Things We Learned: On a long-awaited night in Ireland, Notre Dame's offensive calm stood out

Sam Hartman played in so many games before his Notre Dame debut on Saturday, either he undercounted in a conversation with Marcus Freeman before the game or the Irish head coach undersold his sixth-year Wake Forest transfer.

To be clear: Hartman played in his 49th career collegiate game, leading No. 13 Notre Dame (1-0) to a 42-3 rout of the Midshipmen (0-1).

Hartman and Freeman were discussing the atmosphere at hand, and Freeman understood even a trip to Dublin to face Navy was not an oversized moment for Hartman.

“He told me today, this is the 48th or 47th game he’s played in,” Freeman said.

“... What I really thought he did a great job of (was) putting our offense into really good positions to execute a play. There were a couple calls we had that depending what the defense was showing, we were going to check for a run, a pass or a certain protection.”

Ignoring Hartman’s efficient stats Saturday night in Ireland — 19-of-23 for 251 yards and four touchdowns, even the four incompletions all being on target — just that simple description of Freeman’s comfort with the Irish offense before the snap is different than last year.

Neither Drew Pyne nor Tyler Buchner had Hartman’s experience, obviously. At this point, as he looks at a season that could push him past 60 career games, no college quarterback has had his experience before. But beyond that, neither Pyne nor Buchner was a calming presence before the snap. They lacked Jack Coan’s experience and Ian Book’s relationship with former offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, not to mention his verve. The last two times Notre Dame had a quarterback that could control the room, the Irish made the Playoff and came a couple yards away from back-to-back appearances.

And Hartman may be the calmest of the bunch. He would be the coolest character on an Alaskan beach, and not just because his beard would provide some warmth. Probably the most deferential, too, after he spent the entire postgame press conference talking about anyone but himself.

Pyne and Buchner would have managed that, to be fair.

This all has a tangible effect. Frenetic quarterbacks, first-year head coaches and first-year offensive coordinators are all prone to presnap mistakes, miscommunications, outright disasters. Those moments lead to forehead-slapping interceptions, burned timeouts or botched snaps.

Hartman may be experienced and Freeman into his second season — remember there were at least two times in his debut campaign where Freeman retrospectively acknowledged he was not decisive enough before a snap and both cost the Irish — but offensive coordinator Gerad Parker has quite limited play-calling experience. Furthermore, Hartman has not been under Parker’s tutelage but for six months. Their shorthand is more abridged than would be assumed with a sixth-year quarterback.

Presnap issues on Saturday would have been expected, arguably understandable. Instead, there were none whatsoever.

“The overall operation from coach Parker to the signallers to Sam, getting the right protections, getting the right checks, executing, that’s the whole operation,” Freeman said. “... That’s the little things that you really worry about, how many operational mistakes are we going to have (in the first game)?”

That may seem a small thing, but it extends past Hartman and Parker to fifth-year center Zeke Correll and the first-time starters flanking him and even to receivers and running backs.

Remember then-freshman Tobias Merriweather finding the bench for most of a game last September after he missed a motion call and the result was a botched snap and a blown third-down.

As efficient as Notre Dame’s offense was Saturday as it gained 94.8 percent of available yardage, the most encouraging aspect for the Irish may have been that presnap zen.

Junior running back Audric Estimé was always going to run over Midshipmen. Hartman was never going to need to test his arm to beat their defensive backs; in crediting his receivers he pointed out how little he threw downfield. The Notre Dame offensive line was going to win nearly any block it made as long as it got a body on a body.

But the operations of the offense apply beyond a specific opponent. The Irish operations ran seamlessly in Ireland.

Correll suffered an ankle sprain less than two weeks ago. A week ago, it was not certain he would play in the season opener. He looked none the worse for wear.

Fifth-year linebacker Jack Kiser has been ready for his season-opening role for far longer than just the two weeks of prep for this Aer Lingus Classic. Kiser was supposed to work as a roving safety against Navy last season before JD Bertrand was sidelined by injury and Kiser filled in for him at linebacker.

Linebacker-turned-safety Xavier Watts found success in the role in his first meaningful action in 2021. Maybe that sparked the idea of Kiser lining up all over the place, or perhaps it had already been percolating with Kiser. It could go back to his recruitment, frankly.

Kiser played quarterback on an option offense at one of Indiana’s smallest high schools. Of the various option offenses in college football, Pioneer High School’s most resembled Navy’s. Kiser knows its reads and knows them thoroughly. He used to read them.

His eight first-half tackles proved setting him up wide and a yard further from the line of scrimmage — a doubly effective alignment since Navy cannot cut block defenders outside the tackle box anymore — could mitigate the triple-option offense almost single-handedly. As long as Kiser was upright, the Midshipmen were not going to break a big play.

“We’re talking about the second year being in that position,” Freeman said, an acknowledgment that this was the plan last season before it was scuttled due to that Bertrand absence. “Being a linebacker, then being a safety, doing some things against Navy, he’s a reflection of really what the entire defense did.”

Kiser will not be able to do that again. Notre Dame will not play another option team in 2023. But there should be some personal and organizational validation in finally proving this scheme worked after it was delayed for a year.

Unfortunately for the Midshipmen, that scheme is now on film for their next 11 opponents to study. Few, if any, will have a veteran with such intimate knowledge of the option like Kiser, but pieces of the suffocating defense should still be replicable.

Navy should have finished Saturday with 13 points, but seven of those come from contemplating a touchdown on the drive that ended with a failed fourth-down conversion attempt. How reliably can the Midshipmen expect to throw the ball downfield on fourth downs this year? Maybe it would be more accurate to say Navy should have finished with six points, perhaps 10.

Regardless, the triple-option offense is stagnant in 2023, defanged by NCAA rulings. Lacking a true game-breaking quarterback ruins any lingering hope. The literal existence of new offensive coordinator Grant Chestnut forced Notre Dame to study FCS-level Kennesaw State film from last year (Chestnut’s previous stop) and still the Irish were crafting answers on the fly.

“They came out in a formation we’d never practiced before,” fifth-year linebacker Marist Liufau said. “That was an adjustment throughout the game.”

Now that broad offensive design is on film, as well. With first-year Midshipmen head coach Brian Newberry looking the part of a former defensive coordinator on Saturday, lacking offensive aggression when it was clearly needed, there is extensive reason to think it will be a long season for Navy.

follow @d_farmer