Prior to the start of Notre Dame’s 2018 football season, Brian Kelly and his staff were hoping that they could enter their bye week undefeated. That’s been accomplished, with the Irish now ranked fourth and still in strong contention for a playoff berth. However, having a week to decompress and recharge their batteries for the final five games of the regular season is also a time for all involved to address some issues that have developed.
Some of these concerns are likely just aberrations that will revert to the previous success, while things like injuries can often simply be the luck of the draw. Yet making sure that they can be navigated over the next six weeks could be huge for those national title hopes.
These issues deal with:
The Need to Get Healthy
Football is by nature a rough sport, with injuries an accepted part of the game. Notre Dame has thus far been able to avoid seeing their perfect season end because of a key injury. That’s a testament to the team’s depth, but the Irish and their fans would no doubt love to still have players like Alex Bars and Shaun Crawford still around before their season-ending injuries required a Plan B.
Getting a cleaner bill of health would allow Jafar Armstrong to once again carry the ball. That would give the team a trio of running backs that would keep opposing defenses on their toes. Armstrong can also provide a boost in the passing game where the running backs have gone silent in his absence. In the secondary, having Troy Pride back would keep other team’s offenses from trying to unleash a withering array of tosses at his replacement. That’s because they’d prefer to avoid challenging Julian Love unless it becomes necessary.
In short, given the competition that the Irish would face in any playoff scenario, having as many weapons as possible becomes integral to getting past the likes of potential foes like Alabama and Ohio State.
A Full Running Game
During the season’s first six games, the Irish running game was chugging along with interchangeable parts. Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. managed the workload well during the four-game absence of Williams. The latter then more than picked up the slack in his first two games by rushing for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Stanford and Virginia Tech, respectively. That included scoring on his first touch of the year and a 97-yard scoring run.
That changed against Pittsburgh, with the ground game essentially being stopped in their tracks. In their 38 carries, Notre Dame managed to gain just 80 yards on the afternoon against the Panthers, down from the average of 196 per game in the first six contests. Having the full complement of backs available for the first time this season should help alleviate that problem, since it will give the Irish fresh legs to work in tandem with the team’s passing attack.
One intriguing option that hasn’t been discussed might be the option of using Brandon Wimbush on certain running plays. He’s largely fallen off the map since Ian Book took over at quarterback, but his running talent is certainly undeniable. Notre Dame may be able to handle things just fine without any Wimbush contributions, but having another bullet in the offensive chamber can’t hurt.
One of the main reasons that the Irish struggled during the first two quarters against Pittsburgh was their inability to combat the Panthers’ seemingly relentless blitz. While Book finished with 264 yards by connecting on 26 of his 32 passes, that weak offensive effort early on offered a possible window for upcoming opponents into how to shut the Irish offense down.
Pitt did come into the game with a chip on their shoulder, given their heavy underdog status that evoked their early aggressive approach. That allowed them to maintain an early lead until just under six minutes were left in the game. Yet the higher-quality teams that Notre Dame would face in a playoff situation will have more than mere emotion on their side. That means greater attention to detail when it comes to designing blocking schemes for this inevitable approach is vital.
Downfield Passing Game
Book has infused the Irish offense with plenty of life, but has thrown three interceptions over the past two games after having none in his first two outings. In addition, connecting downfield has become more of a problem, especially in the Virginia Tech win.
With a deep weapon like Miles Boykin and other options like Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, missed opportunities in these types of situations will eventually come back to haunt the Irish. Making these types of connections will also spread the field and open holes for the running game, making for a potent combination.
The Irish will get their first chance to implement these initiatives on October 27, when they travel to San Diego to do battle with the Navy Midshipmen. Notre Dame has dominated this this lengthy series, holding a commanding lead of 77-13-1. However, the last time they played away from South Bend two years ago, Navy won by a score of 28-27.