SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame’s revamped offense is off to a fast start.
The next challenge for Sam Hartman is to keep it chugging, starting on Saturday when the Fighting Irish host Tennessee State.
In Gerad Parker's first game as offensive coordinator, the Irish scored touchdowns on six of their first seven drives and only failed to produce points on two possessions — a missed field goal and when they ran out the clock in the final minute — as they rolled to a 42-3 rout of Navy in Dublin.
“I told him, ‘Shoot, every game, do that,’” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said, referring to Parker, who coached tight ends last season.
Notre Dame still relied on a run-first approach, totaling 191 yards and two scores on 32 carries.
Now, though, Notre Dame is more proficient through the air with Hartman at quarterback. He went 19 of 23 for 251 yards and threw a school record-tying four touchdown passes in his first game as the starter.
Freeman struggled to find flaws in Hartman's performance.
“He likes to scramble back around there with one hand on the ball, and we’re trying to break that habit,” Freeman said Monday. “I’m being picky. He played extremely well.”
Navy’s defense was doomed against the run or the pass. Notre Dame gained 7.8 yards per play, a feat the program achieved just once in 2022.
Other programs have noticed Hartman's impact.
“I won’t be surprised if we see them in the playoff at the end of the year because of the addition of Sam Hartman, and what they do structurally in their philosophy of both running the football, playing defense and special teams,” Tennessee State coach Eddie George said.
This year's offense also has a broader set of skill players.
In 2022, tight end Michael Mayer led Notre Dame in receiving in nine of 12 games while running backs Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs shared most of the carries.
On Saturday, Hartman targeted 10 receivers, none of whom was a tight end. It’s the first time that’s happened at Notre Dame since 2016.
Estimé still had 16 carries for 95 yards and a TD, but each of the other four running backs on scholarship also touched the ball.
“We wanted to rotate all of those guys, and you’ve got to be unselfish,” Freeman said. “There’s one ball, and there’s a lot of talented individuals.”
The balanced attack should help Hartman, too.
He produced record-breaking numbers in five seasons at Wake Forest, amassing 12,967 yards and an Atlantic Coast Conference career record of 110 touchdown passes.
But he arrived at Notre Dame with a career completion percentage of 59.1%, and he threw interceptions at a rate that ranked among the 10 worst in FBS in each of the past two seasons.
Part of the explanation may be that Hartman attempted more high-risk, high-reward throws from a collapsing pocket while trying to keep his team close. Wake Forest ranked outside the top 80 in total defense all five years he was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Demon Deacons also were 107th out of 131 in sacks allowed each of the last two seasons.
Now, Hartman gets to show what he can do with a stronger supporting cast.
On Saturday, he completed a career-high 83% of his passes while Navy only recorded two pressures and no sacks. The Irish defense limited Navy to 169 yards of offense.
George, who will vote for this year's Heisman Trophy, thinks Hartman belongs in the discussion.
“Now you add more weapons around him, he is deadly,” George said. “And certainly, with his ability to make every single throw, he has an elite arm, he’s being protected by the best offensive line in the country.”
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