(Not So) Immediate Overreactions: Undermanned Irish Take Advantage of Short-Handed Cavaliers

Notre Dame improved to 9-1 on the season with a 25-point road victory over a Power 5 opponent Saturday night, and there’s still a large contingent of the fanbase unhappy with the performance. The Irish entered the contest already unmannered after two seasons’ worth of critical injuries and then lost more starters because of an outbreak of the flu. Luckily for the Irish, Virginia had their own availability issues with star QB Brennan Armstrong sitting out the game with a rib injury.

Notre Dame’s defense did what you do to a wounded opponent

As soon as it was confirmed that Brennan Armstrong was out, the game was over. Kudos to UVA freshman Jay Woolfolk who battled and wasn’t helped out by his coaching staff at all, but Marcus Freeman did to a freshman what you’re supposed to do – ATTACK. How many times in the past have out of nowhere quarterbacks stepped in and looked like Heisman contenders against Notre Dame over the last 20 years? Too many times. That didn’t happen last night.

Notre Dame racked up 7.0 sacks last night, and their best pass rusher, Isaiah Foskey, didn’t even sniff the quarterback. Massive game for Rylie Mills, who continues to show promise while also delivering results.

Notre Dame continues to impress while undermanned

We’ve said out loud multiple times this year, but every time it seems like Notre Dame has reached the point where attrition has hit a tipping point, Notre Dame still finds a way. After all the injuries this season, a flu bug hit Notre Dame this week, causing 13 players to miss practice time. It ended up forcing starters Drew White and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, two Irish captains, to sit out the game completely. That after the Irish were already without all-world safety Kyle Hamilton for another week.

Mills and linebacker Bo Bauer got spot starts and more than filled in admirably last night. Mills had 2.0 sacks. Bauer had 1.5 sacks and was good in coverage. Bauer also led Notre Dame with 9.0 sacks on the night.

Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson showed promise

Speaking of being undermanned, playing without Kyle Hamilton against a high-powered offense could have been bad – even with Armstrong out. Sophomores Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson emerged as potential future pieces of the secondary, though. Henderson had a great interception in the first half with textbook safety play. He had a big TFL in the first half as well. Watts, playing just his second game on defense, tied for second on the team in tackles with 5.0.

Henderson’s emergence could be huge for Notre Dame long term. The Irish have recruited a lot of bodies at corner over the last two years, so there was bound to be some movement to safety. If Henderson can play like he did last night long-term, he could be a starter in 2022. Watts is looking more and more comfortable at safety as well. They both have a long way to go before they are the future at safety, but they flashed big time last night.

It wasn’t the best offensive performance, but…

While the defense played lights out, the offense was just kind of ho-hum. There’s a lot of angst on the boards and Twitter this morning because of it, but let’s not forget that Notre Dame has five healthy wide receivers at the moment. Once it was evident that Virginia wasn’t going to score much, it’s possible the Irish staff decided to just get out of this one healthy. Brian Kelly’s decision to run out the clock at the end of the first half indeed suggests that. Kelly knew Virginia wasn’t going to score, so instead of trying for more points there, he just went to the half content to be up 21-0.

Once Notre Dame got up 28-0, they took their foot off the gas. Yeah, it would have been fun to see Notre Dame get it to 42-0 before that happened, but remember how annoying it was last year when Braden Lenzy got hurt in garbage time against Georgia Tech? That sucked. Now imagine Notre Dame kept trying to put up points last night when they didn’t need them, considering the injury situation on offense. It wouldn’t have been ideal.

That said, the offensive game plan from Tommy Rees was kind of vanilla. Maybe the staff suspected Armstrong wouldn’t play and decided to play it safe? I don’t know. While better than the beginning of the year, the offense continues to be a significant work in progress. That’s OK, though, because Notre Dame just keeps winning.

Logan Diggs is a dude

While a work in progress, the offense has found its next dude at running back with Logan Diggs. His hurdle in the first half is going to be talked about for years to come. Those kind of hurdles used to happen to Notre Dame as opposed to being the ones doing the hurdling, so that was a lot of fun.

Diggs, like Kyren Williams, just makes the most out of almost every carry because of his patience and vision. But, again, assuming Williams heads to the NFL this off-season, Diggs has the looks of an RB1 already, and he is only going to get better. Last night he picked up 64 yards on just seven carries. That’ll certainly do.

Lack of Buchner reps before garbage time puzzling

Tyler Buchner ended up playing most of the fourth quarter with Notre Dame up big, but getting just one snap in “real-time” was surprising to me. The way he was getting played earlier this year, you’d think they’d be looking to get him more snaps, not fewer. Again, it was clear early that Virginia wasn’t going to score much, so it would have been nice to get Buchner more snaps.

This isn’t any sort of dig at Jack Coan, either. He was fine yesterday with three touchdowns and an efficient night at the office. Buchner appears to be Notre Dame’s future, so why not maximize the opportunity for snaps?

Youth movement continues at Notre Dame

It is just a common occurrence now to see freshmen all over the field for Notre Dame, and the long-term benefits for the Irish should be huge. We already touched on Diggs. Lorenzo Styles had a touchdown called back because of a holding on fellow freshman Deion Colzie. Joe Alt continues to improve at left tackle.

Defensively, we saw more of Prince Kollie with Drew White out. The more snaps they can get Kollie the next two weeks, the better because it’s clear the wear and tear JD Bertrand has sustained playing so many reps has really impacted his effectiveness. Bertrand is missing plays he made earlier in the year. Playing 95% of snaps week in and week out for much of the year will do that to a linebacker.

Watts and Henderson are sophomores. Buchner, Diggs, Colzie, Styles, Alt, and Mitchell Evans – who had a nice catch and run – are all freshmen. While it certainly wasn’t ideal situations that got all of them on the field, Notre Dame will benefit significantly from all this experience in 2022, all while continuing to win.

11-1 should be considered almost a foregone conclusion

If there was a game left to trip up Notre Dame, it was this one – assuming a healthy Armstrong, that is. With this one in the rearview mirror, Notre Dame has two opponents left that are both 3-7. Those are games that Notre Dame should win. Yeah, Stanford beat Oregon, but they also lost to Vanderbilt and currently have a five-game losing streak. Georgia Tech is on a four-game losing streak. Notre Dame has won 40 straight against unranked opponents.

Just don’t be upset if/when there aren’t a ton of style points. Yes, style points are great, and if Notre Dame wants to get into the playoffs, they need them. Notre Dame is paper-thin at so many positions though, the Irish need to balance style points and simply surviving to the next game. Ask yourself, what’s better: beating Georgia Tech by 35 but losing another starter after being up by more than 20 or beating Tech by 20 but surviving another week without major injury? There is a very fine line that Kelly and staff have to balance right now.

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  1. I’m 65 and have watched Notredame since 1964 Aras first year. My feelings on Brian Kelly is he is a very good coach but I’m not sure in the next 3 years he can win a national championship without changing a fre things. If he would make these changes I believe he van and will win a natty. What he needs to do imo is revamped his offensive coaching staff. Why? Because it is an offensive era in college football today . The formula is good defense great unstoppable offenses. Alabama and LSU both gave up over 40 points 2 games a piece the last 2 years and they both went 15 and 0 with 50 point offenses. 3 years in a row with a 50 point offense and 2 Heisman trophy quarterbacks Oklahoma with the 112 th ranked defense made the playoffs and darn need beat Georgia and Alabama. All of Notredames losses the last 4 years including this is because they cant score enough against good defenses and sometimes not even good defenses Miami 2017 , Michigan 2019 etc. Getting back to Notredame their defense had been good to very under Ntian Kelly monid the Van Gotder years. Under Polian the special teams have been pretty good for the most part. The offense averaging low 30’s not going to get ot done when Alabama,Ohio State etc average 45 to 50. Quinn and Dell need to go. McNulty is very good Lance Taylor is very good. Tommy it’s hard to judge because I dont know how much of the offense is totally his or is he under Kelly’s offense. I wonder maybe why Chip Long was let go and Moorehead wasn’t hired. Maybe they wanted total control and Kelly said no.Im just speculating .I have no facts or inside information.

    1. Pete you dont need facts or insider information to know this is Kelly’s offense not Tommy Rees. Biggest issue for Kelly is the quarterback position. Book was decent but he wasn’t even supposed to see the field while at ND. Until Kelly gets a next level quarterback and preferably a dual threat one at that the team will be good but never great. I think Kelly and the administration are satisfied being good not interested in being great.

    2. Kelly is an old man counting down to retirement.
      Paterno-ish, but without the scandal.
      He’s now even got a legacy: “winningest ND coach ever”, that everyone has completely bought into…fans, media. Hell, even ESPN is now pumping his tires.

      The Kelly narrative has just become “legendary winner”. Which, for a guy who has never won anything at ND, nthat’s notihng short of amazing.

      1. David,

        In Kelly’s defense, he actually said in the interview post game when he became the winningest coach in ND history that “the fans will think, yeah the winningest coach without a national championship.” I think he is well aware he needs to do more and true fans won’t buy into Kelly until we start actually competing period in these big games and not getting blown out.

      2. Chris J: So is this Kelly 5.0? “Ah, shucks” Kelly?
        PLease. He can try to pull this con all he wants.

        He’ll always be Brian Kelly who was looking forward to a secret NFL job interview in the days leading up to his woefully unprepared team getting crucified on national TV.

  2. Ice Pack (not Ice Man) Coan, again melts under pressure. Who else got the real sense that the O moved so much better under Buchner. Please don’t point to 15 of 20. It was for a total of 132 yds. That includes yds after catch. It also includes 3 tremendous catches , 2 by Mike, one by Kevin. Reminder, BYU put up 62 against UVA. Their guy, true freshman, had 342 yds passing against a superior D to boot.

  3. Kelly got another W notched into his holster.
    That’s the new ND narrative: Everyone celebrating Kelly as the “greatest ever”.
    Which is not only ainsanely insulting to as incredible a motivator and competitor as Rockne.
    it’s also just pretty g.d. pathetic.

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