Notre Dame returned to action yesterday looking to “rinse off the stink” of last week’s underwhelming performance against Ball State. The Irish didn’t quite fully accomplish that mission with another uneven outing, but they did manage to improve to 3-0 with a 22-17 win over Vanderbilt. The performance gave me ton of material for the 5 things I didn’t like column, but as is customary, we’ll start with the positives in this one.
1. The running and receiving of Tony Jones Jr
For the last couple of summers we have heard about how good Tony Jones Jr can look in practice. On Saturday we finally saw it in action against Vanderbilt. Jones ran for a career high 118 yards on 17 carries yesterday. Those stats looked like they would be even better when we started the game 8 for 87 meaning he only added 31 yards on his last 9 carries. Still Jones had a couple runs in the first half where he flashed some great balance and vision we hadn’t seen before.
We also saw why Jones has been described as the best receiving back on the roster the last couple of years. Jones hauled in two very well thrown wheels routes from Brandon Wimbush for 56 yards easily pacing the Irish passing attack. As much as that last statement is a indicator of Jones receiving skills, it’s also a major indictment of the Irish passing game, but let’s try to stay focused on the positive in this one.
Seeing Jones top 100 yards and pace an improved Notre Dame rushing attack was a very positive sign coming out of this one.
2. The kick return by Michael Young
It was only one play, but we got a glimpse of Michael Young’s speed and athleticism on his fourth quarter 48 yard kick return. Young saw a crease and exploded through it. Notre Dame is in dire need of some playmakers in the receiving corps and Young might be someone that Notre Dame turns to soon since none of the current Irish receivers have flashed that kind of athleticism yet this year.
Currently listed #2 on the depth chart behind Chase Claypool, a strong case can be made for Young to start taking more snaps away from Claypool after the junior receiver has been largely invisible in the passing game and a liability as a blocker. If its not Young Notre Dame turns to, it could be freshman Kevin Austin. Either way, Notre Dame needs to reshuffle their wide receivers to jump start their production and Young’s long return gave us a glimpse of his top end speed.
3. Seeing improvement from the offensive line
This goes along with point number one of the running of Tony Jones Jr, but it was a sigh of relief to see the Notre Dame offensive line play much better this week. Last week’s game tape can officially be burned now since it was that brutal. This week though, the offensive line took a big step forward in powering Notre Dame to 245 yards on the ground. Last year that would have been below average but in the early goings of this season, it’s a major improvement.
One thing to watch here – and somehow Brian Kelly was inexplicably not asked about this – is the rotation along the line. In the second quarter Trevor Ruhland was inserted at right guard for Tommy Kraemer who remained in the game on the field goal team. How permanent a move this is is worth watching.
Whatever the case, seeing Notre Dame’s offensive line not get pushed around this week after that Ball State performance was encouraging. Jeff Quinn still has a lot of work to do in a short period of time, but yesterday’s performance is something that he can build off of. Props to Quinn for that.
4. The Alohi Gilman forced fumble at the goal line
This play was reminiscent of Shaun Crawford’s forced fumble of LJ Scott at the goalline last year against Michigan State that turned that game completely in Notre Dame’s favor and propelled the Irish toward a nice run. Alohi Gilman’s forced fumble at the goalline is the exact kind of play that Notre Dame did not get from its safeties a season ago.
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If Vanderbilt scores there, the game is 13-7 and who knows how the rest plays out given how close it got at the end. Now, the offense couldn’t completely seal the deal with a touchdown on the ensuing drive, but they did add in a field goal to extend the lead to 16-0.
Gilman and Jalen Elliott were both huge again this week. Elliott had coverage on the game deciding 4th and 4 sttempt by Vandy that came up short. Doug Flutie will swear up and down that the turf jarred the ball loose but watch that replay again close and pay particular attention to Elliott’s elbow that also comes down in the ball. Great coverage by Elliott in the first place and great effort.
5. The big bounce backs from both Tyler Newsome and Jonathan Doerer
Special teams in general were improved this week, but Tyler Newsome and Jonathan Doerer were particularly much better this week than they have been in previous weeks. Newsome, a 5th year senior and captain, had a rough start to his final season. In both the Michigan and Ball State games, he shanked short kicks late in the game when Notre Dame needed to get back some field position. That was not the case on Saturday.
This week Newsome averaged 59.6 yards per kick including a 63 yarder on Notre Dame’s last punt of the day that set Vandy up at their own 10 yard line with five seconds to play. Newsome was booming them so far in fact this week, he had a couple other 60 yarders that ended up in the end zone for touchbacks. Really nice rebound from him this week and if he can keep some of those long ones from reaching the endzone he’ll give Notre Dame a weapon they will apparently need given the struggles of the offense.
For Doerer, the calls for Notre Dame to replace him with Justin Yoon on kickoffs have been loud. (Guilt as charged). So to see him rebound this week with four touchbacks on six attempts, you had to feel good for the kid.
Part of his issues with the kicks out of bounds the last couple weeks has been in part to what appears to be Notre Dame’s strategy of having him try to kick them high and towards the sideline to force a return and hopefully pin the opposition back inside the 20. Given the strength of Doerer’s leg and the strength of the Notre Dame defense, how about we just let the kd keep booming them out of the endzone and call it a day from here?
Overall, this was another head scratcher of a performance that leaves more questions than answers, but there were some positives for Notre Dame to build on this week – the running game in particular.