Marcus Freeman breaks down Cal's 'Hail Mary' that almost worked: 'It was close'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Sep 17, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; California Bears wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter (3) attempts to catch a pass on the last play of the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. The pass was ruled incomplete. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — So-called “Hail Mary” passes rarely work, but Notre Dame, ironically enough, nearly gave up a game-tying touchdown on the final play of its 24-17 win over Cal.

Bears junior wideout Jeremiah Hunter had the ball roll off his hands Saturday as he lay flat on his back in the end zone. That only happened because Irish defensive backs, most notably safeties Brandon Joseph and DJ Brown, mistakenly went for the ball rather than follow the protocol they’ve been taught.

“It was a major talking point,” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said of Sunday’s film review. “There were two things that could have happened.”

One was the traditional “jump ball” version, which is what Cal quarterback Jack Plummer opted for on the fourth-and-13 heave from the Irish 35-yard-line. The other possible approach, one that Cal’s well-traveled offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave had used before, was to hit a receiver about 5 to 8 yards shy of the end zone and have him follow his blockers to a desperation score.

Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden, who spent two years with Musgrave on the Virginia staff two decades ago, was ready for either maneuver.

“Coach Golden was thinking we might get this play where they’re not going all the way to the end zone,” Freeman said Monday. “That’s why we called what we called.”

The breakdown was going for an interception that would have marked Notre Dame’s first takeaway of the season. (Two others were wiped out on the same drive, one by penalty and one by replay review.)

Analysis:'Crazy day on the defensive line' helps Notre Dame hold off Cal for first win

“If it turns into a ‘Hail Mary,’ we have to make sure there are certain people responsible for certain offensive players,” Freeman said. “And your job is to box out the offensive player. There are a couple guys that are there for the jump ball, and everybody else is boxing out offensive threats.”

Freeman shook his head as he relived the potential nightmare.

“That isn’t what happened,” he said. “Everybody was looking for the ball. You see probably five or six defensive guys looking for the ball. Everybody is trying to jump up and catch it and bat it. It was close.”

Paging CJ Carr?

After striking gold with Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan for 2021, Notre Dame opted to stand pat at quarterback last offseason despite a flurry of portal activity at the position.

In light of Tyler Buchner’s season-ending shoulder surgery and building speculation about five-star junior commitment CJ Carr reclassifying for a 2023 arrival, the topic was raised again Monday.

Freeman revealed he “had conversations” about transfers with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees soon after being promoted to replace Brian Kelly in early December.

Former USC quarterbacks Kedon Slovis (Pittsburgh) and JT Daniels (West Virginia, after a disappointing stopover at Georgia) found new homes, and former Oklahoma star Caleb Williams, who also reportedly considered Wisconsin, followed coach Lincoln Riley to USC.

“We felt like at that moment we did not need to get a college transfer,” Freeman said.

What about this upcoming offseason?

“That is something we’ll talk about after the season,” Freeman said, “and see where Tyler Buchner is coming back from injury. We have a long season ahead of us. We still have nine guaranteed games in front of us to evaluate (Drew Pyne and two untested backups). If that’s a position of need that we need to go and get a high school quarterback or a transfer quarterback, we’ll definitely evaluate that.”

The 6-foot-3 Carr, grandson of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, passed for nearly 2,700 yards with 28 touchdowns and four interceptions last season for Saline (Mich.) High School. Carr’s junior season is off to a 4-0 start, with the past two wins coming by a combined 82-7.  

Toughness on the D-line

Star edge rusher Isaiah Foskey and senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola were able to practice Sunday, Freeman said, despite leaving the field at different points in the fourth quarter with undisclosed physical issues.

Foskey appeared to keep his left arm tucked close to his side after registering a key sack down the stretch. Ademilola’s ailment was unclear, but both standouts took the field for Sunday’s practice.

“It’s a part of the season,” Freeman said. “Those guys are tough players. I have no concern with them being able to perform (at UNC).”

JD Bertrand's streak to end

Linebacker JD Bertrand, who will miss the first half Saturday after being ejected for targeting a defenseless receiver late in the Cal game, was one of 11 FBS players named Monday to the AFCA Good Works team for community service.

Bertrand is Notre Dame’s chapter president for Uplifting Athletes, which provides experiences for children with rare diseases and their families. A team captain who ranks third with 17 tackles, Bertrand will see his consecutive-game streak of starts end at 16.

Foskey and Jayson Ademilola are tied with Bertrand for the team’s longest active streak of starts after cornerback Clarence Lewis saw his streak end at 19 against Cal.

Wideout Braden Lenzy has made 14 straight starts, longest active streak on the offense. Sophomore left tackle Joe Alt has started 11 straight.

Flags should fly

North Carolina (3-0) is one of the most penalized teams in the country. Its 75 penalty yards per game are tied for 112th in the FBS, and its seven penalties per game are tied for 83rd.

To a lesser extent, the Irish have struggled as well. After four first-half false start penalties, including one by wideout Braden Lenzy on a quarterback sneak, Notre Dame is 54th nationally in average penalty yardage (52.3 yards).

Right tackle Blake Fisher, center Zeke Correll and left guard Jarrett Patterson also were called for false starts.

“It was a little bit of everything,” Freeman said. “A new quarterback and some of those third-down plays (where) those guys are sitting in their stance for a while. They’re getting antsy. We have to clean up those unforced errors, those pre-snap penalties.”

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

Notre Dame (1-2) vs. North Carolina (3-0) 

  • When: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST 
  • Where: Kenan Memorial Stadium (51,000), Chapel Hill, N.C. 
  • TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Notre Dame favored by half a point 
  • Series: Notre Dame leads series 20-2 
  • Last meeting: ND 44, North Carolina 34, Oct. 30, 2021 in South Bend