The Freeman era has yet to oversee a Notre Dame win, and that desperately needs to change this weekend. The Irish have the chance to do it against the Cal Golden Bears. Their Pac-12 opponent is 2-0 this year, but they’re ultimately not expected to be a top Power-5 program. However, the Irish are averaging just 15.5 points a game and need something to turn around in a hurry. Additionally, the defense has struggled late. They’re giving up just eight points per first half, but 15.5 points per second half. That includes a pair of 90+ yard second-half scoring drives that helped seal each loss. If head coach Marcus Freeman wants to see the first Notre Dame win of his tenure, he’ll need some increased contributions up and down the roster.
Four key offensive players for a Notre Dame win
Let’s look at each position group and pick one player who needs to step up
Quarterback Drew Pyne
This is obvious enough. Pyne makes his first career start, and his results in various relief appearances have been muddled. He’s completed 20 of 39 passes for 256 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception in his career. If he were to match those numbers against Cal, the Irish would gladly take that. Three touchdowns would nearly double their season total. With their defense, three touchdowns, and a couple of field goals, should be plenty for a Notre Dame win over the Golden Bears.
Running Back: Logan Diggs
Diggs came back ahead of his injury timeline, but he’s been a complete non-factor through two games. He’s carried 11 times for 16 yards, and he hasn’t notched a reception. Diggs must be better moving forward, as the Irish attempt to establish a running game.
Honorable mention goes to Chris Tyree here, but it’s more offensive coordinator Tommy Rees who needs to step up. Tyree has only touched the ball 12 times in two games, despite averaging 5.4 yards per touch. He needs to get the ball more versus Cal.
Wide Receiver: Braden Lenzy
No longer is Lenzy the up-and-coming speedster who could electrify in some gadget plays. The Irish need Lenzy to be their clear second wide receiver behind Lorenzo Styles. Styles needs to clean some things up as well, but Lenzy has notched just two receptions despite plenty of targets. Some of those were on his catching ability, others on his inability to create much separation. Regardless of what or who was at fault, a Notre Dame win will require the Irish to activate their passing game, and that starts with Lenzy.
Tight End: Kevin Bauman
It’s hard to ask Michael Mayer to do everything. The All-American has 13 catches for 135 yards and has the only receiving touchdown on the squad. However, with little in the way of slot receivers or pass-catching depth, the Irish could use a second tight end. Kevin Bauman could serve that role, and he has notched 3 catches for 44 yards. That’s not bad, but seeing the usage increase this weekend, against Cal’s strong linebacker corps, would not be a bad idea. Additionally, Bauman has noticeably struggled with his run-blocking. It has to be better in order to open up the full playbook for Rees.
Offensive line: Blake Fisher
It’s easy to forget that Blake Fisher has played just 3.5 career games. A touted prospect and Day 1 starter, not to mention an absolute mammoth of a human being, the expectations are sky-high for Fisher. But with a ‘0’ in the Notre Dame win column and two losses to boot, that spotlight begins to shine a little brighter. And Fisher is struggling under the bright lights. He’s graded out as among the worst run-blockers on the team. Against Ohio State, he gave up a pivotal quarterback hit that forced a rushed throw on an open deep shot. Fisher needs to be an absolute anchor on the right side, and he’s been anything but in the early going this season.
3 key defensive players for a Notre Dame win
Along each position group on the defense, here’s a player from each unit that needs to step up this weekend.
Defensive Line: Jayson Ademilola
The defensive line started creating some havoc last weekend, with Isaiah Foskey notching a sack, and Howard Cross III putting together a very strong game. However, defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola has not met expectations, with zero sacks or tackles for loss. He has just three total tackles. As one of the leaders of this defense, Ademilola needs to be better moving forward.
Linebacker: Marist Liufau
Marist Liufau is coming back from injury, but he’s struggled to make more than a pedestrian impact in the first two games. With 10 tackles and none for a loss, Liufau needs to elevate himself to be the most disruptive linebacker in a deep crew. The Irish desperately need to play with more speed and aggressiveness on defense, and Liufau can be one of their most explosive players if he’s on.
Secondary: Cam Hart
Cam Hart entered the year as a solid draft prospect, arguably one of the top defensive draft prospects outside Foskey and Brandon Joseph. But he’s struggled to make much of an impact early on, and he’s even cost the Irish points along the way. A critical pass interference, followed by a poor angle on a pass breakup attempt, provided most of the damage in Ohio State’s opening touchdown drive. He’s recorded just 0.5 tackles for loss and is yet to break up a pass. The secondary as a unit is performing really well, and they can up their game if they get more from a player expected to be one of their top contributors.
All said, there is an ugly zero in that Notre Dame win column. This season began with faint national championship hopes that have quickly faded. But there’s still plenty to play for, not least of which is gaining momentum for next year and the vaunted recruiting class that is coming to South Bend. It all starts with a victory this weekend, one that Freeman the Irish desperately need.