So close, yet so far away.
I, for one, did not predict that Notre Dame would have the ball at the Georgia 38 with a first down and just over a minute left, a touchdown away from winning the game. The offense, missing several key pieces, seemed not up to the task for much of the game, but there they were, on the verge of scoring 14 unanswered in the 4th quarter to win the game. The defense, who everyone believed would get run over, held Georgia to field goals when they needed, and gave the offense a chance late in the 4th quarter with a must-have defensive stop. It was all going right until it wasn’t. And the Irish were back to where they’ve always been.
There is not much question where Notre Dame stands in the football world. They are a top 10 program, but not top 5. Capable of playing with, but not beating, the elite in college football. It’s where they have been mainly for the past 25 years. The graphic has gone around a bunch lately; they are 0-11 against the last top-five teams they have played.
They are very good at winning respect, at least in September and October, not very good at winning the games. I should note this is true of the Notre Dame fan base, not so much amongst the national media. Some of those folks didn’t give us props following a victory last season–trying to appease them is folly–but what matters here is how Notre Dame actually overcomes this hurdle they can’t seem to get over, in 2019 and beyond.
Better Play From The Captains
The thing about being a captain on a football team is everyone is looking to you, all the time. That means you don’t make the dumb mistakes; you don’t jump offsides, you don’t false start, you don’t drop balls that are intercepted. It also means your play has to rise above the rest of the team. It’s not enough to be good; you’ve got to be great. That’s the responsibility of being captain.
Notre Dame has seven captains this season, and I’d say two, Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, are living up to the standard set above. They haven’t been perfect, but their games have been consistently high, and they’ve been reliable game after game. Elliott is a bit understated due to his role as the deeper safety, but people aren’t getting behind the defense, so he’s doing his job.
The other five– defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, wide receiver Chris Finke, right tackle Robert Hainsey, and quarterback Ian Book–have to be better. I’m not saying they are playing poorly, but their standard is higher.
Okwara and Kareem have been disruptive without the stats, Georgia was afraid to throw anything beyond quick passes and back shoulder fades, and if that line is game planning against our ends, then we’ve got something. But, they do need to make more plays in the running game, and even with the quick drops, there is more of an impact to be made.
Hainsey has been fine, but he also joined the false start brigade last night, and given the penalties we saw from his group, it’s hard for him to hold guys accountable when he’s also making those mistakes.
Book and Finke are basically tied together. The offense was supposed to be great primarily due to their connection, and it just hasn’t been there. The third quarter interception last night was a perfect example. Book throws an in route slightly behind Finke on a short and easy throw, but it hits Finke in the chest, where it bounces up and into the arms of a defender. Can’t happen from two captains in that spot.
More Skill Talent
This is hardly an original thought, but can’t mention how to close the gap without bringing this up. Notre Dame had the ball on the Georgia 38 with a minute left to score the winning touchdown, and they played the whole game without a top 25 level running back. Maybe not even top 50. Losing Armstrong was a killer for this team, especially in this game. Georgia knew no one in the backfield could hurt them, no one out of the backfield in the passing game could hurt them, and they were right. It’s a tough way to play offense, especially when you’re in a talent deficit with everyone available.
For 2019, the key is getting Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong back. Per Brian Kelly at his press conference, receiver Michael Young and running back Jahmir Smith are probable for this week, with Armstrong looking like a go for USC. We saw what it meant to the offense to get tight end Cole Kmet back into the lineup; he was a game-changer for us. Getting Young back in, allowing Finke to move to the slot comfortably, and getting Lawrence Keys in behind him, will only open up the offense more, and the offense can begin to click again with Armstrong in a couple of weeks like we wanted all along.
For 2020, five star running back Chris Tyree and five-star receiver Jordan Johnson are on the way, as is top 50 tight end Michael Mayer. Reinforcements are coming, both this season and next so hopefully that leads to an offense we’ve been waiting for.
Win The Rest
Notre Dame is going to be favored in every game the rest of the season, and if anything positive can be taken away from last night, it’s that this team really ought to go 11-1. The defense was certainly better than most predicted, and the offense is only adding weapons. The true test of this season is where they go from here, and I suspect next weeks game against #18 Virginia is going to tell the story. If I had to guess, I’d say it’ll be their best performance yet, and they’ll go sailing into the USC game with the lineup intact and ready to play their best ball. Hope springs eternal.