It’s easy to find things to like in a blowout win like the one Notre Dame had on Saturday against Air Force – and we did just that last night. It’s a bit more challenging to find things to not like in those games, but despite the rout, there were a few things the Irish could have done better and will need to do better in future games this season to keep their three game winning streak going.
Notre Dame’s first half running game
Notre Dame came out firing int he first half and Tommy Rees ripped apart the Air Force secondary which is good because the Irish running game was completely grounded by Air Force in the first half. Air Force did, understandably, key on the run early but that really shouldn’t matter when you have the type of size advantage that Notre Dame has over Air Force. They should have been able to run the football.
The futility of the Notre Dame running game was highlighted on the first drive of the game when facing a 3rd and 1 on their first drive, George Atkinson was tackled in the backfield for a loss. That simply should not happen against a team like Air Force and unfortunately it was a sign of things to come for Notre Dame with Atkinson picking up just 18 yards on 6 carries and Amir Carlisle gaining 3 yards on 3 carries.
Notre Dame was able to pick it up a little on the ground in the second half with Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston, but they couldn’t do anything running wise for the first thirty minutes. It might be time to give freshman Tarean Folston more looks with the starting offense because the frosh back ran with more power and authority than any other Notre Dame running back I’ve seen this year.
Notre Dame’s first quarter defense
If the Notre Dame rushing offense was tough to watch, the first quarter defense was even more frustrating as Air Force marched down the field on the first drive to score. Air Force ran the ball 12 times for 101 yards in the first half with the Irish unable to set the perimeter o the defense and allowing the pitch option to eat them alive early on. Jaylon Smith had a little trouble adjusting to the option early on but he also didn’t have a whole lot of help on the edge of the defense either.
The defense eventually adjusted but Air Force was able to move the ball well at times throughout and at times really only stopped themselves such as at the end of the first half when they were marching towards another touchdown only to turn the ball over on an unforced fumble on a pitch. The option can be tough to defend when you aren’t used to to it and the altitude likely played a role in Notre Dame’s early struggles, but after a dominating performance last week the first quarter defense was a bit disappointing.
Another long opening drive resulting in ZERO points
The last three weeks Notre Dame has opened games with long drives of at least 10 plays that have resulted in a grand total of ZERO points for the Irish. Against Arizona State the Irish ate up over eight minutes of clock on 14 plays only to miss a field goal. Last week Notre Dame marched to the USC 1 yard line and on the 12th play of the drive, Cam McDaniel was stuffed in the backfield on 4th down. Today Notre Dame drove 12 plays again to start the game with their opening drive ending in a blocked field goal by Air Force.
Notre Dame is starting games off with long drives that should be gaining them the momentum and taking a lot of steam out of the opposing defense but instead they’ve given all of the momentum back to their opponents. Is it any surprise that the only touchdowns the defense has given up the past two weeks have come on the heels of Notre Dame failing to score on their opening drive after moving the ball well and getting in scoring range?
Jaylon Smith’s stolen touchdown
Notre Dame’s highly touted freshman linebacker has been making big plays for the last few weeks but had perhaps his biggest play of his young career thus far negated because of what could only be described as a truly awful call by the officials. On Air Force’s first drive of the second half, Falcon quarterback Nate Romine was flushed from the pocket and put the ball on the turf when he had his arm hit by Ben Councell. Smith was in right place at the right time and picked up the ball with nothing between him his first career touchdown but 62 yards of wide open turf.
Instead of Smith scoring the first touchdown of his career, however, the play was blown dead because the ruling on the field was an incomplete pass. How on earth any official with two fully functional eye balls could rule the play an incomplete pass is beyond me. Romine’s arm was no where near anything close to a throwing motion. There are bad calls and there are baaaaad calls and this one was one of the worst I can remember in a long time. It would have been one thing if he ruled Romine down. That would at least have been somewhat understandable. An incomplete pass though? Horrible.
Notre Dame’s final drives of both halves
At the end of the first half Notre Dame was given a gift turnover on a bad pitch by Air Force after it looked like they were going to cut into Notre Dame’s 14 point lead. The Irish got the ball with just over a minute remaining in the half and a timeout remaining. At that point Tommy Rees already had three passing touchdowns and Air Force had no answer for the Notre Dame air attack. Instead of taking a chance at moving the ball and adding to their lead, however, Notre Dame ran once and then kneeled on the ball.
In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter since Notre Dame came out in the second half and put Air Force away. Given how much success Notre Dame had moving the ball in the air though, I would have liked to see Brian Kelly show a little more faith in the offense and let them take a couple chances.
At the end of the second half, Notre Dame’s last drive ended pretty unceremoniously. The Irish got the ball with a little over five minutes left and Air Force had no interest in using their timeouts to stop the clock so it would have been nice to see the Irish be able to close out the game by running out the final five minutes against a weak defense. Instead the Irish went three and out. Granted, Notre Dame had in its entire second string, but at the same time, they weren’t getting Air Force’s best at that point either. Notre Dame should be able to run out a clock in that situation. It may seem minor given they won the game by 35 points, but for this team to get back to where it wants to be, it as to close out games more times than not in those situations.