Amid the madness that was the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s blowout win over Wisconsin, the Irish played three relatively frustrating quarters of football in large part to an offense that couldn’t get started. The all-or-nothing approach from the previous weeks was more nothing than all until the defense and special teams erupted. Luckily for Brian Kelly and Notre Dame, the Irish get to go back to the lab this week to tinker some more following another win because there is still a lot of work left for the undefeated Fighting Irish.
Here are this week’s five things I didn’t like with a complete reprieve for the Notre Dame defense.
Redzone play calling from Tommy Rees in the first half
In the early going of Notre Dame’s win over Wisconsin, the Irish were moving the ball down the field well on their second drive – all through the air. Jack Coan hit a 20 yard to Avery Davis down the seem after taking a sack to start the drive. He connected on third-down conversions to Kevin Austin and Michael Mayer. He threw a pretty back-shoulder pass to Joe Wilkins. And he connected with Braden Lenzy on a 16-yarder. He was spreading it around and in a rhythm.
That rhythm evaporated in the redzone when Rees decided to call back-to-back runs after the Mayer third-down conversion gave the Irish a first and goal at the 10. On first down, Notre Dame brought in Joe Alt to create an unbalanced line look, then ran away from it. Kyren Williams lost three. On second down, Rees ran it into the teeth of the Wisconsin line. Chris Tyree lost another yard.
Notre Dame passed the ball down the field only to go away from it when they got to the redzone. It was a classic situation of trying to outsmart everyone else and only outsmarting yourself for Rees. His playcalling was better when the Irish reached the redzone with Drew Pyne in the game in the fourth, but Notre Dame can’t waste those kinds of opportunities now that the calendar is about to turn to October.
Too many sacks… again
Notre Dame entered the game as one of the worst in the country at allowing sacks and actually got worse after allowing six sacks to Wisconsin. For a fourth straight week, the sacks were for a variety of reasons. There were breakdowns in protections and mental errors from the line, but Jack Coan also took more sacks that he just can’t take.
Of the six sacks allowed, at least two were on the quarterback. Numerous times this year, Coan has tried to bail out of pockets that were still holding only to roll into the pass rush. It happened again on Saturday.
Not all of them were on Coan, though. The line did more than their fair share to give up sacks. Cain Madden had a rough day in protection, and Tosh Baker got beat badly on the sack that caused the Drew Pyne fumble.
Notre Dame is running out of time to solve its pass protection woes. They have now given up 21 sacks in four games. That’s a season’s worth of sacks in four games.
More missed deep shots to Braden Lenzy
Braden Lenzy has gotten behind every single defense Notre Dame has faced this year and has nothing to show for it. Last week, Lenzy had only himself to blame by dropping an easy touchdown in the endzone, but on Saturday, Coan just couldn’t get him the ball on three separate attempts.
Coan and Lenzy have not been able to connect on any of the deep shots Rees has dialed up, but the plays are there. All three of the attempts to Lenzy were late or underthrown. At this point, maybe Rees and Kelly should just dare Coan to overthrow Lenzy at this point.
Lack of involvement of the RBs in the passing game
I left the running game off the list here because, with this offensive line and Wisconsin’s defense, I didn’t expect the Irish to have any sort of sustained success running the ball. Instead, I expected Rees to get Williams and Tyree involved in the passing, though like he had over the last few weeks. The duo had 21 combined catches in the first three games but combined for just one catch for 6 yards.
The screen game generated some big plays for Notre Dame over the first three weeks, but we didn’t see it incorporated much into the game plan against Wisconsin. Rees needs to be more creative in getting the ball in Williams and Tyree’s hands without a running game to lean on.
Part of the reason for Williams’s lack of involvement is that he had to stay in the backfield regularly to help pass protection. And help he did. Williams is going to have a highlight reel of just his blocks by the end of the year.
Notre Dame’s 3rd Quarter Offense
Notre Dame entered the second half with a 10-3 lead having to kick off to Wisconsin to start the half. The Irish defense did what it needed to do – getting the ball back for the Irish offense after just five plays and 13 yards from Wisconsin. The offense needed to capitalize there and create some sort of cushion. They didn’t.
Notre Dame’s third-quarter possessions resulted in the following:
- 3 plays, -1 yard – PUNT
- 3 plays, -4 yards, PUNT
- 6 plays, 40 yards, PUNT
- 1 play, -13 yards, FUMBLE LOST
Before Wisconsin’s 3rd quarter touchdown, the Notre Dame defense had virtually dominated the Badgers offense all game. Still, Notre Dame was in a tie game at the time because the offense couldn’t put drives together. Then they found themselves trailing in the 4th because the offense turned it over and set Wisconsin up with a short field. The defense did a great job in holding Wisconsin to three at that point.
Chris Tyree’s kick return changed the entire course of the game because if Notre Dame hadn’t have taken the lead there, the Badgers would have been content just running the ball and making Notre Dame win it on offense. Instead, Tyree scored the touchdown, and then the defense recorded the first of four fourth-quarter turnovers because Wisconsin had to go back to the air.
We’ve seen glimpses from this offense, but through four games, they just haven’t been able to put it all together yet. The defense is starting to. The special teams are starting to as well. If the offense ever comes around, this could be another special season. The defense and special teams will not always be able to bail out the offense the way they did on Saturday, though.