As far as first tests go, this one wasn’t the best, but the team passed, so they move on to the next level. That’s the good part about the result on Monday against a rejuvenated Louisville team and their new coach. The bad part is there is some concern that once the questions get more difficult, Brian Kelly and Notre Dame may struggle to find the answers.
Brian Kelly said after the game he wanted more from his veterans–not something you want from a team with seven captains–and that is reflected in the overall grades from this game. Notre Dame needs to get better at the positions they are strongest, a scenario that is both unexpected and troubling. There are a lot of x-factors on this team, but if their best guys don’t play like their best guys, then those factors won’t matter much.
When an A student earns a C, it feels like an F, and that is the case for quarterback Ian Book yesterday. 14 of 23 for 193 yards a touchdown and no picks, plus 81 yards on the ground on 14 tries, with two fumbles and one lost were his final numbers.
Any number of random quarterbacks that played last weekend could have produced those same numbers for Notre Dame. Ian Book is not supposed to be average. He’s supposed to be excellent, and he was not. He ran out of clean pockets, looked confused about where he needed to go with the ball, and fumbled twice when he needed to be protecting the ball. The offense needs more from him, and he knows that.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. He scrambled well at times, setting up the first touchdown with a long run on the games first play, he scored the go-ahead touchdown just before halftime on a 3rd and goal quarterback draw from the 11 and hit Tommy Tremble on a beautiful seam route to seal it in the third basically. Better days ahead indeed, but they need to be a lot better.
Running backs Tony Jones and Jahmir Smith ran hard for the most part, combing for three touchdowns, and Jones registering his second career 100-yard game. Pass blocking was less than stellar, one missed block by Smith leading to a sack. Losing Armstrong during the first series really hurts, as they had lined him up at wide receiver as well as running back, giving him three touches on a six-play drive. He was going to be a huge part of the game, and he didn’t last a full series. It’s safe to wonder if he’ll ever be healthy at this point after going down with another nagging injury.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
This moves from an A to a B+ because captain wide receiver Chris Finke was mostly a no show, but some of that is beyond his control, and the entire unit across the board needs to block better. I assume they will over time, but it was a little rough on this front, especially at tight end.
Tight end Tommy Tremble eclipsed tight end Cole Kmet in career touchdown receptions with one, in what was a bit of a breakout game for him. He caught 3 for 49 yards a score, also caught a big third-down pass on the drive that brought Notre Dame’s final touchdown of the night. He looked every bit the weapon he was billed to be in the spring and a more than capable backup to Cole Kmet while the latter heals from a collarbone injury.
Wide receiver Chase Claypool was the star, doing most of the work himself after the catch to cover his 94 yards on five receptions. He needs more looks out there for this offense to get going. Lawrence Keys made a couple of grabs, one a leaping, twisting to reach behind him reception on third down to extend a scoring drive late.
This looks like a group ready to make plays if their quarterback can distribute the ball where they need it and give them opportunities to run, as Book did with Claypool a couple of times.
A lot of people are down on the game the line played because of the frequent misses on 3rd and short, which to be fair they do need to do better with, but that skewed what was otherwise a strong game for them. They gave up a couple of sacks when Book tried to scramble out of clean pockets and opened up holes that more explosive backs take advantage of for huge plays.
It feels disingenuous to complain about a group that ran for 230 yards and 5.5 a carry when their lead back missed all but four plays of the game and backs that weren’t considered explosive to begin with. Sounds pretty darn good actually. Not a perfect performance of course, but I think if Dexter Williams was running behind this line a huge night was out there for the taking. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that problem ever gets solved, but 230 yards should be taken every time.
Overall grade: A
When you only kick extra points there is an excellent chance you’ll come away with a high grade and what do you know, kicker Johnathan Doerer was able to deliver. For what it’s worth, every kick looked nice and high; none were squeaking through the uprights. Confident, basically.
His kickoffs were also nice, high, and into the end zone. If every return team wants to catch it a yard deep, pause, then run it out, that’ll be ok by me and everyone else I’m sure. So far, so good from the placekicker.