Comeback Aside, Plenty of Problems Face Notre Dame

( – The euphoria from Saturday’s unbelievable comeback is starting to die down a bit and now that the dust has settled, it’s easy to see there are still some major problems facing Notre Dame this season. Penalties, third down offense, the running game, and the untimely turnovers are just a few of issues that continue to give this team fits.

The good news for Notre Dame is that they sit at 3-1 and with seven very winnable games coming up, the Irish have a chance to enter Los Angeles with a 10-1 mark and an outside chance at the title game. The bad news is there are enough glaring holes with this team, that they will need every one of those seven games to get this team into any serious title contention.

The biggest hurdle for this team right now is easily the anemic rushing attack. Through four games, the Irish ground game is averaging a measly 74.8 yards a game. Notre Dame simply has not been able to establish any semblance of a rushing offense since the second half of the Georgia Tech game. Unfortunately, there isn’t really an easy fix for the Irish’s rushing woes.

Part of the problem lies with the lack of depth the Irish have at running back. Notre Dame has used Darius Walker almost exclusively at tail back this year. Travis Thomas has seen a few series and freshman Munir Prince has seen a little time, but Prince has yet to see any carries outside of garbage time attempts.

With Thomas on defense and Prince being a true freshman weighing just 165 yards, Weis has been reluctant to give anyone outside of Walker carries. Not only does this give the Irish a one dimensional look to their running game, but it gives Walker an almost unfair work load. Walker’s running style relies on good blocking schemes as he waits for his blocks to unfold and therein lies the other part of the problem here – the offensive line.

The Notre Dame offensive line has yet to be dominate for sixty minutes. For the second half of the Georgia Tech game, they took control of the game and as a result that has been the only time the Irish have had any kind of sustained success running the ball. The line has uncharacteristically made numerous mental errors and has been penalized far more than a year ago.

The lack of a running game has made Notre Dame over reliant on the pass and has made the Irish one dimensional and predictable at times. Opposing defenses have not had to respect the Notre Dame rushing attack and have focused on stopping the Notre Dame passing game which has led to slow starts for the Notre Dame offense in every game.

Notre Dame has scored just 10 total points in the first quarter thru four games this year. A slow start cost them dearly against Michigan and almost cost them just much against Georgia Tech and Michigan State.

Untimely turnovers have been just as detrimental to the Irish this year as well. Against Michigan, Brady Quinn threw behind John Carlson on the second play of game and Prescott Burgess grabbed the deflected ball out of the air for a pick six two plays into the game. Later in that same game, the Irish trailed the Wolverines 13-7 after surrendering a long touchdown to Mario Manningham and fumbled the ensuing kickoff giving Michigan a short field. A few plays later, Michigan was up 20-7. Thirteen points off two turnovers in the first quarter and the Irish were playing catch-up the rest of the game.

Fast forward to this past Saturday. Trailing 7-0 in the first quarter, Tommy Zbikowski returned a punt 25 yards only to fumble it away at midfield setting up the Spartans with a short field and a great scoring opportunity. Five plays later, Michigan State had a 14-0 lead.

Then after falling behind 17-0, Notre Dame cut the lead to 17-7 and were gaining momentum when Brady Quinn threw an ill-advised screen pass which was picked off and returned for a touchdown giving the Spartans a 24-7 lead.

Turnovers have put Notre Dame in early holes which has forced them into being a one-dimensional offense. If the Irish want to seriously contend for a BCS berth and keep their remote national championship hopes alive, they are going to have to not just cut down on the turnovers, but also keep opposing defenses from returning the turnovers for scores as well.

Also hindering the Notre Dame defense has been an inability to convert third downs. The Irish have converted on just 15 of 55 third downs this season for a rather unimpressive 28% conversion rate. They have faced numerous third and longs due to the lack of a running game and as a result, the Irish offense has struggled on third down. Complicating matters for the Irish on third downs has been the accuracy of Brady Quinn early on in games. Quinn has had plenty of chances to hit receivers on third down, but has been off in the early goings.

In 2005, the Notre Dame offense converted 90 of 184 third downs for a 49% conversion rate. If Notre Dame is to earn a BCS berth this year, they will need to get back to that kind of success rate on third down.

On the defensive side of the ball, this might sound strange, but the Irish really have not been as bad as it looks on paper. True, in last two games Notre Dame has surrendered 84 points, but take a closer look at that number and you’ll realize maybe the defense isn’t all that bad. In the Michigan game, the Wolverines scored 24 points off turnovers (14 directly on returns) and this past weekend the Spartans scored 14 off turnovers (7 directly on returns). Take away those 38 points and the Irish defense has given up 46 points which is really fairly good against the likes of Michigan and Michigan State.

Still, its not as though the defense is shutting people down and just trying to clean up turnovers. There are plenty of holes in this defense that are going to need some patchwork for the Irish to win out namely at linebacker and in the secondary.

The Notre Dame linebackers were a concern coming into the season and I have written about their struggles each week. The under-sized Irish linebackers are being taken advantage of the running game. Maurice Crum is a talented linebacker, but he is playing out of position at middle linebacker and for as much promise as Travis Thomas is showing at linebacker, he is getting taken out of a lot of running plays.

The Irish defensive line has actually played pretty well this year. Trevor Laws and Derek Landri have been strong in the middle and Chris Frome showed a great motor Saturday, but the Irish are going to need to improve their play at the linebacker position in order to slow down opponents rushing games.

In the secondary, the Irish have looked ok outside of the Michigan game when they were forced to play a lot of one on one as the Irish focused on stopping the run. The result was Terrail Lambert and Ambrose Wooden getting burned for touchdowns by Mario Manningham. Lambert redeemed himself this past weekend with his game winning interception return for a touchdown, while Wooden has been a bit banged up.

Playing place of Wooden has been freshman Darrin Walls who is playing very, very well for a freshman. Rick Minter had enough confidence in him to have him lined up one on one with Calvin Johnson against Tech and against Matt Trannon on Saturday. He’s made some freshman mistakes, but he’s showed a lot of promise, and by season’s end he could be playing at a very high level.

Penalties have been another killer for Notre Dame this year. Notre Dame is ranked near the bottom of the NCAA in terms of penalties and penalty yards per game. Simply put, they can’t continue to be penalized 9 times for over 70 yards a game. Penalties have stalled drives on the offense and extended drives for opposing offenses all season and it could cost the Irish a game if they don’t cut down on the mental errors.

Take the Michigan State game. Two separate penalties on special teams took seven points off the board for the Irish and contributed to seven points for Michigan State. A Tommy Zbikowski punt return for a touchdown was called back for a block in the back and great starting field position for the defense was negated by an offside penalty.

Notre Dame has a lot of work left to do this year and luckily, the light part of their schedule is on the way which should give them some time to work out a lot of these kinks. Most teams play North East South Central State Tech a couple times before their real schedule starts and work these kind of problems out by now. Unfortunately for the Irish, they started their season with four quality opponents. There is still plenty of time left to work these problems out and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a very different team in LA on November 25th.

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