Is Notre Dame Ready for an Undefeated, Primetime Showdown?

Everett Golson & Brian Kelly
Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly talks with quarterback Everett Golson (5) in the second quarter against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Trap games are common in college football.  It’s easy to understand why a football team like Notre Dame would struggle to get “up” for its contest against North Carolina – a team that arrived in South Bend on a three-game losing skid with double-digit margins of defeat in each contest – after a last second win over rival Stanford.  This relatively expected letdown was exacerbated by the fact Notre Dame’s matchup with North Carolina took place one week prior to an impending primetime showdown with defending national champions, Florida State.

Simply put, the Fighting Irish were able to earn a victory despite being caught peeking ahead to the Seminoles.  Not all programs are so fortunate.  No. 8 UCLA came out flat against an unranked Utah team one week after defeating No. 15 Arizona State in an early Pac-12 clash – and one week before taking on then-No. 2 Oregon – and the Bruins were unable to overcome their initial lethargy and fell to the Utes.  It was a costly mistake, and one that will largely be responsible for knocking UCLA out of playoff contention after this past Saturday’s loss to Oregon.

The notion a young team like Notre Dame would fall victim to a trap game against the Tar Heels holds plenty of merit, but may also be too far-reaching and simplistic.  The North Carolina game possibly highlighted issues that could more accurately be described as cracks in the Fighting Irish’s 2014 foundation.

“If you take away those three turnovers that I had, the score looks a little bit more relaxed,” Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson said to the media after the North Carolina contest.  “I will do better.”

But Golson hasn’t done better.  In fact, the Irish signal caller – who has been mentioned by some outlets as a Heisman contender – has regressed in his development as the season has trudged on.  Golson has been responsible for 9 turnovers in the last three games, and the number would have been upped to 10 had Notre Dame’s starting right guard, Steve Elmer, not astutely fallen on a fumble against Syracuse.

The issue isn’t even that mistakes are being made – it’s that the same mistakes are being repeated.  Everett Golson has struggled to protect the football when running outside the pocket, and yet again a fumble was lost against North Carolina when Golson scampered up field without adequately gripping the ball.

The regression has extended to other areas, too.  Golson has looked extremely uncomfortable maintaining the pocket, and NBC analyst Mike Mayock noted in Saturday’s contest that Everett was too quick to abandon it while wide receivers were getting open.  Even when Golson did maintain the pocket he appeared hesitant, possibly gun-shy out of fear of adding to his expanding list of miscues.  This reluctance was on full display when speedy wide receiver Will Fuller blew past North Carolina’s coverage on a deep route.  Golson’s momentary hesitation turned a surefire touchdown into an incompletion, with Fuller having to transition from receiver to defender, out-jumping the North Carolina secondary in order to swat down a potential interception.

Not even Golson’s decision-making has been spared as of late.  Trailing North Carolina 7-0 after the Tar Heel defense capitalized on an Everett Golson fumble deep inside Notre Dame territory, Golson was intercepted while attempting to throw a quick out route to tight end Ben Koyack.  Koyack was blanketed the entire way by North Carolina linebacker Jeff Schoettmer, and the decision that would ultimately lead to an interception return for a touchdown would have been a poor one for a true freshman, let alone a quarterback entering the Heisman discussion.

But Notre Dame’s reoccurring offensive woes were complemented in uncharacteristic fashion by Notre Dame’s usually stellar defense, which was tested by an up-tempo offensive attack for the first time this season.

The results were not positive.

The North Carolina Tar Heels’ offense ran 86 plays against Notre Dame’s defense, the second most snaps for North Carolina all season (the Tar Heels ran 94 offensive plays in their victory against Liberty).  North Carolina’s 86 plays were an increase of 32 percent compared to the season average 65 offensive snaps the Notre Dame defense had faced prior to North Carolina, and the up-tempo pace wore down and confused the Irish defense.

Averaging only 10-points per game, Notre Dame’s defense surrendered 36 points to the Tar Heels’ offense (which excludes Golson’s interception return for a touchdown).  The defense also allowed a season high 510 yards, which was the most North Carolina had accumulated to-date.  The Tar Heels’ 184 yards rushing and 4.4 yards per carry mark were also the worst for the Fighting Irish defense so far this season (Syracuse’s 4.5 yards per carry were inflated due to one long gain on a fake punt).

The downward trajectory of Everett Golson’s production combined with Notre Dame’s defensive struggles against offensive tempo looms over the program as it heads into an undefeated heavyweight bout with Florida State.  The Seminoles boast an NCAA-leading 22-game winning streak and are averaging 39 points per game.  And while Florida State has averaged 68 offensive snaps per contest – which is on par with what Notre Dame’s defense has faced per game, excluding North Carolina – the Seminoles have the talent and athletic ability to go up-tempo, should they so desire.

Despite these concerns, it cannot be ignored that Everett Golson has a 17-1 record at Notre Dame, and his miraculous ability to find a way to win justifies his status as a clutch performer.  But if Notre Dame wants to take the next step and become an elite program, it has to beat the likes of Florida State, and such a step can only be achieved by playing error-free football.   Head coach Brian Kelly knows it, and so does Everett Golson.

Notre Dame has fought hard to once again be in the national picture, and the spotlight of Tallahassee is beckoning.  America will be watching to see if the Fighting Irish are up for the task.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor.  He talks football 24-hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him.  Scott can be reached at scottjanssenhp@gmail.com.

 

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37 Comments

      1. While I believe “no matter what” is added by poster, my sources said same. SI, ESPiN, and tooth fairy.

  1. Looking forward to our boys giving JW his first lost. He is 19-0. And looking forward to EG continuing his undefeated reg season. Go Irish!

  2. I think our kids will be ready for prime time. This game does remind me of our trip to Norman,OK a couple of years ago. We were clear underdogs.

    Atkinson didn’t make the trip and we were going up against a really good team and coach. We played amazing that evening. I hope history repeats itself and we play well in Tallahassee….and win.

    Go IRISH!

    Woodrow

  3. I am not feeling at all positive about this game. We had way too many issues against UNC and FSU is going to crush us if we make a bunch of mistakes. I just feel like this is going to be a blow out and an end to a season of hope.

    I’d like nothing more than to beat FSU and shut up a few guys at work that keep telling me ND doesn’t play anyone. I guess the only teams that should be allowed in the playoff are SEC teams.

    Sorry to be negative but I just don’t see us winning on Saturday.

  4. I would say the autograph news on Winston may be a distraction to FSU but then again they should be used to it by now.

  5. I don’t know, after McDougal and the irish offense ran all over the Criminoles defense I felt that Ward had no shot at the Heisman…in my eyes it was tossed to him as a consolation prize that year.

    I am a fan of the rest of your argument, lets beat them at full strength and then let the world tell us how they were not that good and winston gets suspended…you are correct, that sounds about par for the course.

    Truthfully though, if the guys can beat FSU, I see playoff with a Mississippi or Auburn looming over the horizon.

    1. Consolation prize??? Say what you want but ol Charlie Ward was a hell of a ball player. Let’s not forget FSU out gained ND that day and Mr Ward threw it for 300.

  6. Call me crazy, but I will say this. I’d rather lose by 3 going against Winston than beat them by 6 or 7 without him in.

    If we win without him in then we won’t get any respect. If we win with him in then we get much respect. If we lose a close one with him in, we still get respect. Just can’t get blown out.

    1. Your not just crazy, you are a lunatic. There are no pictures with a 12-0 record. 12-0 you are in period.

    2. 12-0 and they will be in, no question. 11-1 and they need a bunch of help.

      Frankly, I don’t care if Winston is in or not. He’s good, a 70% passer, but his backup threw for 300+ yards against a stout Clemson defense. Winston also has thrown 5 INTs. Altogether Winston is better, but the marginal difference does not make the game turn on whether he plays.

      If Golson and the Irish bring their A game, we will win! Go Irish!

    3. You’re giving FSU way too much credit. You saw that they just got dissed in the polls, right? Obviously they’re not considered world beaters any longer.

  7. Let’s try this. Let Winston play, it’s the Notre Dame way.

    We beat them with Jameis there. Then, after our win, word comes out next week that Winston is ineligible due to compensation received for the autographs.

    Then, the accuser in the sexual assault suit wins a civil suit against Winston and receives treble damages in a RICO conspiracy suit againss Winston, FSU and the Tallahasee for that lyrical threesome made famous by Sam Ervin:

    (1) Misprision of felony
    (2) Obstruction of justice
    (3) Subornation of perjury.

    Notre Dame moves to 7-0, but its strength of schedule drops because
    “Florida State wasn’t that good.”

    Unbeaten, vindicated and reviled. That’s a briar patch into which I relish being thrown.

    And as far as the hurting in ’93 the guy hurt the most was Derrick “Bo” Brooks who limped off the field several times.

  8. Half of me wants Winston and the criminoles to suffer with sanctions for Saturdays game, I mean after all we have to deal with 5 players out for supposedly looking at someones test…

    The other half of me wants ND to beat up on FSU as is so there is no debate or question about Saturdays game.

    I remember another ND-FSU game of the year with a Heisman hopeful named Charlie ward…ND put a hurting on them and I would like to see the same.

    Go Irish!

  9. Jameis Winston had 3 turnovers against NC St.; Winston had two interceptions and a fumble when hit by a DL blindly. Winston gets recognition for rallying them from behind for the win. Rightly so.
    Everett Golson has three turnovers against NC, one a forced fumble when hit by a DL blindly. He does rally ND from behind for the next 28 consecutive points, and led ND to 4 of 4 third down conversions in the 4th quarter to retake the lead, and then maintain it.
    You are where your attention is, Scott and fans.
    Turnovers occur. Some are on the QB; others can occur when blocking breaks down. What your D’ and your QB and offense do to respond to miscues determine the outcome of the game.
    6-0 is an elite place to be in college football at this point in the season, regardless of strength of schedule.
    Few teams get there during any season.
    This week might well determine whether we are a year away as many predicted – or not. It will not diminish how far we’ve come, nor will it derail the direction this program is headed. Enjoy the ride.
    Go Irish . . .

  10. Jack, Memorial Stadium was a GREAT baseball stadium, with horrific sight lines for football. That is unfortunate, because it lessened the ability to gaze on the exploits of Gene “the Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Alan “The Horse” Ameche, the guy who “invented” tight end play, John Mackey, Jim Parker, Lenny Moore and LG “Long Gone” Dupre. And I haven’t played my trump card.

    Truth be told I’d rather watch Art Donovan tell tales of eating ” a huge baloney sandwich” than watch a football game from the first or third base baseball lower deck boxes of Memorial Stadium.

    To watch Tommy Phoebus or the Boog? Great! Ordell Braase or Domer Jim Mutscheler? JUst say no!!
    That does not gainsay that it was a shrine, a temple.

    But wait until some of these “modern” Domers pay big bucks for seats in Fenway and then can not see the game. As a Christian, I am disqualified from taking delight in the misfortune of others, but I’ll go venial once or twice that day!

    1. My father was brought home to a house two blocks away. The Stadium was the only one built in the 50’s and was a Memorial to Korean War vets. It was built in a horse shoe for the Colts. It was the loudest stadium in the NFL during its tenure even frustrating the Great Lombardi. I was too young to have seen the Colts greats and that Jerk Robert Irsay took my hometown team. To this day my father can’t route against the helmet.

      This is the same man who was told by a Nun at St. Mary’s in Govans, Baltimore, if he didn’t route for the Irish he was going to hell. You always do what the nun says.

  11. You need to take it week to week. You will know which team shows up after the first quarter. Also, if you look back to the epic show down with Oklahoma in 2012, ND barley beat BYU at home. Tommy Reese was QB, but BYU ran all over them in the first half and was leading the game at half time.

    Like I said week to week, you don’t know which kids are going to show up.

  12. ND does have some things to work on no doubt. So does EG. The team has been playing with fire the last 3 games, more or less, and if they don’t want to get burned they have to execute better.

    EG is definitely an exercise in contradictions. He is both having the worst and best games. He turns the ball over while at the same time beating the school record for completed passes. Amazing when you think about it.

    And one thing that should be clear about ND under BK is that they don’t quit. Under Willingham and Weis, they would have eventually quit against NC and lost the game, and possibly the same against Syracuse. But under BK, they play to win. If they lose next week against FSU, it won’t be because they gave up. They will make FSU earn that win.

    I do agree with Duranko that BK will not get into the mud with the whole Winston mess at FSU. He’ll leave that to the media. He has been careful not to give bulletin board material to opposing teams either by himself or the players.

    I think FSU is beatable. They are not the same team they were last year. But they are going to have to be on their A-game.

  13. I don’t know if the team is ready but Kelly sure is.

    His demeanor is pitch perfect for a big road game, just the right amount of humor and irreverence to keep the team loose enough as a counterweight to the tension.

    He has a remarkable ability to not major in minors and will allow neither his team nor himself to get dragged down into muckraking and scandal fomenting re Winston.

    further, Kelly has an outstanding record in big games, including his record all the way back to Grand Valley.

    I’m not sure we will win, but am highly confident we will be at our best.

    Oh, and for the “coaches” who post here, he emphasized running the ball several times in his press conference.

    I love this stuff, and am dismissive of the nervous nellies.

    THIS, THIS is a Notre Dame moment.

    “Ev, Will, Tarean, Ben, Ronnie, Steve, Andrew, Sheldon, Jarron,
    Jaylon, Cole, Max, Elijah: when we recruited you, many of you were from championship programs, and we were not there yet. But we told you that our nonnegotiable goal, our mission, our passion was to play in big games and to win big games that put us in a position for championships.
    You believed us and came on board this Irish locomotive, and with your effort, your blood, sweat, toil and tears, that train has left the station. And now we are headed to Tallahassee, unbeaten, albeit with wood left to chop” to take on the defending national champion and the returning Heisman trophy winner in their lair. You know something, I wouldn’t have it any other way! And I wouldn’t have any other guys but you guys to walk into Doak Campbell. We are Daniels going into the lion’s den, we are
    Maximux Decimus Meridius, gladiators going into the Coliseum, ready to take on the legions of Scipio Africanus, we are the Four Horsemen
    going into Yankee Stadium, we are Bertelli going in to Ann arbor, we are Devine, Zettek and Carter going into the belly of the beast in birminghma and beating Bama 7-0. We are Leahy, Rockne, Holtz, Lujack, Hornung, Lattner, Huarte and Brown leading the Irish charge into an opponent’s home. we are legacy we are history we destiny We will win this!
    Go Irish!”

    1. Lol the “coaches”. Come on….one doesn’t have to be a coach to suggest some commitment to the run game.

      It is….and it is my only negative critism of Coach Kelly.

      It really appears that the ground isn’t used for balance, catch em off guard, play action set-up. Maybe more of….oh….we have running backs too! Lol

      This “coach” will always want to see the running game at least match the commitment of the passing game.

  14. Toulmin, I generally agree with you, but here, I respectfully disagree.

    In ’88 I attended all three of Pitt at Pitt, the week before Miami, then 31-30, then Navy the following week.

    Pitt was a look ahead, and notre Dame escaped on a weird out of the endzone fumble by the explosive Darnell Dickerson. ND won 30-20 but it was close for a long time. Then the week after, in the letdown spot, the Irish were absolutely insipid beating Navy 22-7 in Baltimore in “bad sight line” Memorial Stadium. So the question is does that prove the point about sandwich games or does that count as Holtz faltering?

    Then there was the Boston College game in ’93, a classic letdown spot.
    Was that natural or faltering or both?

  15. Trap games are a pain but in all due candor Lou Holtz never allowed ND to falter. The ground is where Holtz attacked FSU 93.

    1. Lou was great at preparing a team but you must remember what happened to the Irish the week after FSU in 93? That was a National Championship costing trap game.

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