When thinking about how to write this column following the Michigan disaster, the image that kept popping in my head was Gene Kranz in the movie Apollo 13. After the explosion in space, and the vehicle was badly damaged, he’s in mission control with his team and famously asks them, what is left on the spacecraft that is good?
The challenge this entire week has been how to process what happened seven days ago. What we thought we had, we did not have, and just like in the Apollo 13 disaster, there is a flaw within this team that when exposed at the inopportune moment, it completely blew everything up. Now we are all left to wonder, what exactly do we have here?
So, I’m going to make some changes to the column this time around, I’m not going with trends but just a status update, what is good and what is bad? For clarity, what is bad can be made good, after all, the Apollo mission did get everyone home, so this isn’t a definitive thing. The team can still make things right. But, unfortunately, just like the doomed mission in the movie and in life, it is ultimately seen as a failure; there was no moon landing (not even close), and there will be no playoff berth (not even close).
On offense, these are the two most consistently good players. They haven’t been perfect, but they can be counted on. When we throw the ball to these two, we expect them to make the play, and they are making the play. We certainly need to be using them more often and with greater efficiency. I know the offense has tried to stay away from the Michael Floyd/Tyler Eifert model from 2011 when those two players combined to catch 54% of the passes on the season, but we might be headed in that direction. There just hasn’t been enough from the others to justify not focusing mainly on these two.
For an offense that is searching for consistency, throwing the ball to the most consistent players over the first two months feels like a no brainer.
Incredibly, these two have been emphatically positives this season. It’s not that this would have been unthinkable in the pre-season, but let’s just say there weren’t a ton of positive things written about the kicking game before week 1.
Jay Bramblett has been steady as a rock all year and has lived up to accolades he got when he enrolled early last winter. He’s had a couple of shanks so far, but even those turned out ok with friendly rolls. Otherwise, he hasn’t shown any jitters, was excellent in the rain last weekend, and his high punts have allowed the coverage team to converge, putting them at 26th nationally in average per return.
Doerer has been more than expected, and I probably shouldn’t say he won us the USC game, but he kind of won us the USC game. Plus, the kickoffs have been an afterthought, which shows how good he’s been on that front.
The Front Seven
This group being in this area is the worst news for Notre Dame and their team. This was the explosion event. I did not think it possible that any team, let alone a Michigan team that is ranked 82nd in yards per carry and ran for 108 yards on 45 freaking attempts against Army, could do what the Wolverines did to us on the ground, but here we are.
Last week wasn’t a complete outlier, Louisville had some success to start the year, but the futility that we saw was stunning and almost out of nowhere. Notre Dame held a Georgia team, of better players and a better offensive line, to 152 yards on the ground. To give up 300+ to Michigan is just…well, it’s not good. The defensive line was manhandled, the linebackers were confused, they missed tackles.
This is the group that was supposed to set things apart from other teams this year. If what we saw last week is how it will be the rest of the way, then things are going to get ugly. I don’t think that’s the case, but we can’t know for sure now.
The Offensive Line
Similar to the defensive line, what happened last weekend was not supposed to happen, and they’ve continued their up and down play that we saw last season. One thing does appear to be certain: a good defense can take away Notre Dame’s running game. And this is where the play of Ian Book really hurts them. The defense has to believe they can be hurt with the pass, because if they don’t respect it, they’ll put numbers inside, and Notre Dame isn’t the type of offense that can overcome that. And this isn’t a Jeff Quinn thing either; we saw similar things with the 2017 line, as great as it was.
Whatever the case, Notre Dame needs more from this group. The way Chip Long calls the offense, he is dependent on the offensive line, and the Irish don’t have the backs who can turn nothing into something. They are going to need holes, and there have been two occasions in big moments where the line has completely given way to the defense. That needs to stop happening, especially against the caliber of teams on the schedule from now on.
I wrote a piece earlier this week arguing Kelly is doing the right thing to stick with Book as his starter. But, sometimes the best choice isn’t a good choice. If there were a viable replacement, a move would be made. There is not, however, and Notre Dame needs their leader on offense to be what he was last season. There is no good reason why he’s gone backward; a player that can see the field and make the throws a year ago, shouldn’t suddenly stop being able to do those things. He’s done it before, and he can do it again. I don’t see this as coaching per se; Tommy Rees got him to where he was last season, and he wouldn’t simply stop teaching the fundamentals. Whether too much is on Book’s plate, he’s pressing, or teams have figured him out, I don’t know, but the product is bad, and it’s the single biggest problem on the team right now. If Book were to return to 2018 form, Notre Dame breezes through this last month and everything would be right again. If not, well, we could be in for another bad November.