Marcus Freeman: 'You're insane' to think takeaways will happen on their own

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman walks off the field after the Notre Dame vs. Marshall NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — After generating 25 takeaways last season with Marcus Freeman as defensive coordinator, Notre Dame is still looking for its first heading into Week 3 against Cal.

“Above everything else, honestly, I think we’re more upset about that,” Irish defensive tackle Howard Cross III said after Saturday’s 26-21 loss to Marshall. “We preach takeaways, takeaways, takeaways. We have a whole 10 minutes in our practice about takeaways. We just have to emphasize it more.”

After finishing in the top 11 nationally in two of the past three seasons in takeaway rate, including tied for fourth in 2019 under former coordinator Clark Lea, Notre Dame is one of eight FBS programs with a doughnut in that department.

Two of the others are powerhouses Alabama and Ohio State, but the list also includes Fresno State, Maryland, Army, Auburn and Temple. New Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden made ball disruption a key part of his daily mantra upon his arrival in February from the Cincinnati Bengals, fresh off their first Super Bowl trip in 33 years.

“It’s disappointing,” Freeman said Monday at his weekly news conference. “Nobody’s more disappointed than coach Golden. That’s a big emphasis for our defense.”

What subtleties have been missing through the first eight quarters, when opponents haven’t even fumbled once, much less given the ball away.

“Takeaways are created through pursuit to the football, through intentional actions of trying to get the ball out, getting your hand up as D-linemen and being in position when guys throw the ball to make a play,” Freeman said. “It’s not happened, so we have to be even more intentional. You can’t just sit here and wait for it to happen. You’re insane if you think it’s just going to happen and the good Lord’s going to start giving you takeaways.”

Cal quarterback Jack Plummer, the Purdue grad transfer who went 25-of-36 passing with a touchdown and no interceptions in last September’s loss at Notre Dame, has four TD passes and two picks (one that went through a receiver's hands) in the Bears’ 2-0 start. The 6-foot-5 Plummer had a 15/2 ratio over his final two seasons at Purdue but did throw eight interceptions as a freshman.

Over their past 14 games, the Bears have lost just two fumbles and annually rank among the national leaders in ball security.

Freeman said he has pored over practice tape to see if the same failings on game day are showing up in preparation.

“I went back and watched practice: How many takeaways are we getting in practice?” he said. “Are we really emphasizing it the way that we say of how ‘important it is to us?’ It’s got to be consistently on our guys’ minds as we pursue to the football.”

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What does Drew Pyne do best?

Now that quarterback Tyler Buchner has been lost for the season with a Grade-5 sprain of the AC joint in his left (non-throwing) shoulder, what’s reasonable to expect from his replacement, redshirt sophomore Drew Pyne?

After stressing there wouldn’t be wholesale changes in the offensive game plan, even with Buchner possessing far greater straight-line speed, Marcus Freeman was asked what specific physical, on-field attributes are Pyne’s strongest.

After pausing for six seconds, Freeman answered.

“He’s got a strong arm,” he said. “I believe in that. Probably the best (skill) is decision-making. That’s what you have to hope (for) out of your quarterback. Did he make the right decisions? Did he take care of the football and did he make plays? I think (Pyne) does make the right decisions, and we have to put him in position to make the right decisions.”

Mitchell Evans progressing toward return

Harvard grad transfer Chris Smith left Saturday’s game after one goal-line snap with a hyperextended left elbow, Freeman said.

Smith, the lone active 300-pounder on the defensive line, returned to practice Sunday but is expected to play while wearing a brace on his elbow.

Freshman kickoff specialist Bryce McFerson remains out with a groin injury that caused him to miss the first two games. Freshman walk-on Zac Yoakam has forced touchbacks on half of his six kickoffs, but the Irish rank 100th nationally in average kick return yardage allowed.

Freeman confirmed tight end Mitchell Evans and running back Jadarian Price are out of walking boots following summer surgeries on their foot and Achilles, respectively. Neither has been cleared to practice.

“Mitch is going to be a lot closer than Price,” Freeman said. “Mitch is still working his way back. Probably in the next three weeks, hopefully, you’ll see more of Mitchell Evans.”

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

California (2-0) vs. Notre Dame (0-2) 

When: Saturday at 2 :30 p.m. 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium (77,622), South Bend, Ind. 

TV/Radio: NBC/Peacock, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 

Line: Notre Dame favored by 11 points 

Series: Notre Dame leads series 4-0 

Last meeting: ND 41, Cal 8, Sept. 23, 1967 in South Bend