Notre Dame did a lot of good things in last weekend’s victory over Northwestern, but at the same time, the Irish did just enough wrong to make the game much closer than it needed to be and allowed the Wildcats to get back into the game when it looked like the Irish were sailing to an easy victory. With Notre Dame set to take the field again tomorrow we’re taking one last look at last weekend (albeit a bit later than normal this week).
The Ian Book Injury
Full disclosure: I started writing this column much earlier in the week, but couldn’t stay awake most nights to finish it. Apparently running a marathon when you aren’t an elite athlete really takes a lot out of you.
Now that we know that the injury Ian Book suffered last weekend is going to keep him out against Florida State at least, this is easily the thing to not like the most.
Look, Notre Dame can probably get by just fine against Florida State without Book. They can probably manage Syracuse too if they had to. Brandon Wimbush was after all the starter coming into the city and he does have blowouts of USC, Michigan State, and NC State under his belt in his career. He also led the Irish to a win over media darling Michigan THIS YEAR. The biggest concern for Notre Dame with Book missing time is that while he’s been great, this offense still has so much room to grow and any time he loses is time this offense isn’t evolving.
No penalties called on Northwestern
Let’s get this one out of the way right away. It was ridiculous that Northwestern was not called for a single penalty all night. IT was even more ridiculous how much the ESPN announcers fawned over the Wildcats for being so “disciplined” for not committing any penalties when in fact they could have and should have been called for numerous holding penalties and a couple of pass interference flags at a minimum.
Julian Okwara had a monster night with 2.5 sacks but that total could have been even higher if he hadn’t been held consistently throughout the night. No flags were ever thrown on the Wildcats for holding though. There was one penalty called on Northwestern but it was at the end of the first half and was declined.
Notre Dame, also one of the least penalized teams in the country, on the other hand was called for 8 penalties for a total of 58 yards.
Much like a week ago when Notre Dame played Navy the narrative for the disparity in penalties was all about how the less talented team was just “so disciplined” and “well coached” when in reality penalties were just overlooked and uncalled. This trend shouldn’t continue this weekend when Florida State visits since the Seminoles are one of the most penalized teams in the country.
Clock management in the 4th quarter
As Notre Dame was clinging to a three point lead with time winding down in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame was letting a ton of time left on the play clock with each snap. The clock was ticking with over four minutes remaining and Northwestern had not started to use their timeouts yet, but Notre Dame was snapping the ball with 20 seconds on the play clock in some instances. Before the Wildcats started to use their timeouts, Notre Dame probably left 45-60 seconds of time on the clock by snapping the ball early.
In the grand scheme of things, it did not come back to haunt the Irish since they scored on the drive, but it very well could have and doing something similar next week against Syracuse’s offense could prove costly.
This underscores a problem Notre Dame has had this season with running out a clock because the offense has functioned the best this season when it goes tempo and speeds things up. Saturday night specifically tempo was working because it was limiting all of the multiple looks Northwestern was throwing at Ian Book and forced them to simplify what they were doing. Notre Dame could have gone no huddle and still used more clock though.
More importantly, Notre Dame needs to better develop their four minute offense to be able to run out a clock at the end of games.
It started right out of the gate again this week, Notre Dame turned the ball over on the game’s opening drive. Last week Miles Boykin fumbled an easy completion away, this week it was Ian Book botching a RPO exchange with Dexter Williams. In both cases the Notre Dame defense bailed out the Irish offense, but that is no way to be starting games. It’s also a recipe for losing a game you shouldn’t lose.
The early turnovers has resulted in slow starts in two of the last three weeks. While Notre Dame didn’t turn it over on their first drive against Pitt, they did turn the ball over early against the Panthers. In both the Pitt and Northwestern games, the Irish offense looked sluggish for the first 30 minutes before rebounding and playing much better in the second half.
Ian Book narrowly escaped another turnover in the first half as well when he didn’t see a Northwestern DE drop into coverage and nearly threw an easy interception. Had that play gone differently, who knows how the rest of the game plays out because Northwestern would have at worst been in scoring range and may have even have returned it for a score.
Another week of special teams blunders
It has not been a good year for Notre Dame’s special teams. Early season struggles appeared to be corrected towards the middle of the season, but they have reared their ugly head once again. Saturday night in Evanston might have been the worst. Notre Dame missed a field goal, had a punt blocked that set up Northwestern inside the redzone down just 10 points in the 4th quarter, and another kickoff landed out of bounds.
Brian Polian does not have a position group as part of his coaching assignments. He is tasked solely with coaching the Notre Dame special teams. So far this season, it would be tough to classify the job he has done in that role as successful. There is still time to clean up some of the miscues but the fact the Notre Dame is regularly pushing kickoffs out of bounds in week nine is really inexcusable at this point.
Without the turnovers and special teams blunders, Notre Dame probably wins this game by 20+. Clean that up and Notre Dame will put an end to the ridiculous debate about Michigan deserving to be ranked higher than them. They don’t.