Following Notre Dame’s 49-14 destruction of then (and current) ranked #11 USC, Colin Cowherd decided to say something he thought was smart, but in fact was not. I’m going to paraphrase so as to spare us from the 2 plus minutes of spewed nonsense. His point was Notre Dame had peaked as a team due to their mature offensive line and lack of a passing game. One dimensional teams can’t win in college football, apparently.
Setting aside some of the flaws in his own argument, this is what happens when a national radio host comments on a team he spends about 15 minutes in a production meeting learning about. The assumption was the team that took the field against USC that night was as good as they were going to get. That when they faced a team like Georgia, or Clemson, or Alabama, or Wisconsin (hahahahahaha) who could take away the run, they’d wilt.
Thing is, those of us who follow Notre Dame on a daily basis know the passing offense was just starting to scratch the surface of what it could be that night against USC. For the first time this season, the Irish offense fully engaged wide receiver Kevin Stepherson into the fray. They used him on reverses and jet sweeps, they threw him the ball for touchdowns. We saw another step in the maturation of the passing game against Wake Forest, when Chase Claypool caught nine passes for 180 yards and a touchdown.
The team that took the field against Georgia on September ninth looked much different than the team that demolished the Wake Forest defense for 710 yards, while sitting their starters for much of the 4th quarter, last weekend. Suddenly, the best running team in the country looks dangerous and scary on the outside.
Here’s the thing with Stepherson and Claypool out there with St. Brown, while also dealing with the threat of the run: it creates issues matchup wise for the defense. You could make the argument none of the those three is a true #1 receiver. But, which one of those three are you comfortable sticking your third best corner on?
We saw what happened when USC lost one of their starting corners early in the first quarter. St. Brown toasted the replacement for a would be touchdown that Wimbush overthrew. Two plays later Stepherson made good on a back shoulder fade in which the defender had no chance.
And that’s the thing, maybe they aren’t #1 guys, but they can’t really be covered by #2 or #3 guys either. Look at what Claypool and Stepherson did to the NC State secondary late in that matchup. It was choose your flavor for Wimbush on this one. The Wolfpack were completely lost.
Those match ups simply didn’t exist with Freddy Canteen and Cameron Smith out there. Sitting in the meeting room on Monday and Tuesday trying to game plan for Notre Dame, what’s the plan when watching this? You can’t worry about Adams, Wimbush, EQ, Stepherson, and Claypool equally. You’re going to be exposed. The plan is to hope Wimbush makes a bad throw. Which honestly has been working out. But what if he figures out the deep ball?
When Notre Dame inserted Stepherson into the lineup against USC, it wasn’t in the passing game, at least not to start. As I previously mentioned, they engaged him as a runner, which has been fruitful so far. He ran twice for 24 against USC and twice for 46 against Wake Forest, giving him four carries for 66 yards on the season. Again, not very fun to worry about all the things Notre Dame can do on offense without having to deal with Stepherson on a misdirection play.
The Irish have been a pretty poor screen team this year, especially on bubble screens. Except of course when throwing the ball to Claypool. The thing about the Canadian is, he’s a big dude, and tackling him in space with corners and safeties isn’t the easiest thing. Notre Dame started the game against Michigan State this way, and Claypool showed just how tough it can be to bring him down on the first try. He showed it again against Wake Forest on a key third and five near the end of the first half that ultimately led to an Irish touchdown.
Passing Numbers Improving
Notre Dame has been a bad team from a yards per attempt stand point for most of the season. They are currently sitting at an abysmal 112th out of 130 teams nationally at 6.1 yards per attempt. It’s not been good. However, in the last three contests that number has increased to 7.0 yards per attempt, which would improve their national standing about 40 spots, and in the last game they came in at 8.7 yards per attempt, and Brandon Wimbush a 9.3. That also included a couple of big drops from Claypool and St. Brown on deep balls.
The opportunities are there, they just need to be capitalized on. And that’s the thing about this team and what it can be. There is an entire phase of the offense that we’ve just seen the surface of. Guys are constantly open, and they are open for touchdowns. And it isn’t the result of scheme or blown coverages. They are just beating people. This part of the offense wasn’t available in week 2. It just wasn’t a thing the Irish could do. They were basically reliant solely on St. Brown to be the receiving threat. Now the Irish have three who are capable of taking the opposition deep, and they can all play at the same time. What happens when Notre Dame starts hitting those deep balls? Dare I say, Notre Dame hasn’t even begun to show us what they could ultimately turn into.
Oh no. I’m getting excited again.