A very famous radio rant in Notre Dame circles is the 2006 post game sound off from Michigan radio host Mike Valenti following the Michigan State Spartans 4th quarter melt down, where he continually screamed “make plays!” to the point where he became hoarse.
It seems as though this is where things were for the Notre Dame offense prior to this weeks matchup with the Pittsburgh Panthers after they slogged through a 12-7 victory against a hapless Louisville defense. My postgame takeaway was to simply play better, a much tamer version than Valenti’s, but the sentiment is the same. At some point x’s and o’s start to not matter and the team has to make the plays that are available to them. Well, that’s exactly what happened.
Ian Book found wide receiver Ben Skowronek for two touchdowns to open the scoring, on both occasions he put the ball into traffic and allowed the grad transfer receiver to do something with it, and that he did. On the first he leapt in front of safety Paris Ford then sprinted his way into the end zone, the second he out jumped a corner and safety, then worked his way into the end zone again for a 73 yard touchdown. Book later threaded the needle to freshman dream crusher Michael Mayer for a leaping 15 yard grab and the route was on.
The plays that they did not make in the passing game against Louisville they made against the Panthers, and Notre Dame waltzed away with a 42 point victory brimming with confidence. Will it look this way against Georgia Tech next week? Odds are probably not, they haven’t been consistent offensively all season. But, at least now we’ve seen what the offense can do in the passing game, and it was a sight to see.
Third And Short Running Continues To Be a Strength
Last week I wrote a piece highlighting the improvement in the running game with respect to converting on third and short situations. They entered the week 12 of 18 on third and between 1-3 yards on the ground, much better than last seasons 50% conversion rate. Against a much tougher defensive line than they’ve seen prior to this matchup, would the trend continue? Yes, yes it would.
Notre Dame converted on four of five opportunities running on third and short, moving them to 5th nationally in first downs achieved on those situations and a 70% conversion rate overall. I went back and checked how Notre Dame fared in past seasons by this metric and this is by far the best they’ve ever done under Brian Kelly (so far anyway). The only units that came close in overall first downs picked up were the 2012 unit, (22nd nationally) and the 2017 unit (35th). Every other Brian Kelly team was below 50th nationally with many between 70th and 90th.
This obviously doesn’t include Kyren Williams running it in from two yards out on first and 10, but it’s a short yardage feat all the same.
Notre Dame did not have a great rushing day yardage wise against the Panthers, but when you convert third downs on an 80% clip in obvious running situations and extend drives, that’s very meaningful. It’s often talked about that you want to be able to run when they know you are going to. This is evidence Notre Dame can do that, which wasn’t necessarily the case in previous seasons.
Michael Mayer Breaks Out
The Michael Mayer situation has hit new heights following the Pittsburgh performance, when he caught five passes for 73 yards, and had a sure second touchdown missed down the sideline when Ian Book sailed the pass out of bounds.
Mayer has shown flashes of being a legitimate top threat in the passing game and yesterday those flashes were more like spotlights shown on him all game. He did it on crossing routes, deep digs, up the seam and down the sideline. The full repertoire as Marv Albert likes to say.
The passing game needed a jolt and they got it from multiple places, but based on what we’ve seen over the course of the season, Mayer’s play might be the most sustainable. He’s been there from the opener and has only gotten better. To say the future is bright is an understatement, and he’s going to be a problem for defenses for years to come.
(It just occurred to me that the one on one battles between Mayer and safety Kyle Hamilton must be legendary.)
The Defense Is Killing Their Own Stats
Here’s the deal for Notre Dame defenders: if they are going to make any post-season All-American teams, they’re going to have to give up a few more first downs. They simply aren’t on the field enough to rack up the numbers they need to get noticed.
Take Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah for example. He is on a 13 game pace of 55 tackles, 25 less than he registered last season over that amount of games. But, that’s not reflective of his level of play, as he’s on a 16 tackle for loss pace over an entire 13 game season. Among teams who have played five or more games, Notre Dame’s defense is first in total number of plays allowed against them, an average of just under 60 per contest. The last two games they’ve got that average under 50, with 98 total plays spread between Louisville and Pittsburgh. Part of this is a function of the offense controlling the ball, Notre Dame is second only to Oklahoma in time of possession per game (among teams who have played more than one game), but the defense is also getting them the ball.
Other than the single game teams, the Irish are ninth in yards per play allowed, and even when adding the Big 10 who just opened their season, they are 8th in first downs allowed. They are playing at a very high level, but they get very little pub individually, because none of them are on the field enough to post anything of note.