Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Seven years ago, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team began the season with eight consecutive wins before falling to No. 17 Kentucky in Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky. Then a freshman seeing his first collegiate action, point guard Eric Atkins was asked what he learned about the Irish in the loss.
“I learned that we won’t be undefeated this year,” he replied.
It was tongue-in-cheek, it was the only answer he offered, and it was accurate.
In No. 3 Notre Dame’s 41-8 loss at No. 7 Miami on Saturday, we learned the Irish will not be going to the College Football Playoff this season. So long, dreams of New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles and a balmy afternoon at the Rose Bowl. You made life tolerable for a few weeks.
Notre Dame won’t be in the Playoff because its struggling passing game could be hidden for only so long. It will adjust its view to finishing in the CFP selection committee’s top 12 because the one-dimensional offense could not stand up against a defense featuring speed. It will spend the next few weeks discussing abstract concepts such as pride, what we’ve built and tradition because sometimes a buzzsaw awaits you, and sometimes that buzzsaw comes complete with a raucous fan base ready to throw a rager.
At some point, the Irish were going to need to pass successfully and efficiently. They couldn’t.
Since the overhand nadir of the Boston College rout, Notre Dame’s aerial attack has gradually progressed. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was beginning to look like he could look the part. To paraphrase ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, Wimbush was a month away from being a month away.
That timetable could have been quick enough. He would have been rounding into form just in time to face an SEC defense in a national semifinal. (Sigh, Pasadena, you will haunt dreams for weeks, won’t you?)
His difficulties were exacerbated by his receivers’ drops. Even those, though, spoke of better things to come. Surely talents like junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson would not keep losing track of sure-catches for long. Perhaps they won’t, but they did at Hard Rock Stadium.
The Irish needed the passing game to keep Miami honest. Sooner or later, that would be the case. With that time arrived, the passing game was not ready at all, not even a little bit.
Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book combined to finish 13-of-27 for 152 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Both St. Brown and Claypool each had at least one notable drop. Go ahead and point out the first-quarter pass to St. Brown was off-target high. It was, but it still went off his hands to the Hurricane defender. That qualifies as both receiver and quarterback error.
Add in the five sacks allowed for 21 yards, and Notre Dame spent 32 plays to gain 131 yards, an average of 4.09 yards per snap, with 19 of those going for zero yards, negative yards or a change of possession in Miami’s favor.
“It’s a full-team responsibility,” Irish fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “Interceptions and turnovers are a part of the game. There’s no one man. It’s a team effort. It doesn’t matter who is turning the ball over.
“I can probably protect better on those interceptions. I know the rest of the [offensive line] would say the same.”
McGlinchey is correct, but the onus does not lie on him. It lies with a passing game that was still far from developed-enough to handle an elite defense.
That passing game allowed the Hurricanes to showcase their strength, a strength nearly unstoppable from a personnel standpoint in college football.
This argument has been made here before. It will likely be made again, though perhaps one day it will be from the other side of the coin.
Miami knew not to worry too much about Notre Dame’s passing game, so it keyed on the ground attack, led by junior running back Josh Adams and the formidable offensive line in front of him. It very well may be the best offensive line in the country, but when the defense knows what is coming, even the best offensive line cannot counter the anticipation. Combine that anticipation with natural speed and the defensive front wins the battle.
Very good defensive lines beat great offensive lines. It is that simple. In this instance, it was a motivated and very good defensive line.
“Early on it looked like we were going to have a good day in that regard,” Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt said. “They were struggling blocking our guys. We do have some quickness, for sure, but we’ve got some pretty big boys inside there, too.
“… They were challenged because of the reputation of Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines. They’re big, strong physical people and they took the challenge to try to move them a little bit.”
Notre Dame rushed for 140 yards on 31 carries (sacks adjusted), an average of 4.52 yards per carry. That would seem to be plenty, even if well below the norms heading into the weekend. That is a generous average when considering 13 of those 31 carries went for two yards or fewer or even lost yardage. That inconsistent ability to gain a push forced the Irish away from the run game to the untrustworthy passing game.
In the season’s first nine games, Notre Dame averaged 44.67 carries per game. Sticking with the ground game for another 14 rushes Saturday would have likely produced another six fruitless plays.
“They just were able to control the game a little bit,” McGlinchey said. “They got around on the perimeter very well, a lot better than a lot of the teams that we’ve played.”
That is what speed and quickness do. A very good front allows a defense to focus on the field’s 53-yard width, not its 120-yard length. McGlinchey might handle his block just fine, but no one will then block the linebacker racing around the edge set by the end engaged with McGlinchey. This leads to two-yard losses on running plays and four-yard sacks on passes.
McGlinchey is a special talent. Senior left guard Quenton Nelson is even more so. Senior center Sam Mustipher has been having an outstanding season, as has senior right guard Alex Bars. The right tackle combination of sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey has fared far better than anyone would have expected it to this year. Miami’s success does not eliminate all that offensive line has done to date this fall.
It does, however, highlight the gap between Notre Dame and the top of the country as well as the desperate need for a dangerous passing game to make an opposing coordinator at least ponder using a nickel package with the safeties far from the line of scrimmage.
None of this was helped by Hard Rock Stadium’s atmosphere.
Let’s make this clear: The Irish offense’s inability to sustain a drive and four turnovers cost Notre Dame the game.
The Irish defense did not start real well, though. It was not done any favors by the offense’s charitable donations to the Miami Fund. (That is not a real non-profit organization, but it is a step toward working Human Fund into a story in this space.)
Everyone around Notre Dame will deny this until the day they die, but the loud and energetic crowd may have gotten into the heads of some of the young defenders. Three sophomores started in the secondary and another got the nod on the defensive line. Linebacker Te’von Coney may be a junior — and led the team in tackles for the fourth consecutive game — but he has only been seeing major minutes for two months now. The same can be said of tackle Jonathan Bonner with a senior distinction.
None of these players had ever competed in an atmosphere like Saturday’s. Frankly, the Hurricanes fans should be applauded.
Naturally, they were so upbeat because Miami is good, really good.
The Hurricanes had apparently been playing down to their schedule to date. For the second consecutive week, they rose to a challenge, and then some.
Feel free to sound your the-world-is-ending alarms, however unnecessary they are. Notre Dame lost to a top-five program for the second time this season. That fact alone is not cause for panic. It was a complete and utter blowout, yes, but much of that traces to the turnovers rather than systematic failures.
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