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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

September 22, 2022
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Taking on a coaching job at Notre Dame means you inherit 30 years of disappointment. It’s completely unfair that that is the case, but it’s a reality.

That makes all of the games the equivalent of a must-win in the eyes of fans starving to get back to the top of college football no matter the circumstances. It also means that how you win can be just as important as winning.

That’s also completely unfair, but such is the life of being a coach at Notre Dame.

Calling this North Carolina game an important one for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and the entire staff goes without saying. They are all important. The circumstances of this game make it even more so, though, because there’s a big difference between going into a bye week being 2-2 with BYU on the horizon rather than 1-3 with 1-4 staring you right in the face.

The ideal scenario for this matchup is for the Irish to continue to dominate with their defensive line like they did against Cal. If they rack up sacks and pressure quarterback Drake Maye all game long, they will keep the points down against a good UNC offense. On the other side of things, it would be perfect to build on what they did running the ball last week and also open things up to be more explosive in the passing game whether it’s down the field or after the catch.

If they do that then it’s a formula to not only win the game, but also sprinkles in some hope that they can be a lot more on offense than they showed in the first three weeks.

All of that would be great for them, but at least for this week, the how doesn’t matter at all. It only matters that they get a win.

If they win ugly again, the critics will still be out in full force and they should be. But getting to 2-2 with an opportunity to regroup during the bye week and possibly reboot what they are doing on offense (whether it be scheme or personnel) is the most important piece of all this because it gives the team a fresh start before the rest of the season that will feature games against teams who are currently a combined 15-7.

Notre Dame survived on the road against Virginia Tech last season and then were a different team on offense after a bye week. They averaged 5.21 yards per play before the bye. After that they averaged 6.95 YPP. It’s easy to say that they played worse defenses in the second half of the season, but those number includes when they played a top-10 defense in Oklahoma State and ignores the fact that they dramatically changed their philosophy to suit the personnel better.

They shouldn’t be in a position to have to do another reboot on offense two years in a row. The forced quarterback change necessitates it, but even without that, to not understand who you are on offense at the beginning of the season is bad. That’s the spot they are in, though, and Rees proved he could pivot last year. He needs to do it again, but this week the offense just needs to do enough to get more points than UNC no matter how they get them.

Style points are important in college football and it’s not just with rankings. It matters to current players who want to play in an offense that highlights their skills to help them get drafted by the NFL. It matters to recruits who want the same thing.

Having a limited offense is why Equanimeous St. Brown left earlier than he should have for the NFL and why his brother, Amon-ra, didn’t come particularly close to choosing Notre Dame. No one wants to run the offense that they ran last week against Cal, but you have to do what you have to do to win a game when getting a first down on the sixth series felt like a significant accomplishment.

They’ll need to do a lot better than that to score enough points on Saturday, but how they accomplish that won’t matter as much as the result. How they win will matter more going forward.

2. Freshman Joe Alt was inserted into the lineup at left tackle last season in the second half of the Cincinnati game. He might not have been ready, he gave up a couple of pressures on key plays, but they didn’t really have a choice. He may not have even been ready to start his first game at Virginia Tech in the next week, he gave up a sack on the first series, but he was the best option they had.

How ready a freshman or sophomore is to play is different for each individual. In the case of Alt, they had to play him. It was the opposite for players like Kyle Hamilton or Michael Mayer, who were simply too talented to keep off the field.

I know there are plenty of fans calling for young players like Tobias Merriweather, JR Tuihalamaka, and Prince Kollie to get opportunities. Tuihalamaka and Kollie might get a chance this week because JD Bertrand missing the first half against UNC opens up some playing time. Sometimes those openings can be the start of something significant like it was with Alt last year, but he had some runway if he struggled.

There is going to be less so with those linebackers because there is experience at those spots, even if no one is shining right now. For Merriweather, it definitely didn’t help his cause that he didn’t go in motion when he looked like he was supposed to against Cal and during a time where things were spiraling out in a horrific way, the offense didn’t need more of that. But this is a new week and even if he doesn’t play much on the road, they’ll have the bye week to help him be more prepared as well.

Everyone wants to see the best athletes on the field, but the margin for error is slim right now for Notre Dame to play winning football. It’s even more important for those guys to earn an opportunity to play and then earn opportunities to keep playing than it is for the coaches to give them a shot out of desperation.

It would be easy to argue they are desperate on offense at the moment, but when looking at the Cal game, they weren’t throwing the ball down field even if they had Will Fuller. This upcoming game should be different and even if it’s not Merriweather getting more playing time, either Jayden Thomas or Joe Wilkins are players that the coaches should trust.

3. Is it desperation time at linebacker? I don’t think so (yet), but it’s creeping towards that. It is surprising that Notre Dame only has produced 3.5 Havoc plays from the position through three games.

If you’re waiting on the coaching staff to go to Jaylen Sneed, you’re going to have to keep waiting if he’s with the scout team right now. That added on to Notre Dame essentially being a base 4-2-5 team with TaRiq Bracy as the nickel makes it even more difficult for someone who is best suited to play Rover to see the field.

Bo Bauer and Tuihalamaka will get plenty of chances to play with no Bertrand at Mike in the first half. It’s a short window to pull a Te’von Coney when Greer Martini was hurt in 2017, but obviously we saw how full-time reps catapulted Coney to a different level.

I’m interested to see what happens at Will and whether or not Kollie gets his chance now because Jack Kiser hasn’t looked comfortable at all to me in his transition to playing inside linebacker and Golden said Kollie is close to cracking the rotation.

I do think Marist Liufau is closer to breaking through than any of the other linebackers and when he’s blitzing or rushing off the edge, he’s made an impact. Everyone remembers the UNC game from two years ago where he ran through their backs in blitz pickup and they have a young group of backs who haven’t been good in pass protection this year.

That’s something worth remembering for this week.

4. I mentioned in ISD’s UNC scouting report that App State and Georgia State had pressure rates of 44.7% and 43.8% versus Maye. That kind of rate against Group of 5 defensive lines is startling and after watching UNC’s O-line, I have a hard time imagining Notre Dame not getting a ton of pressure on Maye.

The big problem with those defenses is that they gave up big plays that doomed them. Georgia State gave up a 58-yard touchdown run and two explosive plays in the passing game to tight ends (a 55 and 47-yarder). App State gave up a 71-yard run and three receptions of 30-yards or more to the Tar Heels. The Irish have been very good at not allowing explosive plays and have only given up four plays of 30-yards or more from scrimmage through three games.

Only one of those came against Ohio State and they’ve had 14 (!) in their next two games. They now lead the country.

This is one of those games where if Notre Dame limits the big plays and does what they are supposed to do with their pass rush, then there should be people talking nationally about this Irish defense considering that they are the only defense in the country who will have faced two top-five defenses in OF+ (Ohio State is 1st and UNC is 5th).

It’s a big test for Al Golden's group and if they pass it, it’s not just Notre Dame fans who should be giving them their flowers.

5. Speaking of tests, this is one of those money games for TaRiq Bracy, who has played very well to start this season. He’ll have a difficult assignment matching up with Josh Downs, who is coming back from a knee injury and is expected to play.

This game and this assignment for Bracy is also a reminder how far he’s coming in the last two years. In 2020 in this same stadium, he got beat for two touchdowns and ended up losing his starting job to Clarence Lewis. I think a lot of Notre Dame fans thought he was done after that and would have lumped in with some other corners who never were the same after a bad day at the office.

Bracy deserves all the credit in the world for where he is now with his game. He’s arguably been the MVP for the defense through three games and he’s proven a lot of doubters wrong.

6. Numbers from early in the season can often be misleading, which is why I don’t get too caught up with them whether they are good or bad.

Isaiah Foskey had two pressures in the first two weeks. He had a monster game last week and now has 10. He went from “scroll through three pages to find him” on PFF’s pass rush win percentage to 32nd in just one week.

Jayson Ademilola went from a brutal start to his season to being ranked 11th in pass rush win percentage after the Cal game. Things can flip that quickly early in the year because the sample size is so small and this is also the time of year when Power 5 teams are loading up with Group of 5 or FCS opponents.

Numbers don’t lie, but they can’t always be trusted in September.

UNC has the first dreadful defense Notre Dame has faced this season. What can that mean for the numbers and what will it mean if the Irish struggle to gain first downs against the Tar Heels? We’ll find out soon enough after this game, but I think we will learn a lot this week about both sides of the ball and what we can expect their ceiling to be for the rest of the year.

I think this week will probably have a lot of fans either jumping back in for the ride in 2022 or jumping off until they are given a reason to come back.

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