As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the spring/summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with Notre Dame on Oct. 29 with their major storylines.
The 2021 season was a roller coaster that rose to great heights before dropping off at the end for Notre Dame University.
Following an offseason that saw the departure of their three year starter quarterback Ian Book and one of the of the best linebackers in the country in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to the NFL draft, the Fighting Irish were also replacing their defensive coordinator to boot.
Notre Dame answered by winning double-digit games for the fifth straight year (11), had a top 20 passing offense and a ball-hawking defense that ranked just outside the top 10 in interceptions and sacks, and tied for seventh in defensive touchdowns. They finished the year with an exclamation point, handing the Stanford Cardinals a 45-14 loss and punching their ticket to the Playstation Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.
Then came the drop. Three days after the win over the Cardinals, head coach Brian Kelly announced he was leaving to take the head coaching job at LSU. First year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman became the interim head coach a week later and had three weeks to prepare for the Fiesta Bowl with two different positional responsibilities.
That game started well, but Notre Dame blew a 21-point second quarter lead to lose 37-35. Jack Coan had five passing touchdowns and a Fiesta Bowl record 509 passing yards but it ultimately wasn’t enough. A tough end to such a dominant season.
CAN MARCUS FREEMAN KEEP IT GOING
As previously mentioned, Notre Dame has a streak of five straight double-digit win seasons, all under previous head coach Brian Kelly. Does Freeman have a shot to keep it going?
The answer appears to be yes. Freeman was hand picked by Kelly due to his status as one of the country’s top rising stars after his stint at Cincinnati, turning the defense into one of the nations best as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
Freeman started the offseason well, promoting Tommy Rees from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Rees is regarded as the reason behind Notre Dame quarterbacks having success despite not being top recruits for the their respective classes. It’s not just coaching decisions that Freeman is excelling at though. He is a natural recruiter, and secured the seventh best class in 2022, to go with the top ranked class for 2023. The Irish seem to be in good hands at the top.
BUCHNER AND PYNE WILL FIGHT IT OUT
At quarterback, the Irish have a bit of a camp battle to watch. While Jack Coan was the starter and star in 2021, freshman Tyler Buchner appeared in 10 games as a dual threat and racked up 298 passing yards and three touchdowns to go with 336 rushing yards and three more touchdowns on the ground.
While Buchner would be a safe bet to win the job due to the dual threat talent level coveted by offensive coordinators, Drew Pyne is a name not to rule out just yet. Pyne has seen action in six games over his two years in South Bend, and while he hasn’t impressed with his stats, he’s a former four star prospect just like Buchner and has an extra year of experience. He’ll give Buchner everything he can handle in camp.
WILL THE DEFENSE BE ABLE TO IMPROVE
The Fighting Irish were an impressive defense when it came to splash plays in 2021, but the numbers show they were about average everywhere else, even with some NFL talent on the field.
Overall, they ranked 43rd in the country giving up 359.5 yards per game, which is right about average for decent college teams. They were slightly better against the run than the pass which is to be expected, ranking 37th and 64th in those areas, but that has to get better in 2022 if they expect to compete for the college football playoffs again.
Stud safety Kyle Hamilton left for the NFL, and in his wake the team has transfer Bradon Joseph from Northwestern with some big shoes to fill. Joseph was an AP First-team talent his freshman year after recording six interceptions, but took a small step back in the stats his sophomore season. With a change of scenery to a team with a defensive head coach like Freeman, I’d expect him to raise his play and be dangerous for the Irish this year.
To round it all up, it’s hard to tell what Notre Dame will be. They’ve had consistent success for the last half-decade or so, but changes at head coach and quarterback, and losing NFL talent on defense can be a lot to overcome. Their recruiting classes are stacked however, so I’ll say it takes Freeman a year to find his footing and develop a quarterback, and the Irish are a tough but beatable team in 2022.