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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

October 12, 2023

The vibes were great. Until they weren’t.

It can flip just like that in college football. Notre Dame fans are keenly aware of this.

Miami fans certainly are as well. They were riding high with a 4-0 start, including a beat down of Texas A&M. Then they found themselves in a close game with Georgia Tech, a team who had lost to Bowling Green the previous week, and a decision to not kneel down on the ball resulted in a catastrophic ending that has Mario Cristobal on the hot seat and people calling it the worst loss in the program’s history.

Notre Dame’s offense went from way-too-early talk of Sam Hartman as a Heisman contender to struggling to score 20 points in each of the last three games. Injuries at the receiver position, the one spot the Irish could least afford to lose bodies, hit them at a bad time. The questions about the guard play heading into the season still remain after seven games. The offense has serious issues and it’s uncertain if they’ll be corrected in time for this game against USC.

It may seem hopeless to some, but it’s not like Marcus Freeman hasn’t been here before. This situation is different, but the Irish also had a game on the schedule last season where things looked pretty bleak.

No one except JOHN BRICE was picking the Irish to beat Clemson because everybody knew that the only path to beating them was for Notre Dame to run the ball well on offense. It didn’t appear likely given Clemson’s talent in the front seven and Clemson knowing that Notre Dame couldn’t throw the football effectively.

Then Notre Dame went out and dominated them up front. More than just that, they went out and added subtle wrinkles to their base running plays with unbalanced formations in order to keep Clemson uncomfortable.

That’s how they were able to run the football on them when Clemson knew they were running. They loaded the box with extra defenders and still couldn’t stop them.

The Irish offensive line and tight ends went out and executed. They won the line of scrimmage and that was what led to success in that game.

After what we saw at Louisville, it’s understandable to be skeptical of Notre Dame doing that against USC this week unless they have a much stronger performance from their offensive line and tight ends.

This is a big thing that Notre Dame has to get back to, for this week and beyond. They can’t beat USC if they aren’t the more physical team. In a shootout, they’ll lose to this SC team 10 times out of 10. Notre Dame needs to be the superior team at the line of scrimmage and needs to be successful running the football even when USC is expecting them to run.

Who they were against Clemson last season is who Marcus Freeman wants them to be. Getting stuffed on 4th down against USC last season, getting stuffed against Ohio State in short yardage this season, and blowing assignments on 3rd and 1 against Louisville is who they’ve been.

The way the roster on offense is currently constructed, they can be the former. They have to be if they want to beat USC.

2. This quote from Sonny Dykes feels appropriate for right now and forever.

It really starts with the offensive line and trickles down from there. This group has to be better. They were better as recently as Ohio State. If it means making changes on the interior, then roll with it from the start against USC.

It’s certainly not unprecedented. Aaron Banks wasn’t the immediate replacement at left guard when Alex Bars went down in 2018. He didn’t start until week nine against Navy. Everyone remembers how they made significant changes in 2021 after the Cincinnati game. That was one of the things that helped save that season on offense.

I know these aren’t easy decisions to bench starters or to tell someone who is doing everything possible to play that they are better off not, but those hard decisions have to be made during the course of a football season. Hopefully this week of practice provided the staff with some clarity on a path forward this week that’s better than the one they chose against Louisville.

3. Everyone knows that USC’s defense is bad. Any group that is 111th in PFF’s tackling grades and 130th in plays of 20+ yards from scrimmage is bad.

Any good, like their 21% Havoc rate, is negated by those two things.

The worst part about what happened against Louisville is that they couldn’t find a way to make big plays in the passing game against a defense that had given up a ton of them. They only had two receptions of 20+ yards before garbage time. The best thing they did against Duke’s defense, in a game where they didn’t do much well, was produce some explosive plays that other offenses hadn’t.

That was only two weeks ago against a better defense than Louisville with only three healthy receivers. We are all prisoners of the moment when it comes to Notre Dame football so I don’t blame anyone for feeling like the Irish won’t be able to put points on USC or be able to be explosive on offense. If they play the same way they did last week, then obviously that won’t happen.

If they play the way they did two weeks ago, which wasn’t great either, that’s still going to be good enough to be productive against a USC defense that was down to their fourth and fifth corners at the end of the Arizona game.

Putting up a lot of points this week wouldn’t mean the offense is fixed. It would just be Notre Dame proving they are competent and that can go a long way against a defense that hasn’t proven to be.

4. Everyone’s energy has been directed toward the bad on offense and everyone has their fingers pointed at the coaches on that side of the ball.

With that, the job the staff on defense has done has been overlooked. Even just a few weeks ago I had a people calling for Al Washington’s job in my Twitter mentions, which I couldn’t disagree with more based on the job he has done this season.

Howard Cross and Rylie Mills have been one of the best defensive tackle duos in college football this season. Cross was recently named to PFF’s midseason All-American team and Mills was on the second team.

Cross was also named to the Senior Bowl’s midseason All-American team as well.

Cross is tied for second in pressures amongst Power 5 interior defensive linemen. Mills is fifth. Cross is 3rd in run stops and Mills is fifth. Mills is second in second in pass rush win percentage and Cross is fifth.

Javontae Jean-Baptise has an 84.5 PFF run defense grade. That’s the second best in the country for edge defenders who have played 100+ snaps vs the run. He’s tied for sixth in run stops for edge defenders. He’s another player who has greatly improved his NFL Draft stock this season.

These three have made significant improvement this season and I’m not sure why their position coach isn’t getting more credit for that because anyone who knows D-line play can see how they have improved with technique from last season to this one.

I’ve been beating the drum for a while that Washington was getting a bad rap. I think the play of these three in particular has shown that any questions about him need to go away.

Dude can coach.

5. 118th in net field position for Notre Dame isn’t helping things at all.

Field position was huge for them last season and they benefited greatly from it. I think the easy thing to do is point the finger at special teams and the fact that they haven’t blocked any punts this season after going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs with them last season under Brian Mason.

That’s certainly been a factor and the punting average for Notre Dame opponents was 37.9 (6th) on 5.2 punts per game. This year it’s 42.2 (77th) on 5.0 punts per game. Blocking those punts also had an impact on rushing the process of the punter, which helped produce shorter punts frequently.

Every Notre Dame fan would say that not blocking a single punt through seven games after what they did last season has been disappointing. There’s a couple of other factors also.

Bryce McFerson has generally done a solid job punting, but he’s averaging 39.0 net yards compared to 41.0 net for Jon Sot last season. The biggest difference is that McFerson has only pinned the other team inside the 20 three times while Sot did it 20 times all of last season. (Taking that coffin corner punt off the board when it shouldn’t have been reviewed in the first place didn’t help)

I don’t put that on Marty Biagi. As Matt Freeman pointed out in a post on ISD’s board earlier this week, Sot was in his last season and this is McFerson’s first season as the full-time punter.

The other thing that doesn’t get taken into account with this is Notre Dame turning the ball over in their own territory. Louisville started drives at the Notre Dame 10, 35, and 26-yard lines last week.

That’s not helping the numbers either. They aren’t going to move up that much with that field position after this week, but starting the slow climb from the bottom with a play like this would be a good way to get things going in the other direction.

6. There isn’t a simple formula that Notre Dame needs to follow to slow down USC’s offense.

Utah got to Caleb Williams for a combined 11 sacks in their two wins. Arizona sacked Williams four times in their near upset.

Oregon State held USC to their lowest point total with Williams, 17, with zero sacks. It’s not all about getting Williams on the ground.

There is one thing that does stand out about these games, though.

Arizona limited Williams’ effectiveness on intermediate and deep throws. He was 5 of 11 on throws of 10+ yards down the field. He was 5 of 18 on those throws against Oregon State (including 1 of 7 on deep throws). He was 7 of 14 against Utah in the Pac-12 championship game.

These were rare games where USC didn’t have a positive EPA (expected points added) per dropback. It was 0.00 against Arizona, -0.21 against Oregon State, and -0.06 against Utah. That’s the fancy way of stating that Notre Dame isn’t going to win this game if they don’t make Williams perform under expectations.

The good news is that they’ve done it with every quarterback they’ve faced this season. This challenge is a lot more difficult, but this is why players choose Notre Dame. It’s about being in games like this going against elite players and having to elevate your game against your rival.

They don’t need any speeches to get motivated for this one. They know exactly what’s in front of them and we’ll see if they can rise to the occasion.

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