Notre Dame beat Louisville on Saturday and ended up moving up to #3 in the AP Poll in the process, but the performance sure didn’t leave Irish fans with too much optimism for later this season. The Irish struggled against a Louisville squad that has disappointed in Scott Satterfield’s second season. It wasn’t all bad, but overall it wasn’t very good either. Here are this week’s five things I didn’t like.
Red zone offense
Notre Dame made four meaningful trips into the redzone (their fifth came on the game’s final drive when Notre Dame killed the clock). Those four trips resulted in one touchdown, two field goals, and one ill-advised fake field that failed spectacularly. Four trips inside the opponents 20, 13 points against a team giving up almost 40 points a game. That won’t get it done next week, let alone next month.
Early on, Ian Book looked like he had Michael Mayer for a walk-in touchdown on one of the field goal drives, but Book couldn’t drop the ball in where it needed to be. There was some wild wind on Saturday, but it wasn’t an incredibly long throw either.
Another redzone trip nearly resulted in a touchdown, but Book was just a tad too late in getting the ball out, and it carried Kevin Austin out of bounds. Notre Dame faked a field goal on the next play and got zero points (more on that play later).
Notre Dame started big receivers who aren’t known for their speed on Saturday, yet when they got to the redzone, they couldn’t take advantage of their size. If they can’t score in the redzone against Louisville, what will happen against Pitt or Clemson?
Notre Dame’s wide receiver decisions
Speaking of the starting trio at receiver for Notre Dame, the Irish simply aren’t starting their most talented receivers. Part of it could be health-related, but it’s painfully apparent that the trio of Javon McKinley, Bennett Skowronek, and Avery Davis won’t get it done against better defenses. The group, as a whole, is just not fast enough.
Notre Dame tried to force the ball to Javon McKinley early, and unlike last week, he wasn’t able to come down with 50/50 balls and struggled as the featured wide receiver. McKinley is an excellent blocker in the run game, and there is a role for him in this offense, but it’s not that of a true WR1. His drop on the two-point conversion attempt in the third was a reminder of that.
Brian Kelly later said that Braden Lenzy was slowed with a soft tissue injury, but that doesn’t explain the lack of usage of Kevin Austin. He saw more reps than he did against Florida State but still wasn’t featured. Lawrence Keys was announced as not available prior to kick-off due to concussion protocol.
With Keys and Lenzy either unavailable or slowed, why not give Jordan Johnson or Xavier Watts some looks? It’s beyond frustrating at this pint to see freshman wide receivers all over the country have an impact everywhere except Notre Dame. It’s time for Brian Kelly to get over his philosophy of barely playing freshmen wide receivers and get the young kids on the field in instances like Saturday.
I did like how Notre Dame used Avery Davis early on, and if Davis were out there with Lenzy and Austin or Johnson and Austin flanking him (if Lenzy is injured), I’d love either trio. Pitt will challenge Notre Dame to beat them deep, and if they start McKinley and Skowronek on the outside again this weekend, it could be another frustrating afternoon.
Lack of involvement of tight ends in the passing game
Almost equally as frustrating as the wide receiver utilization on Saturday was the lack of usage of the tight ends. Remember Tommy Tremble? Dude is a dynamic receiver who should have terrorized a defense like Louisville. He had one catch for four yards. Likewise, Louisville had no answer for Michael Mayer, but he had one catch for 12 yards.
Tommy Rees is doing some great things with the tight ends in the Notre Dame running game this year, but he is wasting a lot of talent at the position by not featuring either more prominently in the passing game.
Through four games this year, Tremble leads Notre Dame with ten catches, but he has just 114 yards on the season (McKinley leads in yards with 121).
I didn’t mind Rees trying to get the passing game going – even with the wind – because the Irish passing game has been beyond sluggish this year, but they are not doing the passing game any favors by leaving some dynamic weapons on the sidelines.
The fake field goal
Facing a 4th and 9 at the end of the half, Brian Kelly and Brian Polian thought it was a good time to call a fake field goal that required holder Jay Bramblett to run for 9 yards to get the first down. It ended horribly with Bramblett getting a couple of yards and Louisville getting the momentum.
That decision had broader ramifications later. By giving up the three points there, Notre Dame was forced to go for two points later in the game after their lone touchdown run. When it also failed, the Irish were up just 12-7 instead of 16-7. The optics of a 16-7 victory wouldn’t have been much better, but it would have meant a two-possession lead throughout the fourth quarter.
It has not been a good year for special teams so far, with the punt return unit relegated to a fair catch factory again and then Saturday’s antics. I still think Chris Tyree pops a touchdown on a kickoff sooner or later, but overall it’s been a rough year on special teams.
Lack of sacks and turnovers
We’ll give the offense a slight reprieve even though that was one of the worst offensive performances we’ve seen from Notre Dame in a long time and mover over to the defense. The Irish defense did not play poorly by any means. Holding an explosive Louisville offense to just 219 yards was pretty impressive and was one of the Kelly era’s better performances in that regard.
The one troubling aspect from the Notre Dame defense was 0 sacks and 0 turnovers. The Irish had 8 TFL on the day, but the pass rush didn’t get home, and they didn’t force a single turnover. That’s been a theme this year too. Shaun Crawford had the only interception of the season at the end of the Florida State game.
Notre Dame’s defense held Louisville to just seven points, so it didn’t matter on Saturday, but the lack of turnovers is a troubling theme so far this year.