By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

Notre Dame’s regular season came to an end this weekend with a comfortable victory over Stanford. While expectations haven’t quite been met, they can now look forward to bowl season.

Looking back at last week

Embed from Getty Images

Notre Dame’s annual Thanksgiving weekend trip to California produced a comfortable 56-23 victory in the end. That said it was not without some interesting and concerning moments along the way, particularly in the first half. In a game where the visiting Irish held a clear and large talent advantage, they were able to move up and down the field with ease. Except when they were repeatedly turning the ball over.

This has been an unfortunate trait of ND teams on the road this season, but Stanford lacked the quality of Louisville or Clemson to make the Irish pay. A bizarre first 21 minutes of the game saw Notre Dame go – Hartman fumble, Touchdown, Price fumble, Touchdown, Hartman interception. Throw in a couple of big plays for the home team and the Cardinal enjoyed a 16-14 lead midway through the second quarter.

That was finally the trigger to shake the Irish out of their complacency. By three minutes into the fourth quarter ND had added six more TDs.  Audric Estimé capped what was likely his final game in an Irish shirt with four TDs on the day. Between that and his 238 yards rushing, it made the Doak Walker Award committee’s decision to omit him from their 2023 finalists look even worse, if such a thing were possible. 

Defensively Notre Dame started a little sluggishly, allowing several uncharacteristic long plays in the first quarter. However, from the moment Stanford took a 16-14 second quarter lead, on offense they went –  Interception, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, missed Field Goal, fumble, before finally managing a consolation TD against the Irish backups.

And it was particularly fitting that one of ND’s best defensive players in 2023, DE Javontae Jean-Baptiste, the transfer from Ohio State, should be the one to not only block Stanford’s FG attempt, but also to return it 60 yards for the final Irish TD.

What next?

Embed from Getty Images

Two years ago, the week after the final regular season game was perhaps the most remarkable and tumultuous in my 20 plus years following Notre Dame football. Brian Kelly’s sudden departure to warmer SEC climes and Marcus Freeman’s elevation to the top job capped a week of non-stop breaking news, rumour and intrigue.

It would be untrue to suggest the last week came close in that regard but it certainly was significantly more eventful than Irish fans expected. The outworkings are both far from complete and may have a notable impact on Notre Dame’s fortunes in 2024.

As expected, ND want to test the transfer portal to strengthen the Quarterback position. Sam Hartman’s season in South Bend did not deliver quite the hoped-for outcome but he was still clearly an upgrade over the QB room last November. Neither Tyler Buchner nor Drew Pyne set the heather ablaze in Alabama or Arizona State this season.

With Hartman out of eligibility after his sixth season in the sport, the Irish QB room next Spring would be junior, Steve Angeli, sophomore, Kenny Minchey, and freshman, CJ Carr. The youngest of the three carries perhaps the highest expectations but none appear ready to start and play at a CFB playoff level. To that end, feelers have clearly been out for a while and when Duke QB, Riley Leonard, entered the portal with a ‘do not contact’ tag, that was perhaps a strong sign that he has a destination in mind. One that most observers anticipate will involve wearing a gold helmet next season.

Where things started to get really interesting, however, was when the news emerged that WR coach, Chansi Stuckey, was being released. And not because he had taken a job elsewhere. Many ND fans have been unhappy with OC, Gerad Parker’s, performance in big games and were hoping for a change there. It appears he will get a second year in the post, but he will need to find a new receivers coach. And equally importantly, he will need to visit the transfer portal to find some new WRs as well.

Within the space of several days, the Irish lost senior Chris Tyree, sophomore Tobias Merriweather and freshmen Braylon James and Rico Flores to the portal. Tyree was not a surprise, and given how he’s played this season, neither was Merriweather. James never saw the field and was passed by a walk-on lacrosse player. Flores, though, was the leading WR and likely the biggest loss.

All-in-all, not a great look for Freeman. But while some of the Irish faithful worry the sky is falling, it’s only the start of December and there is plenty of time to find replacements to supplement an outstanding incoming recruiting class at the position.

Bowl Picture

Embed from Getty Images

After spending the first half of the season dreaming of playoffs and then the New Year 6 bowls, the reality for Notre Dame is that they now head to El Paso on December 29th, for the Sun Bowl. There they will face Pac-12 (soon to be Pac-2) opponent, Oregon State. It will be only the second time the Fighting Irish have appeared in the Sun Bowl. The last time, they ran out 33-17 winners over Miami.