Things We Learned: Despite Notre Dame’s inefficient opener, reasons for Irish optimism abound
Midnight game recaps do not usually delve too far into analysis, but now-No. 8 Notre Dame’s 35-17 victory at Louisville on Monday left little choice but to spend time on Irish senior quarterback Ian Book’s poor showing.
Completing only 14-of-23 passes and putting the ball on the turf twice warranted adjectives such as “ineffective, “skittish” and “off-target,” not to mention “stumbling” and “lack of confidence.” By no means was Book unaware of his performance’s shortcomings.
“I felt a little rusty, but I’ve got a lot to learn from it,” he said. “Ready to go back, watch the film and move on from it.”
Spending more time on Book’s inefficient Labor Day should not occur until also looking at a broader range of Notre Dame’s season-opening revelations. There is some dichotomy to the offensive performances beyond Book. This space expected the Irish to “hang a crooked number at Louisville.” While the offense was inarguably inconsistent, it still gained 423 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per play. Notre Dame did, after all, score five touchdowns and go 4-of-4 in the red zone.
Yet, the bumbling offense went three-and-out on three different first-half possessions, adding two more in the second half that did not last more than five plays. This was not the explosive display expected. Counterintuitively, that dismal display still revealed several skill players on hand.
The Irish were without junior tight end Cole Kmet (getting a CAT scan this week to reveal if he can return to contact in practice), junior receiver Michael Young (about a week behind Kmet) and junior running back Jafar Armstrong (left the game early with a soft-tissue injury in his groin/ab area, severity not yet known). Nonetheless, senior running back Tony Jones finally showed in a game what had been apparent in practice for years; senior receiver Chase Claypool offered a level of physicality not previously found in him, repeatedly churning for extra yards after a catch; sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble (pictured at top) may be the vertical threat always presumed to be Kmet; and sophomore receiver Lawrence Keys was clearly capable in Young’s absence.
“The good news for me tonight as the head coach, the younger players showed themselves,” head coach Brian Kelly said late Monday night. “Now with all of them together, moving forward, this can be a pretty good football team.”
That may be a leap of a conclusion after an up-and-down evening in which 35 points felt low-scoring, but that may be the point. If this was Book’s rust-filled performance, Notre Dame may really hum with even a decent showing from its quarterback, particularly once presumed starters return to health.
On top of that, two pieces of the Irish offense expected to be huge question marks comported themselves just fine. Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer did not flirt with disaster in sending any kickoffs out of bounds, and freshman punter Jay Bramblett did not allow a return on five punts. Notre Dame would rather not have had to punt at all, but at least it gave Bramblett plenty of chance to show himself as not the liability previously feared.
The unforeseen strengths extended to the defensive side, as well. Entering the season, any contribution from fifth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford or freshman safety Kyle Hamilton should have been welcomed as a pleasant surprise. Now, consistent contributions are the baseline.
Crawford made four tackles, hardly a testament to his impact. He was on the scene when the Cardinals nearly completed a dangerous double pass. If the throw had been accurate, Crawford was set to break it up with a strong hit. He nearly forced a fumble, only denied that stat by the height of the turf reaching the ballcarrier’s knee. When Louisville running back Javian Hawkins first gashed the Irish defense for a 44-yard gain, the first sign the Cardinals’ option attack may be an issue, it was Crawford who caught up to Hawkins at all.
Whether it is the product of his individual resilience or due to modern medicine, or both, Crawford clearly has not lost a step after suffering a third season-ending injury, and his nose for the ball remains, as well.
Hamilton, meanwhile, broke up two passes in his collegiate debut, to go along with four tackles. His closing speed was a sight to behold — it is one thing to see that in practice when not knowing how hard a running back is charging or how encouraged contact is; it is another to see it in live competition. Hamilton simply needs experience, and Notre Dame is intent to give it to him.
The depth and talent in the secondary will be necessary, because the Irish linebackers provided no sense of worthwhile depth, applicable talent or ready signs much is coming. The lone bright spot was junior Drew White, who at least found the ball often, of note against Louisville’s unorthodox attack, having his hand in five tackles with two behind the line of scrimmage.
“Finding that position at Mike linebacker has really allowed [White] to elevate himself with the right role,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ve found the right role for him, he has accepted that role, he has physically developed himself to play that position, and last night he showed the traits that we’re looking for from that Mike linebacker. He did some really good things for us.
“There were certainly some things that he experienced and he’ll get better at, but he played with a confidence, a fluidity at the position that we think he’s going to be able to build on and play at a really high level for us.”
White’s experience to date was a cameo against Navy’s triple-option as an injury replacement. His own injuries had played a part in limiting him, as had his own skillset. At this point, White provides Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea a standard at Mike, one that fulfills his responsibilities. That may be a low bar, but it was one not met by many other linebackers.
Kelly doubled down on Tuesday on a heavy rotation at linebacker. He also drew a distinction between the roles of the Mike and Buck linebackers that may not have been needed to be explicit in years past because of overlapping abilities from the starters. White and fifth-year Asmar Bilal do not cover the same ground in that way.
Bilal’s duties theoretically include covering a running back on a route and managing responsibilities in space, as well as plugging run fits. He got the starting nod because he tends to those jobs while also having, well, talent. At least, one would presume.
Kelly did not outright criticize Bilal; little would be gained by doing so. But he did open a door to future reasoning for a change at the position, albeit while implying Bilal has the exact combination wanted.
“At the end of the day, they have to be assignment correct and they have to tackle the football,” Kelly said. “If they have all those other things (talent, football intelligence, etc.), but they’re not assignment correct and can’t tackle the football and get it down on the ground, it doesn’t matter if they have all the athletic ability in the world.”
White showed himself to be assignment correct and sound tackling; Bilal did not. That may lead to future changes, but it also may have been just one game.
It would be hypocritical of this space to rapidly presume otherwise. As Saturday’s column read, “The season opener is never a smart time to overreact to any individual struggles.”
That applies to Book’s forgettable evening and Bilal’s underwhelming start, neither of which was enough to cost Notre Dame in the long run.
“It was good to walk away from this at 1-0,” Book said, correctly so.