5 Things I Didn’t Like: Notre Dame Starts Slow, Plays Sloppy in Route of Syracuse

If you didn’t watch the entire Notre Dame – Syracuse (hopefully the CFP committee) game on Saturday, it could look like a casual blowout. Notre Dame won 45-21 with Syracuse adding a late, garbage-time TD to make it look a bit closer. However, if you watched the whole thing, you know it was far from flawless execution by the Irish and that they struggled mightily for almost the entire first half. It was a perfect game for this column – Irish won big but still gave me plenty to write about in this week’s “5 Things I Didn’t Like.”

Notre Dame’s slow start offensively

This one should go without saying because it’s rather apparent, but Notre Dame’s slow start offensively wasn’t very likable on Saturday. It wasn’t just one area of the offense that had it stalled either; it was the whole system:

  • Ian Book started slow and missed some early passes.
  • Kyren Williams wasn’t very patient early and made some bad cuts that he typically doesn’t make.
  • Javon McKinley dropped a touchdown on the first drive of the game after losing it in the sun.
  • The offensive line sprung some leaks with its third starting five in the last three games.
  • Tommy Rees wasn’t inspiring anyone with his early play calling, instead looking like he was trying more to put some wrinkles on film that Clemson would have to prepare for

Yikes. It was a rough start for about 26 minutes for the Irish offense before that roughing the passer penalty woke them up, and they blitzed the Orange at the end of the first half.

Against Syracuse, a start like that is easy to overcome. Against Clemson, a start like that could be catastrophic. Now, there were a lot of intangibles working against Notre Dame Saturday – the Irish had their sot in the ACCCG all locked up, emotions were running high on Senior Day, and Syracuse was a 1-9 football team after all. Still, the lack of execution early was far from ideal.

More botched snaps from the reworked offensive line

Part of the miscues early can be blamed on starting a third new OL grouping in the last three games. Josh Lugg started at center in place of Zeke Correll, and Dillan Gibbons started at RG in place of Tommy Kraemer, who did enter the game in the second quarter but sat out the second half.

The most concerning issue with the OL, however, came in the second half with another botched snap this week, and this time the Irish weren’t so lucky with Syracuse recovering. Some miscommunication between Lugg and Book led to the botch versus it just being an erratic snap, but the result is not something the Irish can afford in two weeks.

Correll dressed but didn’t play with an ankle injury, and Kraemer obviously was healthy enough to play since he was in the game, so the line should sort itself out a bit naturally. Still, even when Correll was in versus North Carolina, he had some bad snaps too.

Brian Kelly, Tommy Rees, and Jeff Quinn have two weeks to figure out who they want t start at center in the postseason with two full games of tape to evaluate both Josh Lugg and Zeke Correll.

Giving up a first down on 4th down

One of Notre Dame’s promising first-half drives that ultimately died did so because true freshman Micahel Mayer made a very true freshman style mistake. On a 4th and 3, Book went to the Mayer well that has treated the Irish so well this year, and Syracuse was ready for it. Usually, Mayer slips a tackle in those situations and gets the first easy. This time, however, Mayer retreated after breaking an ankle tackle, and when Syracuse swarmed, he lost the yardage he had gained that could have been a first down.

That’s a mistake Mayer makes, probably once and never again. We saw how he responded to mistakes early in games versus Clemson and Boston College, and it’s likely we don’t see him do that again.

Uncharacteristically poor tackling, angles by the Irish defense

Saturday was a very odd performance for the Irish defense. We’ve come to expect the Irish defense to limit yards, play sound fundamentally, and frustrate offenses while not generating many turnovers. On Saturday, Notre Dame caused four turnovers against Syracuse, but they were sloppy in the tackling department, and we saw some really poor angles taken that led to big plays.

The most glaring, of course, came in garbage time on Cooper Lutz’s 80-yard touchdown run. Tariq Bracy got sucked in early and fell down, creating the hole; Houston Griffith took a really poor angle to Lutz that allowed him to quickly get into the clear with no one in front of him. Eighty yards later, he was gone. Not a play anyone on the Irish defense will have fun watching in film study this week.

That wasn’t the only example of bad tackling and poor fundamentals, though – it was just the worst. Clarence Lewis specifically made some freshman mistakes in the tackling department on Saturday. Those are the perils of starting a true freshman, though.

Just like last week when poor tackling led to North Carolina’s early scores, the same happened this week against Syracuse. That is something that a team like Clemson will make the Irish pay for much more.

Not being able to play the backups more

The result of all of the early miscues and missed opportunities was a lack of playing time for the backups. The second units and some walkon seniors did ultimately get in the game, but not as much as you would have liked against a 1-9 opponent. Ian Book got his very well-deserved curtain call, but it came more than midway through the fourth quarter. Ideally, he would have been resting for most of the second half.

Notre Dame had a tough balancing act this weekend of getting work in on areas that need improvement before the Clemson rematch and resting starters. They didn’t necessarily do either of those two things that well. The Irish offense tried to incorporate Braden Lenzy’s speed unsuccessfully and ultimately relied on what they’ve done well all year. Backup Drew Pyne, playing because Brendan Clark was in a knee brace, didn’t get to attempt a single pass.

Notre Dame will potentially be replacing a ton of talent this year (we don’t know which, if any, seniors will take advantage of the NCAA’s free year of eligibility), so lost opportunities this season to play the backups more could hurt down the line. That is one of the last remaining steps, outside of winning a title, for the program to make to reach Alabama or Clemson status – dominating thoroughly week in and week out so that your backups get plenty of reps throughout the year.

We can file this last one under the “wonderful problem to have” department.

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  1. What pre-season odds would you expect to take knowing you’d have to beat Clemson twice just to qualify for the playoffs? Just as Syracuse played their bowl game last Saturday, we are playing for our spot in the final four on the 19th. We lose, the ‘committee’ lands us behind the 5 and oh Ohio State in the 5th, possibly even 6th slot behind TA&M.
    But, if we win, unlikely with Stutter Step Book and our defensive backfield, I say we land in 2nd and play the overrated (I’ve seen them play) #3 OSU buckeyes.

  2. 100% agree on all points, Frank; great summary. The flat start, fumbled snap and line issues might be a sign of some less-than-championship-level coaching last week, with the coaching staff not keeping the team locked in on the Syracuse game.

    On top of these points, I was bothered by how much time Ian spent loitering in the pocket, going through his progressions. I’m not sure if this is due to him just not going through his progressions very efficiently, his receivers not doing enough to get open, Ian waiting too long for his receivers to bail on routes and start coming back to him, or Tommy calling passing routes that took way too long to develop. Regardless, if Ian spends that much time trying to make up his mind against Clemson, he’s gonna get sacked.

    Let’s hope this is a case of a bad final rehearsal, and we’re back to top form in two weeks.

  3. I agree with all your points Shawn. However I do think Notredame will use this 2 weeks to clean things up refocus and I expect them to play really well against Clemson. Can and will they beat them a second time. Yes I think they will but that my be my heart talking not my head. We shall see. I would like for others to comment on what they think of Del Alexander as both a recruiter and coach. It seems he has recruiting some potential big time receivers on paper but not sure he is that great at developing these guys. .I know about the injuries, suspensions, treats etc but it just seems like some of these players when they have played have flashed at times but at other times haven’t done much. For example the last two spring and fall camp all the reporters have raved about Lawrence Keys that no one can cover him and he is ripping off 60 yard runs and he hardly ever plays and when he does play produces very little. Same with Lenzy and Austin Jordan Johnson. Again I know injuries and off the field issues are a part of this but doesn’t Alexander need to take some of the responsibility for that.

  4. Poor Tariq Bracy…

    Don’t think I’ve seen a larger regression from such a promising player in such a short period of time.

  5. 1. This game was not a blowout.
    2. How is Syracuse’s last touchdown a “garbage” time TD and the one ND scored two plays before not?
    3. Mayer’s 4th down catch was clearly short of the line to gain whether or not he retreated.
    4. In addition to Bracy and Lewis, Shaun Crawford had another bad game in the secondary (bad angle on the 40 yard TD run)

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