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Things To Learn: Now or never for Notre Dame's wide receivers, even amid offensive line injuries

Following No. 19 Notre Dame’s New Year’s Six-costing loss at Clemson two weeks ago, Sam Hartman immediately stepped in front of the bus, then behind it in case the Irish fan base wanted to throw it in reverse, and for good measure, he laid down beneath it.

“If you guys want to blame anyone, put it on me,” Hartman said after throwing for just 146 yards on 13-of-30 passing, two interceptions lowlighting the 31-23 loss on the road. “I played very poor today. Didn’t play well enough to be a winning quarterback, to be a winning football team.”

And then came an idle week, so that was the last word from anyone at Notre Dame for more than a week. When Irish head coach Marcus Freeman was in front of a microphone again on Monday, it did not take him long to take some of that blame off Hartman.

“The thing you love about Sam is that he takes ownership of everything,” Freeman said. “He’s not passing blame. …

“We have to protect Sam better. We have to be precise in exact route details that we have. Sam has to make better decisions, as he’ll be the first to tell you. It’s not just one thing.”

After starting the season excellently, Hartman has struggled the last six games, throwing seven interceptions with just five touchdowns, completing only 58.3 percent of his passes for 7.2 yards per attempt. It is no coincidence that six games ago, junior Jayden Thomas and freshman Jaden Greathouse each began battling hamstring issues, both missing the Duke game (the second game of the stretch in question here) and Thomas also not playing at Clemson two weeks ago. They have combined for seven catches for 103 yards in the last six games, numbers that fall to four catches for 56 yards in the last five games, all of that latter subset belonging to Thomas.

In other words, Notre Dame’s top-two receivers are not full-go, top-three if willing to remember junior tight end Mitchell Evans still leads the Irish in catches despite missing the last two games after tearing his ACL.

Without them, the Irish have a converted running back (senior Chris Tyree), a freshman (Rico Flores Jr.), a lacrosse player (freshman Jordan Faison) and a sophomore struggling in just about every respect (Tobias Merriweather). Those are simple facts, ones that cannot much change in-season.

“It’s fair to expect greatness, which is what is expected here,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said Tuesday. “It’s also fair to understand that that’s where we are.

“We have to get them there. It’s my job to get them there. But there’s some things that we’re trying to grow through, and there’s only one way to grow through them.”

If ever there was a week for that to show itself, it would be this week. The Irish had an extra week of preparation, the roster bailing out of town less on this second idle week than they did on the more traditional, mid-season one. (That is not a knock on either week; it was the natural respective inclination each time.)

Then there is Hartman. Back in the spring, he would say he needed to get his teammates to play “for” him, not just “with” him. Every indication suggested he found success in that endeavor by August, being named a captain an example of evidence. But his stepping in front of, behind and beneath that bus two weeks ago should have engendered further motivation to step up for their quarterback, not to mention he knows Saturday’s opponent rather well.

If nothing else is to be learned this weekend against an overmatched Wake Forest (3:30 ET on NBC), finding out if Hartman’s receivers have the ability to show up when it matters most to him will serve as a chance to find out if they have that literal physical ability.

Now go back to Freeman’s quote.

“We have to protect Sam better.”

That was more difficult than expected at Clemson in part because the Tigers are good, especially on defense, and in part because Notre Dame’s offensive line suffered more injuries than had been seen along it in three years. The Irish will be without starting right guard Rocco Spindler this week, an MCL tear likely to limit him in winter workouts and thus also perhaps a touch in the spring, and they may be without fifth-year center Zeke Correll, still in concussion protocols as of Thursday, per Freeman.

Sophomore Billy Schrauth will start in place of Spindler, though stepping in for Spindler did not go well for Schrauth in Death Valley, his six snaps yielding two pressures.

“Wiped away a lot of those early challenges that I’ve had,” Schrauth said Tuesday. “I’ve got a good plan going into this week. The guys next to me, I can’t wait to work with them.”

Simply starting will make Schrauth’s life easier. That much certainty goes a long way, especially for a young player, but the uncertainty at center will counteract that.

Correll does not need ample practice time to step into his usual role, but remaining in concussion protocols on Thursday typically — not always, but more often than not — rules out playing on Saturday. If that is the case, Notre Dame will turn to either fifth-year Andrew Kristofic and a tender ankle he sprained at Clemson or sophomore Ashton Craig.

Freeman would not use that unknown as an excuse, obviously.

“We expect to be better, and we expect to perform better running and passing the ball,” he said Monday. “That’s what we’ve been working at.”

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