Notre Dame improved to 9-0 on the season on Saturday night with a 10 point win over Northwestern giving the Irish victories over both of the division leaders of the Big 10. While the Irish still haven’t played a complete, 60 minute game where they are sharp from whistle to whistle, there was still a lot to like in Notre Dame’s road victory.
Apologies for the delay, but as I mentioned Saturday night, I was busy running the 2018 NYC Marathon yesterday (and then needed to recover last night). Good news is I finished even if my final time was much, much slower than I was aiming for.
2nd Half Adjustments
Notre Dame’s offense could not get going in the first half for the third time in four games on Saturday night. Self inflicted wounds – an Ian Book fumble and a string of penalties that resulted in a missed field – were part of the problem. A lack of execution and trouble responding to what Northwestern threw at them early, however, were a large part of why the Irish had just seven points at halftime.
Ian Book was just 7 of 15 for 107 yards and no touchdowns with a lost fumble in the first half as the Irish offense sputtered. He went 15 of 17 for 236 yards with two touchdowns passing and a third rushing with no turnovers. That is some kind of halftime turnaround. It was possible because of the adjustments from Chip Long.
Northwestern was hell bent on stopping the Notre Dame running game and Notre Dame was equally committed to running the ball early. Northwestern won that battle easily. The Irish were unable to get the ground game going against the stacked boxes Northwestern was showing. So the Irish start passing on early downs and went with their tempo offense. It got Ian Book rolling.
Even when the Wildcats tried to adjust and dropped everyone into coverage, Notre Dame and Book had an answer. Book’s first touchdown of the night was a thing of beauty against an eight man coverage.
Northwestern dropped 8 and Ian Book found the window.
Recognition, execution and guts to make a tough throw. pic.twitter.com/036agCuK5m
— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) November 5, 2018
Once Book got rolling, there was no stopping him on Saturday night. Credit Chip Long for making the necessarily adjustments for that to happen. The next step in the evolution of this offense under Book is getting that kind of production in the first half since Pitt and now Northwestern were able to slow it down for 30 minutes.
The deep ball to Michael Young
Heading into the game I had written about hoping to see Notre Dame test Northwestern deep because it wasn’t something that we’ve seen the Irish do much with Ian Book as the starter. We didn’t see a ton of it on Saturday night but we did get to see a beautiful bomb of a touchdown from Book to sophomore Michael Young.
— ND Whiteboard (@ND_Whiteboard) November 4, 2018
Nevermind the part in the tweet that it was Young’s first career TD – it was his second – and instead focus on how nice of a play it was. Book was dead on the money and Young got behind the defense for an easy touchdown. Notre Dame needs to be doing more of this and Young is the perfect receiver on the roster currently to dial these plays up for.
If Notre Dame can work in more of these downfield passes in over the final three games it should prevent defenses from doing what Northwestern did by crowding the line and taking away the running game. Weather conditions won’t be the best for passing this weekend – then again when has that ever stopped Brian Kelly – but it would be great to see Chip Long call more of these against the Seminoles.
Getting Chase Claypool more involved
Greg looked very prophetic on Saturday night. After writing on Friday that Notre Dame could be utilizing Chase Claypool more efficiently, Notre Dame got Claypool involved early and often. Claypool responded with one of the best games of his career. The Canadian native had not caught more than 5 passes or totaled more than 61 yards in any game this year. He had 8 on Saturday night for 130 yards. Both were the second highest totals of his career behind last year’s Wake Forest 9 for 180 outburst.
Claypool was open all night and Ian Book did what Ian Book does – he got him the ball. With his performance he surpassed his 2017 totals already with three games plus the postseason remaining and there is still room for improvement.
Like Young, Claypool can be better utilized downfield. With his speed and size, he could be utilized down the field more if for nothing other than some jump balls. Notre Dame has called a few of these – most notably against Pitt which drew a clear pass interference penalty the Pitt media complained about – but they haven’t been overly effective with them.
Saturday was a great step in the right direction towards getting Claypool more involved and what we saw then was more in line with what I expected to see from him all season when I predicted he would have 1,000 yards this season back in August. He’ll still come well short of that, but we got a glimpse of what he is capable of Saturday night.
Julian Okwara’s pass rush… again
We shouldn’t be overly surprised with this by now, but Julian Okwara was once again an almost one man wrecking crew in the pass rush. His adjusted stats reflect how much pressure he was generating too. Initially Daelin Hayes was credited with two sacks, but once the unofficial defensive stats were adjusted, he had 0.5 and Okwara was credited with 2.5 sacks on the night. He now has five sacks and 18 QB hurries on the season officially. With at least four games remaining at this point, he could end up passing Jerry Tillery for the team lead as Tillery’s sack total (7.0) has been relatively steady since his monster night versus Stanford.
And for goodness sake, what does a guy have to do to get a holding called? Okwara could have had a 4 sack night like Tillery did against The Cardinal if he wasn’t held relentlessly. Northwestern, however, wasn’t called for a single penalty all night let alone a hold. More on this in the 5 Things I Didn’t Like column though.
Okwara is developing into the kind of pass rusher Notre Dame has lacked for years this season. It truly is a shame that Okwara got forced into action as a true freshman in 2016 because much like his older brother, he is really blossoming late. He still has one more year left after this one, but you get the sense that like Romeo, he could be someone we look at next year and this time and wish they had a 5th year.
Notre Dame’s 98 yard touchdown drive
Clinging to just a seven point lead two thirds of the way through the third quarter, Notre Dame got pinned deep at their own two yard line. On the road against a good team just getting a few first downs to flip the field would have been a minor win. Notre Dame went 98 yards on just six plays to take a two touchdown lead.
The drive was made possible by Notre Dame being aggressive early. The Irish passed on first and 10 from their own two. When that attempt fell incomplete, everyone assumed the Irish would run the ball. Instead Chip Long called another pass and Ian Book did a fantastic job in identifying Claypool in a one on one matchup on the outside. Book delivered a dime to Claypool’s outside shoulder for a 31 yard gain.
Book connected with Claypool again, this time for 14 yards, after two Dexter Williams runs resulted in just six yards. The 6th play of the drive? That 47 yard touchdown to Michael Young. From their own two yard line to a two touchdown lead in six plays. That drive changed the game.
While all of this was great, there was still a lot left for the Irish staff to attempt to clean up. We’ll dig into all of that in the weekly “5 Things I Didn’t Like” column though.