We’ve been banging the drum of a win being a win and winning being the much better outcome than losing the last couple of days. It is important to remember that from time to time. That doesn’t mean we can’t look critically at performances like we saw Saturday either though, and while it was obviously awesome to win, there was quite a bit to not like in Notre Dame’s latest home win.
Redzone offensive futility
Notre Dame came into this game perfect on the season in the redzone. They were almost the furthest from perfect that a team could be in the redzone on Saturday against Virginia Tech. On their first trip into the redzone, Ian Book threw a brutal interception right into the midsection of Dax Hollifield at the Virginia Tech 9 yard-line. Earlier in the drive, Book had Cole Kmet wide open on a post route in the endzone but missed him. It was an easy touchdown if the throw was on target, but it was overthrown.
The most brutal failed redzone trip came at the end of the first half. With Notre Dame on the verge of taking a 21-7 lead and putting things out of reach for a putrid Virginia Tech offense, Jafar Armstrong fumbled at the two-yard line with the ball popping up into the air and the hands of Divine Deablo. Ninety-eight yards later, the game was tied. Flashes of 2011 South Florida and USC ensued. It was an absolutely brutal way to end the half.
At that point, Notre Dame was 2 for 4 in the redzone. It got worse before it got better. Notre Dame’s third failed trip into redzone came after an 82-yard, 17 play drive resulting in a missed field goal. Earlier in this drive, Book had Kmet for a touchdown again with an on-target pass. It was off target again, and at this point, Notre Dame had five trips into the redzone that resulted in a total of 14 points.
We all know that Notre Dame’s last trip to the redzone resulted in Ian Book’s heroics, but without all of the previous failed attempts, this game is long over before Book has to engineer that drive.
Special Teams Juxtaposition
It’s been an up and down year for Notre Dame’s special teams. The last two weeks have been very down, though. Last week the blocked punt that turned into a Michigan first down because Jonathan Jones touched a live ball turned the game early on. Now, contrast that to this week where Virginia Tech’s return unit was smart enough to know to get out of bounds before touching a ball near the sideline to get a penalty on Notre Dame.
Later in the game, Notre Dame added to the special teams’ frustrations by fielding a kick-off in bounds and drifting back into the endzone and trying to get a touchdown back. The result was Notre Dame getting the ball at the 1-yard line instead. That kind of mistake just can’t be made.
Notre Dame has a coach dedicated to special teams exclusively. The mistakes we’ve seen in the last two weeks are mistakes we shouldn’t be seeing being made.
Penalties propelling Virginia Tech scoring drives
For the most part, the Notre Dame defense didn’t let the Virginia Tech offense do much of anything throughout the day. They did, however, help the Hokies with bad penalties on two of their scoring drives. On their first scoring drive of the game, Notre Dame helped them along the way with a 15-yard face mask penalty on Kurt Hinish. On their first drive of the second half, the Hokies were aided by a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on Khalid Kareem. They kicked a field goal to cap that drive off.
So to recap, Notre Dame gifted Virginia Tech a fumble return for a touchdown and then helped them with 15-yard penalties on two of their scoring drives that represented another 10 points – that’s 17 of their totalm20 points aided by Irish miscues.
What was telling as the game wore on was Virginia Tech playing for field goals when they got near the endzone. Was that the Hokies not trusting their own players, or realizing that the Irish couldn’t get out of their own way and playing conservative and hoping Notre Dame would keep making mistakes? Probably a little of column a and column b.
Notre Dame’s inability to run the football… again
We knew it might be tough to run on Virginia Tech with Tony Jones Jr on the sideline, and Jafar Armstrong still stuck in neutral this year. Notre Dame ran 38 times for 106 yards on the afternoon for an average of 2.8 yards per carry. Ian Book was the team’s leading rusher with 50 yards on 13 carries, including the game-winning touchdown run in the final minute.
Outside of some clutch runs by Book, Notre Dame couldn’t run the ball again. Jafar Armstrong ran 19 times for just 37 yards for an average of 1.9. To further illustrate how ineffective those running plays for Armstrong were, he had 11 yards on one of those carries, so his other 18 carries netted a total of 26 yards. Yikes.
What I didn’t understand was why Chip Long and Brian Kelly didn’t try giving Jahmir Smith or Avery Davis more carries. The two ran the ball four times for 21 yards. Those are not eye-popping numbers, but they are better than what they were calling for Armstrong. With Davis’s size, he is never going to be a particularly adept inside runner, but that’s why Notre Dame has a high priced offensive coordinator, right? Long couldn’t find any way to get the Irish ground game going the last two weeks.
Jeff Quinn shoulders some of that blame as well, but to be fair to Quinn, Notre Dame played most of that game without two of its best linemen with Tommy Kraemer lost for the year against Michigan and Robert Hainsey succumbing to a season-ending injury during the Tech game on Saturday. Quinn and Long have to find a way to have some semblance of a run game over the next four games, or we’ll have more nail-biters like we saw last weekend.
Misure of personnel on the offensive side of the ball
Notre Dame’s offense is struggling this year more than most people expected. It doesn’t have to be, though. The Irish have some personnel that they aren’t fully utilizing right now. Braden Lenzy, Tommy Tremble, and Javon McKinley have combined for just 32 touches this season (28 receptions, 4 receptions) over eight games. On those 32 touches, they have combined for eight touchdowns. So the trio is getting on average four touches a game and still averaging a touchdown a game.
For McKinley, it seems apparent to me at least he could be filling the Miles Boykin role from last year, and doing so could be greatly helping Ian Book. McKinley might not run a ridiculous 40-yard dash like Boykin, but he’s a big-bodied, sure-handed receiver who has shown that if you get the ball near him, he usually catches. Book targetted him once, and it resulted in a 26 yard gain against Virginia Tech. No more passes were thrown his way.
McKinley’s lone reception came during a stretch where Notre Dame started throwing the ball downfield for one of the first time this year. It was working very well early before the drive got bogged down and ended with a Book interception, but it was working. Then Notre Dame mainly abandoned it.
Is the lack of targets for McKinley schematic? Is it play calling? Is it a trust issue right now between Book and McKinley? I don’t know. I just hope we see McKinley start to get targetted much more frequently over the final four games this year.
With Tremble, the thought was that the Irish could be lethal with a two-tight end set of Tremble and Cole Kmet in place of the two-back set that has been doomed by injuries. Instead, Tremble has 11 catches for 145 yards and 3 touchdowns on the season. Like McKinley, he had one catch against the Hokies.
The transfer of Michael Young and the long touchdown run against USC had many thinking Braden Lenzy was poised for a breakout second half of the year. That hasn’t happened yet. He did not have a rushing attempt against Virginia Tech and had just two catches.
Again, it was a much longer day in the office than it needed to be for Notre Dame. The Irish could have won easily and everyone – including those inside the Gug – would be feeling much better right now. Was Saturday just one of those games where everything goes wrong and you’re just happy to escape, or is it a sign of things to come over the final month of the season? That’s the big looming question over Notre Dame right now.