Notre Dame made enough plays on offense to beat Louisville, but considering the quality of the opponent it was a below average performance from the Irish.
There is plenty to address and fix, but it’s always better to address those things after a win. Here are my grades for the Notre Dame offense from the win over Louisville.
COACHING — C-
The play-calling from offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was spotty. I have no problem with Notre Dame coming out early and trying to throw the ball, and there were some excellent calls in the game. I loved the quarterback draw on the opening drive, and his use of the quarterback runs were good all game long. Rees also made a great play call on the mesh concept vs. pressure on the final third-down pass conversion on the final drive of the game.
There were a lot of problems, however, and they are problems that not only hurt against Louisville, but they will hinder this team if they aren’t addressed quickly.
My first issue was the overall design of the pass offense. There is way too much slow developing route concepts and not nearly enough quick game and screens. Louisville was loading the box and attacking the Notre Dame offense, and the quick hitters, screens and other quick hitters that hurt that kind of defense weren’t used nearly enough. The red zone pass concepts were also unproductive and not built to attack the zone concepts that Louisville utilized.
The lack of emphasis on the tight ends on the pass game was also puzzling, and this is the second straight game we’ve seen this. Notre Dame is basing their offense around a two tight end alignment, and a case could be made that Tommy Tremble and Michael Mayer are two of the three best skill players on offense. That combination means the pass offense should be built around those two, and the wideouts should be complementary players, but we did not see that against Louisville.
Tremble and Mayer were targeted just four times in the game, and Tremble was targeted just once. It’s not like the quarterback ignored them, they were clearly not the primary reads for much of the game. That’s a mistake, that drags down the grade, and that must be corrected immediately.
Part of being a good coach is putting your players in position to be successful, and we are simply not seeing that with the wide receivers. Putting Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek on the field together for much of the game is a mistake, and that is compounded by not being more tight end oriented. Both McKinley and Skowronek can make plays, but how they have been used together so far this season is unwise and has been unproductive.
Not using RPOs and bootlegs is also an unacceptable aspect of the offense. Not using more of a rotation at wide receiver is also a head scratching move, even though it’s something I should be used to after covering Brian Kelly offenses the last decade.
QUARTERBACK — C+
I have no issue with Book’s competitive and toughness, and we saw that throughout the game. He ran hard, played hard and competed. The issue was his lack of effectiveness in the pass game, although some of that must be placed on the shoulders of Rees, who isn’t using the personnel effectively, which in turn hurts the quarterback.
Book was off early in the game, and it made the pass offense mostly ineffective. His first two throws were off target, and his mistakes stalled the opening drive. Book made pre-snap read mistakes, going to a side where he was out-numbered instead of banging the backside fade, and he made another poor read on a 2nd-and-11 in the red zone on that drive. Louisville brought a blitz to his right, and he needs to know that means he should hit the cross behind the blitzer based on how the rest of the defense reacted post-snap.
Book made a good throw to convert a 3rd-and-10 on that drive, but his other mistakes stalled the drive.
This was an issue for much of the game. Book wasn’t sharp with his reads, pre or post-snap, and the result was a largely ineffective pass game. Book throwing late to Kevin Austin on a red zone corner route kept a potential touchdown from getting on the board, and a play later the Irish faked a field goal, unsuccessfully. Book needs to let the ball loose as soon as Austin plants with his inside foot, but Book waits until the junior wideout was at least two steps to the corner before throwing.
A 27-game starting quarterback can’t keep throwing that late, and as we saw against Louisville, it costs the offense points.
Book made two good reads and confident throws on the final drive, which converted a pair of third downs. But he’s a veteran, and he cannot continue having games like this where he looks uncomfortable with his reads and is consistently late with his throws. He did receive high marks for his running, which was excellent from a timing, toughness and effectiveness standpoint.
RUNNING BACK — B+
The running backs continued their strong performance. Sophomore Kyren Williams rushed for 127 yards on 25 carries, and his overall play was good. The offensive line opened up big holes throughout the game, and Williams made strong reads and found those openings. In the few instances where there wasn’t as much room, Williams was patient enough to allow the line to get a push, and then he hammered the line to get what he could get.
Williams was used as a lead blocker on multiple snaps. His assignment correctness wasn’t always there, but he blocked hard, and this should become a weapon for the offense moving forward.
Freshman Chris Tyree added 32 yards on seven carries, and he added 15 yards on two receptions. Tyree does a good job of staying on his run tracks, and his decision making as a runner was strong. He missed on an edge block in pass protection, and that part of his game must continue to get better.
WIDE RECEIVER — D+
The struggles of the wide receiving corps is part execution and part coaching. As a unit, there was very little urgency when it comes to getting off the line, and the lack of effective top-end route technique limits their ability to get separation. When you aren’t a great athlete, or aren’t a massive player like Chase Claypool or Miles Boykin, there is a great need for precise route running. Claypool and Boykin could be effective with average route technique, but the current group cannot, and the Irish staff needs to focus a lot of time on making those adjustments, immediately.
Senior Javon McKinley’s drop issues in the game dragged down his grade. He blocked well, but he needs to come down with the two-point conversion he dropped, the stop route in the red zone (even though the ball was late, he simply dropped it) and he needs to be more consistent with his route running. An example was his sloppy route on a quick post in the red zone that resulted in an incomplete pass in the end zone. Yes, Book needs to read the leverage of the defender and throw that ball right at McKinley (and ideally high) instead of leading him, but McKinley’s release and top-end put him in a bad position.
McKinley also needs to do a much, much better job with his get off and release against press coverage.
Grad transfer Ben Skowronek made two big third-down grabs in the game, and he was solid as a blocker. The issue, however, is that he doesn’t get open enough on other routes. While he is the one not getting open, the bigger issue is the inability of the staff to put him in better positions to maximize his particular skillset.
Only targeting Kevin Austin twice in the game was a coaching mistake. With Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III out, and the staff stubbornly refusing to invest time in developing freshmen Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts, the need to get Austin going is even greater. With how well Notre Dame ran the ball, not using Austin to stretch the field in this game was a head scratcher.
For his part, Austin needed to have better sideline awareness on the corner route that he caught out of bounds in the end zone. Yes, Book needs to get rid of the ball sooner, and if the quarterback does his job it’s a touchdown. But Austin still could have adjusted and tapped his feet in bounds, and not doing so cost the Irish points.
Austin’s route running isn’t sharp, and the staff needs to work on cleaning that up. Using him more more vertical routes, comebacks, drags, posts and crosses would help alleviate the need for him to be precise with his top ends early on.
Senior Avery Davis played good football, and when he was targeted he made plays (reverse, jet sweep). Davis worked himself open on the opening drive against a Louisville blitz, but the quarterback didn’t look his way. I’d like to see Davis targeted a couple more times a game moving forward, and on more than just crossers and jet sweeps.
TIGHT END — B
The lack of production in the pass game is a coaching issue, not a tight end play or talent problem.
Notre Dame’s tight ends executed what they were asked to do quite well against the Cardinals. There were some first half mistakes that dragged the grade down a bit, but overall I was pleased with the fight and effectiveness of the tight end run game production.
Early in the game, freshman tight end Michael Mayer did not get off the ball with the speed and urgency we are used to seeing from him. As the game picked up he started coming off much better, and the one time he was thrown an accurate ball he made one of the highlight plays of the game. Mayer got open for what should have been a big play on a backside seam throw, but Book was late with his read and off target with his throw.
Mayer needs to be a bit more consistent with his backside cutoff footwork, but I’m incredibly impressed with how strong he is at the point of attack and how assignment correct he is for a freshman.
Junior Tommy Tremble had a few early mistakes that we don’t often see from him. He was knocked off the ball on a perimeter block and was out of control getting to the second level, and he got beat inside on the backside of an inside zone blow, which resulted in a stuff. Outside of that I thought he was once again a strong blocker for the Irish.
He had a punishing block on the jet sweep to McKinley, and his aiming point on the play was top notch.
OFFENSIVE LINE — B+
There were a few more missed assignment snaps, and a couple of situations where the line struggled picking up the Louisville line games, but overall this was another strong performance from the line. As a unit, I was highly impressed with how much the Irish line just consistently pushed Louisville off the ball. There were many snaps where the Irish blockers simply blew the Louisville front at least three or four yards off the ball, and the backs picked up easy yards.
Here’s an example:
Notre Dame simply bullied Louisville throughout the game, even against loaded boxes.
Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg had an excellent performance for the Irish. He was extremely physical in the run game, and had one of the most dominant run blocking performances of his career. His pad level was excellent, his leg drive was where you want it to be and he punished the Louisville defenders all game long.
Eichenberg had a false start and missed his aiming point (outside) on a stretch play that resulted in a short run. He was clean in pass protection, and outside of a couple of minor mistakes this was an outstanding performance from the Irish left tackle.
Eichenberg and left guard Aaron Banks combined on a number of punishing combo blocks that opened up gaping run lanes. Banks, however, wasn’t as consistent with his overall production. Banks was especially inconsistent early in the game, getting beat on a backside cutoff and making an assignment mistake on a quarterback draw, turning the defensive tackle loose. He also got beat on a base block off the ball and turned inside on a stretch combo block, freeing up a defender. Those were all on the firs two series of the game.
Banks also whiffed on the 3rd-and-9 screen play to Tyree, and if he makes that block there might have been enough room for Tyree to move the chains. Earlier in the game, however, Banks had an excellent perimeter screen block that sprung Tyree free for a nine yard gain.
Banks settled in after a rough start and played much better in the second half. Being able to shake off a rough start, not allowing it to build into more mistakes and play well when the game is on the line is a sign of maturity from Banks.
Right tackle Robert Hainsey continued his quietly strong season. This was arguably his most effective run blocking game of the season. Notre Dame ran its outside zone/stretch to the right frequently, and Hainsey’s ability to get a strong vertical and lateral push was a big reason for its success. As I worked through my notes I kept seeing, “great stretch” and “great movement” by Hainsey on each series.
Hainsey got impressive movement at the point of attack with these concepts, and he also had a number of quality drive blocks on the zone. He lunged once in pass protection and allowed the defender to get a step outside, but Hainsey recovered and kept a body on the rusher. Outside of that his pass protection was strong.
This was clearly the best performance of the season from right guard Tommy Kraemer. My concerns with Kraemer in the first three games were two-fold. One, Kraemer just wasn’t getting any push in the run game. Two, the veteran wasn’t moving his feet well at the snap, and the result was spotty play.
Against Louisville, however, we saw Kraemer coming off the ball hard, getting a good push and he made strong blocks on the perimeter (kickout) and on the second level. He wasn’t perfect and there’s still plenty to clean up, but seeing Kraemer block this well against Louisville was an extremely positive sign.
Junior center Jarrett Patterson had a rough game by his standard. He had an abnormally high number of off-target snaps, and he struggled at the point of attack with the Louisville nose guards. I had notes that read “Patterson got beat playside” far too often in this game. Patterson stopped his feet at the point of attack on far too many snaps, and that was a major contributor to him losing those play side blocks.
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