Notre Dame played its most complete game of the season on Saturday afternoon on their first road trip of the season. The Irish scored 56 points behind new starting quarterback Ian Book and kept Wake Forest’s uptempo offense from wearing out the Notre Dame defense. Notre Dame now sits at 4-0 but for the first time since Labor Day, fans are brimming with optimism after seeing their squad display some vast improvement.
After the poor performances the previous two weeks, there was a lot to like in this one so let’s get into it.
1. Seeing Notre Dame move the ball up and down the field
After three weeks of inconsistent offense to start this season and another four to end last year, seeing Notre Dame move the ball up and down the field with ease after the first quarter was a lot of fun to watch. Ian Book took some time to get settled in on Saturday, but once he did, he was in total command of the Notre Dame offense.
Book’s final numbers were impressive – 25 of 34 for 325 yards with 5 total TDs (2 passing/3 rushing). Brian Kelly made the unconventional decision to change quarterbacks without waiting for a loss to force his hand and it paid off big time this week.
It has been pretty clear for a while that the offense we saw yesterday is the offense that Brian Kelly and Chip Long have wanted to run all along and were unable to mold around Brandon Wimbush’s strengths. It’s a shame because Wimbush is a very talented kid who hopefully will still be able to make some plays for this offense in the future. For now though, it is crystal clear that with Ian Book at quarterback, the playbook opens up substantially.
2. More playing time for the young Notre Dame wide receivers
The wide receivers were shaky early on yesterday like they have been most of the season, but as the game wore on, we got to see a lot more of Michael Young and Kevin Austin. Young made the longest reception of the season with a 66 yard wide receiver screen that he nearly took the distance. It was the kind of play we had seen called numerous times the last season and a quarter that was never really executed.
Austin meanwhile caught two passes for 35 yards while having a big third down conversion early in the game negated by an ineligible man downfield penalty on Alex Bars. Austin was also targeted downfield in the second half. He didn’t haul in the pass but he did draw the pass interference penalty.
Hopefully we continue to see more of these two youngsters as they bring something to the table that Notre Dame has been lacking.
3. Finally seeing the entire second team defense on the field at the same time
It was about time that Notre Dame was finally able to empty the bench this season. Playing in sweltering temperatures this week after playing the starters almost exclusively the last three weeks made it imperative for the Irish to get their starers some rest. Thankfully they were able to do that in the second half.
With Stanford in town next weekend and the Irish on the road in Blacksburg in two weeks, Notre Dame is about to hit the make or break point of its season. Having the defensive starters – especially Tevon Coney and Drue Tranquilll – as rested and fresh as possible for these two contests is critical for their chances of navigating this stretch while keeping a goose egg in the loss column.
Wake Forest still ran 92 plays because that is what they do, but the starters got to watch most of the 4th quarter from the sidelines.
4. Notre Dame bottling up Greg Dortch
Clark Lea dialed up a great gameplan against his old boss Dave Clawson. Greg Dortch is a dynamic wide receiver who is a nightmare to defend. Notre Dame held Wake’s top playmaker to six catches for just 56 yards though. They were able to do that in part because of the pressure they got on Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman. Notre Dame may have only had three sacks in the game, but Hartman took a beating out there yesterday.
Wake Forest had amassed up over 500 yards of offense in each of their previous three games this year. Notre Dame held them to under 400 and when the starters came off the field, that number was closer to 250 yards.
A year ago Clawson drew up a gameplan that attacked Mike Elko’s defense much more effectively than what we saw yesterday. Props to Lea for learning from last year and devising a scheme that improved upon what his predecessor accomplished last year.
5. The continued improvement from the Notre Dame offensive line
Notre Dame ran the ball for 240 yards on Saturday, but the more impressive part of that was that they averaged 6.0 yards per carry in the process. After the early season struggles running the ball that is a very encouraging sign. Those numbers could have been even more impressive as well. The Irish OL opened up some massive holes throughout the day that a back like Dexter Williams – who will be back next week – would have taken the distance.
Jafar Armstrong looked more comfortable as a running back on Saturday thanks in large part to the huge holes he had to run through. He averaged 12.3 yards a carry on his eight attempts.
Notre Dame did all of this with Trevor Ruhland playing in place of an injured Tommy Kraemer at right guard.
6. Another clean game from the Irish special teams
It’s amazing how much the special teams have improved in such a short time. For the second week in a row Jonathan Doerer was excellent on kickoffs after having an early season case of the yips. Five of Doerer’s nine kicks went for touchbacks. When they didn’t, Notre Dame did an excellent job bottling up Greg Dortch in the return game as well.
Justin Yoon was asked to do much but he made all eight of his extra point attempts. Tyler Newsome didn’t kick 60 yard bombs all day, but he was barley called upon.
Chris Finke had the longest punt return in four years for Notre Dame with a 52 yarder in the second quarter that nearly went for six.
Special teams were anything but special through the first two weeks of the season, but Brian Polian’s unit has rebounded very nicely these last two weeks.