There is usually a lot of consternation around the Fighting Irish as the football season reaches the November month. There have been struggles and outright collapses, dating back to 2014. Despite a lot of talk of remedies–better conditioning, improved strength program, playing more guys in the early months–the November swoon has still reared its ugly head. Just last season Notre Dame was 8-1 and #3 in the College Football Playoff, only to get lambasted by Miami, struggle to beat Navy, and falter against Stanford to finish 1-2 and out of the playoffs.
November is bad.
The Irish are entering November this season ranked #3 in the AP poll, undefeated, and are favorites to heavy favorites in all of their remaining games. Will this season be different in the final month? There is reason to think yes.
This Team Is Still Rising
In a way, the team isn’t seven games into the year, but really four. Adding Ian Book into the mix at quarterback changed the trajectory and the personality of the offense. No longer were they a hit or miss, big play offense, but an at times methodical, quick strike, efficient offense. Book has been on the team for three years, but they’ve never built an offense around him. It makes sense the offense would need time to grow into what it can be after not having tapped into his skill set for a full 15 of 16 games since Chip Long has been the offensive coordinator. The group is still gelling, and growing pains were set to be had, as we saw against Pittsburgh two weeks ago. We’d expect any team with a new quarterback to grow well into the season, so why wouldn’t this one?
New Players Are Being Incorporated On Offense
Along those same lines, it seems new players are being added to the offense in waves, though unintentionally. When Book was brought into the starting lineup, he initially didn’t have Dexter Williams at his disposal. When Williams entered the fray, running back Jafar Armstrong left with a knee ailment. Armstrong is unique in that he isn’t just an offensive weapon, he’s a versatile offensive weapon. He can hurt teams out of the backfield as a runner and receiver. He can lineup at different spots.
Notre Dame can be a power team and a throwing team with Williams and Armstrong on the field together, leaving defenses with a choice of personnel to put on the field. Adding him back into the lineup in the final five weeks allows Long to incorporate different formations and plays to gash defenses. In other words, he keeps the offense fresh. In past Novembers, they’ve been stale and almost playing out the string. Now they can do things we haven’t seen yet. Fun for the team, a nightmare for defenses.
The same is true on the offensive line. The quest to find the best five guys after the loss of captain Alex Bars continues, with the insertion of left guard Aaron Banks, and the move of Trevor Ruhland to right guard. This one is a little less optimistic because this isn’t happening due to stellar play. The group is struggling. That said, it does add a bit of upside to the unit because they have such room to improve. They are a 7-0 team that had strong running attacks against Wake Forest, Stanford, and Virginia Tech. So, not a dumpster fire. Even a 50% increase in their efficiency would go a long way for a team that boasts a quarterback who completes 75% of his passes.
The Defense Is Also Trending Up
It’s hard for a defense that is ranked 5th in S&P+ to make big improvements, but this unit can. They’ve struggled finding a solid and consistent nickel package all season after the loss of Shaun Crawford in the preseason. Freshman Houston Griffith has taken the bulk of the snaps, but he’s scuffled at times, and Nick Coleman doesn’t seem to have the trust of the coaches. However, Griffith has played better in recent weeks and a wild card in the secondary has been freshman Tariq Bracy, who showed well against Pittsburgh filling in for Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn.
Bracy’s emergence could give the defense a viable third corner and allow Julian Love to move inside to the slot as the nickel if the coaches feel that defense serves them best against the pass. I imagine the preference would be for Griffith to continue his ascent just due to his size, Bracy is a small dude and the thought of him matching up against the USC receivers is a little unsettling, again just due to size. Nickel is no easy position to learn, especially if you aren’t used to playing on the inside. That Griffith has shown improvement is very encouraging. Notre Dame has been a bad third down team on defense this year, they rank in the 80’s in third down conversions. If they can shore up their nickel package, a very good defense can make a very big leap.