Eric Froton is previewing the top CFB teams by looking back at their 2022 season, breaking down any changes in 2023, analyzing their rosters and handicapping their win total for the season.
For today’s installment, we look at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:
HC – Marcus Freeman (2nd year)
OC – Gerard Parker (1st year)
DC – Al Golden (2nd year)
2022 Record: 9-4
Points/Yards Per Game: 31.8 points | 396 yards (207 pass | 189 rush)
Points/Yards Allowed: 23.0 points | 329 yards (198 pass | 131 rush)
2023 SP+ Overall: 15th
2023 SP+ Offense: 26th
2023 SP+ Defense: 15th
Offensive Returning Production: 65% (67th)
Defensive Returning Production: 72% (35th)
Adjusted Pace of Play: 102nd
2023 Schedule Strength: 21st
Looking Back at 2021 & 2022
In 2021 the Fighting Irish lost a staggering nine NFL draft picks and returned just nine starters from a 2020 squad that went 10-1 in the regular season playing an ACC schedule before dropping a 31-14 decision to Alabama in the Rose Bowl. Despite the major talent loss, then HC Brian Kelly still willed ND to an 11-1 regular season losing only to a generational Cincinnati team that went undefeated. They increased their scoring from 33-to-35 PPG while allowing 19.7 PPG and 3.8 yards per carry, which were their exact numbers from 2020. However, HC Brian Kelly surprisingly took the open LSU job before their Fiesta Bowl game against Oklahoma State, with DC Marcus Freeman taking the reins following Kelly’s departure, with OC Tommy Rees staying to run the offense.
Coming off five consecutive seasons of double-digit win totals, Notre Dame had the benefit of returning 15 total starters who stayed loyal to the ND program in the volatile portal-era. Starting QB Tyler Buchner was injured early on, completing just 46-of-83 passes for a 55% completion rate and 3-to-5 ratio, leaving backup Drew Pyne to keep the ship afloat after a harrowing 0-2 start with a loss to Marshall. He went 8-2 as a starter, losing a 16-14 clunker to Stanford before falling to a loaded USC team 38-27 in their final regular season contest. Toss in a 45-38 barn-burning victory against South Carolina in the Gator Bowl, and new HC Marcus Freeman finished a respectable 9-4 in his first year as HC, but couldn’t extend ND’s streak of 10+ win seasons.
Offensively OC Rees kept the game plan conservative for QBs Buchner/Pyne, with ND averaging a shallow 7.6 air yards per pass attempt (102nd in FBS). The pass game was once again pretty effective despite the instability at the QB position, with ND recording a 45.6% pass success rate (30th) and an excellent 22.7% of their passes going for 20+ yards (13th). However, Buchner’s inexperience boosted their team interception rate to 3.3% (99th), with turnovers being central to both of Notre Dame’s upset losses to Stanford and Marshall, sporting a gruesome -5 combined TO ratio. Notre Dame is 9-2 (.818) against the spread when not throwing an interception since the 2021 season, tied for third-best in FBS (avg: .471). That’s especially relevant considering their new QB Sam Hartman has thrown 77 touchdowns passes and 26 interceptions in that time frame, the most among Power Five Quarterbacks in both passing categories.
The clear focal point of the passing game was 2nd round LV Raiders draft selection Michael Mayer, with 23.3% of ND’s pass attempts going to the inline receiver, the sixth highest TE target rate nationally. Conversely just 25.7% of passes went to outside receivers (119th), and 35% going to the slot receiver. Their lack of a vertical outside threat led to the offense struggling to create big plays, ranking 102nd in IsoPPP and 96th in marginal explosiveness. Their lack of vertical threats prompted defenses to play man coverage 42.6% of the time (18th-most in FBS), which the Irish averaged a lowly 6.3 yards per attempt against (86th). Which in stark contrast to the 9.7 YPA Notre Dame averaged against zone coverage (19th).
The offensive line ranked first in the nation in penalties, averaging just 1.8 per game, sixth overall in pressures allowed (1.3%) and fifth in blown block rate (0.9%). Behind All-American LT Joe Alt, ND was able to exert their will upon opponents in the run game with a 10.9% stuff rate (2nd in FBS), 2.91 line yards per carry on standard downs (16th) and a 49.4% rush success rate (23rd). There is room for improvement in pass protection though, with their 5.4% sacks per dropback (56th) and 28% overall pressure rate (62nd) checking in as merely average in relation to their peers. RB Audric Estime rushed for 10 or more yards on 31 of his 156 carries in the 2022 season, 9th-best among P5 Running Backs despite the Irish ranking 108th in marginal explosiveness. Additionally, Notre Dame is 16-2 (.889) when rushing for more than 100 yards since the 2021 season, third-best in FBS (avg: .543)
Defensively ND was rock solid on a down-to-down basis, posting a 38.4% success rate (27th) with a 37% 3-and-out percentage (22nd). Their biggest issues were suppressing big plays, ranking 80th in marginal explosiveness with an 11.7% explosive play rate (64th), and poor execution in their own end, ranking 131st with a brutal 80% red zone TD rate. That discrepancy was clearly evidenced in Notre Dame’s 34% passing success rate allowed (7th in FBS), while ranking 82nd nationally in passing explosiveness and 121s in passing down explosiveness. In summation, ND didn’t give up plays through the air very often, but the ones they did give up were especially impactful.
The pass rush was led by all-time program sack leader DE Isaiah Foskey (11 sacks/3.9% sack rate/29 pressures), posting strong sack rates on both standard (7.4% = 18th) and passing downs (10.8% = 22nd). However when they brought extra pressure and didn’t get home, they paid for it with a troubling 11.5% blitz down big-play rate that ranked 121st nationally. Luckily, the front-four was able to generate havoc plays at a 7.2% clip (32nd), which was markedly better than the national DL average of 5.9%.
The Irish allowed a middling 43% rushing success rate (61st) and 18.5% stuff rate (also 61st) while ranking 82nd in rushing explosiveness. The linebacker group did their level best to keep opposing rushers contained, as the team’s 88.5% tackle success rate ranked 34th in the country. The rush defense was a bellwether for Notre Dame’s successes and failures defensively, allowing 135 rush yards per game on the season, but 198 rush yards in three of their losses to Marshall/Ohio State/USC. That’s especially relevant since Notre Dame is 12-2 (.800) against the spread when allowing less than 5 yards per rush since the 2021 season, tied for 3rd-best among Power 5 Teams (avg: .501).
Looking ahead to 2023
In Year 2 of HC Marcus Freeman, the Irish faithful are optimistic that the early season Ohio State/Marshall hiccups from last year are behind them, and are justifiably focusing on the promising 9-2 finish and 45-38 Gator Bowl victory over South Carolina. ND was blessed by health on the offensive line last season, with each of their five linemen recording at least 827 snaps. Three of them return, including All-American LT Alt and C Zeke Correll, who both posted pressure rates of .8% with one sack allowed between them in 1,732 combined snaps. Former high four-star RT Blake Fisher allowed team-high five sacks and 17 pressures, but excelled in the run game with a .6% blown block rate and now has a year of starting experience under his belt. The offensive line is a top-15 unit nationally that has Joe Moore Award upside. A loaded stable of running backs is led by starter Audric Estime (86.5 PFF rush grade/3.65 YAC) and promising underclassmen rFr Jadarian Price (Inj. LY) and freshman Jeremiah Love who will both have a role in the backfield this season.
Wake Forest program legend QB Sam Hartman enters his sixth-season, with the all-time Demon Deacons career passing leader opting to play out his final year of eligibility in South Bend. He trades the slow mesh for a more conventional offense run by new OC Gerard Parker, who was on staff as the TE coach prior to Tommy Rees’ exodus to Alabama. Hartman is a seasoned field general who made a living off of beating defenses deep in 1-on-1 situations, leading the country by a considerable margin with 192 deep throws over the last two seasons. His 44% deep completion rate ranked 7th among all qualifying QBs while Hartman’s 21.6% deep throw rate was the highest rate among all Power Five signal callers. If Notre Dame wanted to increase their aforementioned 7.6 yards per target average (102nd), this is the quarterback to do it with. That being said, Hartman is also a short-field maestro who connected on 26 red zone TD passes last year, 2nd-most among P5 quarterbacks.
Hartman throws to a young, unproved receivers group that loses three of their top four pass catchers from last season including NFL draft choice TE Mayer. There’s a group of talented tight ends vying to replace him, with the race between Mitchell Evans, Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman and Holden Staes being too close to call heading into fall camp. WR Jayden Thomas is an imposing 6’2/215 and is the nominal leading returnee who caught 36 passes for 362 yards, 14.2 YPC and three touchdowns in 2022. He will be challenged for top billing by sophomore four-star Tobias Meriweather (6’4/205) in addition to freshmen Rico Flores and Jaden Greathouse, who tore up the spring game and put himself on the map. Despite the youth movement underway, there’s no way Notre Dame is going to average a paltry 207 pass YPG again this season with this level of talent. That’s especially important since Notre Dame is 19-2 (.905) when scoring 22 or more points since the 2021 season, third-best in FBS (avg: .631).
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line loses three starters, including their star DE Foskey. DT Rylie Mills is moving to three tech full time after putting up 9.0 TFL, six stuffs and a team-leading 2.3% havoc rate. ND portals-in DE Javontae Jean-Baptiste, who spent five years at Ohio State logging 8.0 sacks and 53 tackles, to help make up for Foskey’s departure, but DE Jordan Botelho was a beast in his limited action last year, as he parlayed 67 pass rush snaps into a 6.7% sack rate, 12 pressures and an absurd 17.9% pressure rate. How Botelho transitions to his role as a starter is a key marker for how the ND defense will ultimately perform.
The linebacker unit returns intact and is the backbone of the Notre Dame defense. Rover Jack Kiser only started six games but was an absolute terror who recorded 58 tackles with eight stops, to go with a team-high 2.5% havoc rate and 17.8% tackle rate per snap. MLB JD Bertrand is a two-time, All-Independent league performer (82 tackles/8.5 TFL/36 stops) who led the team in tackles last year and is flanked by WLB Marist Liufau who has 16 starts under his belt and allowed just 40 yards in coverage with a 75.6 cover grade last year. Notre Dame is fielding one of the finest linebacker groups in the country.
CB1 Benjamin Morrison had a truly rare freshman year, allowing only 22 receptions on 55 targets (43% completion rate) with six interceptions and a sparkling 29.2 NFL passer rating when targeted en route to earning freshman All-America accolades. Morrison is a legitimate cornerstone with two years of eligibility left and is flanked by CB2 Cam Hart, who started 10 games last year, allowing a 50% completion rate last year to go with a 76.0 PFF run defense grade. SS DJ Brown started 10 games last year, racking up 48 tackles while allowing just .4 yards per coverage snap, though his 21% missed tackle rate needs cleaning up. FS Xavier Watts played 193 reps with a 21.4% forced incompletion rate that ranked second-best on the team, trailing only star CB1 Morrison (23.3%). Considering Notre Dame’s 2022 secondary ranked 30th nationally with a 59% completion rate allowed and 20-to-10 ratio, I expect the Irish to move back into the top-20.
Analyzing Maryland’s Win Total
Notre Dame opens in Ireland against Navy in Week 0 before hosting Tennessee State in a tune up game before traveling to take on new QB Brennan Armstrong, OC Robert Anae and the pass-heavy @NC State Wolfpack. They head back to South Bend to face Central Michigan before their first major test of the 2023 season vs. The Ohio State University at home. Road trips to @Duke and @Louisville follow before another vital home game against longtime rival USC before enjoying a well earned BYE. A pair of challenging ACC contests against Pitt and the final heavyweight on their regular season slate, Clemson, await before ND’s second BYE of the year in Week 11. The Irish wrap up their regular season with a home tilt against Wake Forest and a west coast trip to Stanford to close it out.
There are three major tests against Ohio State, USC and @Clemson, which I believe Notre Dame is capable of winning at least one of them. Just one win against the blue bloods would do wonders for their win total, as that would give ND a buffer to drop one of their ACC matchups against Pitt or @NC State and still clear the Over.
ND opened at 8.5 Wins, which has held steady most of the offseason until Draft Kings finally bumped their line up to 9 wins at (+135) to the Over last week. Most domestics are at 8.5 still, which is the place you want to be if you can get it. I’m confidently calling for Notre Dame to go Over 8.5 Wins, but am staying away from 9 Wins and so should you.