How Notre Dame Football Goes From Good To Great In 2017

There are a lot of good feelings around the Notre Dame football program right now after a 5-1 start and a look of dominance the last four weeks. I’ve written a lot about all the good things we’ve seen on the field this season, from the running game to the stout defense. This is for good reason. There is a lot to like about this team and what it has done.

But, like any team at the midpoint of the season, there are areas of concern that need to be improved on. This is just a matter of fact. A writer for Clemson or Alabama could do the same thing. Notre Dame wants to be a great team, and they will have their chance to get there in the final six games. Right now, they are a good team that generally plays the game at a high level. Lets look at how they go from good to great.

Make More Plays On Defense

The defense is vastly improved in the playmaking department from a season ago, so credit for that, but going from plain noodles to adding some marinara and parmesan cheese doesn’t make me a chef. This is mainly a story about Nyles Morgan needing to take his next step as a player. I admit I’m grading on a curve here. He’s having a good season, but I expect a heck of a lot from Morgan and if he’d stop missing tackles in the back field he’d be having a monster season.

A play against North Carolina perfectly encapsulates the season Morgan is having. He comes on a blitz, isn’t picked up by the back, and gets a clean shot on the quarterback. He bounces off and the quarterback escapes. Morgan then jumps up, takes off after the quarterback and ultimately makes the tackle for about a ten yard gain, but short of the first down. On the one hand, it’s great effort, phenomenal effort. On the other hand, missed plays like that will kill the defense against the better teams on the schedule that are upcoming. Especially in games that are decided by a play here or there.

I’m a big believer in the idea a team is only as good as their best players play. Morgan is a microcosm of the defense right now. To this point, he is playing well, not great. Second in tackles to Te’Von Coney (by a half tackle), tied for the lead in tackles for loss, by far the leader in run stuffs with 11. But, Morgan has another level to reach and in my opinion has to reach it for Notre Dame to manage the back half of this gauntlet.

More Production From The Secondary

On the theme of more playmaking on defense, this is a group that is good in coverage, poor in ball skills. The secondary is tied for 93rd in touchdown passes given up with 10, and most of those have via the jump ball or contested in the end zone. They’ve been in position to make the plays, but have been unable to do so more often than not. As mentioned in my article highlighting the defensive line, the secondary is 108th in defensive back havoc rate, per Bill Connelly, and 111th in passes defensed to incompletions (the percentage of incompletions by the offense either batted down or intercepted by the defense). Between Same Darnold, Ryan Findlay, and Malik Rosier, the secondary will be tested in ways they haven’t been in the first six weeks, Notre Dame needs more out of this group.

Get Equanimeous St. Brown Going

On the theme of only being as good as your best players, the best receiver on the team is currently sitting on 15 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns. His catch rate is terrible (40.5%), and his success rate is even lower (35.1%). Chase Claypool has been the best receiver on the team this season (80% catch rate, 67% success rate) and the problem is he is not their best receiver. Notre Dame has not been successful, when throwing it to their top target and it’s impossible to imagine Notre Dame building off of their first half start if that trend continues.

This isn’t a question of numbers. Notre Dame is clearly going to run the ball a lot more this season than they have in the past, and with the way they rip off big chunks of yards on the ground there aren’t as many yards out there. This is a question of efficiency. A 35% success rate is abysmal. And with a team that’s so good on the ground, it’s unfathomable there aren’t opportunities threw the air.

This isn’t a referendum on St. Brown, clearly quarterback play has been poor this season and that, obviously, plays a big role. But, we’ve also seen St. Brown get manhandled a little too often, and the desire to fight for the ball has left some wanting. Everyone involved in the passing game, from Wimbush to the wideouts, needs to step up their play and if it can’t be counted on from the best player then that’s a big problem.

Clean Up Kickoff Units

Notre Dame is 114th in kickoff success rate and 72nd in kickoff return success rate, the former is terrible, the latter is below average. In standard stats, the Irish are 108th in average per return given up, and that doesn’t include the 90+ yarder given up to Georgia that was called back.

Beyond those numbers, there is just a sense that opponents are about ready to break a big one, and I don’t need to explain what a home run on kickoff return can do in a big game.

Prior to the season, special teams coach Brian Polian stated receiver Chase Claypool, who starred on the kickoff unit last season, would be a fixture this season as well. As a big, athletic athlete, that made a lot of sense. But, that has not materialized this season as Claypool’s role as a receiver has grown, and no one has filled the role as the guy who flies down on kickoff, blowing people up.

Kickoff return has been better than it’s counterpart of coverage, but hasn’t performed up to it’s potential. The Irish have a returner more than capable of big plays in the return game, and he has had a couple returns on the verge of breaking into the open field.

Field position is a big deal in close games against evenly matched teams, and it is part of the hidden yards that play a significant role in those outcomes. Notre Dame has been poor in close games the last few seasons, as has been discussed ad nauseam, and if the Irish could consistently win the kickoff unit battle that would go a long way to curing that problem.


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  1. All the hype is useless unless you have a QB that can throw the ball with consistency on all route levels. Wimbush hasn’t yet shown he can do that. The schedule has at least four really good teams left on it and right now all they have to do is
    stack the line and the offense is dead. The D – still giving up a lot of yardage. – unless the passing game comes around a five loss season is not that far out of the question.

    1. Passing game does need improvement but I disagree about Wimbush having to complete 60% in order to be successful. Championships are built on defense and being able to run the ball. Looking at some of the top teams in the nation it’s still built around running the ball and playing great defense. Bama and Georgia come to mind, and while they have able QB’s it’s the running game and defense that has led them to succesI

  2. For this team to be top 5, Wimbush needs to simply perform at a solid level passing. 60% completions with a 2:1 TD Int ratio. And the DBs simply need to figure out how to find the ball in the air.

    1. And all the other units need to show up week after week. But that could actually happen – because this team is still getting better.

      BGC ’77 ’82

  3. One guy that I loved on ST is Nicco Fertitta. He was the first one in on most kickoffs last year. I know he was injured earlier in the season, but I haven’t seen him on the field since the injury.

  4. I suspect a blitzing/stunting defense vs. SC.
    You can’t give SC QB Darnold time to wait on his receivers to get open.
    As the ’85 Bears showed us, even barely adequate CBs ( Mike Richardson and Les Frazier for those who don’t recall) look better when the opposing QB is under pressure. Not much need of it so far. That’ll change in the coming weeks.

    If Claypool is the best receiver, why did it take the coaching staff this many weeks to figure that out?
    He didn’t hardly play until after the Georgia loss. Does that go for Stepherson, too?
    I, too, remain concerned with the lack of productivity with the passing game and the apparent inability of the DBs to break up passes. Maybe the receivers looked good pre-season because of who they practiced against and the DL didn’t shine because of them scrimmaging against the OL( although McGlinchey did foretell their improvement). And the kick coverage/kick return teams have been consistently poor. With all the athletes ND has recruited, you gotta wonder why.

    But if someone would have told me ND would dominate vs. teams they should, and play Georgia to a one-point loss, arriving at the bye week 5-1, with three blowout road wins, I’d have taken that.

  5. At what point do we stop saying things like: “Chase isn’t the best receiver on the team, EQB is and simply isn’t showing it” and start saying, “well maybe EQB isn’t the best receiver; Chase, followed by a couple others, is simply better.”

    I’d say you’ll hear that talk REAL SOON if EQB doesn’t have a “coming out party” in the next game or two. We need all the oars in the water at the same time guys, if our team is going to pull this off.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  6. Agree on Morgan. He misses a lot of big play opportunities. Maybe he is just not dropping his level enough, hard to tell. He does bring a load if he makes solid contact and he has made some very good plays. Hopefully he gets better. As far as I’, concerned Cooney is one of the most underrated players on the team. He is always there and has made a ton of big plays and solo plays. I have always like this guy. You are dead on with our special teams play. We have often started our drives from inside our 20 while our opponents seem to start theirs at about the 30. Fortunately our defense has done well and our punter Newsome is very valuable and has punted some superb punts. He has been able to flip the field which he has to do a lot because we our losing the battle when it comes to kick off returns for us versus our opponents. I was very happy that Yoon put the ball in the endzone against North Carolina and hope he continues to do so as I see so many kickers from other teams who do this easily every kickoff.

  7. Well, if the passing light bulb goes on for Brandon Wimbush, the team will move up several notches.

    There is no EVIDENCE that that will occur, but it was about in the middle of his third year on campus, that Joe Theisman hit his stride, so at least there is precedent.

    This Wimbush guy has a passing pedigree. He was a marvel in high school, and he is not the prototype running quarterback being taught how to pass.

    Notre Dame teams, (cf.1977, beginning with the Army game after the break), have made significant midseason upticks. ’77 was as strange as any. The team was mediocre and lucky before the week off. VERY lucky!

    For that ’77 juggernaut the lowest margin of victory after the mid-October hiatus was the 24 over Army, except for the 4 point win in Death Valley, when, quite simply, the zebras tried to steal the game for the home squad.

    And then, after that break, through the Cotton Bowl, it was as good (though not better than ’66) as any Notre Dame team since Frank Leahy “retired” after the ’53 season.

    All your points are solid, Greg. but it is Wimbush that stands ready as Alexander to cut the Gordian knot. If he becomes half the passer he can be, watch out.

    Go Irish!

    1. But the receivers have to catch the ball consistently, or Wimbush’s “passing lightbulb” will not be bright enough to light up the scoreboard.

      La Crosse, IN

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