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.