CFB: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Week 11 Preview

By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

Notre Dame’s hopes of a New Year 6 Bowl appearance are now in the rear view mirror. A devastating loss to Clemson dashes the hopes Irish fans had going into the year. What’s next for Notre Dame? Stiofán Mac Fhilib explores.

Looking back at last week

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Ah well. So much for all my research last week into what might need to transpire for Notre Dame to reach a New Year 6 bowl game. Because, never mind all the other results that would have needed to go their way, the Irish themselves needed to finish 10-2. And, with a less than straightforward trip to Death Valley to overcome, ND fell short again this year against an ACC opponent on the road.

The defense did indeed travel, holding the Tigers to 285 yards of offense. Something every Irish fan would have gladly taken last Saturday morning. But, when you throw a pick-six, and muff a punt inside your own red zone, leading to another touchdown, you’re really not helping yourself. In addition, as has become a disconcerting pattern in the second half of the season, the Notre Dame offense couldn’t get into a decisive rhythm at all.

While three first-half drives ended in a pair of three-and-outs and pick-six. The other three saw the Irish drive 50, 63 and 60 yards, only to have to settle for a Field Goal on each occasion. Not good enough when the home team managed a trio of TDs and a field goal of their own in the same period. 

An improvement at the start of the second half saw Notre Dame score a pair of TDs to bring the score to within 8. But, the next four drives had 3, 4, 3 and 3 plays as Clemson’s biggest strength, their own defense, repeatedly stifled the Irish. Yet for all that, ND got the ball back with just under three minutes remaining and 94 yards away from a potentially tying score.

Even when Sam Hartman threw an interception seemingly ending Irish hopes, the Tigers’ season-long fumbling problem presented the Irish with one final opportunity with 92 seconds to go. But four straight incompletions saw Notre Dame fall to their third defeat of the season. It comes ahead of a second bye week that will provide everyone associated with the program plenty to mull over.

The week ahead

With the Irish starting in Week 0 in Dublin, they have two bye weeks this season, the second coming this weekend.

Where now for the Irish?

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The first bye week of the season felt like a time focused primarily on the Notre Dame players. After eight consecutive games, the team looked tired and with quite a few players banged up, it was a chance to recover. With just two games – and a bowl appearance – now remaining, the second bye week now feels like the emphasis has switched to the ND coaching staff. Especially on the offensive side of the ball. 

Offensive Co-ordinator Gerad Parker, a long-time friend of Marcus Freeman and TE Coach last season, was not the first choice for the position when Tommy Rees upped and headed off to Tuscaloosa. At the very least, many Notre Dame fans were disappointed at how the Andy Ludwig situation was handled and why it seemed to fall through. That does give Freeman some cover in this situation.  The higher-ups seemingly preventing him from getting his number one candidate. But, it doesn’t change how poorly the Irish have played on offense after such a good start in the first four games.

Injuries and poor recruitment have hampered the wide receiver room. While it’s great and all having a pair of high-quality tackles, the interior offensive line play has not been up to ND’s high standards, especially against NFL-calibre defensive tackles. It certainly feels like a waste of the talents of Audric Estimé and Sam Hartman.

It would be silly to say that Freeman is anywhere near the hot seat right now. Still, if he loses another game this season – most likely in a bowl match-up – it would not be unreasonable to suggest he’s on the hot seat for the hot seat. In other words, one more average season in 2024 and things could become significantly less comfortable for him in 2025.

Hopefully, he will learn the lesson of his predecessor. One of Brian Kelly’s most significant problems was being too loyal to underperforming assistants who were friends and colleagues of his for years. Arguably the most significant single reason for his renaissance post the 2016 debacle was the insistence of Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, that he go outside the program and his coaching tree to hire OC, Jeff Long, and DC, Mike Elko, as well as LB Coach, Clark Lea.

For the good of the program, Freeman needs to take a long, hard look at his assistants this winter, and the university and incoming AD, Pete Bevacqua, need to give him their full support.

Playoff Picture

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Whilst now #20 ranked Notre Dame need not overly concern themselves with the Tuesday night College Football Playoff shows, there is still plenty to play for across the Power Five conferences and beyond. Having so many unbeaten teams by the second Saturday in November is perhaps down to deliberate conference scheduling. However, the back-loaded final three weeks of the regular season promise to be hugely exciting with quite a few top matchups.

Two unbeaten teams currently in the top four will face one-loss top ten teams. Georgia, however, has home advantage over Ole Miss, while the cheating-scandal-beset Michigan Wolverines have to travel to State College to face Penn State. Washington will not have it easy when Utah travel to Seattle and Florida State host a Miami team that is both inconsistent but also capable of causing an upset in this rivalry game.

It is weekends like this that the lack of college football coverage on television in Britain and Ireland really hits home. Here’s hoping there are positive developments on that front as soon as possible.