Back in the preseason, a smart guy with the initials of GF predicted Notre Dame would enter the week 10 tilt against Miami with an 8-1 record. I also picked them to lose the game, as well as the season finale against Stanford.
My logic was simple: Notre Dame has struggled in November the last few seasons, and with the way the roster was constructed (especially on the defensive line), I saw them fading down the stretch. And lets be honest, we’ve seen it before.
In 2014, Notre Dame entered November at 6-1 and ranked #9 nationally. Then they completely fell apart, getting blitzed at Arizona State following a win against Navy, and then dropping the final three to fall to 7-5. Notre Dame limped home in 2015 before losing a heartbreaker at Stanford, and 2016 was 2016. Since the 2012 season, the Irish are 8-12 in the month of November.
This year, the team was riding high following seven straight double digit victories (three against ranked teams), the closest of which was an 11 point win against Wake Forest in which they lead 41-16 at one point. It all came crashing down last weekend in their 33 point drubbing at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes. In all likelihood, the former #3 Fighting Irish saw their once promising playoff hopes dashed in South Beach.
All is not lost, however. They will wake up tomorrow ranked 8th in the CFP rankings, and still in position for a New Years Six bowl game should they win out, something they haven’t won since 1993. But, can they buck the trend of the last few seasons and finished 10-2?
Reasons To Be Pessimistic
The funny thing is, I predicted Notre Dame would fade as a team because the front 7 would break down. Not enough depth, I thought. Well, Mike Elko and his defense played it exactly how they should have on the defensive line throughout the year. They routinely played multiple people on both the defensive line and linebacker. We haven’t seen the type of snap counts that destroyed the effectiveness of players like Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochelle late in their seasons. Guys like Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner have rotated in and out of the lineup in every game, and their have been multiple defensive ends who have made an impact up front for the Irish. They shouldn’t be breaking down. Yet the rushing defense numbers the last couple of weeks have been concerning to say the least.
Against Wake and Miami, Notre Dame gave up a combined 476 rushing yards, 5.8 a carry, and six touchdowns. Remember, entering the contest against Wake, the Irish defense had given up one rushing touchdown all season. When the dam broke, it broke big.
This is obviously a concern with the final two match ups coming against Navy and Stanford who, uh, really like to run the ball. Maybe they shouldn’t be breaking down in the front 7, but they are, at the worst time.
Lack Of A Goal
This one is a bit of a wild card because maybe the team is able to focus on a double digit win season and a major bowl win. Maybe that means as much to them as the fans hope it does. But, the fact is a week ago Notre Dame was in the drivers seat for a playoff berth and now that dream is pretty much gone. It’s a cliche, though cliches are often true, but not being in a conference has left Notre Dame in an emotional rut once national championship aspirations have gone away. Will they be able to play with the same edge late in a close game with the carrot being a ten win season as they would with a playoff berth on the line?
This one came up suddenly, but when your starter gets pulled for performance in the second quarter and has two stinkers in both losses this season, it’s a problem that could derail a season. This could be not unlike the fall of Everett Golson late in 2014, who was clean for the first few weeks then fell apart on the road against Arizona State and never fully recovered. If the turnovers and inaccuracy continues, coupled with the struggles on the defensive line, suddenly the things that made Notre Dame really good–turnover differential and a stout defense–are no longer in play. Then what have they got?
Reasons To Be Optimistic
The Final Two Defenses
Notre Dame has struggled most as a team when they can’t run the ball because they can’t take advantage of the weakness of the defense when they focus on the run. We saw this against Georgia and Miami, two teams that could take away the run if they wanted to. Fortunately for Notre Dame, Navy and Stanford don’t have the template on defense to limit Notre Dame the way others did. It’s not size, it’s strength, speed, and quickness. The Irish should be able to get what they want in the running game the next two weeks which seems to have a calming effect over the entire team and Brandon Wimbush especially. It would help if Wimbush gained some confidence, because Navy is the 111th ranked pass defense by S&P+.
This Team Is Objectively Better Than The Others
I know I’m throwing out what we’ve seen over the previous ten weeks, but I really shouldn’t. What Notre Dame did against USC, Michigan State, and NC State should matter. Their closest margin of victory in their eight wins is 11 points, against the 10th ranked schedule by FEI. They are blowing teams out against that schedule. This team is good.
The 2014 team also fell apart due to a slew of injuries that rendered their defense unrecognizable the final four weeks. That hasn’t happened this season. Sure, some guys are banged up (Nyles Morgan), but they are still out there competing. The same is true of the offense. So we have a better team overall, with the full compliment of their roster available. A collapse at this point would be a deviation from what they’ve been all season. Could happen, but it’s more likely they continue the excellent play we’ve seen throughout the year. Doesn’t promise anything, but I like their chances.
This is pretty much the most compelling of all the reasons, good or bad, that I’ve listed. This team has shown itself to be good many times over. And good teams usually win the games against teams they are better than. Sure, they could fall apart; Navy and Stanford have proven to be thorns in the side the last few years and they aren’t terrible. In fact, Stanford might be good. But, Notre Dame is better. They’ve been better all season. And that’s what I expect to play out the final two weeks.