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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

September 9, 2021
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The transfer quarterback surpassed all expectations. The passing game was explosive. The pass rush was very good. Most importantly, they won the football game.

Somehow despite all of that, Notre Dame seems to have more questions about their team heading into week two than they did in week one.

Some of that has to do with injuries (more on that later), but the two biggest questions hanging over everything before their home opener are: can Notre Dame run the football and can Marcus Freeman adjust after what he saw against Florida State?

We can start with Freeman and the unexpected crisis of confidence in him after one game as defensive coordinator. That’s a harsh way to look at it and not very fair, but that was the reaction from many who watched how the final 20 minutes of the football game unfolded.

In the first half, it was mostly the defense everyone expected. They gave up a couple of big plays, but finished with a 26.9% Havoc Rate. Does anyone actually believe that we’re going to see a lot of three down this week when he knows the results of playing four down (on 86.4% of snaps in the first half) were significantly better?

Although it should have been done much sooner, he did play four down on every snap in overtime. And when it comes to facing adversity and dealing with that, he’s been there before at Cincinnati.

When I spoke with him in the summer, he talked about why he was forced to change his scheme due to previous failures and the limitations of his personnel. Why should Notre Dame fans believe he is going to learn from his mistakes and adjust to highlight the strengths of his defense? Because not sticking to something that wasn’t working is how he became successful and was the top choice as a replacement for Clark Lea.

I also asked him about knowing the identity of his defense in the spring or if it was going to take time to figure it out. Here is part of what he had to say:

I think it's not an answer until you get ready for Florida State and what you're gonna do after Florida State is is you're going to go back and evaluate and say, okay, what's the things we did well, what's the things we need to get better at, and what’s the things we need to learn about this defense and how do we enhance for the next week.

The key piece of that is going back and evaluating after Florida State, which is exactly what he’s tasked with now. He has to evaluate not just his personnel, but himself and his staff with the way they mishandled the latter part of the game.

He has a lot to prove this week and the weeks to come. There’s no doubt he is aware of that and I think we’ll see the defense evolve and improve this week.

2. One thing he had to be happy with was the pass rush. They pressured Jordan Travis and McKenzie Milton on 60% of drop backs. The sack rate was 14.2%. (It should be 17.1% if not for the Tomahawk special incomplete pass call to end the game)

Those are ridiculous rates. For comparison, they were at 47.2% and 16.7% against North Carolina last season when the pass rush frustrated Sam Howell and the Tar Heel offense into zero touchdowns on their final nine possessions.

There are clearly things that need to be fixed with the defense. The pass rush is something to be very encouraged by, though.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackles in particular were disruptive getting after the quarterback led by Jayson Ademilola who had six total pressures. He’s making those final two games of 2020 look like the start of something great.

3. I can’t remember a game that didn’t involve an opponent that runs the triple option where Notre Dame’s starting corners only had three total targets against them.

I know Clarence Lewis had an interception, but that wasn’t even on a play where he was targeted.

Toledo probably doesn’t have NFL talent at receiver, but they have some quality players. The passing game is the strength of their team and if they get down, they are going to lean into the passing game. Toledo receiver Bryce Mitchell averaged 23.5 yards per reception last season and 43.5% of his targets were deep balls in 2020.

At least we know in this game that Lewis and Hart are going to be tested deep so we will get a chance to see them in action.

4. I guess I should never write about linebacker depth again because Notre Dame is now missing three players from their top nine at the position with two of them out of the season.

JD Bertrand ended up playing 70 snaps on Sunday night. The only defenders who played more were Kyle Hamilton and Clarence Lewis.

I don’t know if that’s going to be sustainable if Shayne Simon is going to be out for a significant amount of time, which is why Prince Kollie might be put into a situation where we have no idea if he’s ready or not. I suppose we may find out soon as he went from fourth team to the two-deep at Will.

There’s also the possibility that Jack Kiser could slide back inside to Will or that Bo Bauer could play there as well. He did take at least some reps there in camp.

Kollie is probably the most intriguing option. As the best linebacker prospect they’ve signed since Jaylon Smith, at least in my opinion, he’s someone that should have a bright future at Notre Dame.

So why can’t that future be now? If only it was that easy.

Maybe if these injuries happened in the summer then he’d be ready to compete more, but at the final full open practice that the media was able to attend, I can’t recall him getting any reps during 11 on 11. That was understandable at the time because there was a healthy Marist Liufau, Simon, and Paul Moala in addition to Kiser and Isaiah Pryor.

Now they may not have a choice but to get him at least a taste of some playing time over the next few weeks if he can handle it.

5. I think to a certain extent, calling for a bit of patience with the offensive line makes sense because of all the new pieces playing together and the injury to Blake Fisher. Let’s see the group work together at home and find a comfort level before the panic button gets pushed.

Look at the offensive line back in 2018 and how that group started. It was ugly the first couple of weeks. Maybe that was always going to be the case against a loaded Michigan defensive line in week one, but what they did in week two against Ball State was as bad of a showing as I can remember. They looked discombobulated.

They averaged 2.82 yards per carry the first two games and it wasn’t because they were missing Dexter Williams in the lineup. They weren’t dominant by any means the rest of the way, but they did average 4.74 yards per carry and opened way more holes than they did in those first two.

A little bit is fine, but they may not have time to have a lot of patience. If they don’t get things at least pointed in the right direction in the next two weeks, then may have to reshuffle the deck up front.

I know there are new faces at most positions, but I think the veterans on the line need to be challenged this week. Zeke Correll and Josh Lugg are two guys with starting experience, although limited, and need to be better. They spent too many plays on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage against FSU and hopefully they both respond against Toledo.

If the coaching staff doesn’t get the response they want, they may need to look at Jarrett Patterson at tackle if they aren’t happy with things before Wisconsin. That may be their one card they can play that could shift things, but I’m sure they want to give everyone a chance to be better than they were against FSU before even thinking about it.

6. I was thinking back on how things looked early during the last three seasons. You know the ones I’m talking about. The seasons that had an ugly win against a bad Ball State (2018), a mistake-filled performance against Louisville (2019), and a shaky game against what turned out to be a bad Duke team (2020).

Those were the same seasons that Notre Dame ended up going a combined 33-4, but you would have never predicted that after watching them early in the year.

I don’t know that this season will turn out as good as any of those did and a couple of key injuries sure make things a bit murkier. I just know that the Florida State game could end up being like those others were: a footnote in the story of what became a successful season for the program.

There is great potential for this team to grow with so many new players elevated into prominent roles. We’ll see just how much they’ll get better and if it will be enough to get this team back to being a College Football Playoff contender.

 
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