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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

September 7, 2023

On the very first drive of Notre Dame’s first game of the season, they had two 3rd and longs. They converted both and then scored a touchdown.

Having that in a 0-0 game is about as much adversity as the Notre Dame offense has faced so far this season.

On defense, they’ve had a few instances. The sudden change after Tennessee State recovered a fumble in the red zone during the first quarter last Saturday was the biggest one. In the next three downs they didn’t allow a yard and then blocked a field goal.

Saying things have gone well for Notre Dame in their first two games is putting it mildly. They’ve scored touchdowns on 11 of 12 possessions with Sam Hartman at quarterback. Every first half possession they’ve had has resulted in a touchdown. On the other side of the ball, the defense has yet to give up a touchdown and they’ve allowed a miniscule 2.88 yards per play. Not too shabby there either.

Navy and Tennessee States were tests for Notre Dame because every game is a test. They just happen to be easy tests that they aced.

This week the test gets a little bit more difficult. It’s the first Power 5 opponent of the season. It’s also Notre Dame’s first true road game. NC State had a top-15 defense in DF+ the last two seasons. They are currently ranked 25th on that side of the ball and NC State has also won 16 of their last 17 at home.

This is a step up and even though Notre Dame is favored in this game for a reason, it won’t be nearly as easy for them like it was in the first two games. They’ll be put in a lot more adverse situations. That’s something we haven’t seen from this team yet.

The offense hasn’t gone three-and-out. They haven’t had a 3rd and long after a negative play from the opposing defense and that’s the kind of thing that will likely happen at some point in this game. NC State had a 22.6% havoc rate vs UCONN and were at 19.3% in 2022.

We haven’t seen those situations yet. We haven’t seen the offense struggle and have to figure things out between series.

It’s been relatively easy for the defense too. They might have had to deal with some unpredictable opening scripts from the opposition, but they’ve only given up two explosive plays of 20 yards or more. This game might not be the best test for them in that department (NC State had zero of those against UCONN), but it’s going to happen at some point.

Notre Dame hasn’t started a season with two matchups that went that smoothly in a long time. They absolutely handled their business, as they should have, and that’s a very good thing. The only issue with that is the lack of reps in high pressure situations because those are inevitably coming soon.

They beat the heck out of a couple of severely outmatched opponents and are currently eighth in F+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings). We’re going to be able to assess the team against a better opponent in a tougher environment this weekend.

If they beat the heck out of NC State, that won’t be an insignificant test to have passed.

2. Every practice is a chance to evaluate your own personnel and the first two games were chances as well, but this week will be a different kind of evaluation.

NC State is certainly nowhere close to being a perfect team, but they have a quarterback who can make plays with his legs and they have legitimate NFL talent on their defense. It will be a different kind of evaluation this week compared to the first two.

If Notre Dame’s guards do well against NC State defensive lineman Davin Vann, that means a lot more than what they showed in the first two weeks. He’s an explosive athlete who is a plus pass rusher and has proven to be a disruptive player against the run. If he has a quiet game, that speaks volumes for where Notre Dame’s offensive line is at the current moment.

The Wolfpack have two quality corners in Aydin White (All-ACC, 17 Havoc plays in 2022) and Shyheim Battle (three-year starter, 30 career Havoc plays). If Jayden Thomas is having a day against them, that’s a pretty good indication that he’s more than just a default WR1 for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame should win the game, but how they win the game will tell a lot about how good they are as a team and how good their individual talent is early in the season.

3. Any red zone possession is an adverse situation for a defense and obviously those didn’t go so well for Notre Dame last season. Through two games they have flipped it, zero touchdowns on five chances for the opposition, but we’ll see if they can keep it up.

The biggest difference has been the Havoc rate in the red zone. I wrote about this back in January. They finished with an 11.3% Havoc rate inside their own 20 in 2022. The previous season, when they finished fourth red zone touchdown percentage, the Havoc rate was 19%. It’s been 23.5% in the first two games.

Obviously that is the tiniest of sample sizes, but it does seem like Golden has been more aggressive in that area of the field. This look when it appears they are rushing three, but blitz three from depth, is an example of that.

Red zone Havoc rate is something I’ll be monitoring this week and the rest of the season.

4. I think if Notre Dame forces Brennen Armstrong to try to beat them as a passer, then it’s going to be a long day for the NC State offense on Saturday.

They don’t have the receivers to make that happen and he’s not the same player he was in 2021 without that supporting cast he had at Virginia.

He bailed after his first read several times against UCONN. PFF had him down for 10 scrambles in addition to the nine carries on designed runs. If Notre Dame is stopping the run and containing him in the pocket as a scrambler, then that will lead into a lot of long yardage situations for NC State.

He was only 1 of 9 on throws 10+ yards down the field against UCONN. He looked very similar to the player he was in 2022 where his touchdown to interception ratio was seven to 12 and his accuracy was shaky. He had 50.3% completions on non-screen passes in ‘22 it was 52.6% on non-screen passes in NC State’s first game.

If Notre Dame gets NC State into 3rd and long, it could get really ugly. He only completed 45% of his passes on 3rd down last season and wasn’t even rated in the top-100 in 3rd down pass efficiency. 3rd and long would also give Al Golden a chance to unleash the blitz and, you guessed it, his numbers against the blitz were pretty terrible: 55% completions, 6.6 yards per attempt, and seven interceptions last season and against UCONN he completed 50% of his passes and averaged 4.8 yards per attempt.

When everything was set up well for him to succeed in 2021 at Virginia, he looked like one of the better quarterbacks in the ACC. With conditions that were not ideal last season, he was bad. The situation isn’t much better for him at NC State.

As previously mentioned, they had zero explosive plays in week one. Unless he is dynamic as a runner, I think it will be struggle town for him against Notre Dame.

5. I get it, there’s going to be discussion about Hartman’s previous performances against NC State.

He didn’t fare very well. While he threw for 397 yards last season, Wake only scored 21 points against a great NC State defense. Hartman also threw three interceptions.

ISD’s Drew Mentock has a good piece on Hartman’s shot at redemption against NC State. He highlighted the fact that Wake had a tough time winning against that cornerback tandem I mentioned earlier.

In 2022, Hartman threw White’s way often last year with little success, going 4-9 for 43 yards, an interception and a 19.4 NFL passer rating. Most of Hartman’s production against White came on a 28-yard pass to wide receiver Jahmal Banks on third-and-long.
Battle is a four-year starter who’s long at 6-foot-2. He’s coming off a 2022 season where he totaled 34 tackles, five breakups and two interceptions.
Over the course of three games, Hartman has had a little more success in this matchup, completing 10 of 22 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.
Of course, Battle also picked off Hartman once to go along with three PBUs.

That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence against those two this season, especially because Notre Dame’s receivers are largely unproven against corners who are at that level.

Wake had most of their success going against NC State’s third corner Derek Pitts (9 catches on 11 targets for 121 yards) and against slot defenders (six catches on eight targets for 104 yards and two touchdowns). That’s probably where Notre Dame is going to attack most often in the passing game.

Notre Dame’s scheme is clearly a lot different than what Wake Forest runs and it’s also a lot more flexible in terms of formations. There will be times Thomas is lined up in the slot to get a match up and we’ll see Chris Tyree, Jaden Greathouse, Rico Flores, and the tight ends there too.

The offense is different, the play-caller is different, and most importantly, the personnel is different. Hartman was pressured on 40.7% of drop backs against NC State last season. He also had zero help from the running game. They averaged 0.68 yards per carry. That’s not going to be the case for him this year and that should make a huge difference.

Notre Dame shouldn’t have to put the entire offense on Hartman’s shoulders like it was in just about every game at Wake Forest. They aren’t going to go out and have Hartman sling it around 40 times. That’s a good thing because six teams attempted 38 passes or more against NC State last season. Each of those teams threw at least two interceptions.

6. When there are two prime time games to end week one of college football, those games are likely to produce strong reactions.

On Sunday night the story was: look at Florida State with all of these transfers whopping LSU by three touchdowns!

On Monday night the story was: look at Clemson losing to Duke! It must be because Dabo Swinney refuses to take transfers!

First off all, the FSU-LSU result ignores that LSU is also a team that is currently relying on a ton of transfers. Seven transfers start for them on defense and four start for them on offense, including quarterback Jayden Daniels.

For Clemson, there is no doubt they’d be better off if they addressed some roster deficiencies with transfers. Notre Dame would certainly be in a different place if they didn’t have Hartman as their quarterback. They also have a starting nickel and starting defensive end that they landed in the portal. The Irish are clearly a team built through recruiting, but Marcus Freeman understood that they could make the roster better by adding transfers and did so.

Swinney not adding any transfers is clearly a mistake, but this narrative that FSU is good because of transfers and Clemson can’t compete at the highest level because of not taking transfers ignores Clemson’s real issues that put them where they are now. They have gone from CFP regular to losing three of their last four games.

What got them here? We can start with no longer having Brent Venables to run their defense. He was there for a decade. In his last five seasons, the Clemson defense gave up 30 or more points in a game only five times and allowed more than 5.0 yards per carry the same amount. In the 15 games since he left, the Clemson defense gave up 30 or more points four times and have given up more than 5.0 yards the same amount, including Monday night against Duke.

It’s not the same standard on defense, that’s for sure.

Coaching is one part, but the main issue is lack of development of the roster, poor evaluations in recruiting, and as ISD’s Matt Freeman has pointed out, a different culture compared to the one that helped them become a top tier program.

Raw talent isn’t the issue. Clemson has no business losing to Duke based on raw talent. They have seven 5-stars on the roster. They are top-5 in 247Sports’ team talent composite, which calculates recruiting rankings of every player who was retained on the roster.

67.5% of their 83 scholarship players were blue-chips. Their current 72% blue-chip ratio is more than their two national championship teams. The only teams who have recruited better than them are Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State.

Could they be better at certain positions? Definitely. The issue isn’t a lack of talent, though. It’s a lack of development. Look at former 5-star quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and his first game at Oregon State as a perfect example of someone who looks rejuvenated at a place after being at Clemson.

The biggest drop for them has been on the defensive line and at wide receiver.

They found gems on the defensive line and developed them into studs. Their 2015 defensive ends were Kevin Dodd (2nd round) and Shaq Lawson (1st round). Both went to prep school for a year and weren’t considered to be elite recruits, but they played like they were. Before them, they had defensive Grady Jarrett who was a 2-star recruit who developed into a dominant player. Vic Beasley was a 3-star tight end as a recruit who ended up becoming an elite pass rusher. They haven’t had any recent stories like that lately on the defensive line.

When they landed elite prospects, many of them lived up to the hype as well. Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence were 5-star studs who more than lived up to the hype. Those were two key pieces on the 2018 national championship team. More recent 5-stars like Xavier Thomas and Bryan Bresee never quite reached their potential at Clemson for various reasons.

There was a time that Clemson would have been considered WR U with all of the talent they produced at the position. The 2018 and 2019 teams had Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and Amari Rodgers as big time recruits who became game wreckers at the position.

After that group, they signed top-100 receivers Joe Ngata, Frank Ladson, EJ Williams, Beaux Collins, and Antonio Williams. Adam Randall was just outside the top-100 and they’ve signed numerous other 4-stars at the position. None of these players have developed into an All-ACC level receiver. Collins, Williams, and Randall were non-factors in their loss to Duke.

The narrative that they were bound to drop off without generational quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence also ignores that Uigalelei and current starting quarterback Cade Klubnik were both 5-star prospects at the position. Whether or not they could be as good as Watson or Lawrence is impossible to say, but they didn’t get good quarterback play out of Uiagalelei and Klubnik looks like he has a long way to go (4.9 yards per attempt against Duke is yuck)

Clemson still might get things turned around this season, but it sure didn’t look promising against Duke. To me, it didn’t look like they were a Keon Coleman or Jared Verse away from fixing their problems either.

For years, Clemson recruited at a level where they should have been very good, but they ended up being much better than that. All of the development and evaluations that helped them achieve that was what ultimately led to their recruiting jumping a level.

And…that hasn’t helped them.

Swinney isn’t in David Shaw territory where everything has completely passed him by, but the secret sauce they had before that propelled them up a tier is no longer on the menu. No matter whether that sauce was a combination of Venables, previous assistant coaches and their recruiting evaluations, or better player development from those assistants, all that matters now is that they are missing the magic that they had before.

It’s clearly a bigger issue than not having Watson and Lawrence at quarterback.

The thought is that Dabo could fix some of those player development and evaluation mistakes with transfer portal additions. They shouldn’t have to with the roster they recruited. Even thinking that things would be fixed by hiring Garrett Riley as offensive coordinator is putting a bandaid over the seeping wound that is their passing game.

Clemson could still end up beating FSU in a couple of weeks and by no means do I think Notre Dame is going to have an easy game against them in November. They still have individuals on their team that any program in the country would want on their roster. They could will still win 10 games because they have better athletes than most of the programs they will face.

They don’t look anything like the program that boat raced Notre Dame in 2018, though. If it doesn’t get better for them this season, the Irish might do the same kind of thing they did to Clemson last November. Who knows what Dabo is going to say if that happens again.

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