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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Hartburn: Nightmare second half dooms Irish in 33-20 defeat to Louisville

Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman throws the football under duress. The Cardinals piled up five sacks as they beat the Irish 33-20 Saturday night.

Perhaps it was the physical toll of a third consecutive game under the primetime lights. Maybe it was the distraction of an undefeated USC coming to South Bend next Saturday.

Regardless of the reason, Notre Dame failed to execute at just about every level Saturday, a sixty-minute misfire that ended in a 33-20 defeat.

Even the two-score margin fails to adequately reflect the depth of the Irish’s struggles on the road in Louisville. The offense couldn't find its groove, unable to run the ball consistently or hit big plays through the air. The defense did a solid job with the poor hand it was dealt by the offense, but still allowed a pair of chunk rushing scores to star Cardinals running back Jawhar Jordan. It was far from a terrible effort, but it also wasn’t close to one that could will Notre Dame to victory on its own. 

Ironically, the only unit that executed at the level required on Saturday was the previously-maligned Spencer Shrader, who entered the contest kicking 50% on the year, and the rest of the field goal operation, which converted both attempts it was sent out for.

But even the reason Notre Dame’s field goal unit was on the field smacks of error. Shrader’s first effort came after a Sam Hartman deep ball went through an open Chris Tyree’s hands. His second came after the Irish offense was stuffed for a loss on third and three. 

The failed efforts on third and short were a common theme in the loss. Notre Dame finished the day 3 of 13 on third down and several of the miscues came in convertible situations. There was an operational failure on an attempted jet sweep that turned a second-quarter third and one into a turnover. There was the stuff of Gi’Bran Payne in the same situation in the third quarter.

Notre Dame’s first attempt at a fourth-down conversion came five minutes into the final quarter and it failed. Louisville tacked on a field goal. Subsequent drives resulted in an interception and a lost fumble, each followed by another Cardinals field goal.

Irish head coach Marcus Freeman complimented the defense after the game for continuing to fight in the fourth quarter, even when the offense repeatedly set them up with a short field to defend.

“I thought our defense battled for the most part,” said Freeman. “They were put in some bad situations late in the game. But for the most part, I thought they did a pretty good job.”

While the Irish defense performed damage control, trying its best to bend and not break, Notre Dame’s offense sputtered all game. Nothing, from the playcalling to the players, seemed in tune.

A Mitchell Evans touchdown gave the Irish some late window dressing, but that was the extent of Notre Dame’s firepower in the second half. Excluding the late 75-yard march that ended in the Evans touchdown, Notre Dame averaged just 9.7 yards per drive in the second half. Only one drive out of the eight consumed more than two minutes of the game clock. Four ended in turnovers. 

The passing attack managed 254 yards and two touchdowns in total. A little under half of the yardage and both scores came from tight end Evans and walk-on wide receiver Jordan Faison. Notre Dame’s scholarship wide receivers combined for 87 yards as a collective. Hartman, who hadn’t thrown an interception in his first six games in blue and gold, threw three.

A shuffled offensive line failed to create push in the run game (which averaged 1.6 yards per attempt) or protect Hartman when he dropped back (conceding five sacks). Notre Dame tinkered with their lineup up front early on, but personnel rotations proved ineffective. 

After the game, Freeman highlighted guard play as an area requiring improvement.

“We have to be better at the guard position,” Freeman said. “That was something that was evident last game… we gotta do a better job of protecting our quarterback. We’ll watch film and see how each guard did, but we didn’t protect the quarterback the way we needed to.”

The Irish won’t be afforded much time to lick their wounds. Notre Dame has now played seven consecutive games to open the year and the road doesn’t stop there. They’ll welcome USC to South Bend next week, as well as the Trojans' high-powered offense that no doubt will be licking their chops at any fatigue the Irish showed on Saturday.

Entering this game, you could argue Notre Dame was one play away from being either 6-0 or 4-2. Such dramatic endings allowed an open-ended perspective on the second half of the Irish season and the team at large. Were they a squad that was a single mental lapse away from taking down a Playoff contender? Or merely a team averaging roughly 17 points per game in contests against opponents with records better than .500 in conference play?

On Saturday night, Notre Dame looked more like the latter. The prospect of playing in the College Football Playoff has faded from pipe dream to a near-mathematical impossibility. A USC game many thought could rival the infamous “Bush Push” matchup in hype is now merely a chance for the Irish to play spoiler.

Freeman took responsibility for the loss after the game, acknowledging the simple fact that his team looked out-gunned. He’ll now have just six days to find solutions before a slide of sloppy performances turns into a midseason spiral.

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