Sometimes this column is tough to write and it’s a beautiful things. After a resounding win like the one Notre Dame had this weekend with their 56-27 victory over Wake Forest, finding five things I didn’t like leads to some nitpicking. Notre Dame needed a performance like this one after back to back subpar showings against Ball State and Vanderbilt and they got it. Obviously there was a ton to like in this one, but after looking closely there is still plenty of work for the Irish.
1. (Lack of) Penalties – specifically holding
You know it was a good week when the first thing I have on my list of things I didn’t like is the lack of holding calls again this week. Wake Forest was not called for a single hold even though there were multiple blatant examples of it again this week. Perhaps the ACC has told its refs to let a lot go this year because we didn’t see any called against Ball State, just one against Vanderbilt that was clear as day, and then none this week.
I’ve mentioned the “no calls” in this column three weeks in a row now. Last week Brian Kelly was even asked if they had sent in plays to the ACC asking for clarification. Kelly was quick to say they had and wouldn’t go any further while clearly conveying his displeasure with the officiating.
Again, it’s a good week when this is first on the list.
2. Leaving some meat on the bone in the running game
Ok, now we’ll get into some critique of the actual performance. Notre Dame left some meat on the bone in the running game again this week – some of it by poor reads and some of it by just lacking the explosion to exploit a hole.
Early in the first quarter Tony Jones Jr ran around the corner through a massive hole. It was the kind of hole that Josh Adams would have exploded through last year, but Jones picked up a more modest 14 yard gain. A year ago that’s a touchdown. Next week if that hole is there again, it’s a touchdown for Dexter Williams. Notre Dame is still missing the home run threat in the ground game now, but not for long.
There were some other instances where it appeared as though Jones had opportunities for longer gains but made some reads that lead to shorter gains. On the game he had 39 yards on seven carries so he still had a productive afternoon. Once Notre Dame gets Dexter Williams back into the mix and the offense has a home run hitter again, more of the offense will open up.
3. Downfield Passing
For all of the improvement we saw in the Notre Dame passing game this weekend under the direction of Ian Book, there was one element that still needs work – downfield passing. The Irish didn’t really attempt many downfield passes on Saturday because they didn’t have to, but when they did, they weren’t overly effective.
A 35 yard pass to Chase Claypool could have went for six if Book gets the ball out in front of Claypool. Instead it was behind him and Claypool got tackled shortly after hauling it in. Timing on plays like that will come with more reps and more playing time together though.
The only really deep ball that Book unleashed traveled over 40 yards in the air to Kevin Austin. The freshman was able to draw a pass interference penalty on the play, but the pass wasn’t in great position either. Stanford will challenge Notre Dame to get the ball downfield by clogging up the passing lanes just like they did to Tommy Rees in 2011 and 2013 so Notre Dame will need Book to connect on a couple of those next week. Book does not have the cannon that Brandon Wimbush does so it will be interesting to watch how much better Book can get in this department. How much he improves will determine the ceiling of this offense – and team – moving forward.
4. The Early Offensive Game Plan
It’s been tough to find five things this week so we are getting into real nitpicky area here, but as a whole I didn’t love the early offensive game plan that called for Notre Dame to air it out. With a Wake Forest offense that wanted to run 100 plays and wear out the Irish defense in some sweltering temperatures, I was hoping to see Notre Dame come out and try to establish the run and work the clock from the get go.
Notre Dame came out firing though and when the offense didn’t click immediately, it put a lot of stress on the Notre Dame defense early. Wake Forest ran 28 plays in the first quarter alone. Once the passing game began to click it was not an issue, but early on Notre Dame was on pace to get its defense worn out. I would have hoped for a game plan built around preventing that from happening.
5. Virginia Tech Losing to Old Dominion
The last one was already pretty nitpicky so instead of stretching for more, let’s talk about how Old Dominion’s upset of Virginia Tech was bad for Notre Dame because I certainly didn’t like it. Notre Dame’s trip to Blacksburg didn’t get any easier because of the upset. In fact, it might have gotten harder because of the pressure now on the Hokies.
Notre Dame has to travel to Blacksburg in two weeks on the heels of what figures to be a physical, knockdown, drag-out fight with Stanford. The body blow theory could be in full effect for that trip. Now that the Hokies lost to freaking Old Dominion, that game becomes almost a no-win for the Irish. If they win, they won’t get much credit for the road win since Tech already has that awful loss. If the Irish lose, the story will be that Notre Dame lost to a team that got beat by Old Dominion.
Was it too much to ask for Virginia Tech to beat Old Dominion and then Duke so they would be undefeated when Notre Dame visits?