We are going to know what kind of football team Notre Dame is going to be very early on Saturday afternoon. And not just because of the earlier than normal kickoff (it kicks off at 2:30 instead of the normal 3:30 home start). After last week’s let down and near disaster against Ball State, the 2018 Notre Dame Fighting Irish have their backs against the wall at an early season juncture no one quite anticipated. How they respond will give us a good indication of what kind of team the Irish have.
A week ago at this time Notre Dame was sky high coming off a huge win over then #14 Michigan to open the season. The Notre Dame defense shut down highly touted transfer Shea Patterson and the Michigan offense while the Irish offense showed signs of life against the vaunted Wolverine defense.
What a difference a week can make.
As Notre Dame prepares for their week three contest against Vanderbilt – a game that just a week ago appeared to be a tune up and opportunity to prepare for a late September showdown with Stanford – a lot has changed. Fresh off perhaps the most disappointing victory of the Brian Kelly era, many questions loom large as Notre Dame searches for an identity. The same Fighting Irish who just a week ago were getting hyped as a playoff contender, now face an unexpected, early season gut check with Vanderbilt coming to town.
How a team responds to such adversity reveals a lot about its character. With that in mind, it won’t take long for us to see that revelation – one way or another this Saturday. Will the Irish come out inspired and fired up after last week? Or will they still be feeling sorry for themselves and let Ball State, who nearly defeated them a week ago, get the job done this week because the Vanderbilt team coming offers a much tougher challenge.
Brian Kelly’s teams have been a mixed bag when it comes to responding to such situations. In 2010 Notre Dame got embarrassed by Navy in the Meadowlands and let that defeat carry over into the next week when they got upset at home to Tulsa. A week later the Irish beat a top 10 Utah opponent on Senior Day. In 2014 and 2016 seasons spiraled out of control with the Irish unable to rebound once things started to go south.
Now, Notre Dame didn’t lose last weekend, but you couldn’t tell as much from the reaction of the players and coaching staff. The Notre Dame sideline somber and locker room was a place last Saturday as the clock ticked away with the Irish clinging to an eight point victory after Drue Tranquill iced the game by recovering an onside kick.
The beauty in all of this, of course, is that Notre Dame did not lose. Despite turning in an underwhelming to say the least performance, Notre Dame still sits at #8 in the polls and sports a 2-0 record. If they respond and turn things around, no one will care in November that the Irish almost lost to Ball State if that goose egg is still in the L column.
The first step in responding comes this weekend though when Vanderbilt comes to town for the first time since 1996. The Commodores have not been a particularly strong program under Derek Mason but they have taken care of business against weak opponents so far this year. They opened the season with a 35-7 win over Middle Tennessee State and followed that up with a 41-10 victory over Nevada last weekend. They are a solid team, but not the kind of team that should be able to hang with Notre Dame for 60 minutes if we see the same Irish we saw week 1.
To get back to the Notre Dame team we all thought the Irish could be after week one, Notre Dame has to get a few things in together in hurry. First, Brian Kelly and Chip Long have to stop calling games for the kind of quarterback they wish they had and start calling games for the quarterback they have.
Brandon Wimbush isn’t a pocket passer. That much should be abundantly clear by now. You couldn’t have told that from the game plan Kelly and Long deployed last week though. Every game in which Wimbush shines he breaks open a big run early. It seems to settle him down and get him going. They have to embrace that let him loose this weekend. Let him utilize the skills he has that makes him such a dangerous weapon when used properly.
Jeff Quinn has to figure out the Irish offensive line this week as well. Vanderbilt might not be their SEC brethren Alabama or Georgia, but they have a better defensive front than the Ball State front that just pushed Notre Dame around. Brian Kelly has said that they won’t shuffle the lineup this week. Fine. If that is the case, make whatever adjustments you need to get the line anywhere close to the line the Irish had last year.
Lastly, the Irish need to look inside and decide to come out fired up and inspired this weekend. They didn’t last week. They treated last Saturday against Ball State like it was spring practice #2 before the pads come on. That can’t happen again if Notre Dame wants to ascend to where it appeared they were heading just a week ago.
Ball State neatly beat Notre Dame a week ago, but they didn’t. If Notre Dame lets the effects of last week linger into this weekend and beyond, though, Ball State will finish what they started eventually. They just won’t get the official credit for it. Notre Dame can prevent that from happening, but it has to start this weekend and continue from there.
For all the doom and gloom hovering over the Irish right now, they still have everything left to play for. Hopefully last week was the wake up call they needed to remind them of that before someone else did. It’s definitely gut check time for this team though and we’ll know shortly into Saturday’s contest which way this thing is headed.