Notre Dame improved to 4-0 with a sloppy 12-7 victory over Louisville. The Irish continued its inconsistent and sloppy play on the offensive side of the ball, but there were some positives to glean as well.
Here are my key takeaways from the Irish offense.
OFFENSIVE LINE/GROUND GAME CONTINUES DOMINANT PLAY
I certainly won’t be blaming the Notre Dame offensive line, tight ends and running backs for the low point total or overall offensive woes. When they were asked to take the game over, they did just that. Despite getting almost no help from the pass game, the Irish line and tight ends fueled a ground attack that churned out 232 yards.
Running back Kyren Williams rushed for 127 yards, and backup Chris Tyree added 32 more.
There were some sloppy moments from the line, but what allowed it to still dominate this matchup is how physical the group has played thus far in the season, and how physical it played against Louisville. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg and the tight ends had a high number of punishing backside blocks on zone plays, which opened up numerous cut back lanes.
Notre Dame led just 12-7 when it got the ball with 7:55 left in the game, but Louisville’s offense would never again see the field. Notre Dame churned out tough yards, and when the game was on the line, Eichenberg and left guard Aaron Banks blew the left side of the defense off the ball and freshman tight end Michael Mayer sealed the edge, giving Williams all the room he would needed to rip off a 24-yard gain, which iced the game.
Quarterback Ian Book chipped in to the rushing performance, both on called runs and scrambles.
Making the performance even more impressive was the fact Louisville’s defensive game plan was clearly geared towards shutting down the run game, but no matter how hard it tried, the Cardinal defense could not stop the Irish ground game.
THIRD-DOWN SUCCESS NEGATED BY RED ZONE WOES
The pass attack provided very little assistance in this game, until the final drive. Notre Dame was under 100 passing yards heading into that drive, but Book completed two crucial third-down throws to move the chains, which played a crucial role in running out the clock.
Notre Dame went 8-14 on third-down, which tied for its best output of the season. In a game this close, and against an offense as potentially explosive as Louisville’s, moving the chains with this kind of consistency can shorten the game, and that’s what happened. Notre Dame held the ball for 36:15, including keeping it for the final 7:55 of the game.
As good as the third-down offense was, the red zone offense was that bad. Notre Dame had five trips into the red zone, but I am only counting four of them. The fifth red zone trip was on the final drive, and it ended with Notre Dame taking a knee, so I’m not going to punish the red zone stats for taking a knee.
In the four previous red zone trips, Notre Dame came away with just one touchdown (which came on a third-down play). It had to settle for two field goals, and a third field goal attempt turned into a poorly called fake that did not work. Why head coach Brian Kelly thought faking a field goal on 4th-and-9 was a good idea is still a head scratcher.
A failure to execute in the red zone was the culprit. A bad read by Book on the first red zone trip ended with a sack. A poor quick post route by Javon McKinley resulted in an incompletion on the next red zone trip, and that was followed by a missed block by a tight end and a third-down play where the wideouts got no separation.
The red zone pass calls left much to be desired in this game, and we saw that on the next red zone trip. No separation and a missed check down by Book resulted in a first-down sack that stalled that drive. Book was late throwing a corner route to Kevin Austin, which led the Irish wideout out of bounds on a third-down throw. Notre Dame faked a field goal on the next play, and it failed.
This has been an issue for much of the season. Notre Dame now ranks 59th in red zone offense (out of 76 teams) and 54th in red zone touchdown rate.
WIDE RECEIVERS ARE NOT GETTING IT DONE
Having talented players is one thing, but using those talented players correctly is another, and Notre Dame is failing in the second department. Far too often yesterday we saw Notre Dame using McKinley and Ben Skowronek together as outside receivers. Both are quality players, and we’ve seen McKinley show flashes of big-time play, but putting them on the field together as outside receivers gives the defense almost no fear of being pressed vertically, and isn’t using them in ways that best suit their skills, especially Skowronek.
That isn’t a player problem, that’s a coaching problem. The Irish coaches chose to put those two receivers outside together for most of the game, just like we saw against Duke. There was one particular snap I have in mind where Notre Dame ran four verticals with McKinley and Skowronek plus two tight ends. That’s just not going to scare teams, especially when the tight ends are targeted so infrequently (see below).
Part of being a good coach is knowing how to use your personnel, which means two things. One is what routes they do best, and two is knowing what combinations to use together. I get that Notre Dame had injury problems, with Lawrence Keys III being out and junior Braden Lenzy apparently being limited by a “soft tissue problem.”
How the unit is being used now is not getting it done, and this statement isn’t just an overreaction to one game. This performance is indicative of a season-long issue. What we saw Saturday against Louisville was also an issue against Duke and South Florida. Outside of McKinley’s strong game against Florida State, the Irish wide receivers have played average football this season. No separation, no sense of urgency coming off the line, average top-end technique and an overall inability to make plays.
I understand Kelly’s infatuation with playing veterans, and demanding that freshmen know the entire playbook before getting on the field. That’s fine if your veterans are playing at a high level, but what we are seeing now with the current wideouts reeks of 2017, when Notre Dame lost a 1-point game to Georgia while Cameron Smith, Freddy Canteen and Chris FInke combined for 108 snaps, while junior Miles Boykin and sophomore Chase Claypool combined for just 12.
The reasons we are being told about why young players like Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts aren’t getting snaps, despite sources telling me how talented and impressive they are physically, are the same we were told back in 2017. They are the same reasons Will Fuller caught just six passes as a freshman in 2013.
This is a philosophical error from a coaching standpoint. If the Irish coaching staff can’t find four or five things that those talented young players do well, well enough to get them about 10 snaps each, then the blame needs to be placed entirely on them, not the young players. You’re holding them to a standard that other programs that actually compete for championships don’t hold their players to.
TIGHT ENDS AREN’T BEING USED ENOUGH
Notre Dame has not used its tight ends enough in the pass game over the last two games. Standout tight ends Tommy Tremble and Michael Mayer combined for just two catches against Louisville, and they were targeted just four times.
Tremble was targeted just once, and after catching eight passes in the first two games, he’s been targeted just four times in the last two games. That’s unacceptable from a coaching/game panning standpoint, and it’s unacceptable from a quarterback standpoint.
If you’re going to run an offense that is predicated on playing multiple tight ends the game plan absolutely must make those tight ends a focal point of the pass offense. This is especially true when your tight ends are as good as Tremble and Mayer. I would argue that Notre Dame’s fourth tight end, George Takacs, would start for three of the four teams Notre Dame has played this year. This is a loaded position group, and it needs to be used more.
There’s just too much talent at tight end, and too little talent among the veterans at wide receiver, for any game to go by with this group being targeted just four times.
BOOK IS STILL TOO INCONSISTENT
Brian Kelly can praise Book’s record as a starting quarterback all he wants, but there’s a reason Notre Dame’s offense continues to be so up and down. The play of the quarterback is far too inconsistent, and that’s been an issue well before Book stepped into the lineup, because this issue goes well beyond Book. Book came into this season with 23 career starts, and he’s played even worse out of the gate this season than he did last year.
It’s unacceptable that the best play of his career was his first few starts back in 2018. I don’t blame Book, I blame a culture that has shown the longer a quarterback stays in the system, the worse he plays. Kelly’s unwillingness to accept this fact and address it will continue to plague his program, and it’s a big reason that Notre Dame has been average against the better teams on the schedule, and why it has shown a tendency to play down far too often.
Against Louisville, Book was not going through his reads comfortably, he was late with throws far too often, he was off target and he was either unable or unwilling to make more plays with his arm. I know, I know, it was windy, that’s why Notre Dame passed for just 106 yards and scored 12 points against one of the worst defenses it has played in the last two seasons.
Become a premium Irish Breakdown member, which grants you access to all of our premium content, our premium message board and gets you a FREE subscription to Sports Illustrated! Click on the link below for more
Be sure to stay locked into Irish Breakdown all the time!
Join the Irish Breakdown community!
Subscribe to the Irish Breakdown podcast on iTunes.
Follow me on Twitter: @CoachD178
Follow me on Parler: @BryanDriskell
Like and follow Irish Breakdown on Facebook