Notre Dame struggled for the second week in a row this weekend in their 22-17 win over Vanderbilt. While the Irish improved to 3-0 in the process, they left many questions unanswered as they continue to search for an identity on offense and search for ways to maintain early double digit leads. I’ve already outlined the good that came out of Notre Dame’s third win of the season, so let’s dive into what went wrong.
1. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for 2 in the 4th quarter
Ultimately this decision did not backfire on Notre Dame, but it could have and we’ve seen it backfire before. Up 12 points with 11 minutes to go in the game following Ian Book’s touchdown pass to Nic Weishar, Brian Kelly decided to go for two to go up 14 points instead of 13. Seems plausible. If you’re playing Madden. In reality, with a good defense and an opponent that had struggled in the redzone, it was unnecessarily chasing points.
Notre Dame failed to convert and after another Vanderbilt touchdown, the Irish were up just five. That is significant because when Justin Yoon lined up for a 32 yard field goal later that he ended up missing, the Irish would still have only held a one possession lead at eight points.
Kelly did this exact same thing against Northwestern in 2014 and it ended up costing the Irish just as described above. Notre Dame took a 40-29 point lead and Kelly went for two to be up 13 instead of 12. Instead, the Irish were up 11 and Northwestern erased that with a touchdown, two point conversion, and then a field goal with 19 seconds left to force overtime.
With Notre Dame’s defense, Kelly should be trusting the defense to hold a 13 point lead in the 4th quarter, at home, to Vanderbilt.
2. The “blue zone” quarterback carousel Notre Dame keeps using
Brian Kelly was finally asked about the quarterback carousel that he is using near the goalline after it didn’t work for the first time this year. Kelly said that Ian Book will continue to be used in the “blue zone” – inside the five yardline. His rationale was that Book’s game is better suited under center essentially.
Here’s my issue – and a lot of people’s issue – with this though. Notre Dame was excellent in the redzone a year ago. A big reason for why they were so good in the redzone was because of the running ability of Brandon Wimbush. Why then, does Kelly feel that his team has a better chance of scoring inside the 5 with his best runner on the sidelines?
There could be an argument made that with Book in the game there is more of a threat to pass the ball, but to date, Wimbush has not struggled throwing bootleg or play action passes for short yardage. If Wimbush is your quarterback, you let him in the game in this area. Who knows, maybe a short touchdown pass like the one Book had to Weishar helps build confidence for Wimbush if he is in the game.
Regardless, if Wimbush is your guy, stick with him here. If Book is your guy, stick with him for the other 95 yards. If Book gave Notre Dame some sort of unique threat like a Tim Tebow did for Florida near the goalline in 2002, I could see a much more valid argument. In this case, the reverse can almost be made.
3. Another week with the Notre Dame pass rush literally held in check
The Notre Dame pass rush got off to a roaring start in week one with four sacks against Shea Patterson. Notre Dame has had just two since. Vanderbilt threw the ball a lot on Saturday too. Kyle Shurmur attempted 43 passes against the Irish defense, but the Notre Dame pass rush only got home one time.
Now, part of the reason for this is an inexplicable lack of holding calls on the opposing offensive line the last two weeks. Ball State was holding on almost every down, but never drew a single penalty. On Saturday, Vandy was just as guilty and here is a prime example:
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) September 17, 2018
Khalid Kareem was held so egregiously that he got banged up and had to leave the field momentarily. A call like that should never be missed. That wasn’t an isolated incident either. One Vandy’s second to last drive that ended with Jalen Elliott’s (not the ground’s) pass breakup, there was one play where Julian Okwara split two defenders and was held by both. Kareem was held on the edge as well without a flag.
Now, holding is not the only reason the pass rush had just one sack. Holding takes place a lot without being called. We saw week one that Notre Dame has the ability to get to the passer albeit it against arguably one of the worst offensive lines Notre Dame will face this year. Clark Lea and Mike Elston have some work to do this week because they need to start generating more pressure. Teams have been coming back on the Irish in part because their quarterbacks have had too much to throw in the second half.
The Notre Dame offense staying on the field and giving their defense some breathers might help out that pass rush just a tab as well.
4. The lack of plays made by Notre Dame wide receivers
Speaking of the offense, Notre Dame is severely lacking playmakers at wide receiver right now. Miles Boykin is a massive target and could be a monster at moving the chains, but he hasn’t been able to get separation downfield this season. Chase Claypool is turning into quite the enigma. He is supremely athletic, but he isn’t getting open and when he is, he isn’t holding onto the football. His blocking has also been suspect to say the least. Chris Finke has not been targeted downfield since his ridiculous touchdown against Michigan.
Brandon Wimbush is having a hard time getting the ball downfield in part because there aren’t open receivers downfield. Furthermore, none of the Irish receivers have shown an ability to haul in contested catches this year. Wimbush gave Boykin a few opportunities to make plays on the sideline – albeit on a talented, tall corner – and Boykin wasn’t close. In fact, if you watch some of those replays, his footwork was all over the place and even if he had pulled in the ball it might not have counted anyway because he was out of bounds.
Notre Dame needs to find some playmakers at receiver in a hurry. There are two youngsters on the roster that need to get an extended look soon – Michael Young and Kevin Austin. If the starting receivers can’t get separation on Ball State and Vanderbilt, they won’t get it on Stanford or Virginia Tech either.
5. Multiple 4th down conversions from penalties
With a 12 point lead in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame let Vanderbilt extend two drives because of pass interference penalties. The first was called on Troy Pride and ended up resulting in a touchdown. Pride has had a tremendous start to the season, but the flag wasn’t necessary at all as he had good positioning and could have made the play without the flag.
The second conversion is on the staff almost as much as the player. Facing a 4th and 10 at the 50 with just over two minutes to go, the Irish staff sent in Donte Vaughn who hadn’t played much. Kyle Shurmur, like a good veteran quarterback should, attacked Vaughn immediately. Flag. If you need to insert Vaughn there, fine, but why is a player who hasn’t played much on Kalijia Lipscomb – Vandy’s top receiver – in that situation?
Notre Dame has been uneven to say the least the last two weeks, but the good news is they’ve been uneven while winning. There is still time for this offense to get it’s feet under them and make some strides. We saw the offensive line take a big step forward this week – perhaps there is a similar improvement from the wide receivers this week.