Notre Dame sputtered its way to another less than impressive victory over a team the Irish should have been able to handle relatively easily on Saturday. After jumping out to a big lead early, Notre Dame hung on for dear life in the fourth quarter to improve to 3-0 on the season. Despite the perfect record though, the Irish were was again far from perfect in victory. Let’s crack open the post game 6-pack and take a deeper look.
1. Notre Dame faded in the 2nd half again
For the third week in a row Notre Dame jumped out to a big lead in the first half but had to hang on in the final moments. Against Michigan the Irish built a 21-3 lead only to win 24-17. Last week a 24-6 lead turned into a 24-16 final. This week the Irish jumped out to a 16-0 lead but had to hold on for a five point win, 22-17, in the final moments.
The Irish offense worked early only to struggle late. The defense faded in the second half as well after Kyle Shurmur got into a grove and started marching up and down the field. In fact, if it hadn’t been for two Vandy turnovers near/in the endzone, Vanderbilt may well have won this one.
The fast start and fade is worrisome since even though the Irish are 3-0, it conjures up memories of 2016 when the Irish jumped out to early leads much of the season only to ultimately lose on their way to a 4-8 campaign. Obviously being 3-0 is a great place to be, but the more Notre Dame keeps playing like they have the last two weeks, the sooner it catches up to them.
2. The Notre Dame offensive line improved
While the overall performance left a lot to be desired again this week, one huge positive from the game was the improved play of the offensive line. Ball State pushed Notre Dame around upfront last week as the Irish struggled to run the football. This week Notre Dame’s offensive line played much better.
Notre Dame ran the ball for 245 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry this week – a huge step in the right direction. A week after letting up four sacks to Ball State, Notre Dame quarterbacks didn’t get sacked once this week.
There is still a lot of work left to be done here and lineup changes could be in order after seeing Tommy Kraemer get pulled at one point for Trevor Rhuland, but Jeff Quinn deserves some credit for getting his unit to play much, much better this week.
3. Special teams stepped up after back to back poor showings
Another big positive this week was improved play from the Notre Dame special teams units. Tyler Newsome had a career day after some uncharacteristically poor showings the last two weeks, Jonathan Doerer worked out his yips on kickoffs, and the Irish got a great return from sophomore Michael Young. The lone blip on special teams was a missed 32 yard field goal by Justin Yoon on a bit of a bad snap, but he still connected on his other three kicks including a 46 yarder.
Newsome particularly responded well this week. Everyone one of his kicks traveled more than 50 yards and he had multiple kicks over 60 yards including his last one of the day that pushed Vanderbilt back to their own 10 yardline for their final, desperation play.
Doerer’s turnaround performance is encouraging as well. The sophomoreplace kicker pushed a kickoff out of bounds in each of the last two weeks. This week it seemed as though the coaches told him to just let it rip since he had multiple touchbacks.
Special teams were a liability for Notre Dame in weeks one and two, but they were pretty sound today and that’s a big improvement. There is till more work for the Irish to do here. It would be nice to see a big play in the punt return game for instance, but for this week, being solid will do.
4. Offense was a mixed bag
Notre Dame still doesn’t have an offensive identity three weeks into the season. The offense was a little bit better today at times, but it still was not able to sustain early success throughout the game. The Irish scored 10 points on their first two drives of the game, but just 12 the rest of the game.
The Irish ran for those 245 yards, but struggled to pass the ball again. Part of the problem again this week was the play calling of Chip Long. At least this week there were some designed runs for Wimbush, but Long continues to call the WR screen plays that Wimbush struggles with. They haven’t worked at all since Long arrived and they continue to result in negative plays and near disasters. Why they are continually called makes no sense.
The game plan and play calling wasn’t as bad as last week, but it still was questionable to say the least. There was some good from it though. The wheel route plays to Tony Jones Jr – who also ran for a career high – for instance were nicely executed and were passes that Wimbush had struggled with at times previously.
A quarter of the way through the season, Notre Dame hasn’t scored more than 24 points in a single game. The competition is about to get a lot tougher in a couple weeks so unless we see some major improvement soon, expectations will need to be reset fairly drastically if they haven’t been already.
5. This red zone quarterback carousel makes no sense
I really have no idea what Kelly and Long are trying to accomplish with the quarterback carousel that they are employing in the redzone. Brandon Wimbush ran for 14 touchdowns a year ago and his best asset are his legs right now. Taking him off the field in the redzone takes the Irish’s best runner out of the equation. The fact that Ian Book had only handed the ball off when he had been brought it until his fourth quarter touchdown pass made the move make even less sense.
If anything, it would make at least a little sense if the roles were reversed and Wimbush was brought it in the redzone for his running ability ala Tim Tebow at Florida his freshman year. But that isn’t the case. And guess what? Notre Dame’s redzone offense this year is much worse than it was a year ago so the experiment isn’t exactly working.
While bringing in Book to hand off may have worked the last couple of weeks, it doesn’t mean that it made sense then and it still doesn’t. Kelly needs to decide on what he wants the offense to be and pick a quarterback to be his guy already.
6. Brandon Wimbush didn’t get much help from his wide receivers
While the offense sputtered again this week, it was not all the fault of its quarterback(s). Notre Dame wide receivers have not helped out their quarterbacks the last two weeks – especially today. Chris Finke dropped a potential touchdown, Miles Boykin had opportunities to make several contested catches and didn’t make any, and Chase Claypool was virtually invisible again this week.
Right now Notre Dame doesn’t have a real go to option for their struggling quarterback to go to. Wimbush made a couple of solid decisions to some balls up for Boykin especially today, but Boykin was not in any position to come down with them.
Chase Claypool hasn’t taken the step forward I had expected he would and now has six catches for 83 yards in three games. At this point, it would make sense for Michael Young to start seeing more time in place of Claypool. Young flashed some tremendous speed on his 50 yard kickoff return and might be able to provide a spark for the Notre Dame passing game.
Notre Dame got eight catches for 41 yards today from their wide receivers. That is not going to get it done.