Notre Dame had a near perfect start to their 2018 season this weekend. They beat the #14 ranked Michigan Wolverines 24-17 in front of a raucous home crowd while hosting ESPN College Gameday on campus this weekend. Part of the reason I called it a near perfect start is that for all of the good, there was also plenty on film for the Notre Dame coaching staff to work on. This column is focusing on those areas.
Warning, if you have not read “5 Things I Liked” or know what this column is, the point of is NOT to just complain. So please hold off on the comments or Twitter mentions for being too negative when Notre Dame had an amazing win. I will be doing this point series every week. “5 Things I Liked” will be all of the positive – ie the pie in the sky look at the game. This column, on the other hand, will look at what didn’t go right and what Notre Dame can improve on.
Again, before you @ me, this weekend’s game was an absolutely tremendous effort by the entire staff and roster. A win like this weekend though also means that this team is capable of even bigger things. So let’s take a look at what Notre Dame can improve to reach the heights they are hoping to.
The Short Passing Game
This is still an area that Notre Dame struggled in. Brandon Wimbush’s passes weren’t anywhere close to as bad as we saw in some practice videos so that was promising. His timing and ball placement in the short game, however, is still just a bit off. And in the short passing game that can mean the difference between a three yard gain and a 30 yard gain.
Chip Long and Brian Kelly did try a few new screens we haven’t seen them try to run much before and one nice gain on one ended up getting called back. So give them some credit for trying to find some new ways to get the short game going.
Notre Dame will likely keep working on this because they have the weapons to make the short passing game very effective. Jafar Armstrong for instance could be lethal on screens ala Theo Riddick in 2012. Look for Notre Dame to keep working on this the next few weeks.
Notre Dame’s 2nd Half Offense
Notre Dame scored 21 points on their first four drives of the game but then scored just three points the rest of the game. Once the Irish got the lead and it was clear the defense was getting the best of Michigan, Notre Dame went vanilla. It worked of course so I get what Long and Kelly were trying to do. All that said, it would have been nice to see Notre Dame be able to get some kind of offense going in the second half.
The Irish struggled for every inch in the second half. After Brandon Wimbush’s 3rd quarter interception, it felt like Long and Kelly decided to stop airing it out at all. That let Michigan focus on stopping the Notre Dame ground attack.
The struggles of the new look offensive line played played a role here too, but those struggles were expected. Notre Dame was starting someone who never played before at left tackle against a top 5 NFL Draft pick. We learned later that Robert Hainsey came out because of injury, not ineffectiveness, but a strong case could have been made for replacing him with Lugg even if he hand’t gotten hurt.
A lot of these issues will get worked on over the next few weeks, so nothing overly concerning here just yet.
Michigan’s Success with the Scramble Drill
The one area in which Shea Patterson started to get some momentum was when he had to scramble from the pocket and buy time. When he escaped pressure in the second half, he found some open receivers. With Notre Dame losing their starting nickel at the 11th hour when Shaun Crawford went down, the Irish had to reshuffle the secondary a bit. That showed on Saturday night.
The great news here is that this was really one of the only areas in which the Notre Dame defense showed any real signs of weakness. With the lack of timing to regroup from the Crawford injury, we knew coming in that Notre Dame really just needed to “get by” this weekend and then use the next three weeks to figure out their best mix in the secondary.
That will probably mean Houston Griffith at the nickel and Nick Coleman at safety. Trotting out a true frosh like Griffith who had missed time in camp in a primetime game against a top 15 foe though wasn’t the best environment to get him acclimated. Look for Griffith to see more and more time at nickel the next few weeks.
This is the one of the five topics listed here that I would say was actually troubling. Everything else can be chalked up to some reasonable explanations. There aren’t many explanations for the early struggles on kickoffs that resulted in great field position for Michigan or for the kick return touchdown allowed by the Irish that allowed Michigan to even be in the game in the first place after the offense built a 21-3 lead. Brian Polian clearly has some work to do here.
The other special teams area that was concerning was the punting of Tyler Newsome. He had a couple of absolute beauties including one that pinned Michigan inside the 5 and his last that was a booming punt that pushed Michigan back. At the same time, Newsome had a couple duds including sending one out through the back o the endzone when trying to pin Michigan deep. Newsome has the talent and the leg, but he’s got some kinks to work out.
No Rally Towels for the “Green Out”
For all of the marketing and pleading for the crowd to wear green – which was actually a pretty resounding success – it was disappointing that Notre Dame didn’t hand out any rally towels, pom-poms or anything of the like to the crowd to add to the green. I have a few rally towels from past Notre Dame games before where there wasn’t a coordinated effort to get the crowd to wear a specific color so the lack of that this weekend didn’t make much sense to me. If you are going to ask fans to buy new gear and market a line of gear for the event splurge a little to pay back the fans who already spent $175-185 (face value) for their tickets.
If one of the top five things that went wrong was the lack of rally towels, you know it was a pretty damn good weekend.