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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Crow: It’s prove-it time for the Notre Dame offense

Junior tight end Mitchell Evans and Irish offense celebrate during Notre Dame's 17-14 loss to Ohio State at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 23.

At this point in the college football season, there are considerably fewer unknowns than there were at the start of September. But even after eight games, the Notre Dame offense remains a challenge to pin down.

At times, the Irish have looked nearly unstoppable, working behind a strong offensive line and mixing handoffs to junior running back Audric Estimé with an efficient, tight end-led passing attack. At other times, the unit has been frustratingly inconsistent and ineffective, racking up three-and-outs and struggling to convert their quality drives into seven points.

Notre Dame’s blowout win against USC brought more questions than ever, with opinions of fans and media seemingly divided on whether the offense was a catalyst in the 48-20 victory or simply along for the ride.

The stats would suggest that Notre Dame, ranked 52nd nationally in yards per game, has been slightly above average, a middle-of-the-pack unit. But is that the case, given that there hasn’t really been a single game in which the Irish offense has actually looked “average?"

Notre Dame scored more than 40 points in each of its first four games, a portion of the season that included just one Power Five opponent — NC State — as well as an FCS squad in Tennessee State. It’s not easy to gauge the performance of an offense that’s expected to score a touchdown every single trip down the field. The Irish scored 42 against Navy, and we wouldn’t have learned much more about them had they scored 49 or 35.

The next four weeks saw the pendulum swing in the exact opposite direction. Four consecutive matchups with ranked opponents, and four consecutive night games. Notre Dame’s offensive production fell off a cliff, with the clear low point coming in a 33-20 loss to Louisville that saw graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman throw his first three interceptions of the year and the Irish average just 1.6 yards per carry.

But while the production was not where they would have liked it to be — Notre Dame averaged 18 points per game against Ohio State, Duke and Louisville — there were certainly bright spots.

Hartman, Estimé and freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. made enough key plays down the stretch to earn a clutch win against the Blue Devils, and they nearly did the same against the Buckeyes one week prior. Junior tight end Mitchell Evans stepped up as a centerpiece of the passing attack, racking up a team-high 280 receiving yards in those three games. And freshman running back Jeremiyah Love emerged as a valuable backfield complement to Estimé, picking up nearly eight yards per carry.

The Irish offense was by no means perfect against USC. But the unit showed flashes of its early-season play with a perfectly executed two-minute drill at the end of the first half and a timely 46-yard touchdown bomb from Hartman to senior wide receiver Chris Tyree in the third quarter.

So what should be expected of Notre Dame’s offense on the heels of a much-needed bye week that followed a grueling string of eight games in as many weeks? We’ve seen the unit dominate through the light portion of their schedule. We’ve also seen them falter in the midst of one of the more difficult four-game stretches that any team in the country will face this year.

That leaves one final third of the regular season. Four games for the Notre Dame offense to show who they really are. Four games to answer many of the big questions that still remain, and to lead the Irish to critical wins as they seek a New Year’s Six bowl bid.

Notre Dame’s schedule has followed a sort of Goldilocks pattern. Their remaining opponents — Pitt, Clemson, Wake Forest and Stanford — will likely not be outclassed to the extent that the Irish’s early-season challengers were, yet don’t appear as daunting as Notre Dame’s foes leading up to the bye week. Instead, the challenge they provide should be “just right” to give a clear indication of what the Irish offense is made of.

But even beyond that, many factors seem to be aligning for improved offensive output down the stretch. First-year offensive coordinator Gerad Parker has gained a substantial amount of big-game experience and seems to be more comfortable in his role after drawing up a strong game plan against the Trojans. The wide receiver room will be at full strength after playing shorthanded for several weeks due to injuries to junior Jayden Thomas and freshman Jaden Greathouse. And after an uncharacteristically quiet outing against Louisville, Estimé rolled through USC to the tune of 95 yards and two touchdowns and should be at his best after the bye week.

All of this is to say that if the Irish offense is truly an elite unit, now is the time to show it. If they can find more consistency in the run game, hit on more downfield shots through the air and cut down on the frequent penalties that have plagued them in recent weeks, they will be well-positioned to close out the regular season on a five-game winning streak. Especially if the defense can build on its impeccable five-turnover effort against USC.

But if Notre Dame’s offensive performance against a struggling Pitt team looks more like its most recent four games than its first four, the Irish winning out would start to look like an unlikely scenario.

The Irish offense has not yet reached its potential, but it still has time to find that elusive next gear. Saturday afternoon’s matchup with Pitt will reveal whether or not an offensive resurgence is in store for Notre Dame in the late stages of this season.

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