Another week, another “disappointing” victory from the Notre Dame football team. They, again, jumped out to an early double digit lead against a multiple touchdown underdog. And, again, they stalled on offense in the second half, while bleeding points on defense, and turned an easy win into a nail biter. And this one was REALLY a nail biter, with Vanderbilt failing on 4th and 4 when their go-to receiver Kalija Lipscomb couldn’t hold on to a leaping reception amidst pressure from safety Jalen Elliott. That would have led to first and goal from the 10 with a minute left and Notre Dame fortunes in serious peril.
As it stands, it was a 22-17 Notre Dame victory, a 3-0 record, top 10 ranking, and plenty of questions about what this team will be going forward.
Last week, Notre Dame overlooked Ball State, the players admitted it. This week, I think we fans did the same of Vanderbilt. Not that it would matter on the field, but in terms of perception of the outcome. They entered the game ranked 23rd by S&P+ (they dropped the 35 following the loss), and leave the game ranked 22nd defensively. Notre Dame didn’t play perfect, but this wasn’t a bad Vanderbilt team, at least according to the computers. As an aside, Bill Connelly, the author of the S&P formula, projected Notre Dame to win by 4 prior to the game according to his formula. So, he seemed to have the pulse of the contest.
Just a little fodder for those who are trying to decide “what it means” that Notre Dame only beat this team by 5. Maybe that’s just about right.
Tony Jones Jr.
Easily his best game in an Irish uniform, he accounted for 174 total yards on 19 touches, with 118 of that coming on the ground and 6.9 yards per carry. Aside from the quarterback, he was the Irish offense at the skill positions yesterday and his effort among the skill players running and receiving won them the game. His play was vitally important because Notre Dame remains short handed at running back while Dexter Williams continues to serve his all but official four game suspension. Carrying such a heavy load had proved too much for converted receiver Jafar Armstrong and Jones needed to pick up the slack.
He’ll be a nice compliment in the running game when Williams returns and Armstrong can play more of a complimentary slash role on offense.
The Offensive Line
I wrote about their struggles last week and this week they did a complete 180. Notre Dame ran for 245 yards on 48 carries, 5.1 yards per carry. The longest run was 20 yards by Tony Jones Jr., so these weren’t a couple of chunk plays around some mediocre ones. You can’t get to 245 with a long of 20 without consistent holes and room to run.
They also surrendered zero sacks and allowed just four quarterback hurries, a stark difference from last week’s abysmal effort. Simply, if they had turned out this kind of performance a week ago, the Ball State contest would have gone much differently. Can’t say the line is fixed after one week, but as the old saying goes, bad offensive lines don’t travel, so with the seasons first road tilt upcoming against Wake Forest, this was very good news.
The Pass Rush
Notre Dame has been held a lot the last couple of weeks (like, a lot), but there have still been enough opportunities for the defensive line to have a greater impact rushing the passer than they have. Vandy attempted 43 passes on Saturday, Notre Dame managed one sack and four hurries, not good enough for a defense that hopes to be elite, and might need to be elite given the lack of fire power on offense. Vanderbilt featured five returning starters from a season ago Saturday, so this wasn’t a green group of players they went up against, but these defensive ends need to be pretty much matchup proof. This is something to watch next week as Notre Dame hits the road.
Brandon Wimbush throws a lot of passes he shouldn’t, but one thing that stands out when he does is the lack of separation he is getting from his receivers. Miles Boykin couldn’t separate on numerous fade routes, Chase Claypool hasn’t been open on several deep balls and dropped a third down pass early on Saturday. Chris Finke also dropped a crossing route that likely would have led to a touchdown, just prior to Wimbush scampering into the end zone for the first touchdown of the day.
There just hasn’t been an explosive element to the passing game aside from the early completions against Michigan. Notre Dame has struggled getting into the end zone the last two weeks and they have one long touchdown pass all season, the 43 yarder to Finke against the Wolverines. They need more from this group in the coming weeks as the degree of difficulty ramps up.