Fumble-itis is wearing on Audric Estime and Notre Dame football

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — If Audric Estime admittedly lost sleep after a goal-line fumble in a win at North Carolina, how is the sophomore running back holding up after two more lost fumbles the past two weeks?

“Not well,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “He’s tough on himself, as are we on him. He has high expectations for himself.”

Estime, the team’s leading rusher with 435 yards and six touchdowns, did not touch the ball again on Saturday after he fumbled at the Irish 41 on the second play of the second quarter. Logan Diggs took over and finished with a career-high 28 carries and 130 rushing yards.

Diggs, who sat out the Cal game on Sept. 17 due to illness, has caught Estime in rushing attempts but his per-carry average of 4.6 yards is nearly a full yard less than Estime’s 5.5. Junior Chris Tyree is averaging 4.3 yards on his 70 carries.

Just two FBS running backs have more fumbles than Estime: Stanford’s Casey Filkins and Alabama-Birmingham’s DeWayne McBride each have four. After his lost fumble at UNC, Estime said he couldn’t remember ever fumbling at any level of football until then.

“We can’t put the ball on the ground,” Freeman said. “That’s the reality of it. Nobody has lost faith in Audric Estime, but he understands that when you have that ball, your job is to hand it to the official.”

Notre Dame is minus-7 in turnover margin. Only eight FBS teams have been worse in that department as the Irish prepare to face No. 16 Syracuse on the road Saturday at noon.

The Orange, who lost despite being plus-3 in turnover margin at Clemson, are plus-six overall, tied for 16th nationally.

“We’ve got to find ways to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Freeman said of fumbling. “I know coach (Deland) McCullough works on ball security. You can’t liven up practice right now, not going on Game 8. You can’t do it. But we’ve got to find ways to make sure that we continue to understand the importance of ball security.”

'No, not really, coach'

Freeman emphasized that it was mere coincidence that Jim Tressel, his mentor and former Ohio State coach, stopped by the football facility for an hour or so last Wednesday.

The visit had been planned for 6-8 weeks, Freeman said, as Tressel was driving to Chicago as part of his duties as Youngstown State president. Freeman didn’t mention the upcoming visit when asked two days after losing to Stanford how often he speaks with Tressel.

“It just so happened that it was a week that I might have needed somebody to talk to,” Freeman said. “He wanted to stop by and see me and (graduate assistant James) Laurinaitis, two of his former players. Any amount of time you can spend with Jim Tressel, you’re going to be better because of it.”

Tressel, who turns 70 in December, is set to retire on Feb. 1. He asked Freeman during their visit if he remembered the Law of Progression from his Buckeyes days.

“And I’m like, ‘No, not really, coach,’ “ Freeman said. “He said, ‘Go get Laurinaitis. He’ll remember.’ “

According to Freeman, Laurinaitis didn’t remember either, but the concept of nonlinear improvement was one Irish players had already heard about from Tressel’s ex-pupils.

“It’s never a smooth line to where you want to go,” Freeman said. “It’s a curved line, and what you have to do is try to make those ups and downs as small as you can.”

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Defensive stalwarts power ahead

Safety Brandon Joseph and linebacker Jack Kiser, defensive stalwarts who were limited on Saturday due to injury, should be available against Syracuse.

Joseph, who played just 10 defensive snaps against UNLV after being on the field for 69 of those the week before against Stanford, “got nicked up a little bit,” Freeman said without specifying. Joseph continued to return punts against the Rebels, including a 20-yard jaunt in the first quarter.

Kiser, the second-leading tackler on the Irish with 34, played just five defensive snaps against UNLV due to a “pretty deep” thigh bruise, Freeman said. Kiser, who rolled his ankle against Stanford (23 snaps), is due back at practice on Tuesday.

Bright and early

Notre Dame’s first noon Eastern kickoff in 13 months presents challenges of preparation that go beyond dealing with the throaty screams of Upstate New Yorkers.

“You have to start getting your rest now and you have to start hydrating when playing indoors,” Freeman said of Saturday’s game at the 49,000-seat JMA Wireless Dome. “I’ve never been there. I’ve heard from different people that it can be pretty warm in there and it’s going to be loud. I’m trying to prepare them for the atmosphere and the 12 o’clock game.”

The last midday start for the Irish was in September 2021 against Wisconsin in the Shamrock Series at Soldier Field. That 11 a.m. Central start resulted in a 41-14 laugher, but Notre Dame trailed 3-0 after the game’s first 21 minutes.

Notre Dame also played at noon in Orlando in the 2019 Camping World Bowl, a 33-9 win over Iowa State.

The last true road game for the Irish with a noon Eastern kickoff was in September 2018 at Wake Forest. Ian Book’s second career start – and first after replacing Brandon Wimbush at quarterback – was a 56-27 win.

Notre Dame lost in its only previous trip to the former Carrier Dome since it opened in 1980. That came in a season-ending 38-12 loss in 2003.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino and on TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.

Notre Dame (4-3) vs. No. 16 Syracuse (6-1) 

  • When: Saturday at noon EST 
  • Where: JMA Wireless Dome (49,057), Syracuse, N.Y. 
  • TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Syracuse opens as a one-point favorite  
  • Series: Notre Dame leads 7-3 
  • Last meeting: Notre Dame won 45-21 in 2020 at Notre Dame Stadium