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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

September 16, 2021

The pressure is on for Notre Dame this week. I know there’s pressure every week at Notre Dame, but to say that fans are restless after an inauspicious 2-0 start would be an understatement.

Of course they’re upset. The rebuilt O-line at “O-line U” hasn’t been good. The ballyhooed defensive coordinator has seen his defense give up more 60-yard plays in two games than Notre Dame saw in three years under the previous man who held the job. Two wins that should have been comfortable were extremely uncomfortable and had fans sweating.

This is not the Notre Dame football team anyone was expecting and if things don’t change, then the season could get ugly in a hurry.

I wish I knew the answer to whether it will change against Purdue, but there are reasons to at least be a little hopeful.

Let’s start with the offense. They did the run the ball well with Tyler Buchner in the game at quarterback. They may have even found a partial identity with it. We have to see if they can expand on it and if he can have his role increased in a way where he finds similar success each week now that teams are going to prepare for him.

No one is going to pretend like the offensive line has been good in pass protection, but Jack Coan’s sack conversion rate is abnormally high right now making it look worse for the guys blocking for him.

That’s third worst in the country currently. There’s definitely times where his lack of awareness and inability to get the ball out quicker has been on him.

The good news is that he has proven he can be much better in that category. I know he is no Ian Book in terms of escaping pressure (Book was at 17.4% in 2020), but Coan’s sack conversion rate at Wisconsin in 2019 was only 23.1%. That’s below average, but nowhere close to where it is now.

It would be fair to assume that that 42.3% will start creeping closer to the 2019 number.

With Marcus Freeman’s defense, the reason that it’s been so disappointing is that there was no sign of that from his groups at Cincinnait. They gave up two plays of 60-yards or more all season last year. The last three years their run defense never gave up more than 3.63 yards per carry in a season.

It would be reasonable to expect that he’ll get things fixed because it not doing so would go against everything his defense did at Cincinnati.

The main problem with all of this is that Notre Dame doesn’t really have time to wait for everything to get back to normal. They don’t have weeks for the O-line to show they can be better. They have this week because the next week they play Wisconsin and a defense that has allowed 66-yards rushing in two games.

They need to keep the boom with less bust on defense this week because points are going to be harder to come by in the weeks to come and in tight games one big play could make the difference.

I think the main thing I want to see from Notre Dame against Purdue is a sense of urgency. They need to be better because less than that won’t be good enough once they get into the meat of their schedule.

They need to make this an unwinnable game for Purdue and do that by improving where they have been deficient while continuing to build on what they’ve done well.

2. I have to think that there is going to be a sense of urgency with the offensive line this week as well. Brian Kelly wouldn’t have mentioned that they wanted to rotate bodies on the interior of the offensive line if they weren’t hoping to find answers there.

I’m positive that the staff doesn’t want any player who hasn’t played yet this year to make their debut against Wisconsin so this has to be the week to give some new players a shot if they are going to tinker with the personnel.

3. If you said Notre Dame was going to be as explosive in the passing game as they have been, I think most would have predicted that the Irish offense would be taking that step everyone hoped for them to close the gap with the programs they are chasing.

Obviously being great on offense requires big plays through the air and not falling of a cliff with the running game so consider the gap not closed for now.

It’s only been two games and the toughest defenses are yet to come, but for offense to be on a pace to have 82% more completions of 20-yards or more is exactly what anyone could have hoped for to start this season. The scary part is that they still can be better there if Notre Dame find a way to connect with Braden Lenzy on more of those deep passes. He only has four catches, but his fifth in the country currently in average depth of target and he should probably see more targets his way in the coming weeks.

4. I thought the biggest area where Notre Dame was going to miss Marist Liufau was havoc plays, but even without him, they are at a 20.5% Havoc Rate and JD Bertrand is coming off of a game where he had three tackles for loss.

That’s encouraging that they haven’t seemed to miss his presence in that sense, but I can’t help but feel that 3rd down defense would be a different story if he was playing.

The defense is allowing a 42.4% conversion rate on 3rd down. That’s not nearly good enough. The 3rd down Havoc Rate for Notre Dame is 12.1% and that is where Liuafau would have made the biggest impact. They need a pass rusher or two that can help pick up the slack there.

5. Right now we might not know how much better Notre Dame will be, but the same could be said about the majority of their opponents.

Stanford looked horrific against Kansas State and then beat up on USC, but we have no idea if USC is going to be any good after that performance. Navy got dominated by Air Force and there’s plenty of uncertainty with their coaching staff.

Wisconsin’s offense looked anemic at home against Penn State, Georgia Tech lost to Northern Illinois, and North Carolina was held to 10 points in their opener against Virginia Tech.

Both Virginia and Virginia Tech have done some good things. We can feel pretty certain that Cincinnati is good, but I guess we’ll know more when they visit Indiana this weekend.

Other than the last three I mentioned, do fans of any of the other teams feel great about their team? I’d say no at the moment so at least Notre Dame has some company in “Will they be good?” purgatory.

6. Clay Helton was USC’s head coach from 2015 until a couple of days ago, but he had been coaching there in some capacity since 2010. He’s literally been there every year after the Pete Carroll era finished.

And now his watch has ended.

I know many Notre Dame fans were hoping he’d had hang around forever. It seemed that the two-year run with Sam Darnold was the ceiling for USC with him running things. He was 1-4 against Notre Dame.

Kelly is 7-3 against USC and that might be the most substantial thing he has done at Notre Dame. He flipped the rivalry back in ND’s favor after Carroll dominated it during the previous decade. Kelly also had the good fortune of never having to coach against Carroll and it’s understandable that fans are worried that with the right coach, the rivalry could get flipped right back to what it looked like with Carroll.

That could happen. It feels like USC might be smart enough to not hire someone with USC ties and simply pick the best coach. I think it’s a guarantee that their recruiting will tick back up to previous levels.

That’s another reason why Notre Dame needs to continue what they’ve been doing with 2022 and 2023 class. USC is very likely going to become more talented across the board and the Irish will need to keep pace.

Who the next coach will be might be a mystery right now. Whoever it ends up being, Notre Dame has to prepare for USC to be closer to the program they used to be than the one they’ve been lately.

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