By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

After an electric evening in Dublin for College Football’s kickoff, Stiofán Mac Fhilib returns for his weekly column to give us the low down on last week and look ahead to what’s next for the Fighting Irish.

Victory in Dublin

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We can get into the who, what and whys, and the difference nine months makes in two Notre Dame performances against the Naval Academy in a moment.  But we interrupt our previously scheduled review of last week to bring you a hugely important Public Service Announcement: 

The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish have themselves a Quarterback!  Like, an actual, living, breathing signal caller capable of calmly and methodically going through his progressions as he picks an opposing defense apart.  And who can evade rushers as he casually tosses TD passes.  

It wasn’t the QB statistics themselves that made the biggest impression; though any time you even tie an all-time record – such as most TD passes on your debut – at the most storied programme in college football history, you know you’re doing something a bit special.  Rather, it was his presence in the pocket and the confidence he exuded behind an OL that gave up zero sacks and relatively little pressure.  

It’s as you might expect, I suppose, from a 24-year-old, sixth-year senior grad student who is a year older than the second-year starting QB of the Washington Commanders in the NFL; and older than the 49er’s QB.  

On defense, an ND team with one of the best secondaries in CFB needed to address two big issues from last season: improving against the run, especially in big games, and converting pressure on opposing QBs into sacks.  Games against Navy are not ideal for judging the latter, though the Irish registered two sacks against a QB who dropped back to pass on only nine occasions.  But against the run, they were very impressive, holding a triple option team to just 126 yards at 2.6 yards per carry.  These were both less than half the same stats in ND’s three-point win last November (255 yards and 5.5 yards per carry). 

Overall, it wasn’t a performance that automatically launched the Irish into the playoff conversation. Still, it was one that at least suggests Marcus Freeman’s team may have the wherewithal to make the visits of Ohio State and USC to South Bend in September and October very interesting indeed. 

Next on the slate

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Tennessee State Tigers (Notre Dame Stadium); 3.30pm EDT; 8.30pm IST/BST

While last week saw the 96th game in a long and historic Notre Dame rivalry, this week will create a new and very different history.  The visit of HBCU Tennessee State to South Bend will be the first time Notre Dame has ever faced an FCS opponent.  This will leave USC and UCLA as the only two remaining FBS schools that never played a team from a lower tier of college football.  

It was not a decision universally liked by the ND faithful, given the importance of tradition to many in the fanbase. However, the decision to showcase the most northernly HBCU, coached by famous former NFL running back Eddie George, did help mollify some fans.  

The rationale is obvious.  Following ND’s last opening game in Ireland in 2012, they struggled mightily at home the following week against Purdue.  Tied late in the fourth quarter, it took a go-ahead drive led by current Alabama OC, Tommy Rees, relieving starter Everett Golson, to finally sneak past the Boilermakers 20-17.  

Saturday’s game should be much more straightforward, with the main question being just how long Hartman and other key starters remain in the game.  With a tricky noon kickoff down at NC State on deck, Marcus Freeman will presumably want some more opportunities for the offensive starters, in particular, to gel and for his new QB to continue to develop his connection with his receivers.  

Fans will be interested to see how Tobias Merriweather, the one WR who didn’t get a chance to shine in Dublin, fares in game two, and the stable of RBs behind Audric Estimé should all get some valuable game time, especially in the second half.  

With the visiting Tigers being primarily a run-first offense, the Irish will get another chance to see how their run defense has improved, though clearly, much sterner tests are only around the corner. 


Notre Dame 52-3 Tennessee State

The Irish tend not to run up the score, at times to the frustration of many fans.  In the context of this game especially I do not see that approach changing.  Hartman should be able to score at will before the half-time interval and let the second and third strings see how they can get on for after it. 

Where to Watch

Sky Sports Mix (Channel 416 on Sky); coverage starts at 8:30pm IST/BST

NBC (in the USA)

Playoff Picture

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Notre Dame did their wider perception no harm at all in Week 0, though the real spadework towards a playoff berth will only really start when Ohio State visit in Week 4.  

Elsewhere Lincoln Riley’s USC had a QB who played like someone who, if he’s not careful, could win another Heisman, and another freshman skill position phenom.  And a defense that gave up 28 at home to St. José State; including a 3rd and 22 conversion.  So basically pretty much every Riley team of the last 6 or 7 years then.  

Week 1 doesn’t bring many match ups with real early season playoff implications.  LSU @ Florida State is the only meeting of pre-season top 25 teams.  But Utah hosting Florida and Clemson’s trip to Duke are games that those two teams cannot afford to slip up in, but which could prove more than a little tricky.