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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

October 29, 2020

The best part about Notre Dame not playing a Big Ten or Pac-12 team this season is that they won’t get stuck with someone like Tim Brando calling the game. Anyone watching at home dreads them because they know the level of play-by-play announcer can’t get much worse in college football.

On the opposite side of things, it doesn’t get much better than Mike Tirico calling home games on NBC or Sean McDonough calling the game last week.

Both of them are world class. They do their homework. They have great insight without stepping on the point of the analyst working with them. They are able to seamlessly work in nuggets of information into the telecast that enhance the call of the game, which is something McDonough and Todd Blackledge did when Notre Dame played Pitt.

They mentioned that Brian Kelly spoke to them about the red zone issues and that he was taking an approach to it like it’s a power play in hockey. Notre Dame needs to get their five best skill players on the field in order to give them the best shot to score.

It worked pretty well against Pitt. The Irish were three of four scoring touchdowns in the red zone before garbage time. They ran the ball in when they had to (two rushing touchdowns) and allowed tight end Michael Mayer to go up and make a catch on another scoring play.

It didn’t look all that pretty and they can be better, but it was an improvement.

This brings up an important question: who are the five best skill players in that area of the field?

Kyren Williams, Tommy Tremble, and Michael Mayer are a given. After those catches last week, Ben Skowronek might be as well.

That’s four. Who’s number five?

Is it another big body in Javon McKinley? He seems likely to get the nod and has made some plays, but he’s only come down with 50% of the targets that have been thrown his way. That’s not all his fault, but it’s worth noting.

Could it be Chris Tyree? He adds a speed element and has skills as a receiver, but is he best suited for this area of the field or is there someone better?

Is that someone C’Bo Flemister? He has run really well in short yardage this season and this gives the option of moving Williams around the field and potentially using him as a receiver. But is Flemister a better running option than Williams? No, so it all depends on if they view Williams as someone who can win from the slot.

That brings up Avery Davis. All he has done is catch just about everything thrown his way and he’s had five of his eight receptions go for first downs. He can get yards after the catch if they throw underneath too.

Maybe it will be someone else like Joe Wilkins if he gets more opportunities now that Kevin Austin is done for the season. Or maybe it’s someone who hasn’t even a factor so far in any capacity.

I do like the idea of a power play mentality with the five best on the field in the red zone. Unfortunately, Austin was set to be on that power play and now he leaves a spot open. Finding that replacement will be critical because Notre Dame isn’t getting to where they want to go with the level of efficiency they’ve had in the red zone so far.

Of course, it goes back to the quarterback as well. Any hockey fan will tell you that a power play quarterback is key. That’s the distributor. Notre Dame needs more from its distributor. If they get that and figure out that fifth guy, it can help them get back to where the red zone offense is humming again.

2. I know Irish fans would have felt much better about Notre Dame running the football against Clemson if they had a better overall day against Pitt, but everyone had to be encouraged with the success in short yardage.

After converting several times against Pitt, Notre Dame is now at 79% with their Power Success Rate (converting on 3rd or 4th and short). That’s up from 62.2% last season (106th).

If they keep converting at this rate, it will be the best conversion rate for them since Football Outsiders started tracking it for college football in 2014. I don’t see why they won’t keep it up because Williams has been great in those situations.

3. Notre Dame didn’t do well matching up against Florida State’s Tamorrion Terry. He put up big numbers against the Irish and was a big factor in keeping the Seminoles in that game.

Clark Lea wasn’t going to let that happen again the next couple of weeks. The defense limited Louisville’s TuTu Atwell to five touches for 36 yards and Pitt’s Jordan Addison to three catches for 40 yards against Pitt.

Looking ahead, Clemson’s Amari Rodgers has been fantastic this season and has almost double the amount of receptions of the next leading receiver for the Tigers. There’s way more to worry about with Clemson than just him, but my guess is when Trevor Lawrence has to throw , Lea will do his best to force him to throw to other receivers.

4. The defense has certainly got the job done when they have needed to, even when they have had key players miss games.

They’ve only allowed teams to reach the red zone nine times in five games. That’s third in that category for teams who have played four games or more. They’re second in third down defense for teams who have played four games or more. They cause Havoc at an elite rate (21.8%) and yet still have room to get better.

Lea’s defense is currently ranked eighth in the country in SP+. There isn’t much to complain about.

With that said, they do have two offenses left on the schedule who are ranked on the top-five in SP+: Clemson is fourth and North Carolina is fifth.

A lot will be revealed about the defense after those games.

5. Speaking of Havoc, cornerback Havoc plays are currently at 19 heading into this week through five games. The corners had 20 all of last season.

Considering that TaRiq Bracy has missed two games and the cornerback room was hurt badly enough by Covid-19 that Shaun Crawford had to slide over to corner against Florida State, that 19 number is starting to look even more impressive.

Mike Mickens has done a good job with this group so far and he didn’t even get a spring or a proper fall camp with them.

6. I’m sure you noticed there’s not a lot of Georgia Tech talk this week. Everyone is looking ahead to Clemson, which is fine for everyone at home, but can’t be the whole story for the players this week.

It’s okay for them to be thinking about Clemson at least a little bit, though. There is no doubt the coaches have been thinking about that game more than a little bit. I’m positive they have people on staff who have spent extra hours prepping for that game because of how important it is.

That’s the way it works in football. The big games get more attention by not just the fans, but the program as well.

I have no doubt that Notre Dame’s staff has specific things they have worked on in practices that they are saving for Clemson. Whether it’s a certain personnel package, a set of sudden change plays, a specific punt block, or a couple of different pressures on defense, no staff goes into a game like this without something extra waiting for that week.

This is a different kind of season for many reasons, but the schedule has that unique dynamic. With it being ACC-only (plus South Florida), there is no Stanford or USC rivalry that is just as important as Clemson. There’s no first huge matchup of the season against Wisconsin in Lambeau. It’s really all about Clemson until after that week.

The coaches know it means more and even if they wouldn’t admit it, they will be going into it with more ready to go than a typical game week. Just like you, they have had it circled for months and know that it’s more important than any other game. I’m sure they have treated it that way since the summer.

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