So far there has been a lot of talk about identity and standards following the 45-14 debacle against Michigan. I suppose there is a place for that following this kind of performance. There are naturally big-picture questions about the program, where it’s headed, what this all means, etc. People always have a doomsday approach after losses like this, but it’s most likely an overreaction. This happened in 2017 against Miami, too, and the season mostly fell apart, and the next year, the team went 12-1. Things change year to year in college football. I’m more interested in the trend we’ve seen since the opening game, and that’s the deterioration of play from the seven Notre Dame captains this season.
When you name seven captains, all of which are front line players bordering on stars, that says you believe this team has better than good leadership. It also means you expect the team overall to have a very high standard of play. A coach won’t name someone captain unless they are pretty confident what they are getting on the field. The captaincy is not only being good in the locker room or giving good speeches before games. There is a performance element to it. Basically, you’ve got to be a sure thing, and that’s the expectation.
If you look at any single player, beyond the quarterback, the play has mostly been fine from these guys. But, collectively, there has been a drop, and when there are seven of them, a collective drop is a pretty big deal. They represent the top 1/3 of the starters.
So, if we are going to have a conversation about what failed yesterday, and what’s been going wrong all year, we need to talk about the drop in play from Notre Dame’s leaders, because everything starts with them.
Ian Book and Chris Finke
This was supposed to be a leap year for Book, a time when he took his game into the top 10 of all college football quarterbacks. Instead, he has gone backward. Against all Power 5 teams this season, Book is now completing 56% of his passes on 5.7 yards per attempt, and 174 yards per game. Last season, those numbers stood at 67%, 8.2 YPA, and 272 yards per game. That’s a drop of 10 percentage points and 100 yards per game. Pretty big deal.
What’s stunning is the lack of development in the understanding of the offense. He frequently misses open receivers, doesn’t make the proper pre-snap reads, and has trouble locating his second and third reads. These are areas where any quarterback can improve; it has nothing to do with physical ability and everything to do with understanding the game. It’s more than fair to bring up coaching in this situation, as previously stated, these are all coachable areas. There has to be some accountability for that. But, this is the same coaching that led him to those numbers last season, and he was much better in 2018 than he was in spot duty in 2017. He’d already made strides, which is what makes all of this so hard to understand.
The same goes for Finke, but unfortunately for him, his fate is mostly tied to his quarterback. After catching 49 passes for 571 yards last season, he’s currently on a 26 catch, 338 yard pace. But, he has also made mistakes that coming from a senior captain are unacceptable. Muffing the punt against Virginia, running routes on third down short of the sticks, dropping passes that lead to interceptions. Think about how well he’s had to play in practice and in games to reach the level he is now; he’s beaten out players who were recruited and put on scholarship and was made captain. His level of play has previously been very high, how could it not have? This is what makes his current play so shocking. He’s never been this guy.
Hainsey is tied to this, but out of all of them, he’s likely played at the highest level. The offensive line has been a bright spot this year for the most part; even when they’ve been bottled up on the ground, the pass protection has mostly held up. It’s hard to grade offensive lineman, maybe there are things I haven’t seen, but if all the captains were playing at his level, we likely aren’t having this conversation.
Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem
This is one where the play has been ok, but so much more had been expected. Neither is playing to their 2018 level, let alone raising that standard, and aside from what they showed against Virginia; they’ve just been ok. They were billed as game wreckers, though, and Okwara openly mentioned breaking the single-season sack record. Which isn’t to throw it back in his face, it’s just a comment on expectations. In the two biggest games of this season, it’s hard to think of a play one of them made to alter the course of events, and in games against the best, you need your best players to play like that. Notre Dame wasn’t going to be anything of substance this year if these guys didn’t play at All-American levels, and they haven’t come close, save for the victory against Virginia.
It’s hard to pinpoint a reason; they get plenty of rest with lots of depth behind them, they’ve got a good line coach, and they’ve got a good defensive coordinator. A leap year has been there for these two. It just hasn’t happened.
Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott
It’s hard to criticize Gilman’s play because he goes at it so hard, but his level has also seen a drop from last season. His activity is the same, but his impact has decreased. He’s tried to tackle the ball a little too much, giving up way too many yards after contact, he took a bad pass interference penalty last night that extended a scoring drive. There have also been some uncharacteristic missed tackles from him from game to game. It’s a little easier to find the explanation for Gilman, it feels obvious he’s pressing, and almost all of his mistakes have been activity mistakes.
Elliott just hasn’t had an impactful season, period. Maybe part of that has been by design, he’s played more deep safety than in other seasons, but the plays he made last season just haven’t been there this season. He was beaten last night on a corner route to make it 24-7, a play he broke up last season. He’s on pace for 52 tackles after bringing in 67 last season. He’s on pace for four pass breakups after having seven last season.
Again, as with all of these guys, not terrible, but there has been a drop, and a collective drop over seven players leads to things like we saw last night.