All’s well that ends well.
It wasn’t pretty, but in the end it was effective, as Notre Dame achieved its second 10 win season in the last three, with a frustrating and thrilling victory over #17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on New Years Day.
It’s easy to feel conflicted about this win; it wasn’t a New Years 6 bowl game, the level of play from either offense wasn’t particularly high, and the Irish platooned quarterbacks again while looking pretty poor for the majority of three quarters.
Then again, it was a New Years Day game, against a nine win SEC blue blood, with multiple starters on offense either suspended or out because of injury. And 10 wins is 10 wins.
As we look back on the season as a whole, one facet of the team remained largely consistent (the defense) and another facet completely lost its way (the offense). The strong fourth quarter notwithstanding, they were not good on the offensive side of the ball, against an admittedly good defense, also weakened by injury. It’s the latter of the two facets that leaves that lingering sour taste in our mouths.
Rising Into 2018
Improvement over 2016 shouldn’t have been difficult for any competent defensive coach, but Elko was fabulous over the course of the season both in scheme and development. His defense is aggressive without being reckless. He sends a decent amount of pressure, from many positions, but he was also able to protect his safeties most of the time throughout the year (and we saw over the course of the season they were a liability). The team struggled on jump balls from the corner position throughout, but players were in position and plays were made over them.
Most of all, what became of Te’Von Coney, Drue Tranquill, Jerry Tillery, Julian Love, Julian Okwara, and Khalid Kareem, among others, was simply phenomenal. This is the definition of good coaching. Scheming players into winning positions, then developing them to take advantage of those positions.
Regardless of whether you think he is the long term answer, he has to be taken seriously as the starting quarterback going into spring ball and 2018. He wasn’t great for much of his time against LSU, and he hasn’t lit the world on fire in his other appearances either. But, he did the thing in the fourth quarter, something Wimbush was unable to do against Georgia and Stanford. He also showed himself good enough on called runs and on the read option to be a real threat. Taking away sacks, he rushed for over 60 yards in a little over a half of football against a very good defense. They don’t get much faster or more athletic than LSU.
The guy made two of the biggest catches of the season in the fourth quarter to help win the bowl game, the last catch was probably the play of the year. I’m not sure how much it carries over into 2018, but he’s on the rise for sure.
An Unnamed Defensive Player We Are All Thinking Of
He is still deciding whether to return to Notre Dame next season and I don’t want to jinx it. But, his numbers rivaled those of the junior season of a certain middle linebacker named Manti. The hottest player on the Notre Dame team right now*, when everyone else cooled off, he turned it up. *With the exception of Quenton Nelson, who I don’t think lost on a play all season and humbled everyone he played against. That guy is unbelievable.
Falling Into 2018
He entered the season as the unquestioned starter and left the season as anything but that. Given that information, a 10-3 record is actually kind of remarkable. He wasn’t all terrible; the guy did account for 30 touchdowns and with him at quarterback they scored touchdowns on 75% of their red zone trips and finished 8th in the nation in that category. You don’t just throw that away.
However, he struggled with his mechanics and decision making from the start, and that never really improved throughout the year, even with the teams success. If anything, it got worse. He imploded against Miami and never quite found himself after that. I disagreed with the staffs decision to continually talk about his mechanics leading up to the bowl game, especially when he was making poor decisions as well as poor throws. They clearly have some work to do with this young mans confidence.
I haven’t given up on him, but things are certainly far from sure. It’s the biggest cloud hanging over 2017 and into 2018. Once again, quarterback is unsettled.
Holding Steady (By The Skin Of His Teeth)
He was a one handed Miles Boykin catch and run away from losing three of the last four and heading into 2018 without knowing who his quarterback was. It would have been a long 9 months of fan anger, apathy, and disgust. For some that still exists, but Book and Boykin saved him from an all out assault on his job from the masses.
The toughest thing to take is the drop in play over the course of the season from the offense. They were a force through the first two months, blowing teams out and regularly scoring in the 40’s. They achieved their best win against rival USC since 1995–22 years ago.
Then, it all went away. Miami embarrassed them, they looked disinterested against Navy, and they fell apart at Stanford.
We can look at the overall body of work and be impressed; wins over four ranked teams (including the Pac-12 champion), across four conferences, that combined for a 39-14 record. That’s no small thing that any team would be proud of.
But, that team was largely unseen over the last month. What we ended up with was a middling offensive team with average to poor quarterback play and a solid defense. In other words, barely a bowl team.
Winning matters though, and 10-3 sounds a lot better than 9-4. There is some good will heading into 2018. Next season is no picnic though. 2018 brings another tough schedule, a quarterback position in limbo, and the loss of some key offensive personnel, and maybe more than he would hope. He’s been selling the idea of a re-build, in year eight, so I assume a step back would be seen as unacceptable. And he will have to do something he has yet to do at Notre Dame: two double digit win seasons in a row.
Till next season.