After a bye week from this series due to fall break and a bye week for the actual Notre Dame football team, The Observer's weekly football grades articles return. It's a good time for them, too, with the Irish back on track after decisive wins over USC and Pitt. For now, let's focus on how the Irish fared against the Panthers, the rare game where it's fair to question the performance of the offense when the team scored 58 points.
QuarterbackIt's been a while since graduate student Sam Hartman was truly on his A-game. At the same time, other than the Louisville game, Hartman has mostly avoided the big mistakes that occasionally plagued him at Wake Forest. That wasn't the case early against Pitt, as Hartman threw interceptions on each of Notre Dame's first two drives. He also threw a pass on the second drive before the pick that easily could've been intercepted as well.
To his credit, Hartman threw only five more incompletions the entire game. The deep ball that was missing from the Irish attack the last few weeks also made its long-awaited return. Hartman tossed five passes that went for 20 or more yards. Three went for 40-plus, and all of those passes were thrown to different receivers. He finished a respectable 18-25 for 288 yards, although he didn't throw for a single touchdown.
Sophomore Steve Angeli also got extended action as the score got out of hand. Angeli delivered some of the best moments of his young college career, including a gorgeous scoring throw to freshman tight end Cooper Flanagan late in the contest. His performance gives the overall grade a slight boost. The Irish may not need significantly more from Hartman to win their final three games — none are particularly tough — but they will in order to end their 30-year New Year's Six Bowl victory drought.
Weekly Grade: B; Season Grade: B+
Running BackJunior Audric Estimé filled the stat sheet, rushing for 119 yards and three scores, averaging six yards per carry. He also caught a couple of passes for 21 yards. The running back room was mostly a one-man band, though. Freshman Jeremiyah Love rushed for just 10 yards, plus a solid 26 through the air. Most of sophomore Jadarian Price's 37 yards on the ground came on a 23-yard burst in garbage time. Price also had a nice 10-yard score in the second quarter. The running back room picks up moderate points for pass blocking, given Hartman was sacked just once. But this grade is essentially all thanks to Estimé's work.
Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: B+
Wide ReceiverSince special teams have their own category in the defensive and special teams grades article, senior Chris Tyree and freshman Jordan Faison don't gain any bonus points for their shifty return work. Still, the most maligned position group for the Irish this season showed up in a big way against the Panthers. Six different Irish wideouts caught a pass, with four hauling in at least two. Tyree doesn't even need the special teams boost, leading the receivers with three receptions for 62 yards, including a big 47-yard reception early on.
Freshman Rico Flores Jr. and sophomore Tobias Merriweather hauled in a pair of passes, with long receptions of 42 and 60 yards, respectively. It was especially nice to see Merriweather make a big play after falling dormant during the middle part of the season. Junior Jayden Thomas made a couple of catches as he looks to return to early season form before an injury threw his year off track.
Seeing Notre Dame's wideouts make big plays was a much-welcomed sight. They were arguably the offensive position group most responsible for the win given Hartman's early pick and the running back room's lack of production outside of Estimé. Their performance earns them their highest single-week grade of the season.
Weekly Grade: A; Season Grade: B
Tight EndsThe grade here might take a dip going forward with the announcement that junior Mitchell Evans' season is over due to a torn ACL. Evans has been Hartman's go-to weapon almost all season. He doesn't have the explosiveness of Michael Mayer, but Evans was Notre Dame's clear No. 1 pass catcher. Before the injury, he registered a team-high five catches that went for 66 yards.
Sophomore Holden Staes will be counted upon in Evans' absence, although he hasn't produced much in recent weeks. Staes caught two passes for just 14 yards. Flanagan gets another shoutout here for his 19-yard reception on Angeli's touchdown pass. The unit gets another strong mark this week, but they'll have to dig deep to finish the year strong.
Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: A-
Offensive LineThe days of rotating this position are thankfully in the past. In a rare twist from most of the season, it was Notre Dame's pass protection that outperformed its run blocking. Pitt managed just one sack of Hartman and two other hits, as the Irish signal caller had time to make almost all of his throws. However, the Irish averaged just 4.7 yards per carry, and as was mentioned, the run game was largely quiet outside of Estimé. It wasn't a bad game, just not an absolute banner showing.
Weekly Grade: B+; Season Grade: A-