So I’ve written very little about Notre Dame Football since I started this blog. To be honest this is mostly because I did I a really poor job of following offseason developments (signings, depth charts, news from reporters who were attending practice, etc) and so I had to learn as the season went.
I based my thoughts on how I thought the season would go on the general reputation and ranking of opponents (if I didn’t have in-depth knowledge about ND going into this season I certainly didn’t have it about anyone else). Thus, looking at the schedule for this season coming off last season’s 4-8 nightmare, I thought that the best case scenario was for the team to go 9-3 with the three losses likely coming from the group of Georgia, USC, Miami and Stanford. While they had me fooled for a while and dreaming of a College Football Playoff appearance going into the Miami game, that’s exactly where the Irish ended up. It’s a season that should certainly feel like a success, but it doesn’t; that’s maybe because of the way in which they failed when they did.
I’m going to be reflecting on the season, looking at the different units, giving my take on things, and looking forward to what will be most important for the team next season.
I was really excited for Brandon Wimbush this year. In the small spurts we’d gotten to see him play, he had looked phenomenal; the speed and athleticism of Malik Zaire with the pocket poise of Deshone Kizer. I had become frustrated with the inconsistency of Kizer (I still don’t understand how he’s a starting NFL QB, only in Cleveland I guess) and was looking forward to Wimbush being the answer to years of QB mediocrity.
For most of the season this seemed to be going ok; the running game was dominant (more on that in a bit) and Wimbush did what was asked of him, often with his feet more than his arm. He didn’t look great in the loss to Georgia (a sign of things to come much later) and was forced to miss the North Carolina game because of injury, but otherwise I still felt optimistic about his first season as a starter. But looking back at his stats from all those games, there might have been some reason to worry:
|Game||Comp||Att||Yards||TD||INTs||Rush Yds||Rush TD|
Through his first eight starts this season Wimbush had a completion percentage under 50%. Now, what he did running was very impressive, as were his lack of turnovers. While his passing wasn’t great, he was still an asset to the offense.
What happens when the rushing yards dry up and you turn the ball over? You lose:
Wimbush looked a lot worse in these two games, but as far as completion percentage they weren’t much worse than the games Notre Dame won.
Overall, I was disappointed in Wimbush this year and I think he needs to prove in the offseason that he still deserves to be the starting quarterback. However, this was his first season as a starter and he has potentially two more years to improve upon this season. I think he’s capable of more than he showed this year, but rather than excited about Wimbush I’m now cautiously optimistic at best.
For most of the season, the highlight of the offense was the running game led by one-time Heisman hopeful Josh Adams. It was going so well that Notre Dame even invented a fake company to promote his candidacy, of which the offensive lineman were the board of directors. Throughout the season he was complimented by Wimbush, who as you saw above was a reliable second running option for most of the season, making something out of nothing when passing plays failed to materialize. As you can see by looking at the team’s, and Adams’, rushing statistics for the year, Wimbush’s rushing performances weren’t the only ones that tailed off at the end of the year:
That complete fall off a cliff you see in Week 10 is the Miami game. So what happened? First, credit does have to be given to the defenses of Georgia, Michigan State, Miami, Navy and Stanford who were all successful in containing. It must also be said that Josh Adams suffering an injury in the Wake Forest game and not being given the opportunity to properly recover did not help matters. However, I don’t think that’s a sufficient excuse given the success Wimbush and other running backs, including Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh, had also had this season.
More than anything, I think the better defensive teams figured out the Irish run scheme and Notre Dame’s offense didn’t adjust. If a defense is putting eight men in the box on every play, running the ball is going to be a heck of a lot harder. Even an offensive line that may be the best in the nation isn’t going to save you then. As for what the Irish offense could have done to readjust, some more creative play-calling (namely, anything besides using a zone running scheme to run up the middle) would have been welcomed, as would have using other running backs more if Adams wasn’t 100%. I know the team was trying to win him the Heisman, but winning games is more important and he was going to be a longshot no matter what. The good news is, even if Adams were to leave, the Irish showed they have a lot of depth in the backfield and that the team shouldn’t have to worry about that next year.
There has been plenty of speculation, in light of Wimbush’s poor play, of what could have been if Deshone Kizer had stuck around for his final year of elligibility. Perhaps no one wishes more that Kizer had stayed than top Irish receiver and owner of the greatest name in college football Equanimeous St. Brown. Take a look at how severely St. Brown’s numbers dipped this season:
His average per catch is roughly the same, and he played all 12 games this season. So what happened? Different quarterback, plain and simple. He only had four catches or more in a game four times this year, and his best performance was in the final game against Stanford, during which it appeared Brandon Wimbush realized he had somehow forgotten about his future NFL wide receiver. Now, Wimbush did spread the ball around a bit more than Kizer did (at least in terms of percentage of throws). However, Torii Hunter Jr., ND’s second leading receiver last year, had more catches last season than St. Brown did this year, when he was in fact ND’s leading receiver with his 31 receptions. Chase Claypool, who had a bit of a breakout season, came second with 29 receptions.
Fundamentally, the offense was just different. Kizer threw for over 1000 more yards than Wimbush in their respective seasons and also completed over 80 more passes. Less passing + lower accuracy (Kizer was ~9% better) = less catches for everyone.
I really hope Equanimeous sticks around for his senior year, but couldn’t blame someone with his size, speed, and route-running ability for going to the NFL a year early.
In addition to Claypool, Kevin Stepherson also had a quality season, often showing off his big-play ability using his overall athleticism (his average catch was for 19 yards). Durham Smythe and Alize Mack chipped in at tight end, but I don’t see either of them being the next in the Fassano, Rudolph, Eiffert tradition of great ND TEs in the NFL.
On a personal interest note, I was disappointed to not see my fellow Providence Catholic alum Miles Boykin have a larger role in the offense this season. He caught nine passes for 151 yards, so he showed his potential when he did get the ball. There was only so many passes to go around this season, and plenty of other talented receivers he’s competing for catches with. Having redshirted his freshman year, Boykin still has two years of eligibility left, and I hope he’s given the chance to show what he can do when given a larger volume of opportunity.
In general, I’d say that the mark of a good offensive line is that you never even think about them, as O-Line is generally a position we only notice during a game when they screw up. But at many times this season, the ND offensive line stood out. They deserve a lot of the credit for how strong ND’s rushing attack was for much of the season, and also gave mostly phenomenal pass protection to Wimbush (not that it helped), which was never more true than when the Irish were attempting to come back against Stanford. Wimbush was repeatedly given 4 or 5 secons of clean pocket and would then miss an open receiver, but I digress. The O-Line is nominated for the Joe Moore award, given to the best offensive line in football, and is up against SEC powers Alabama and Auburn. Personally, I’ll be disappointed but understanding if Auburn wins but downright pissed if Alabama does. For what it’s worth, ND had the most rushing yards of the three teams and Alabama allowed the fewest sacks. Notre Dame is projected to have two linemen, LT Mike McGlinchey and LG Quenton Nelson, taken in the first round of next spring’s NFL draft. They fully deserve their NFL futures, but it leaves me very concerned about the blindside of whoever is playing QB for the Irish next season.
So as defense is not something I have the expertise to comment extensively on, I’m just going to give a brief statistical overview and comment on the different defensive units and players who stuck out this season.
|Notre Dame Team Defensive Rankings|
These rankings initially support my previous thoughts on this defense: while a clear improvement on last year’s unit, it was still just ok. The poor ranking in sacks isn’t surprising, given that any pass rush was more or less nonexistent this season, which is really the only comment I have to make on the defensive line.
I’ll be honest I was shocked when I saw that defensive efficiency ranking. Basically what that says is ND’s defense actually played pretty well, but faced a disproportionate number of possessions in comparison to similar quality defenses. How does that happen? By Notre Dame being ranked 107th in time of possession. Notre Dame’s offense largely did one of two things: scored quickly, or went 3 and out. So the Notre Dame defense actually played pretty well this year, but it certainly wasn’t obvious.
The defensive line this season was unimpressive. Jerry Tillery led the d-line with 25 solo tackles, so there’s not really one stand-out talent there. As I said, the pass rush was unconvincing and not much of a threat to opposing quarterbacks. As the entire defense has been improving over the last year or so, hopefully the defensive line can take a step forward next season.
I have to say, I was really impressed with the ND linebacking corps this season. I wasn’t sure how Drue Tranquill transitioning to linebacker from safety would go, but I was pleasantly surprised. His athleticism translated well and he got noticably stronger. Tevon Coney and Niles Morgan also had great seasons, leading the Irish in tackles. Coney will be back next season, with the opportunity to boost his NFL potential, as will Tranquill who was granted another year of eligibility on account of how much time he has missed due to injury over the course of his collegiate career . Morgan will not be back, however, and he’ll certainly be missed.
When I realized that Julian Love was going to be Notre Dame’s top cornerback this season I was terrified of what opposing passing attacks were going to do to the defense. Boy was I wrong, as Love led the secondary in tackles, snagged three interceptions, and had 17 passes defended, more than double anyone else on the team. The only player in the nation with more combined passes defended and interceptions was Josh Jackson at Iowa. Love is still only a sophomore, and has the potential to be a first-round draft pick when his time comes if he can keep up these kinds of numbers. Overall, however, as reflected in the ranking of ND’s pass defense,you the secondary wasn’t much better than average. Some of that can be attributed to the lack of a pass rush, but the secondary still has room to grow. With Love leading it, there’ reason to be optimistic.
If there was an award for most fair catches, I think Chris Finke would have won it by a mile. The Irish only returned 24 punts this season, with an average of 6.5 yards per return, the 81st best mark in the country. They were only slightly better at kickoff returns, coming in 68th place this season with an average of 20.94 yards per return. On the kicking side of things, Notre Dame was downright mediocre in punting, averaging 37.41 net yards per punt, the 74th best in the nation. Justin Yoon made 75% of his field goals this season, tied for 57th and a far cry from the 88% he posted two years ago when he was a freshman. Nothing particularly special about the special teams this year, and it’s a part of the team that clearly has room to improve.
As his tenure has gone on, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with Brian Kelly. His decision making in big games continues to astound me. When Notre Dame plays really good teams, the game plan often deviates from what has been successful for the Irish in prior games. The playbook shrinks, all runs seem to be up the middle, and there’s a lack of confidence placed in the players to be able to execute. Then, when things go bad, Kelly blames the players (often very publicly). While players or other coaches make mistakes, he is the head coach and the buck ultimately stops with him in regard to the team’s performance. Now, there’s little to complain about when the team goes 9-3 a year after going 4-8, and Kelly certainly deserves a portion of the credit for that turnaround. However, I think a season like the one the Irish have had is the best they can do under Kelly. He’s a phenomenal recruiter (there’s certainly no lack of talent on this team) but when over the years with different players the team consistently underperforms on the big stage you have to look at the people at the top. If I was running a college football team I’d love to have Brian Kelly as the heading of recruiting, but not as a head coach. As for who I’d realistically rather have, I think the idea of Bob Stoops coming in after retiring from Oklahoma last year is an interesting one. Urban Meyer has expressed wanting to coach ND, but the gig he’s got going at OSU is a really good one and I can’t see him leaving unless something went really south in Columbus. Who would replace Kelly is really an irrelevant question, as I realize that the chance of ND firing him after a 9-3 season is absolutely zero. Additionally, his contract runs through 2021, so assuming ND don’t want a repeat of the Charlie Weis situation (they just stopped paying him this past year) then it’s safe to assume that Kelly is here to stay, whether you like it or not.
Notre Dame met my best-case scenario expectations for this season, but it was certainly a let down how they dropped like a rock from being ranked 3rd to 14th over the last few weeks of the season. There were certainly some bright spots though and reasons to be optimistic about the future. College football is increasingly more competitive, and there’s no shame in being the 14th best team in the country. However, I hope the team aspires to more because I believe they’re capable of it.
I think the Citrus Bowl game against LSU will be competitive, and it’s a good opportunity for the players to show that they’re a better team than they showed down the stretch. A fully healthy Josh Adams should certainly help. Also, beating an SEC team always feels good (although the Irish have played LSU in bowl games twice in the past 10 years, so this is a little boring as far as matchups go). In the end, this game doesn’t mean a whole lot, and I’m already looking forward to September 1st, 2018, Notre Dame vs Michigan.
Until then, Go Irish!
Statistics compiled from the NCAA and ESPN