasp effort to save Saturday's game.

"I thought they stepped up," Freeman said of Notre Dame's special teams units. "We challenged the kick off return unit. And they did a good job of executing. At the end of the game, we had a punt block. We challenged Brandon Joseph, 'Hey, if you got a chance to return a punt, let's return it.' And he did one time today and he got some positive yards."

Transfer punter Jon Sot also averaged 42.3 yards on his four punts, downing all four inside the 20-yard line.

Injury news

Chris Smith, a defensive tackle transfer from Harvard, exited the game with the help of trainers with 22 seconds before halftime and didn't return.

Tyler Buchner was replaced with 3:36 remaining by Drew Pyne after scrambling for a first down just outside of the red zone. Buchner, who was tackled by Marshall's Eli Neal, immediately favored his left arm/shoulder area (non-throwing) and didn't return to the game.

"They (team trainers) just said he's out for right now," Freeman said of Buchner's injury. "I mean, he was out for that series. I don't know, have not had any discussions about (Buchner's future status)."

Pyne, who lost the starting quarterback battle during fall camp, threw an interception two plays later, then connected with Mayer on a 5-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left.

Freshman participants

Freshman tight end Eli Raridon joined the small group of first-year players to see action this season.

Raridon first entered in the first quarter when Notre Dame went to a 13-personnel set (three tight ends) with Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman both on the field, too.

Jaden Mickey and Ben Morrison both played on defense for the second consecutive week. Mickey was beaten for a would-be 31-yard touchdown pass, but it was negated by an illegal formation penalty by Marshall. On the next play, Marshall quarterback Henry Colombi connected with Jayden Harrison for a 19-yard gain, who broke a Morrison tackle to spring down the sideline. Ultimately, that drive led to Marshall taking a 6-0 lead off of a 4-yard touchdown run by Khalan Laborn.

Mickey recorded the only tackle out of the freshman duo.

Junior Tuihalamaka played on various special teams units and Zac Yoakam handled kickoff duties, both for the second straight week, as Bryce McFerson nurses a groin strain.

Freshmen can play in four games before burning their redshirt.