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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

‘If you’re going to do it, you got to call it’: Irish find confidence through preparation

Irish graduate student Spencer Shrader kicks the ball off during Notre Dame's 45-7 win over Wake Forest at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 18.

“At some point, if you’re going to do it, you got to call it,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “If you believe you can execute it, you have to call it, right? There is no point of practicing something and getting a look that you are looking for and not calling it. So I told them, let’s do it.”

That was how Freeman described the decision-making process that led to the Irish’s bold decision to attempt a surprise onside kick early in the third quarter of their 45-7 win over Wake Forest.

The play may have been a surprise, but Freeman’s message was clear. All the practice time in the world does no good if it’s not spent working on something that the Irish are willing to utilize in a game. On Saturday, the coaching staff was initially hesitant to dial up the onside kick before ultimately deciding to give it a shot.

“We had seen it on film. We had practiced it for a couple weeks and seen it on film,” Freeman said about Wake Forest’s kick return coverage that opened the door for a possible onside kick. “The first two kickoffs, we were like, ‘It's there. It’s not the right time.’ I said, ‘If we score again, let’s do it.’”

Less than a minute into the third quarter, Notre Dame scored a touchdown to stretch its lead to 24-7. Graduate student Spencer Shrader executed the kick perfectly. Graduate student safety DJ Brown was in perfect position to make the recovery.

While the onside kick ultimately did not lead to any points, it served as a microcosm of what made the Irish so effective Saturday. Notre Dame’s special teams unit found a weakness in their opponent that they could exploit, and they prepared accordingly. That preparation then gave them the belief needed to use it in the game and do so successfully.

Confidence has been something of a buzzword around the Irish program, particularly regarding the team’s offense, which has struggled at times in recent weeks. After Notre Dame’s loss to Clemson, Freeman noted the difficulty of maintaining confidence amid a challenging performance.

“The pick-six kind of spooks you. It spooks you. It spooks the quarterback a little bit,” Freeman said about graduate student Sam Hartman’s second-quarter pass against Clemson that was returned for a touchdown. “Makes you say, ‘OK, let’s go back to the run game a little bit.’”

Freeman referenced the offense seeking confidence again after the Wake Forest game.

“When you don't have the performance that you aspire to have, it messes with your confidence, right?” Freeman said about the offense moving past its outing against Clemson. “You can be as courageous as you want, but still have a lack of confidence inside because of the performance.”

However, when it came to the game against Wake Forest, the Irish weren’t willing to let their confidence slip away quite so easily.

Like the special teams unit, the offense trusted its preparation and ability to execute in-game. They could have stuck to a conservative, run-based gameplan after six of Hartman’s first eight passes fell incomplete.

Instead, they continued to attack downfield through the air. Hartman finished the day with four touchdown passes for the first time since facing NC State in September. He had the opportunity to make those plays because of the trust the coaching staff had in him. Against Clemson, the Irish were content with allowing the Tigers to run out the clock at the end of the first half. In the same situation Saturday, Notre Dame was aggressive. Freeman used his timeouts to get the ball back and give the offense a chance to put points on the board, which they did.

“The majority of times I’m in that situation, again, I have the utmost confidence in our offense and Sam to march us down the field and try to create something positively,” Freeman said about end-of-half scenarios. “I know there has been a game or two that maybe something hasn’t gone our way, and I kind of let the clock run out. I know at Clemson, after they got that first down when we were on defense, I let [them] just run out the clock. I have a lot of confidence in our offensive staff and our offensive game plan, and that was a reflection of why I called those timeouts today.”

During Notre Dame’s 4-0 start earlier in the season, aggressive clock management and successful two-minute drills at the end of the first half were a staple for the Irish. But that mentality slowly dissipated over the following weeks. It culminated with a kneel-down against Clemson. As Freeman said, it’s easy to be confident when the team is rolling.

Notre Dame’s growth as a team can be seen by the fact that Saturday, for the first time all year, they seemed confident in their preparation and hard work even after a tough loss and when things weren’t going as well.

That confidence gave them a field goal in the closing seconds of the first half and the onside kick that solidified Notre Dame’s superiority Saturday. The Irish also saw a blocked field goal from graduate student defensive lineman Javontae Jean-Baptiste — something the Irish had keyed in on all week at practice — and a play-action strike into the corner of the end zone from Hartman to sophomore tight end Eli Raridon for the first score of Raridon’s career. There was also a monster effort from Notre Dame’s freshmen wide receivers that included 102 receiving yards from Rico Flores Jr. and touchdown receptions from both Jaden Greathouse and Jordan Faison.

“I don't really believe in luck, you know. I am a faithful person but I believe in cause and effect,” Freeman said. “So you have to continue to put the work in — at some point, if you do it the right way and you’re consistent in how you put the work in, you will have the effect you want and the production and performance you want.”

Every team stumbles at times, and Notre Dame certainly has a few times this season. On Saturday, the Irish looked well on their way to becoming the type of elite program that knows how to find that bounce back in short order.

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