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Notre Dame Football: Fighting Irish Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

After a roller-coaster start, the Irish hope for a strong finish in Marcus Freeman's first season as head coach.
Marcus Freeman, Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football

Marcus Freeman's inaugural season as Notre Dame's head coach has already seen more lows than highs and there are still six games to go.

The first half of the 2022 season has been quite the up-and-down ride for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, with plenty of bumps and obstacles along the way in head coach Marcus Freeman’s first season at the helm.

It all began with a decent opener against Ohio State — albeit in a loss — in Columbus, with small positives being the Fighting Irish taking a lead into halftime and avoiding a major blowout in their first regular-season game under Freeman. The next five weeks featured three wins — one at home, one on the road, and one over then-No. 16 BYU in Las Vegas — sandwiched around two abysmal home losses to Marshall and Stanford.

So how will Notre Dame respond after this shaky start to the season? Let’s look back at some of the leaders for the Fighting Irish thus far and how they might help to shape the rest of Notre Dame’s season.

Offensive MVP: Michael Mayer, TE

Simply put, there is no shortage of ways in which Mayer has been the primary impact player on offense for Notre Dame this season. Mayer leads the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns, and his 68.5 yards per game trails only Utah’s Dalton Kincaid (79.7) for the top mark among FBS tight ends. And on a more immediate level, this season Mayer set the all-time career record for receptions by a Notre Dame tight end, and he enters the second half of the season with 14 career touchdowns, just one shy of tying Ken McAfee for that mark.

And as wide receiver Tobias Merriweather put it when asked how he learns the small things in order to earn a spot on the field: “No one can be perfect every day unless you’re Michael Mayer.”

Defensive MVP: Isaiah Foskey, DL

The secondary has not been at its best, but Notre Dame has had quite a bit of success with its front seven in 2022, thanks in large part to Foskey and his counterparts along the defensive line. The Fighting Irish have totaled 2.67 sacks per game this season — a top-30 mark in the FBS — with 12 coming in the last four games. Foskey leads the way with three, a start that has helped him climb into the top 10 all-time in school history. Also key to Foskey’s success is his versatility, as he will often be moved around to various spots in the formation rather than remain solely fixed in one spot up front.

Best Moment of the First Half: Notre Dame beats Cal for Marcus Freeman’s first win as a head coach

After two straight losses to open the season, Notre Dame found itself fairly close to a desperate search for a win when taking the field against Cal. The Golden Bears certainly didn’t make it easy, entering Week 3 victorious in each of their first two games and taking a 10-7 lead into halftime. But 10 straight fourth-quarter points helped Notre Dame to secure the victory and etch Freeman's name into the record books for the first of what many hope will be a long list of Notre Dame wins.

Best Newcomer: Jon Sot, P

Given the struggles and inconsistencies that have been roadblocks for Notre Dame’s offense — and its most successful playmakers having already established themselves within the program and thus not being characterized as “newcomers” — one key factor keeping the Fighting Irish in a reasonable field position has been the play of Sot. The Harvard graduate transfer has averaged more than 42 net yards per punt this season with just one touchback on 27 kicks, the 11th-best net yardage per punt in FBS in 2022.

And the knowledge that Notre Dame finds itself ranked high in net punting but low (tied for 99th nationally) in scoring offense (23.7 ppg) paints a pretty accurate picture of how the Fighting Irish has performed when they have had the ball this season.

Biggest Surprise: Audric Estime, RB

After Kyren Williams led the way on the ground in 2021, questions arose as to who would be the Irish's next top rusher and what kind of numbers would he produce. While it's certainly been a group effort with Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree also being valuable contributors, Estime has carried the load for Notre Dame in the run game. The sophomore leads the team with 418 rushing yards on 76 carries (5.5 ypc) while being a versatile playmaker in short-yardage situations and in the passing game as well.

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

1. The offensive line
Just as the defense has ratcheted up its sack totals in recent games, the offensive line has largely kept Drew Pyne on his feet and off the ground this season. Notre Dame has allowed just 10 sacks in 2022, a rate of consistency that led the unit to be named to the Joe Moore Award Midseason Honor Roll. A rebound in production by the offense will be due in no small part to the reliability of the group up front paving the way.

2. Limit the big plays allowed on defense
A combination of downfield targets and broken tackles have resulted in plenty of struggles for Notre Dame’s secondary, despite its wealth of experience. The Fighting Irish have allowed nearly 11.7 yards per completion through six games in 2022, a bottom-20 mark in FBS. In other words, on average, opponents are averaging a first down on each pass completion against Notre Dame. With the experience of players and coaches — especially the leadership and knowledge of defensive coordinator Al Golden and head coach Marcus Freeman — any lack of second-half progress would be troubling.

3. How will Tommy Rees enhance the productivity of the offense?
Notre Dame’s offense has been quite inconsistent in the first half of the season, with some strong production in some games while others have left many scratching their heads. Be it formation adjustments, personnel swaps, or other considerations, look for Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator to find a way to post more 30-point outputs, a feat that the Fighting Irish have accomplished just once in 2022.

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

1.  at USC, Nov. 26
2. Clemson, Nov. 5
3. at Syracuse, Oct. 29
4. vs. Navy (Baltimore), Nov. 12
5. UNLV, Oct. 22
6. Boston College, Nov. 19

Podcast: Midseason Review, Second-Half Predictions, and Dream Conference Championship Games

— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the editor-in-chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.