For those that did not watch the game, the 41-13 final score of the Notre Dame win over Wisconsin can mask what was otherwise a brutal performance by the offense. There were some major struggles from the offense, but also some ways the offense helped fuel the victory.
Here are my key takeaways for the offense from the victory over the Badgers.
1. Offense built off defensive turnovers - Part of playing winning football is playing complementary football. Yesterday it was the Notre Dame defense that carried the day while the offense struggled, but when the Irish defense was at its best and forcing turnovers the offense took advantage and capitalized.
The defense took its final two turnovers back to the house for touchdowns, and that is the reason for the blowout margin. It was the Notre Dame offense that converted the first three turnovers into points.
Cornerback Cam Hart got the defense on the board early with an interception while the game was tied 3-3. The offense responded with a quick 51-yard drive that ended with a long touchdown pass from Jack Coan to Kevin Austin to give the Irish a lead.
Defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola sacked and stripped the Wisconsin quarterback in the fourth quarter with the Irish hanging onto a 17-13 lead, giving the Irish offense another short field. Forty-six yards later the offense found the end zone to all but seal the Irish victory based on how the defense was playing. The drive ended with Drew Pyne hitting Austin for a 16-yard score.
With Wisconsin hanging onto the slight hope of getting back into the game late, Hart had another interception that the Irish offense converted into a field goal, making it a two touchdown game.
It was a rough day overall for the offense, but when the defense set them up the Irish offense answered in impressive fashion.
2. Kevin Austin's bounce back was money - We learned quite a lot about Kevin Austin yesterday. We always knew he was big, athletic and very talented. Yesterday we learned the young man has some serious mental toughness. Austin was coming off a brutally bad performance against Purdue. He was held without a catch and dropped several passes, and Purdue's physical coverage was clearly getting in his head.
I already wrote about how impactful Austin's performance over Wisconsin was to the offense, which you can read HERE and HERE. None of that, however, is much of a takeaway because we always knew he had the talent to make those kinds of impressive, game-changing plays.
My biggest takeaway from Austin's performance was the maturity he showed in actually being able to mentally bounce back in a manner that allowed him to play as well as he did yesterday. That was impressive and is a very good sign for the talented Irish wideout.
3. Drew Pyne's poise was impressive - When starting quarterback Jack Coan went down it forced sophomore Drew Pyne into the game. It was the first meaningful snaps of Pyne's career after his 2020 snaps were all in mop up duty. That was quite the moment to be thrust into your first career action, with your team in the middle of a 10-10 ball game late in the third quarter.
On his second series, Pyne was hit in the back and fumbled, and that turnover allowed the Badgers to take a fourth quarter lead.
Pyne responded like a seasoned veteran. The moment never looked big for him. He came into the game with swagger, he played like the turnover didn't effect him one bit and he showed impressive poise in the pocket. All the while he was going through his reads with maturity, throwing darts to his receivers, and his first career touchdown pass proved to be a bit of a back breaker to Wisconsin.
I have no idea what will come next for the Irish quarterbacks, and for Pyne, but if his career thus far is any indication, and if yesterday was any indication, Pyne will be ready to thrive in whatever situation he gets put in.
4. Third-down woes continue - Notre Dame was one of the nation's best third-down teams in 2020, ranking seventh nationally with a 49.7% conversion rate. Notre Dame has gone above 36% on third-down just once this season, and the 31.3% mark from yesterday's win was the second worst of the season.
Notre Dame absolutely must get better at moving the chains on third down.
Of course, this takeaway is as much about Notre Dame's lack of first-down success as it is a third-down problem. Notre Dame converted 5-6 third-downs in which it needed five yards or less to gain. Eight of Notre Dame's 16 third-down opportunities - which is half - were downs where the offense needed 10 or more yards, which is an absolutely brutal statistic.
Notre Dame averaged just 2.7 yards per play on first-down, and 15 of its 28 first-down snaps went for 0 or negative yards, which is more than half.
That is really, really bad.
5. Answers are needed up front - A well coached team can struggle or have issues early in the season, like we saw from the Notre Dame defense. That unit had a lot of technical mistakes in the first two games that proved costly and resulted in that unit giving up more points and yards than it should have. With that unit being very well coached, by the time we got to the fourth game of the season the defense was playing elite football.
The offensive line, however, has shown no improvement in four games. You can blame the players all you want, and certainly their failure to execute is partly on their shoulders. But when you are seeing assignment mistakes, technical mistakes and regression across the board that goes well beyond it being a player problem.
Some point to it being a lack of talent. Talent doesn't determine whether or not you know how to pick up a twist, or prevent you from executing basic assignments, or showing basic footwork that some players have shown in the past.
This is a poorly prepared unit, there is no way around it. Yes, the try hard has been better the last two weeks, but this unit is playing very poorly right now, it is clearly not being prepared very well and head coach Brian Kelly needs to hold his position coach as accountable as he holds his players when they don't perform.
It is embarrassing that Notre Dame rushed for just 3 yards against Wisconsin. I don't care who Notre Dame is playing, their offense should always rush for more than three yards. If you remove sacks and taking a knee and just focus on the running backs, Notre Dame's very talented backfield combined for just 39 rushing yards on 20 carries, which is an average of 1.95 yards per carry.
There's taking a step back because you lost four starters, and then there is being a unit that is simply not getting the proper preparation and instruction to play at a competent level. That is what we are seeing at Notre Dame right now.
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