There usually isn’t much to not like from a 22 point road win over a ranked opponent like the one Notre Dame is coming off of this weekend, but there is always something to find if you look hard enough. This week, the things I didn’t like were of the nitpick variety again – which is a wonderful thing.
Missed opportunities in the downfield passing game
Ian Book has been tremendous in the short and intermediate passing game. So good in fact that it has completely changed the Irish offense and finally opened up Chip Long‘s playbook. The one area where Book still needs a lot of work, however, is in the downfield passing game and that was very apparent on Saturday night.
On Notre Dame’s second drive of the game, Book connected with Chris Finke for a 56 yard gain to setup a field goal. It had Irish fans thinking, “oh my God we have a vertical passing game too!?!?” It was a bit short lived though as Book misfired on several other open deep balls throughout the night. In fact, this game could have been just about over at halftime if he connected on just a few of them.
There was the sure touchdown to Finke on a stop and go that Book overshot by 5+ yards, there was a bomb to Boykin that had touchdown written all over it, there were a couple to Chase Claypool actually that could have been really long gains if they were on target.
The good news is that Book recognized after the game that he missed those throws and the problem on none of them were arm strength. The knock on Book has been he doesn’t have a big arm. Well on all of the deep balls he missed he had plenty of arm. Timing is what is missing and that will hopefully come with more reps.
Lack of YAC from the Irish tight ends
Chip Long loves to use the tight ends in the Notre Dame passing game and Notre Dame has some really big, athletic tight ends. One of the issues with why they aren’t making a bigger impact is because of the lack of Yards after the Catch (YAC) from the position as a whole. On Saturday night Alize Mack caught a couple short passes where if he could just shake an ankle tackle, he’d have had long gains. It didn’t happen though.
In general, Notre Dame has lacked any sort of yards after the catch from the tight end position for a long time. In the recent past the problem was they weren’t getting the ball in a position to run after the catch. That isn’t the problem anymore with Ian Book throwing receivers open and leading them very well. The problem has been an inability to run through arm/ankle tackles. Notre Dame has some big and fast tight ends and now they have a quarterback who can get them the ball in a position to make plays. They need them to start doing that.
The big cushion Notre Dame was giving up early
A couple times this year now Clark Lea has had the Notre Dame defense come out in soft coverage with huge cushions for the opposing wide receivers. In each instance, the opposition said “thank you very much” and moved the ball on the Irish early. Now, in each case Lea has made some great adjustments and shut it down, but given Notre Dame’s pass rush and corner skills, it seems an odd concession to keep making early in games.
On Saturday, Ryan Willis moved the ball on the Irish defense early just like Kyle Shurmur of Vanderbilt did in week three against the Irish. Once Lea adjust and had his corners play press coverage, the pass rush took over and Willis didn’t have enough time to find an open receiver.
You know it was a good game when one of things I didn’t like was that the defensive game plan didn’t work perfectly at the start but did by the end. Still, with everything we’ve seen from the Irish defense this year, it would be nice to see the Irish come out aggressive from the start.
Speaking of coverages, the coverage of the nickel position could be listed here too because it seems pretty clear that Notre Dame isn’t trusting their nickels much and instead relying on ROVER Asmar Bilal too much. Bilal has been vastly improved this year, but he is being put in some situations that are near impossible for him to defend.
Playing the entire second half without two defensive ends
The targeting rule in the college football is almost as bad as the new roughing the passer penalties in the NFL. It’s called so uneven and if you are Notre Dame, you almost know that the Irish will always be never on the “good” side of one of the calls. Julian Okwara‘s targeting penalty in the second quarter met the criteria for the call, but in no way looked malicious. Still, he missed the entire second half.
Contrast that to the two blatant headshots to Deshone Kizer that Virginia Tech got away with in 2016 in South Bend without even a flag of any kind thrown on the play. Or even the headshot that Torii Hunter Jr absorbed in Austin in 2016 that wasn’t flagged for anything. What’s even more ridiculous about this rule is how conference officials almost ALWAYS side with the referees after a game, even when it’s clear how horribly wrong they were. Just look at this hit from USC’s Porter Gustin a few weeks ago.
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 26, 2018
The Pac 12 commissioner said this hit was not targeting. That hit was borderline criminal. Gustin was fresh off a targeting penalty the week before that play just like Virginia Tech LB Terrell Edmunds was just a couple weeks removed from his own targeting penalty in 2016 when he ear-holed Kizer with no flag.
The good news for Notre Dame is that because the play took place right at the end of the first half, Okwara does NOT have to sit out the first half against Pitt this weekend. That is huge for Notre Dame since it doesn’t sound like Daelin Hayes will be ready for action this weekend.
Early special teams blunders
Special teams were a problem earlier in the year but rebounded nicely the past three weeks. Special teams blunder reared their ugly head in the first half though. John Shannon made an uncharacteristically bad snap on Notre Dame’s first punt which was compounded by Tyler Newsome panicing as the play broke down. It looked as though Newsome had enough time to get off any sort of quick kick to avoid the worst case scenario. Instead he tucked the ball looked like he wanted to pass for a brief second, and then tried to run.
The play shifted the momentum and got Virginia Tech back in the game. Shannon was sharp the rest of the night, but you would expect a 5th year senior in Newsome to be more collected in that situation.
Notre Dame also let up a pretty good punt return in the first half when the game was still very much in doubt. Not the best week for Brian Polian’s unit, but on the positive it gives him plenty to work on this week.
BONUS: Having to listen to Doug Flutie again this coming weekend
It was so nice not having to hear Doug Flutie for an entire weekend wasn’t it? It was also nice not to have NBC falling over itself to make sure that the opposing team’s storylines are so well articulated that they neglect telling touching stories like that of Dexter Williams’s sick mother who moved to South Bend to live with her son through his suspension. But hey, thankfully NBC made sure that the Bryce Love existence story was told two weeks ago because I mean who on earth ever heard of the Heisman runner up from 2017 before last weekend? Oh, everyone did?