Notre Dame capped off a 10-2 regular season on Saturday in much the way their entire went – a bit of an uneven effort that left fans frustrated at times and thrilled at others. The Irish struggled early before pulling away late and then padding the score in the closing minute. It was a fitting ending to a year in which much the same could be said about the 2019 Irish – there was a lot to like, but an equal amount to not like.
1. More false start penalties on the offense
Brian Kelly and his offensive coaching staff have all of the bowl preparations to try and fix whatever is causing all of the false starts because whatever they have done during the season has been entirely ineffective. Notre Dame committed another four false starts on Saturday against Stanford to continue one of the worst trends of the year.
Notre Dame was playing in front of one of the smallest, most pathetic crowds they will ever be in. There was no noise to contend with. There was no hostile environment. The tasting rooms in Napa had more hostile crowds than the handful of Stanford fans who were able to spread out in an empty stadium. There was no excuse for that many false start penalties, in that environment, this late in the year.
Ultimately, this comes back on Brian Kelly to get fixed. Whether it’s issues with Ian Book‘s cadence or if the problem lies within the offensive line, it’s on Kelly to get this fixed. It might not come back to haunt them in the bowl game, but when they look back at what could have been in 2019, the false starts – specifically those in Athens – will be one of this staff’s biggest regrets.
2. A slow start from the Notre Dame offense
Notre Dame’s first offensive drive was a clinic. Ian Book marched the Notre Dame offense down the field with ease on a 5-play, 80-yard drive capped off with perhaps the best-executed screen play of the Brian Kelly era. It was surgical and looked like the undermanned Stanford defense would have no answer for the Irish offense. Then the Irish stalled.
Notre Dame’s next three drives resulted in zero points. One drive was a three and out, another a four and out aided only by a Stanford penalty to prevent a three and out, and the third ended with Notre Dame punting from the Stanford 42 yard-line for a net gain of 27 yards in field position.
The Irish finally got back on the scoreboard again following Isaiah Foskey’s blocked punt, but even that was a chore. Gifted with a first and goal from the one, it took Notre Dame three plays to score after two consecutive runs combined for no-gain. On third down, Book hung in the pocket before heaving the ball to Tommy Tremble for the score.
Considering all of the defensive starters that Stanford was missing, it was far from an ideal start for the Irish offense. Notre Dame came into the game with the offense finally having some consistency, but it didn’t carry over early.
3. Stanford’s first two drives
While Notre Dame’s offense started slow, the Stanford offense came outfiring behind backup quarterback Davis Mills. The Cardinal offense took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in 7 plays for an early lead. Their second drive was a 16-play clock-draining exercise that ended with a field goal. After getting stopped on the third drive, their fourth drive of the game went for another touchdown on five plays.
Three of their first four drives of the game ended with scores resulting in a 17-7 lead for a team playing with their backup quarterback and missing starters all over the field. After four drives, Stanford held a 43-19 advantage in plays ran.
Clark Lea eventually adjusted as we’ve seen him do numerous times now, but the question of how Stanford was able to have so much early success remained. This was an offense that scored all of 20 points against Cal putting up 17 on Notre Dame in the first 21 minutes of action on Saturday.
Like the offense, it was not an ideal start for the Irish defense.
4. Struggling to get the running backs going in the ground game… again
Like the false starts, this falls back on Brian Kelly to fix, but the Irish had to get creative again to manufacture yards on the ground. Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys contributed yards on jet sweeps, and Ian Book used his legs to help power the Irish rushing attack again on Saturday because Notre Dame couldn’t run the ball with its running backs very well.
On Saturday, part of the problem was Tony Jones Jr just missing some big holes to run through and bouncing plays outside when there was a lot of room inside. Here are two examples Greg tweeted out earlier this week.
There is a backer right behind the line so it's a bit deceiving, but he ends up running into the back into the back of Lugg. Two huge holes to pick from. pic.twitter.com/Azjioqve19
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) December 3, 2019
In both instances, there are clear holes for Jones up the middle, but in both cases, he bounced it outside and left a lot of yards on the field. Jones has not been the same back since the USC game when he shredded the Trojans for over 170 yards. Unfortunately, this has been a problem for Jones throughout his career where he flashes but then struggles to maintain success after getting hurt. Jones got banged up against Michigan after his breakout performance against USC, and we haven’t seen the same running back since.
5. No Notre Dame football for the next few weeks
For as frustrating as the 2019 season was at times – and Saturday contributed to that a little – it was the last Notre Dame football game we all get to watch until the bowl game (almost certainly the Camping World Bowl on December 28 despite some other blogs talking about the New Year’s 6 still). It was an odd regular season that featured some enjoyable highs and some devastating lows.
In many ways, Saturday was a microcosm of the entire season for Notre Dame. The offense was frustrating at times, brilliant at others. The defense started off looking shaky only to rebound and close out strong. Notre Dame ultimately won the game by 21 points, but they were aided by a late, garbage-time touchdown that made the final score look much prettier in the box-score than it looked in person.
The same could be said about the entire 2019 season. A 10-2 final record while setting the Notre Dame season scoring record sounds great on paper, but when you look closer, and those two losses were to the only two teams that had any business beating the Irish, it’s kind of “meh” after last year’s run to the playoffs. Like their effort against Stanford, there was a lot of good to come out of it, but a whole lot of evidence that there is still a lot of work to be done for the Irish to end up where they want to be ultimately.