When you’re the quarterback at Notre Dame, it all comes back to you. The Irish beat Michigan behind the arm and the legs of Brandon Wimbush, he saw his Heisman stock rise, and he was the belle of the ball. The Notre Dame offense struggled the following week against Ball State, and Wimbush was again the polarizing figure he has always been. Most of the post-game talk centered around his play and whether or not Chip Long set up a game plan that set his senior signal caller up for success. To be clear, those questions were warranted. When Brian Kelly chooses his running quarterback as his starter and then doesn’t run him, well, that doesn’t make a ton of sense.
But, taking the time to watch the game back, the five men on the offensive line were the greater concern and their need for major improvement in the coming weeks was glaring. Notre Dame had enough opportunities in the running game to have made a mark on the ground. It didn’t happen. There was an assumption Ball State brought significant pressure against Wimbush in the passing game, causing him to leave the pocket or attempt to scramble while eventually being sacked. Nope, many times Ball State only brought four rushers, sometimes five, against six or seven blockers, and they still got home. Not good.
No Movement In The Running Game
During this weeks Power Hour podcast, Irish Sports Daily analyst Jamie Uyeyama pointed out during the media viewing periods in fall camp, he noted the lack of inside running drills that were usually prevalent in practice periods, things like 9 on 7 inside running drills. It concerned him that the running game didn’t seem to be as emphasized as the prior season.
There could be some reasons for this, one of which was the lack of running back depth on the Irish roster. Losing a key player like Jafar Armstrong or Tony Jones Jr. would have been a significant blow to the football team with Dexter Williams out for four games, and three Irish running backs with eligibility remaining gone from the previous season. The media also could have come on lighter days; they only got to view five of 25 practices. They obviously missed quite a bit.
There is evidence of the lack of work and cohesion on the line, however, especially against a team like Ball State. Numerous times the line was slow to get off the ball, got stalemated or pushed back against inferior defenders, or seemed confused as to who they were supposed to pick up.
An example of the lack of explosiveness was on display on first and 10 from the Ball State 12 early in the second quarter. Notre Dame is six on six in the box, numbers that would indicate an advantage for the line. The left defensive end starts the play shooting across the face for Robert Hainsey, splitting he and Tommy Kraemer and getting to the legs of Tony Jones Jr. Sam Mustipher is also beaten across his face by the nose tackle, an egregious sin since the tackle was shaded to his inside shoulder. The nose eventually makes the play. Kraemer loses his footing and falls, never getting to the back side backer. And to top it off Alize Mack, with a perfect angle to get the strong side linebacker, overruns the play and makes a poor effort. Jones makes the backer miss, but the tackle is made by the nose who beat Mustipher for a two yard gain.
The very next play, Notre Dame tries zone read, again six on six. This time Mustipher is stalemated by the nose guard, who looks to be a good 20 pounds lighter. Hainsey and Kraemer are folded up on the double team by the defensive end, who ends up occupying two blockers. Neither linebacker is ever touched. For his part, Jones Jr. actually had a hole to run through, but ran into the back of Mustipher instead, tried to reverse field for some reason, and lost four yards. What could have been a 3-4 yard gain turned into a four yard loss. Yuck.
Trouble In Pass Protection
Again I’m going to show two consecutive plays early in the game to show the line was simply not on the same page with pass protection. This is the area where I think they can make the most improvements because this is a communication issue, not necessarily a technique or ability issue. Guys were just getting turned loose.
On first and 10, from the Notre Dame 35, the Irish are going to have five blockers to pick up five rushers; Ball State is going to blitz both of their linebackers. Notre Dame is well equipped to handle this, Alex Bars is available to come off of his double team with Mustipher and pick up the blitzing linebacker right in his gap. Except he never sees him, and completely lets him go. A well timed and well placed throw by Wimbush results in a completion to the tight end and an 18 yard gain.
On the next play, from the Ball State 47, Notre Dame is faced with four rushers, three down linemen and one blitzing linebacker against their five blockers. For whatever reason, Tommy Kraemer leaves the man directly in front off him for Robert Hainsey, to double team the nose tackle, who is being handled by Sam Mustipher. Hainsey seems surprised at this, and lunges at the defensive end, who is now pressuring Wimbush forcing him to roll out. Hainsey’s lunge leaves the blitzing linebacker completely unblocked, who Wimbush avoids and eventually delivers a completion to Claypool.
The result of this four on five situation is the left tackle and left guard double teaming the end, the center and the right guard double teaming the nose, and Hainsey being left to block two players, and subsequently blocking none.
Needless to say, these aren’t the only examples of mistakes in this game by the line, who to be fair, weren’t the only culprits making mistakes on the day. It was a group effort. However, they are the most important, and they very much need to get things figured out because they might, MIGHT, be able to slide by the next couple of weeks, but come Stanford and Virginia Tech, mistakes like the ones we saw on Saturday will lead to losses.