Notre Dame needed some late-game heroics as an 18-point favorite yesterday to keep their home winning streak alive and avoid back to back losses for the first time since 2016. It was a frustrating day at the office for the 16th ranked Irish though as they let a mediocre, at best, Virginia Tech team hang around all game and nearly let the Hokies walk out of Notre Dame Stadium with an upset just like they did in 2016. There’s a lot to unpack from this one, so let’s get started with some overreactions.
Notre Dame has lost this game before
We’ll start with the positive because I’m about to dive into a whole lot of negative. In years past, Notre Dame loses this game. If the calendar said 2011, 2013, 2014, or 2016, yesterday would have been Notre Dame’s third loss of the season. Instead, Notre Dame is sitting at 6-2 today with the possibility of a New Year’s 6 bowl game, still very much in play. Based on yesterday’s performance, that hope might not last much longer, if the Irish play that sloppy any more times again this year, but it’s still alive.
With the game on the line, Ian Book shook off a bad day a week after a nightmarish performance in Ann Arbor. It would have been very easy for Book and Notre Dame to fold in that situation. Instead, Book engineered an 18-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that included two fourth-down conversions, including a 4th and 10. Book capped it off with a 7-yard touchdown run that saved the game for Notre Dame. It was one of the few gutsy play calls from Chip Long all day long. Maybe it’s the kind of play that can galvanize the team and get them back on track for the rest of the season.
Ok, the pollyanna portion of this post has concluded.
This game should not have been close.
Notre Dame entered this game a perfect 24 for 24 in the red-zone this year with 21 touchdowns on those attempts. Yesterday they were just 2 for 5, including two turnovers and a missed field goal. Throw in another trip near the red-zone that resulted in an interception, and Notre Dame made six trips in or near the red-zone that produced just 21 points.
The biggest red-zone failure came at the end of the first half with Notre Dame on the goal line about to take a 21-7 lead into halftime. Instead, out of a timeout, Notre Dame ran right at Virginia Tech, and a helmet hit the ball in Jafar Armstrong’s hands to pop it up right into the hands of Divine Deablo, who raced 98 yards for the momentum changer of all momentum changers. You can argue that Armstrong needed to secure the football, he did, but at the same time, has Notre Dame shown at all this year that they can get a 3rd and 2 running up the gut? Very questionable play call by Chip Long there.
Even after that though, Notre Dame could have opened this game up in the second half. They did not. It was a frustrating game all around.
Notre Dame isn’t searching for an identity; we just don’t like what they’ve found.
I’ve seen some headlines suggest that Notre Dame is still searching for their identity. I don’t think that’s the case. I believe that they’ve unfortunately found it, and it’s just not the identity that anyone thought it would be following the last two years. Notre Dame’s senior captains aren’t the only ones who have regressed this year. There’s been regression on the sidelines as well.
However this year’s off-season program was structured; it produced a team that is not assignment correct or fundamentally sound. That comes back to coaching – not execution. Eight games into the season Notre Dame is still making the kind of penalties that you live with in week one, not in November. Brian Kelly 2.0 turned the program around, but he is going to need to search for Brian Kelly 2.1 this year.
The special teams play in this game highlight that this team needs better coaching too. Remember last week when a 5th year senior for Notre Dame didn’t know not to touch a blocked punt? Contrast that with how a Virginia Tech return man had the awareness to get out of bounds before contacting a Jonathan Doerer kickoff near the sideline to get the ball at the 35. Then contrast that to Lawrence Keys taking a Virginia Tech kickoff in the field of play and downing it in the end zone resulting in Notre Dame getting the ball at the one-yard line. When it happens once, it’s execution. When it occurs repeatedly, it’s coaching.
Notre Dame couldn’t run the football, again.
A week after getting shut down by Michigan on the ground, Notre Dame ran for 106 yards on 38 carries. They were missing Tony Jones Jr yesterday, but they shouldn’t have struggled to run the ball that much. Ian Book was the leading rusher with 50 yards on 13 carries. Jafar Armstrong totaled just 37 yards on 19 attempts. Jahmir Smith averaged 4.7 yards a carry, but only had three attempts on the day.
Notre Dame’s futility running the ball was low-lighted by that failed 3rd and goal run at the end of the first half that resulted in a 98-yard fumble return by Virginia Tech. Flashbacks of 2011 South Florida (Jonas Gray) and 2011 USC (Dayne Crist). Ironically, it feels like we are dealing with a 2011 type team this year.
Ian Book struggled again.
Ian Book threw a career-high 53 pass attempts but only connected on 29 of them for a 54% completion percentage against a team that was 66th in the country in pass defense efficiency heading into the game. He did engineer the game-winning touchdown drive and deserves all of the credit for that, but his struggles throughout the game are a large reason why this game was close in the first place.
If Book was playing at a high-level yesterday, this game is never even in doubt in the 2nd half. Heck, even if he just made the throws that were there this game is a laugher. Before he threw his first interception, he missed a wide-open Cole Kmet in the endzone for an easy touchdown. A few plays later, he didn’t see Dax Hollifield drop into coverage and threw it right into his midsection. On his second interception, he had Chase Claypool open for another touchdown, but he badly underthrew the pass, and it was intercepted. He missed another score to Cole Kmet on a 17-play drive that ended up resulting in a missed Jonathan Doerer field goal.
If Book just made the throws that were there to be made, he has a 5-touchdown performance, and the narrative this morning is entirely different.
Brian Kelly needs to contemplate some significant changes on offense this off-season.
Kelly won’t make any significant changes over the final four games, but he needs to do something about this offense in the off-season. There is no reason for it to be struggling this badly with the weapons on hand. Notre Dame does not have Clemson’s talent, but it’s not like they are dealing with Purdue level talent either. Here’s what we know about the Irish offense after eight games:
- Ian Book has regressed from last year as defenses have schemed against his limitations
- There is virtually no downfield passing attack for the Irish
- Phil Jurkovec isn’t ready to help Notre Dame win if Brian Kelly is to be believed
- The Irish can’t run the football when they need to
- Notre Dame’s offensive line has not played up to its potential again
That’s not good, folks. This offense has some firepower. Virginia Tech had no answer for Chase Claypool or Cole Kmet yesterday. They should have kept beeing feed the ball. Claypool did have eight catches for 118 yards, but he could have had over 200 if given the opportunity. Cole Kmet had a total of four catches, and I couldn’t tell you why he wasn’t targetted more. He is one of Notre Dame’s best offensive weapons.
What made matters more frustrating yesterday was that Notre Dame was having success pushing the ball vertically early on and then never went back to it. All year long, Javon McKinley has caught everything thrown his way, but for some reason, he only gets a target or two a game.
If Notre Dame wants to take a step forward on offense next year, he either he will need to make a change at play-caller, quarterback, or offensive line coach because the current combination is not getting it done. Boston College, Miami, North Carolina, and Duke all scored more points on Virginia Tech this year than the 21 points Notre Dame managed yesterday.
The defense played pretty well.
For as frustrating as the offense was yesterday, the Notre Dame defense played well all game long and kept the Irish in a position to make that game-winning drive. There were some things Clark Lea needs to clean up, but for the most part, Virginia Tech was only able to do anything when Notre Dame gifted them penalties or when they made ridiculous jump call catches. The Hokies had less than 100 yards of offense at halftime but had 14 points because of the Armstrong fumble and thanks to starting a drive on the Notre Dame 41 yard line.
After how the Irish defense was gashed last week, it was a return to normalcy for Clark Lea’s unit. Virginia Tech totaled just 240 total yards yesterday (101 rushing and 139 passing). More pressure from the front four would have been nice, but overall, the defense played pretty well all day long.
The final four games of 2019 could be long afternoons for the Irish if they play like this again.