5 Things I Didn’t Like: Notre Dame v. Virginia Tech ’18

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.

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?

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  1. I wasn’t wild about the cushion either. Some folks are apologetic about it, and I sense the “don’t say anything bad” mentality. I will qualify my statement with a follow up. I was happy with the interception when the route was jumped and I was happy to see safety help on some key plays. I’d like to see more of a scheme to make that standard versus a player individually improvising. The athletic ability of the secondary could allow them to take more chances and make more attempts to jump the route.

    I also wasn’t wild about the Okwara ejection. It was the right call. But how many times is that call ignored. It’s the same as holding. Yeah, you always have to acknowledge the holding call as legit, but what’s often not legit is the non calls. I hate selective enforcement. Okwara shows up in the second half of Pitt. I’ll be happy as long as he comes in loose and doesn’t sustain an injury.

  2. Didn’t like TROY Prides back to the ball on that Td catch. That could haunt us at Coliseum when Irish went in undefeated in ‘64 and got beat on similar play at the end.

    1. Agree, Greg. All too similar to the play where Michigan came back to win with 30 seconds left a few years ago. It is the one thing about our coverage at time (never Love) that is irksome; defensive backs are taught to look for the ball when the receiver looks. What is so hard about that? Even if there is interference, it’s never call if the defender turns; it’s just two players going for the ball.

  3. Frank,

    Omitting a 2nd Quarter that saw our offense outscored 13-0 while attempting 14 designed pass plays and only 1 designed run play from this list MUST be an oversight…that should be #1 on this list.

  4. Agree with the points above. The defense is dictating the game more, which I like, but it’d be nice if they came out swinging from the get go. It’s almost like they’re afraid of doing what they are good at out of the gate. Just go out and do it.

    I’ll give the muffed punt a pass since it seemed to be a one time thing. They were in one of the most hostile environments in CFB and maybe just let a little of that get to them when they made a mistake. I figure no one’s perfect and we all make mistakes.

    And yes, it was nice not to have to hear about how wonderful VT was by Flutie. ESPN was much more balanced and they weren’t afraid to praise ND players when they made great plays like NBC (it’s still weird to think that ESPN is more favorable to ND then it’s own network).

    I do have one nagging concern though. ND has played well, really well since Book took over at QB. But I can’t help but feel they still wouldn’t match up well against the Alabamas of the world. Unlike some, I’m not saying they are a fraud. They beat Stanford and VT well, with strong play overall and yes, even good play calls. But we want a NC. And that would go through Alabama. I’m just not sure they can hang with a team like that. I think they’d have a better showing then 2012, but I’m not sure that would be enough.

    1. Damian,

      I’ve watched Bama play twice now. You can score points on them. I think people get caught up in how their offense is ridiculously good, which with Tua now, they are very hard to stop. However, I think if a team that has a really good offense (ND) plays them, it could end up being a shootout. Our defense is pretty freakin good too and if we are at full health, it would be interesting to see if Tua would actually pick us apart. As a football fan, I’d just love to see this matchup right now because I think it would be a good one.

  5. I think adjusting coverage is part of the game plan. Come out soft and when the opponent starts to take advantage, tighten up coverage and throw them off their rhythm. We have the talent to play a little “bend don’t break” so let’s give them that look as long as we can. Get them comfortable with their ability to move the ball with certain plays, and then take that comfort away.

    1. It was a nonsense tweet from someone trying to get followed on Twitter. They also reported that a “freshman accused Book of groping her over her clothes.” They’re garbage and I won’t relay their twitter handle (this was good for about 90 new followers for them already).

      They said he cheated on a Midterm, but Midterms don’t start at Notre Dame until the 13th. Just people getting caught up in click bait.

  6. Well there are differences of opinion.

    The trick in Blacksburg was to not LOSE the game early. Therein the soft cushions. It was better to let the largely untested
    Willis prove that he could negotiate the length of the field with short throws rather than give up an early corwd-inciting bomb.

    In fact, Willis was able to negotiate the length of the field for a TD just once. So, net net the soft cushions worked in the context of a larger strategy.

    One other thing, not discussed here was the early reliance on short passes. When Carroll was in his hegemony at USC he would come out of the locker room passing for the greater part of the first half.
    Then after the opposing DL was legweary from rushing the passer, he would turn the running attack loose in the second half. It is an old strategy.

    Tried, but true.
    One other thing, discussed below. We have a lot of things to improve in the second half of the season ‘
    *actually 5/12ths) but I expect a Great Leap Forward from Cole Kmet. Baseball is over and he is now getting the confidence to match his ability.

    He will be a major weapon, and a great complement to Jones, by the time we reach the Coliseum.
    Mack , Kmet, Boykin, Claypool on the field at the same time.? Hmmmmmmmmm!

  7. All around the play of the Irish has been great. Not sure we need a down the field threat. Where has Wimbush got us with his big arm…Finally recruiting high levels athletes on the defensive side of ball. This is what separates teams in college football. It’s all about the DLine. I look for them to go 12-0 and play Bama in the playoff!

  8. Brian Polien’s Unit Continues To Be A Disappointment. He’s a very solid recruiter and would be better served in that role exclusively and finding someone else to bring in next season for the Special Teams Coach.

    1. Ryan, there has been marked improvement since Michigan. I assume you have no problem with the punting unit, minus the muffed snap, which is not a recurring problem. Yoon’s kicks have been good. Kick-offs are reaching the end zone, and when they are kicked short by design, coverage is stopping the runback before the 25. Finke had a huge punt return at Wake. The strategy there has been to avoid a fake punt first down and just give the offense a starting point. If some minor issue within all of those items is worth debating, the team is doing great.

  9. Frank,

    Great observations here. Book has to know on those pump and gos (double moves) that when the receiver is so wide open beyond the last line of d that he just needs to put the ball right to the receivers body and not try to lead them out. I teach this to our youth flag football qbs but they still make that mistake and it just drives ya nuts when they overthrow a kid that is 20 yards behind the defense. Book will learn from that and correct it I’m sure. The positive is our receivers were open deep a lot on Saturday night.

    You know we have a lack of YAC from our tight ends!???!?!? Because freakin Cole Kmet hardly ever gets the ball thrown his way. When he did on Saturday, I remember him catching the ball in the flat at the LOS, breaking two tackles and gaining 12 and a first down. How the hell is Mack 260 lbs and letting little 180 lb DBs taking him down with one hit every freakin time!? Unreal!! At least he is catching the ball now!!!

    Newsome had a brain fart not punting the ball away as he still had plenty of time. I think he thought with the bobble he was going to get smoked and realized too late he could still get a punt away.

    Did anyone else think of Shannon Sharpe when Frank put “Shannon was sharp the rest of the night” haha!!

    1. One thing I forgot to add was about the cushion dislike. My dad and i were complaining about this all night. When you have a d-line like ours that WILL get to the qb and probably make him throw quick, you shouldn’t be giving cushions like this. The QB will have to get the ball out quick and our DBs are good enough to cover up close. It’s hard to argue with our defensive strategy considering how well they’ve played but definitely a good dislike here. Giving 10 yards on each throw is awful unless you’re baiting them into a pick 6 on a quick out. But still, that lasted way too long!

      1. Chris, agree with all of the above, Mack is tackled too easily and Kmet was a beast on his catch and run. Hate the cushion and would love to see them start with press coverage. I’d like to see the nickel play that 10 yard spread underneath and step in for a quick score.

  10. I suspect that most fanbases feel that their team gets the short end of the stick for targeting. What is truly atrocious is the unevenness of the calls. I also remember the targeting non-call at Texas that took one of ours out with a concussion in 2016.

    In any case, this year we have had two targeting calls that were fair, one for and one against. I call that lucky. Maybe the refs are beginning to figure it out.

  11. No pun intended, but on target with each of these, Frank. Let’s get some air under Book’s downfield throws and start the game with press coverage. I felt bad for Tyler Newsome, but I agree he had time to get off some kind of kick, and he was already at mid-field, so he didn’t need a boomer. In fairness to Tyler, it’s hard to anticipate much less practice that situation. And you’re right; the Irish never get a targeting call their way. The one called against Stephon Tuitt at Pitt a few years back because he dove after a QB diving for a first down was atrocious.

      1. I think you guys are remembering it wrong. I remember a RB sweeping and Tuitt hitting him, not even a QB, and he got tossed. RBs and tacklers clash heads on every play. I thought that was the worst call I’ve ever seen in a game from a ref. How do you target a freakin RB with the ball in his hands on a sweep hahaha!!?!! WTF!?

    1. Chris J, I recall it was QB sweep right. Whatever, the QB, if it was him, was running the whole play, we can agree on that – no passer protection was involved.

      1. You’re right Bob. It actually was the QB but a run play the whole way. Def an awful call watching it again.

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