What a difference a week makes. Brian Kelly’s post-Texas proclamation to “relax” seems much easier now than last Monday. That’s what an easy notch in the win column does for you. And a defense that looked much better playing in its base set than trying to slow down Texas.
While a true test of what this team looks like won’t come until next Saturday night against Michigan State, a 25-point second quarter—and some big plays by Brian VanGorder’s defense—made sure that the sky wasn’t falling.
Let’s put the win against the Wolf Pack behind us as the preparations turn towards Sparty. The battle for the Megaphone awaits.
Red Zone Offense. What a difference a year makes. At least so far. Notre Dame’s offense clearly lacks the explosiveness of last season’s. That’s to be expected when you lose freaks like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. But the Irish efficiency is much improved, a credit to DeShone Kizer and the Irish red zone offense.
The Irish were six for six again this week, scoring five touchdowns in their drives inside the 20-yard line. (And memo to the RTDB Crowd: Justin Yoon’s field goal came after three-straight runs inside Nevada’s 10-yard line.) The biggest change? Kizer’s accuracy.
A tweet from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated laid it out best: In 2015’s regular season, Kizer went 17 of 40 in the red zone, throwing nine touchdowns and five interceptions. This season, Kizer’s already completed 7 of his 10 throws, with five touchdowns and, most importantly, no interceptions.
The Run Defense. Things aren’t necessarily broken up front for the Irish, with Notre Dame’s under siege front seven limiting Nevada to just 99 rushing yards on 30 attempts. The strength of the Wolf Pack offense was the ground game, and the Irish withstood a few wrinkles—including a dose of triple option—to keep Nevada’s offense offtrack.
A return to base defense certainly helped. So did a strong performance for Te’von Coney, making his first start at Will linebacker, replacing Greer Martini in the lineup. But once the Irish found their footing on the opening series, the unit built on that crucial 4th-down stop and played very good football.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we came together,” Daniel Cage said postgame. “We got on each other and took over the game.”
Cage’s knifing stop on fourth down triggered that. So did a very nice game by James Onwualu, who chipped in two TFLs from the Sam linebacker position. Throw in an impactful game by Jonathan Bonner, who almost doubled his snap count from a week earlier, and the front seven is evolving and finding its footing in time for another stiff test.
The Kids. There were a lot of firsts for the Irish on Saturday. Catches for receivers Corey Holmes, Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool. Starts for Te’von Coney and Devin Studstill, and appearances for young players Jamir Jones, Khalid Kareem, Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland.
Just as important as any debuts was deepening the rotation. Cornerback Donte Vaughn is a key piece of the puzzle now with Shaun Crawford lost for the season. Julian Love is now the team’s starter at nickel back. And if Nick Coleman continues to struggle, don’t be surprised if Jalen Elliott finds his way onto the field more as well.
Last season’s defensive rotation was almost nonexistent. That won’t be the case this year, as Kelly commented on how he thinks his defense can improve with more players taking on key roles.
“I think it makes us a better defense. I think moving forward you’re going to see a combination of more guys instead of maybe just one or two guys in that rotation.” Kelly was talking specifically about the linebackers in that comment, though it clearly applies to all pieces of the defensive puzzle.
Sure, it was a slow start. But Notre Dame’s second quarter explosion had the Irish scoring 25 points, the most in a quarter since the Irish scored 28 against Pitt in 2005, Charlie Weis’ debut.
Brian VanGorder’s defense has usually featured a playmaker at Sam linebacker. Senior captain James Onwualu is quickly becoming one, his two TFLs very impactful. (He nearly had three, but crashed a bit too far inside on a Nevada end-around.)
No, the interception didn’t count. But it was a really nice play by Cole Luke, who was his steady self on Saturday, and also very good against the run.
Great hands by Kevin Stepherson, who took a big hit, but held on to his first touchdown. That’s a lot of trust in a freshman in the red zone.
Nice hands by Jarron Jones, too. Snagging that screen pass that set up an Irish score.
“I think I have great hands,” Jones said postgame. “These hands aren’t big for nothing. I know I can grab a ball.”
A week after Greer Martini earned the starting job at the Will linebacker spot, it looks like Te’von Coney took it back. The sophomore tied for the team lead with five tackles, including one for loss.
Pass Rush. With Nevada chasing the Irish after a big second quarter, the Wolf Pack needed to go to the air to try and mount a comeback. So while Nevada quarterbacks Tyler Stewart and Ty Gangi threw 26 times, the Irish defense didn’t get a single sack.
Adding in the Texas stats and the Irish defense has yet to sack the quarterback on 53 passing attempts. They’ve statistically gotten seven quarterback hits, with only Isaac Rochell notching more than one (he has three).
While Jay Hayes continues to recover from a high-ankle sprain, Andrew Trumbetti is manning the weakside defensive end spot. And for the second-straight week, Trumbetti hasn’t mounted anything close to a pass rush, locked down by offensive linemen and generating a second week of negative grading in the pass rush category by PFF College.
We saw young players get their shot at generating a pass rush. Khalid Kareem took a 15-yard personal foul for a late hit (announced during the broadcast as Jay Hayes), while Jon Bonner, Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones also played.
But the Irish need to find a way to get a pass rush. Especially to support a secondary that’s going to be learning as they go with Crawford down and freshmen Julian Love and Devin Studstill playing key roles.
The Slow Start. I had a hard time finding a more frustrating first 15 minutes in recent memory than Saturday’s. Whether it was the offense committing penalties to slow themselves down or the opening drive for Nevada, it was an ugly start to a game where I’m sure the coaching staff stressed “start fast.”
Some of that could be attributed to Shaun Crawford’s injury. Some to the new wrinkles from first-year Nevada offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. But whatever the cause, it took some time for the Irish to settle in, something that won’t make next weekend easy.
Shaun Crawford’s season-ending injury. We talked about the on-field implications. But watching Shaun Crawford go down after making another big play was devastating.
After the game, Cole Luke talked about moving forward without him.
“Shaun’s a great player. He’s just a freak of nature and one of those guys who loves the game,” Luke said. “He comes out to work every single day. That’ll be hard to replace, but we’ll try to lock that in on the young guys.
“You never know when your last play or rep will happen, so you have to treat it like your last. We have a lot of great young guys who will step up and try to fill that role.”
Expect Brian Kelly to reveal more on the time frame of Crawford’s surgery and recovery later today and this week. But we’ve already heard from Crawford on social media—and his response is incredible.