Right now, Notre Dame’s 2019 season is being defined by its embarrassing loss to Michigan on Saturday night.
That’s how bad the loss was, and not just because of the score, but because of the way Notre Dame lost. It was the appearance of a lack of preparation, it was watching veteran players underperform, and it was about the team’s inability to once again step up in a big road moment and respond.
How the season is ultimately viewed will be centered around the Michigan game, but not necessarily by how the Irish performed on that October 26th night. Notre Dame’s season will ultimately be decided by how the Irish respond to the performance.
Going about the season business as usual and quickly passing off the Michigan game as a one-off would be a mistake. Former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn said it best …
During the loss to Michigan we saw a culmination of many of the issues that have been present throughout the season. What changed Saturday night was many of those past struggles or problems all came together at once.
Subpar quarterback play, an offensive line that struggles to handle anything beyond basic line games, an underachieving defensive line, undisciplined safety play, the inability to play the ball in the air and unforced errors like penalties and turnovers.
If Notre Dame was struggling mainly because it was struggling to replace departed starters from the 2018 team we would be having a much different conversation. What concerns me about this loss, and something that has been a problem all season, is that so many veterans have regressed this season.
Accountability must be at the top of the list for Notre Dame. This doesn’t mean benching a bunch of players or doling out punishment just for retribution’s sake. It has to be specific, thoughtful and designed to address the problems that led to the loss.
Here are areas that Notre Dame should focus on moving forward in an attempt to fix the underlying problems that are keeping this team from reaching its potential, starting with the offense:
1. A change must come at quarterback — This is not a call to bench Ian Book. Could that ultimately happen? Yes, but this isn’t as simple as just saying “find someone else.” Notre Dame has been down this road before, and while it works out initially, long term the replacement ends up failing just as much as the player he replaced. There is a much deeper problem going on that must be identified and addressed.
Let’s say Notre Dame replaces Book with Phil Jurkovec or Brendon Clark — an idea I would not be opposed to — and the new starter plays really well. Sound familiar? We’ve seen that story written before, but then the following year the replacement falters and fans are clamoring for the next replacement.
There is clearly something missing at Notre Dame when it comes to the ability to develop quarterbacks from year to year, and it’s something that began before Chip Long and Tommy Rees were in charge, but that duo must now figure out how to address the problem.
At some point the folks in charge need to own the quarterback issues, they must re-evaluate every part of their development and preparation at the position, and start turning the talent they keep recruiting into better production.
2. The offensive line must be better prepared — During the tenure of line coach Jeff Quinn, Notre Dame has faced six Top 40 rush defenses. In those contests, which includes Saturday night’s loss to Michigan, the Irish have averaged just 98.5 rushing yards and 2.9 yards per rush.
From 2012-17, with former line coach Harry Hiestand running the show, Notre Dame averaged 153.5 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per attempt against the 33 opponents that ranked in the Top 40 in rush defense.
From 2015-17, the Irish line averaged 175.1 yards per game and 4.7 yards per attempt against Top 40 rush defenses.
That’s quite a drop off, and when you break down the play there are clear examples of why that seems to be happening. Notre Dame’s blockers don’t come off the line with the same drive that we saw in previous seasons, and the unit has a much harder time handling line games and run stunts.
Both are areas that can and must be corrected by better coaching. The constant struggles handling pressures in the run game are a clear indication that how the unit prepares each week isn’t working to the level it should. Quinn, Long and Kelly must do a thorough examination of what is being taught on the practice field and in the film room in order to find the problem and then fix it.
There is simply too much talent up front for Notre Dame not to be better than it has been the last two seasons.
3. Push the younger players — This is not a “throw in the towel” comment that involves benching all the veterans. Wide receiver Chase Claypool, tight end Cole Kmet and running back Tony Jones Jr. will all be keys to Notre Dame running the table. But to truly take the next step as an offense the coaches must figure out a way to take better advantage of its young talent.
We saw it for at least one play with sophomore wideout Braden Lenzy against USC. We need to see more of Lenzy, we need to see more of Lawrence Keys III and we need to see more of Tommy Tremble. Not at the expense of the veterans, but establishing a deeper rotation that includes the young players - and senior Javon McKinley - would greatly benefit the current roster, especially if the quarterback play improves.
Getting more snaps and targets for the younger players will also bolster the group heading into 2020.
4. The lack of discipline is concerning — Notre Dame’s offense has been flagged 30 times in just seven games. Clemson (24), Oklahoma (24), Alabama (21), Ohio State (21), LSU (20) and Penn State (14) have all been flagged far fewer times despite playing one more game (8) than Notre Dame. This is a disappointing lack of composure and discipline.