CFB: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Week 8 Review

By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

Notre Dame finally got back to winning ways in a dominant showing against USC. Stiofán Mac Fhilib looks back at the battle ahead of their bye week.

Looking back at last week

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I’ve never been sure if the Chinese expression ‘may you live in interesting times’ is a blessing or a curse. Either way, it seems to sum up the last month for Notre Dame fans very well. Exciting games, some tense finishes, huge swings of emotion. All capped off with a remarkably one-sided victory over USC in the Greatest Inter-Sectional Rivalry in College Football.

Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person who wrote about the Fighting Irish, predicting an ND defeat. So there is some solace in numbers. Suggesting that “until I finally see an Irish defense contain Williams and co., I fear a narrow defeat may be the most likely outcome” was not an entirely unreasonable stance to take. But my, what joy to see a Notre Dame defense that well and truly contained the USC offense, and more!

As well as contributing seven points of their own, as Safety, Xavier Watts, capped one of the best games by an Irish defender in decades with a 15-yard fumble return, Al Golden’s defense frequently gave his offensive counterpart short fields to work with, thanks to assorted turnovers. 

Gerad Parker’s side of the ball had a slightly underwhelming but still ultimately efficient afternoon. Notre Dame gained only 251 yards on the ground and ran a mere 49 plays. Almost 1 point per play is a ratio any coach will happily accept, though the Irish gained half a yard per play less than the Trojans’ previous six opponents and were just 3-10 on third down.

That said, when it mattered, Sam Hartman and co. were able to deliver.  Each of Williams’ three first-half interceptions were converted into Irish TDs. When USC opened the second half scoring with a TD, after forcing ND to punt with its first two possessions, Hartman responded with a 46-yard TD toss to Chris Tyree to maintain ND’s three-score lead.

Special Teams also got in on the act in the fourth quarter. First, Punter, Bryce McFerson chased down USC’s electric returner, Zachariah Branch, from behind to prevent a punt return TD. Then, after USC added what was to be their final score of the evening, Jadarian Price showed how a kick return should be finished off by racing fully 99 yards with the subsequent kickoff into the Trojan endzone in front of an ecstatic Notre Dame student section. 

So Notre Dame heads into their week off with a 6-2 record and ranked #15 in the AP Poll, the highest-ranked two-loss team. Three more ACC matchups await, before the annual California trip to finish the season. This year, against the Stanford Cardinal.

The week ahead

A very well-deserved break, where Notre Dame will take on the University of Bye Week.

Mid-season stock take

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So instead of focusing on the usual forthcoming opponent, now that ND’s first bye week is finally upon us, this seems as good a time as any to take stock of the season. Trying to get a sense of what the remainder of the 2023 season may have in store.

The offense got off to a fast and impressive start with Sam Hartman leading ND to four consecutive games scoring 40 points or more. However, the arrival of Ohio State and Duke on the schedule, together with their excellent defenses, put an end to that run. OL play dropped off and injuries at WR – an under-resourced room to start with – began to mount up, and have an effect on passing production. 

That said, Mitchell Evans has emerged as a significant pass-catching threat, to compliment the excellent blocking he was already known for. At running back, the four-man stable behind Audric Estimé has produced a leader in Freshman, Jeremiyah Love, who may well be the fastest player on the team. 

Defensively the DL has provided better production than the names on paper suggested in pre-season. The under-sized Howard Cross III has played with a terrific motor at DT and without a true game-changing threat at DE, Al Golden has schemed up plenty of impressive five- and sometimes six-man pressures to give the Irish one of the best pass defenses in CFB.  And that is after facing two of the best WR rooms in the game in Ohio State and USC. 

JD Bertrand has answered his critics at MLB, and as a team captain has led by example. While in the secondary Benjamin Morrison has often received the most plaudits for his play, which only goes to prove just how good Cam Hart has been as well. Teams rarely even think about trying to go after the fifth-year senior. And, as the USC game showed, converted WR, Xavier Watts, is starting to make the Safety position his own.

After a 9-4 opening season, even one more loss this year would constitute improvement. However, for Marcus Freeman the goal now is a 10-2 regular season that will require victory at Clemson, and then a first New Year’s Day bowl win for the Irish in 30 years. On performances to date, all realistic possible outcomes are in play. Victory in Death Valley could precede a clumsy loss at home to Wake Forest. But doubtless Notre Dame fans will spend the rest of the 2023 CFB season living in interesting times.

Playoff Picture

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It was a straightforward weekend for most of the Top 12, the Trojans excepted. In the biggest game of the weekend Washington survived Oregon, and Dan Lanning’s aggressive fourth down decision making. For those wondering how he might react in similar situations in the future, the PAC 12 Championship Game may provide an answer. 

This weekend the Top Ten focus shifts to the mid-west as Penn State travel to Ohio State for the first game in the three team round robin with Michigan that should decide the Big Ten. Utah travel to the LA Coliseum for a game that will likely eliminate the loser from the PAC 12 race and playoff conversation. For me, though, the most intriguing game is Duke heading into Tallahassee to take on the Seminoles. Clemson fans can provide useful references for home fans planning to underestimate the Blue Devils.