Keys to the game: How Notre Dame football can bounce back against Cal Golden Bears

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune
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.

These keys to the game could decide if Notre Dame (0-2) wins its first game of the season against California (2-0) on Saturday in South Bend. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. EST at Notre Dame Stadium and will be televised on NBC.

Be weary of Jaydn Ott when Cal is on offense

Jaydn Ott has made a strong impression for Cal in his true freshman season, rated as the Golden Bears' top offensive player through two games, per Pro Football Focus.

Ott has recorded one less snap (73) than Cal's two other primary running backs, Damien Moore and DeCarlos Brooks, combined. In two career games he has 156 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries and has been even more dangerous as a receiver, catching five passes for 42 yards and two touchdowns.

When Ott is on the field, Cal has passed the ball almost 80% of the time, and the Golden Bears aren't afraid to move him as a slot receiver in some instances, too. Notre Dame's defense needs to know where he is.

California running back Jaydn Ott (6) runs the ball against UC Davis during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

Take advantage of Cal's secondary struggles to tackle

Cal's defense has been quite average with the 76th overall grade of 131 teams (70.5). Where the Golden Bears have really struggled is with their tackling, graded as the 13th worst unit through two weeks.

Many of Cal's starting secondary players — cornerbacks Lu-Magia Hearns III, Isaiah Young, nickelback Collin Gamble and safety Daniel Scott — are near the top of the defense's missed-tackles list. Scott leads the way with four and a 30.8% missed tackled percentage, while the three cornerbacks have combined for six others, two a piece.

What should that mean for Notre Dame's offense? Get the ball out quickly to players in space and force Cal's secondary to make a play. The Irish need to utilize the speed and athleticism of wide receiver Braden Lenzy and running back Chris Tyree, to generate more explosive plays for the offense.

Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy (0) tries to make a catch as Marshall defensive back Steven Gilmore (3) defends during the Notre Dame vs. Marshall NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Tyree has been used on just 55 offensive snaps this season, which Notre dame coach Marcus Freeman hopes that will increase going forward. Lenzy has been targeted only 11 times as a receiver and has yet to be used on a jet sweep, which happened four times over the past two seasons.

Now more than ever, Notre Dame needs its defense to force a turnover

Nobody may be more frustrated with Notre Dame's lack of forced takeaways than Freeman, who was Notre Dame's defensive coordinator last season when the Irish recorded 25 turnovers. Through two games as head coach, they are still looking for turnover No. 1.

“Above everything else, honestly, I think we’re more upset about that,” Howard Cross III said after Saturday’s 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.”

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

Against UC Davis and UNLV, the Golden Bears have turned the ball over three times — two interceptions and a fumble.

Of starting quarterback Jack Plummer's 74 pass attempts, only three have been graded as a turnover-worthy play, per PFF, so he takes care of the ball well. Freeman said Monday that the Irish defense can't wait for turnovers to fall in their laps.

Quarterback Drew Pyne needs to get into a rhythm in his first start

Drew Pyne, who has made it onto the field five times in his career, makes his first college start Saturday, and he'll need to use his arm well to stop the Irish freefall.

Last season Pyne completed 15 of 30 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns in two games, finding his most success with intermediate throws. He also took advantage of play-action when the Irish were able to mix together a strong rush game.

Notre Dame football news:Irish readies itself for Pyne time at quarterback in Tyler Buchner's absence

Dinking-and-dunking all day vs. Cal likely won't be the answer, but could set up the deeper passing game. It will be Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees' job to find Pyne's strengths and ease him into his starting role.

Make Michael Mayer even more of an offensive focal point

The All-American Michael Mayer has been one of the most impactful tight ends in college football through two weeks, clocking in with the 36th-best PFF grade (72.8) and logging more offensive snaps (124 of Notre Dame's 131 snaps) than all but 12 tight ends that have played this season.

Of the Irish's 31 completions — 28 from Buchner and three from Pyne after Buchner's injury last Saturday — Mayer has recorded 13 and one touchdown, while being targeted 20 times in total.

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) makes a catch during the Notre Dame vs. Marshall NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

As Pyne gets comfortable with his new role, which could be for the remainder of the season, No. 87 needs to continue to be the safety valve target that he's been for the majority of his Notre Dame career.