We are approaching the sixth game of the 2019 Notre Dame football season, and we still don’t know what we’ve got. We know they are 4-1. We know they had the ball late with a chance to win at Georgia a couple of weeks ago. We know they can beat teams, like Virginia, who is solid but can’t match their talent.
What we don’t know is just how good this team can be. There is sort of talk about Notre Dame being a playoff team; most people don’t believe a one-loss Notre Dame squad can make it (which is ridiculous, of course, they can), and especially this one. We don’t really know what kind of offense this is. We know the quarterback is pretty good, we know a receiver and a tight end are very good, we know the offensive line is ok, probably. Are the running backs good? We think so, but we aren’t sure. We’ve barely seen the top back play this season. I think it’s safe to say the defense is good, we’ve seen enough for that. But, good enough to carry an inconsistent offense, should it come to that?
You get the point; there are questions. And to be fair, given the way the season has played out with the injuries to the top position players on offense, we weren’t going to get those answers till players like Cole Kmet, Jafar Armstrong, and Michael Young returned to the lineup. And now they are playing teams that can match them with talent, if not in the overall program. Whatever happens this weekend against USC, at least we are going to get some answers finally.
Will The Offense Explode?
There are no more excuses now. All the top guys are back and healthy, there has been plenty of time to work out the kinks in the offense, get everyone on the same page, and set the offense rolling. It’s been an inconsistent season for the Notre Dame offense in 2019, which was unexpected heading into the season. Explosiveness was a question mark; it isn’t the most dynamic running back group, and Ian Book struggled to push the ball downfield consistently last season. What most didn’t see coming was the up and down nature on offense.
Quarterback Ian Book is best known for his accuracy and his decision making; getting the ball to right guys with space and time to maneuver. That’s his game, that’s what his baseline is supposed to be. All the projections as to what the Irish offense could be started there. But that hasn’t always been the case. Book has been at times shaky in the pocket, unsure of where the ball should go, with or without pressure. He showed some signs of improvement against Virginia, and big signs against Bowling Green, when he eviscerated the Brian VanGorder defense to the tune of five touchdown passes.
Now he faces USC, a team that gave him trouble last season, who will surely try and blitz and confuse him this week, and has a lot of good athletes to put on the field. Notre Dame is better than them, but Book is, in large part, a reason why. If you wanted to come up with a scenario as to how this game becomes close, it’s simple: Ian Book plays poorly. It doesn’t really matter how well Notre Dame’s defense is playing if Book isn’t making plays, then the game is very losable for the Irish. They don’t have the type of weapons either at running back or wide receiver that can make up for poor quarterback performance.
But, if the offense gets humming? And Book is picking out Claypool and Kmet with ease? And taking advantage of Chris Finke and Lawrence Keys against the USC nickel defense? And using Armstrong all over the place effectively? Then the offense isn’t just good, it’s dangerous. And you know who likes dangerous on offense? The playoff committee.
Is The Defense Ready To Exorcize The Clemson Demons?
We all remember how Notre Dame was beaten in the Cotton Bowl last season against the eventual national champions. They threw at them over the top. They threw jump balls to covered players and said our guy is going to make a play on your guy. And it wasn’t just Clemson. It happened a bunch against USC last year as well, the very same guys that will try to do it again on Saturday. The easiest way for the Notre Dame defense to be compromised and for this game to go sideways is the Irish secondary allowing the USC receiver talent to go ham on them. Can they prevent it?
Early returns are iffy, and Georgia did a bunch of damage against the Notre Dame defense on deep go routes and back-shoulder fades to covered receivers already this season. It’s going to happen over and over again, and it’s realistically the only way USC has a chance in this game. If Notre Dame can shut that down, then where is the weakness on the Irish defense? They are good against the run, they can get after the passer, and they force turnovers. The thing they struggle with is jump balls. If they can solve that, then USC has nothing for them. If not, then losing is in play.
Maybe This Team Can Make History
There is one way for Notre Dame to make the playoffs this season, other than winning all the games: dominance. They can’t just win; they have to look great doing it. They need to be the team the eye test demands are in, not the other way around because they’ve already lost. Explosiveness across the board and overall dominance. They have the roster for it, but we haven’t seen that type of performance against a real team yet. Luckily, they’ll have that chance over the next couple of weeks, and win total be darned, whipping on USC is whipping on USC.
For the record, I don’t see it happening, just because laws of average say it probably won’t. But it could. And the thing about making history is you often don’t know you’re doing it, till it’s done. So hopefully, this team can make some history this weekend and beyond.