Before we put Saturday’s 44-20 victory in the rear-view mirror, let’s talk about what was gained from the win against Western Michigan, the first MAC opponent to play the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish were able to pull out their first three-game winning streak since early last season, erasing the three-game slide that put the Irish season in danger after only four game. They were able to continue developing depth along the offensive line, with reserve linemen Mike Golic, Chris Watt, Alex Bullard, Lane Clelland, and Andrew Watt getting significant playing time, in addition to tackle Matt Romine starting for a second straight week at left tackle.
Between depth building along the offensive line and a group of freshman playing significant minutes, the Irish made the most of their first (and likely) last game against a MAC opponent in South Bend.
Here’s a look at the rest of the good, bad, and ugly from Saturday’s victory over Western Michigan.
Running backs Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes combined for 162 yards on just 19 carries, effectively controlling the clock in the second half and wearing down an undersized Western Michigan defense. Wood’s 39-yard touchdown run was the longest for an Irish running back since Hughes galloped for 45 yards against Stanford in 2007, and was the longest touchdown run for an Irish running back since Ryan Grant broke a 46-yarder against the Cardinal back in 2003.
While Wood was held a yard shy of the century mark, he was able to establish a rhythm running the ball, and afforded Brian Kelly and the offensive staff the chance to rest Armando Allen, who only played briefly as he nursed a hip flexor injury.
“He’s a guy that needs to get into the flow of the game,” Kelly said about Wood. “At
times you wonder some of the things he’s doing out there, but once he
got enough carries, he showed, obviously, that he’s got great athletic
ability and it was fun to watch him.”
Wood was able to get those carries because the Irish offense called his number more often after halftime.
“Coach Kelly really couldn’t say anything to me at halftime because I
only got one carry in the first half,” Wood said after the game. “In the second half I decided that
whenever I got the balI I was going to make something happen.”
Wood showed his big-play ability with his burst around the right end for a touchdown. He also showed great elusiveness as he pin-balled his way through Bronco defenders making some electric cuts in the open field.
This is the time of year that Wood will be a valuable change of pace for the Irish, and his development will be crucial for the Irish.
Robert Hughes also reminded the coaching staff that he’s a viable option in the backfield, running with purpose, power, and great pad-level as he powered the Irish offense through the fourth quarter. With the Irish struggling on first down, Hughes is a great option to get the Irish offense in 2nd-and-favorable situations, a potential option against a Navy defense that’ll be out-sized at the line of scrimmage this weekend.
The Irish committed nine penalties for 80 yards, easily their sloppiest game of the year, and a considerable step back for a disciplined unit that had been one of the least penalized teams in college football.
That lack of discipline showed up particularly in the first half, with both the offense and defense missing assignments and playing lackluster football. Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder was able to pick up good yardage by throwing against inside linebackers Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese, something opposing coaches will likely notice with cornerbacks Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton playing at a high level.
Kelly mentioned in his postgame comments that both Te’o and Calabrese made bad decisions when defending curl patterns, and it’ll be important for both linebackers to fix those mistakes down the stretch, with teams like Utah and Tulsa likely throwing the ball early and often against the Irish defense.
(Honorable mention bad: Dayne Crist’s fourth quarter interception, a laser-like throw that was behind tight end Mike Ragone and tipped into the air for a WMU interception. Crist has got to develop some touch on his underneath throws, and rockets like that have some fans worried that while he’s got a canon for an arm, it only delivers balls one way — not necessarily a good thing for an offense that relies on precision and accuracy.
The injuries are starting to pile up for the Irish, and this time it’s wide receiver Theo Riddick that’s going in for an MRI on a tweaked ankle.
“Theo was in a boot today,” Kelly revealed on his Sunday teleconference. “He’s going to have to probably get an MRI. The X-ray was clean and the
MRI would tell us if there’s any further damage there. We’ll do that
Riddick’s injury means Kelly will likely reshuffle his receivers.
“TJ Jones would probably be the guy who would move in there,” Kelly said today. “Goodman would then go to X. I’ve always tried to put the top four guys
on the field. Toma would back up the Z, Bennett Jackson would
back up the X.”
Riddick’s injury will just add more defensive attention to Michael Floyd, and the offense’s productivity will depend on Jones’ ability to learn the slot position.
Jamoris Slaughter is also suffering from ankle pain, with Kelly ordering another MRI for Slaughter after his ankle has been slow to respond to treatment. While Zeke Motta has stepped up in Slaughter’s place, the Irish would be better served having Slaughter opposite Harrison Smith, especially in a game against Navy, where play-action throws will depending on the safety biting on the run fake, something both Zeke and Harrison have been known to do.