Notre Dame’s struggling offense endangers season

The Fighting Irish have already tumbled from No. 5 all the way out of the AP Top 25 after losing at No. 2 Ohio State and last week’s shocking home loss to Marshall. One more loss would give them their first 0-3 start in 15 years.

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Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman walks off the field after the team’s 26-21 loss to Marshall.

Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman walks off the field after the team’s 26-21 loss to Marshall.

Michael Conroy/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s season is teetering two games into Marcus Freeman’s first full year as coach.

The Fighting Irish have already tumbled from No. 5 all the way out of the AP Top 25 after losing at No. 2 Ohio State and last week’s shocking home loss to Marshall. One more loss would give them their first 0-3 start in 15 years.

With starting quarterback Tyler Buchner out because of a shoulder injury, Notre Dame now needs Drew Pyne to jump-start its sputtering offense when unbeaten California visits Saturday.

It’s the kind of start nobody expected.

“There’s no more pressure from being 0-2 than if you were 2-0,” Freeman said. “Every week your job is to do everything in your power to put yourself in a position to win. So you’ve got an angry football team that’s not happy because of the results.”

The last time Notre Dame endured such a sudden collapse came during Gerry Faust’s first season in 1981. That fall, the Irish were ranked No. 4 in the preseason, climbed to No. 1 following a win at LSU and two weeks later were out of the rankings after consecutive losses to Michigan and Purdue. They finished 5-6 that season and never returned to the top 20.

This time, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees blames himself for what’s gone wrong.

Notre Dame ranks 117th out of the 131 FBS teams in scoring offense (15.5 points) and total yards (302.0 per game). The ground game has only been slightly better at 103.0 yards, No. 110.

Rees knows this can’t continue if Notre Dame intends to turn things around.

“We have more than enough talent,” he said. “We have to make sure we develop it. We have to make sure we put them in positions to be successful. I will take every ounce of fricking blame for all of it because I’m in charge of the offense. That’s fine.”

But it’s more than just play-calling.

The offensive line has struggled with blocking assignments and miscommunication, problems that were supposed to be corrected last weekend when preseason All-American Jarrett Patterson returned at left guard. Coaches believe another week with Patterson in the lineup should help.

But as the frustration and impatience continue to build, everyone wants to know how quickly the Irish offense can start playing up to its usual standards.

“They’ve made progress from Week 1 to Week 2, and I’m sure they will make progress from Week 2 to Week 3,” Freeman said. “We want to expedite that process.”

Buchner, Notre Dame’s leading rusher, can’t help anytime soon. After surgery, the second-year player from San Diego is expected to miss the rest of the season with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder.

Their top option may be getting running back Chris Tyree more involved. He’s averaging 5.4 yards when he touches the ball this season and with his blazing 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash, he should be a home-run threat. He’s only gotten the ball 12 times in two games.

“We have to find a way to highlight his ability,” Rees said. “That’s my job.”

Rees also needs to get Pyne prepared.

The 5-foot-11 quarterback from Connecticut has been the backup each of the past two seasons and is 20 of 39 for 256 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in his three-year college career.

Pyne may lack Buchner’s size, arm strength and athleticism and will have to rely primarily on his sharp decision-making and pinpoint accuracy to succeed. But Freeman doesn’t anticipate making major changes to the game plan.

Rees believes Pyne’s traits are tailor-made for this trying situation. Even after losing the starting job to Buchner in August, Pyne’s confidence and preparation never wavered and his optimistic personality and persistence could provide Notre Dame with the jolt of energy it desperately needs.

“I told him on Sunday, ‘You’re the perfect guy to help us through this right now,’” Rees said. “‘You have the perfect mentality and energy.’”

If Rees and Pyne don’t get the offense clicking against Cal (2-0), it would be Notre Dame’s worst start since 2007 under coach Charlie Weis. The Irish opened that season at O-5, finished with three wins and were never ranked.

Freeman is doing everything he can to avoid a repeat of that with a team that was expected to be in the national championship hunt.

“The last 36 hours have been a reality check for all of us from the coaches, the head coach to the assistant coaches to our players,” Freeman said Monday. “We’re doing a deep evaluation of everything we’re doing to really try to figure out what our issues are.”

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