On Saturday Notre Dame finally began to turn around two units that have hindered them all season: defense and special teams. Such an achievement was thought to be impossible until an off-season of evaluation and adjustments. Interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson’s unit limited an opponent to 3 points and less than 200 yards of total offense, all while holding N.C. State to a 14-percent third-down conversion rate and forcing two turnovers. Sophomore kicker Justin Yoon, who has struggled this season, even hit a 40-yard line-drive field goal in the face of hurricane-force winds. Given Notre Dame’s biggest shortcomings finally came through, surely the Irish would win, right?
As has been a trademark of head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, as soon as one unit begins to turn the corner, another falls apart. Notre Dame only managed to muster 113 total yards of offense and boasted an even worse third-down conversion rate, moving the chains only once on 15 attempts against N.C. State. Quarterback DeShonze Kizer posted the worst performance of his career, completing 9 passes on 26 attempts (34.6%) for 54 yards and one interception. The running game wasn’t much better, with Josh Adams (3.6) and Dexter Williams (2.2) both being limited to less than four yards per carry.
Many have questioned the offensive game plan to throw as often as Notre Dame did in the midst of a hurricane, and that plan surely was not helped by the poor performance of Kizer. But Kelly’s decision to lean on his passing attack despite the weather conditions has brought to the forefront a problem that has only been ignored due to the drama on the defensive side of the ball this year for Notre Dame: the offensive line has been playing very, very poorly.
Kelly choosing to throw as often as he did was a testament to his lack of confidence in his offensive line, and watching N.C. State punish Notre Dame’s offensive front showed Kelly’s fears were well-founded. On the rare occasion Notre Dame did run its backs were limited to 1.6 yards per carry, and N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb was a one-man wrecking crew that humiliated left tackle Mike McGlinchey, a player many NFL analysts have projected as a first-round NFL Draft selection in 2017 should he opt to go pro.
Chubb’s dominance was so thorough that he appeared to be intimidating Notre Dame’s offensive line. Down 3-0 in the second quarter, Notre Dame’s offense was driving in N.C. State territory when Chubb was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after pointing his finger within inches of McGlinchey’s facemask to draw attention to the fact McGlinchey jumped early on the play. Rather than react Notre Dame’s left tackle simply walked away. Chubb’s penalty gave Notre Dame a fresh set of downs, but Chubb quickly took that second chance away, sacking Kizer two plays later after beating McGlinchey so badly that he was barely able to get out of his stance before Chubb was in the backfield. Overall, Chubb recorded 5 tackles in the game, three of which were sacks.
It is incomprehensible that with two projected first-round NFL Draft selections in McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson Notre Dame’s offensive line is No. 90 in sacks allowed and has been held to 2.3 yards per carry against Michigan State and 1.6 yards per carry against N.C. State. And there doesn’t seem to be answer on the horizon.
“There are definitely inconsistencies,” Kelly said after a practice last week. “I wouldn’t throw it all on the offensive line. I would throw it on perimeter blocking, decision-making, coaching. There are a lot of factors there.”
After Saturday’s loss to N.C. State, Notre Dame has transitioned from trying to rebound in 2016 to battling laughingstock status, and that must begin with a win over Stanford. Notre Dame’s defense will have a fighting chance against a Cardinal offense that has struggled nearly as mightily this season. Stanford is coming off two straight blowout losses at the hands of Washington and Washington State, and they currently boast one of the worst offenses in the country, ranked No. 122 nationally. This game will be decided by Notre Dame’s offensive line.
Stanford has the 25th ranked rushing defense and is limiting opposing offenses to 120 yards per game on the ground, and the Cardinal are 33rd in sacks with 14 on the season. If Notre Dame is to beat Stanford and stop its dangerous slide the offensive line will need to start playing like the unit that was named the preseason No. 1 offensive line in the country by Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately for Irish fans, that unit has been nowhere to be found this season.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.