North Carolina State may finally test and reveal Notre Dame’s offense, quality of receivers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Tennessee State at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Tennessee State at Notre Dame

Coach-speak lasts only until kickoff. Once two opponents have played, there is no longer as much worry about providing immediate bulletin board material. While still being respectful, more honest assessments follow film review, particularly after a 56-3 thrashing.

Thus Notre Dame offensive coordinator Gerad Parker acknowledged the No. 1o Irish (2-0) have not yet played notable competition. He knows the offense that has scored 91 points in two games has done so against something just stiffer than air.

Some of that thinking is a coach’s neuroses. They are natural to anyone making a living in competition, let alone a competition dependent on 18- to 23-year-olds.

“You’re always going to think that way, because we’re always paranoid,” Parker said Tuesday when asked if he watches the last two games of film with a worried forward-looking eye. “All of us coaches, we’re paranoid. And we’re perfectionists.”

While Notre Dame did just about whatever it wanted against Navy and Tennessee State, scoring touchdowns on 11 of quarterback Sam Hartman’s 12 possessions with the exception ending in a missed field goal, there were missed chances. The first one that comes to mind was on the second Irish possession of the year, Hartman a beat late throwing to sophomore receiver Tobias Merriweather in the end zone and thus needing to hold up Merriweather a bit with an underthrown pass to keep the play in bounds. A Navy defensive back broke up the play thanks to Merriweather needing to slow down.

There have been other moments, less obvious ones, some missed blocks, some running backs taking the wrong holes and so forth. Notre Dame was so much better than its first two opponents, those moments did not matter, but that will not be the case for much longer.

“I think you say, ‘That window would have closed,’” Parker said. “Or, ‘Hey, we can’t start that way.’ Because there were a couple little small things in that game to start that we overcame with great plays.

“But at the same time, as things progress through this season’s schedule, that window tightens. … I want to enjoy things and whatever, but the biggest thing we can do is play the (next) team. … This one will tell us a lot, and this is our next one. We need to answer this challenge.”

North Carolina State (1-0) should indeed be a challenge. Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense has stymied Sam Hartman for three years running, a defense that excels against the pass and seems to strengthen when it gets backed up on its end of the field, ranking No. 30 in the country in points allowed per quality drive last season. Across the last two seasons, the Wolfpack intercepted 34 passes in 25 games, including six courtesy of Hartman.

That is mentioned here to establish some of North Carolina State’s bona fides, not to prompt excessive worry about Hartman. He has completed 82.5 percent of his passes this season and his true completion percentage, factoring in throwaways and dropped passes, pushes toward 95 percent. Parker’s offense has little in common with Wake Forest’s slow-mesh design.

“We certainly looked at what [the Demon Deacons] do,” Parker said. “But you want to look at what they do and how we believe [North Carolina State will] do the things to defend us.”

How North Carolina State will defend Notre Dame will be a direct reflection of what the Wolfpack coaching staff thinks of the Irish receivers, as of yet still largely a collective unknown.

Hartman has completed perhaps just one pass genuinely downfield, hitting freshman Jaden Greathouse for a 35-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter. The passing game has outgained the rushing game but mostly due to yards after the catch.

Hartman has not needed to prove Notre Dame’s receiver corps is improved, but at some point that will need to be known if the Irish thought of a Playoff appearance is going to linger.

In parallel, Parker’s offense has not needed to demonstrate how much it may open things up, how much it may differ from Tommy Rees’s generally jumbo packages. Up until now, Parker has been able to offer a rather straightforward offense, one orchestrated by Hartman before the snap and grateful for one of the country’s best offensive lines.

“Give credit to a good summer that our guys put together installing our base offense, then growing it to the variations we need and we have good players,” Parker said. “We have a quarterback that’s playing at a high level and those things all attribute (to) hopefully early success, and we can keep it rolling now.”

What are those variations?

When facing a Power Five opponent, one known for its defense as head coach Dave Doeren enters his 11th season of consistent competence in Raleigh, will Parker and Hartman enjoy receivers making plays downfield, or will Notre Dame’s ceiling still be lowered by less-than-elite receiver play?

The Irish can put together quite a season based entirely on the running game. They have done so repeatedly in the last six seasons, and this may be the deepest group of running backs yet. But actually contending in a Playoff game will require an uptick in performance on the perimeter.

That has not been seen yet in 2023, but it also has not been needed yet in 2023. It should be needed this weekend (12 ET on ABC).

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