Josh Adams

Notre Dame turns to its strengths to slip past Navy, 24-17

20 Comments

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Navy did what Navy does, wear down its opponent, rely on the option and shorten the game. No. 8 Notre Dame overcame the Midshipmen’s relentlessness 24-17 on Saturday only after the Irish remembered what they do best: Run, run and run to set up the pass.

Four handoffs to Irish junior running back Josh Adams set up a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson in the third quarter, tying the game at 17. Notre Dame’s next drive featured five runs mixed in with six passes, again culminating in a Stepherson touchdown reception and the winning margin.

“[We] got that close win that everybody’s been waiting for, so we checked that box,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to come up with a victory against a team that’s really difficult to defend, and [Navy] played really well today.”

The Midshipmen playing well most shows itself in their rushing statistics, obviously. They gained 277 yards on 72 carries, an average of 3.85 yards per rush, but perhaps more notable is Navy’s time of possession of 42:42. As best as can be reckoned in the Notre Dame Stadium press box to this point, the Irish have never held the ball for so little time in a game. If they have, it was long, long ago.

“In a game like this you don’t worry about rhythm. You worry about being efficient and being effective with the possessions that you have,” Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams said. “… Whatever chance I get to contribute I have to take advantage of that because you just never know with a great team like Navy — the way they control the ball and control time of possession — when you’re going to get out there.”

Adams finished with 106 yards on 18 carries, including 69 yards on eight carries in the second half alone. Seven of those eight rushes came on the two key touchdown drives, setting a tone for what would lead to success. That is, what would lead to success whenever the Irish had the ball, as rare as that was.

“Any time we go out to the field and take the field as an offense, it’s time to get physical,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s who we are, it’s who we’ve been. We take a lot of pride in being able to pound people. [Adams] is as big a part of that as anybody.”

Complementing Adams, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush ran for 44 yards and a touchdown on seven carries (sack adjusted) while completing nine of 18 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When halftime came around and the score was tied at 10, concern may have been understandable, but not to an excess. When Navy used the first eight minutes (7:59 to be exact) of the second half to march 72 yards to the end zone and a 17-10 lead, that concern rightfully gained magnitude.

Then came a six-yard Adams carry, followed by a five-yard rush and a seven-yarder from Adams. Next, he broke loose for 30 yards to get into Midshipmen territory. Just when it seemed the Irish were going to match Navy’s triple-option with their own brand of monotonous pounding, Wimbush found Stepherson streaking to the end zone for a 30-yard score and a tie game.

Touchdown answered by touchdown, no matter the offensive means.

Even if Adams was not the final piece of the puzzle, the ground game created the opportunity.

“Obviously it’s no secret that the running game has definitely opened up a lot of things for us this season,” Wimbush said. “Josh came out in the second half and he saw a little bit more, holes were opening up and he did have a more effective second half running the ball.”

Every eight-minute Navy touchdown drive made Notre Dame wonder, if we don’t score here, when is the next time we will even get the ball? By rendering the first half of that thought moot, the Irish put the pressure entirely back on the Midshipmen.

Navy responded to that pressure by settling for a field goal attempt on the next drive, missing it wide left. With that sliver of a window, Notre Dame followed the same recipe, relying on Adams to open up the defense before finding Stepherson to capitalize. Such begat the 24-17 result.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
After junior Chris Finke fumbled a punt, Navy took over possession at the Irish 39-yard line midway through the second quarter with the game still tied at three. Perhaps the best example of the Midshipmen’s habit of wringing the life out of a game, they took more than five minutes to cover those 39 yards for a score.

Navy took its sweet time to such a degree, Kelly considered surrendering a touchdown once the Midshipmen were inside the five-yard line. If they were going to score anyway, why not expedite the process to get the ball back for a chance to answer before halftime?

“It was just one of those things where clock had been utilized to the point where we needed the ball back,” Kelly said. “We felt like we could score if we just got the ball back. There were a lot of things going through my head at that time.”

Kelly opted to play it out, and Navy scored two plays later with 1:08 left on the clock. Notre Dame quickly ran six plays to get within two yards of the end zone with 14 seconds left in the half, lacking any more timeouts.

Wimbush ran up the middle, struggling through a few tacklers, falling into the end zone. If he had not gotten across the goal line, the clock would likely have run out, sending the Irish to halftime trailing by a touchdown and giving the Midshipmen a chance to go up two touchdowns halfway through the third quarter.

“That was huge. We were pretty upset with ourselves for not having points on the board prior, but it gave us a big boost coming into halftime,” McGlinchey said. “We had a great drive there. … Great execution, great job by our quarterback and by our receivers making plays, and we protected pretty well on that drive.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
On the final meaningful play of the game, Navy hoped its insistence on the option had loosened up Notre Dame’s defense enough to catch it off guard. Irish senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti was not fooled.

With a fourth-and-five from the 25-yard line, the Midshipmen were out of timeouts and absolutely needed to gain the yardage. The game was quite literally on the line. Rather than entrust junior quarterback Zach Abey to make the correct read on a typical option play, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo had Abey pitch to senior back Darryl Bonner, in motion. Bonner was to then find senior Tyler Carmona downfield with a halfback pass.

Trumbetti reached Bonner before he could set his feet, forcing a fluttering pass attempt, off-target and short. Senior linebacker Greer Martini had joined sophomore cornerback Troy Pride in vainly trying to catch up to Carmona after initially assuming a run would be coming toward them.

“I saw [Bonner] kind of pulling the ball back so I knew something was up there,” Martini said. “I just looked and [Carmona] was kind of wide open, so I just ran to him.”

If Bonner’s throw was on-target, Carmona likely reaches the end zone without much difficulty. It certainly would have been a first down, if nothing else. Trumbetti made sure none of that would become reality.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Stepherson’s progression from a vague September suspension to the most-reliable and most-productive receiving option is complete. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was knocked out in the first quarter after jumping for a high pass led to him falling on his head/neck on the turf. (Kelly said St. Brown is being evaluated for a head injury.) While sophomore Chase Claypool was productive, finishing with two catches for 28 yards, Wimbush’s focus settled on Stepherson.

“You see from the results that he is such a huge factor now in our offense and he just adds to the already dynamic receiving corps,” Wimbush said. “… I think he did a good job of all the way through to when he was able to get back on the field of preparing himself to take advantage of this opportunity when he got it.”

Stepherson’s route running and hands were both on display on each of his touchdown grabs, quite a transformation from when he was simply seen as a speed threat, albeit an elite speed threat.

His availability and capability also helped Wimbush settle down after a slow start. He reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards, then going 5-of-8 for 92 yards and the two scores in the second half. Four of those completions and 80 of those yards were via connections with Stepherson.

STAT OF THE GAME
A year after having all of six possessions against Navy, the Irish welcomed nine Saturday. Well, technically nine. One of those drives lasted all of two strides before Finke fumbled a punt right into a Midshipmen’s hands. Two kneels to end the game made up the ninth possession. So that makes seven genuine chances with the ball.

Three of those turned into touchdowns and a fourth into a field goal.

Such is how it is when facing Navy.

The obvious impact of those limited possessions and limited time of possession is just that: Fewer chances to score means fewer scores. The inherent side effect is there is no offensive rhythm to be established. Eight game minutes can pass between snaps, after all.

“It’s definitely difficult and coach harped on it a little bit throughout the week that we only had six possessions last year,” Wimbush said. “… I know it was important to take advantage of every opportunity that we got and obviously we didn’t do that, but still came out on top.”

For context’s sake, Notre Dame had 13 possessions in last week’s loss at Miami.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Saturday marked senior day, the last home game for most of the 26 recognized beforehand and even for those who may return next year, that is not a sure thing just yet.

It made sense to also ask Adams if it was his last home game. His NFL Draft prospects have certainly bettered since August.

“My last home game? Nah, no, no, man,” Adams responded. “I owe this team too much to even think about something like that. We’ve worked too hard to get where we are to let any one guy focus on themselves and be selfish. It’s just too important to us as a team to focus on stuff like that.”

Call it a good non-answer, if nothing else.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:31 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 0. (11 plays, 58 yards, 2:51)

Second Quarter
12:21 — Navy field goal. Owen White 39 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 3. (13 plays, 49 yards, 7:10)
1:08 — Navy touchdown. Zach Abey one-yard rush. Navy 10, Notre Dame 3. (11 plays, 39 yards, 5:02)
0:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush two-yard rush. Notre Dame 10, Navy 10. (7 plays, 62 yards, 1:00)

Third Quarter
7:01 — Navy touchdown. Craig Scott 12-yard reception from Abey. White PAT good. Navy 17, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 72 yards, 7:59)
5:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 30-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Navy 17. (5 plays, 78 yards, 1:28)

Fourth Quarter
11:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Stepherson nine-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Navy 17. (11 plays, 80 yards, 3:31)

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

Getty Images
48 Comments

If discussing Notre Dame’s bowl possibilities, the new No. 8 ranking in Tuesday night’s College Football Playoff selection committee poll means only so much. One most also project how the Irish will finish the season.

If Notre Dame wins its last two games (v. Navy; at Stanford), a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl is assured. A loss makes for some time in Orlando.

A Playoff-Eligible Bowl
A process of elimination helps guess which of the four possibilities is most likely. Presume USC continues on its current post-Irish tear and wins the Pac 12. The committee will attempt to avoid rematches, preventing Notre Dame from facing the Trojans in the Fiesta Bowl. If Clemson beats Miami in the ACC title game — and remember, that will be held in Charlotte, N.C., not in Hard Rock Stadium — then Miami will get to enjoy a home game in the Orange Bowl and the Irish will not be there, either.

As much as some might profess a desire for revenge, Notre Dame should be glad to avoid the Orange Bowl for a while. Between last weekend and the 2013 BCS title game vs. Alabama, the last two Irish appearances in that stadium have resulted in a combined 83-22 score for the other guys, including a 55-0 combined halftime margin.

That theoretical situation leaves the Cotton Bowl and the Peach Bowl for Notre Dame. The latter has one slot filled by the highest-ranked Group of Five team, almost certainly Central Florida. The time in Dallas goes to two at-large teams. With three SEC teams in the committee’s top 7, the championship game loser seems destined for the week in Atlanta and the Peach Bowl.

There has been debate about who is better: Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or Notre Dame’s Josh Adams. They could meet in a bowl game. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

That narrows this pool to only the Cotton Bowl. However, this changes quickly if the Hurricanes win the ACC. At that point, with the Irish likely higher-ranked than any non-playoff SEC or Big Ten teams, Notre Dame would head back to its 10th circle of hell.

Who would the Irish face in Dallas? Some quick projecting makes the likely opponents either Auburn or Penn State.

An Orlando Bowl
If Notre Dame falls to either Navy or Stanford, two possibilities come into play. The Irish would head to Orlando for either the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28, 5:15 p.m. ET). Nothing Notre Dame does would influence which it is.

Excluding Playoff teams, the highest-ranked SEC or Big Ten team goes to the Orange Bowl. (As referenced above, the Irish also fit into that determination, but right now this conversation hinges on Notre Dame falling to 9-3 or even 8-4.) If that is a Big Ten team, then the Irish enjoy New Year’s near Disney World. (Checks which one is which, yep, World is in Orlando. Land is out west.) If all three of Alabama, Auburn and Georgia remain in playoff-eligible bowls, the opponent here would be the fourth team in the SEC, meaning Mississippi State or perhaps LSU.

Should an SEC team claim the Orange Bowl berth, then the Big Ten heads to the Citrus and Notre Dame claims the ACC’s spot in the Camping World Bowl to face a Big 12 foe, likely Oklahoma State though possibly TCU.

But, isn’t there a chance …?

Will Greier is good, but he probably is not good enough to upset Oklahoma twice in two weeks. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Yes, Lloyd Christmas, there is a chance of the Irish falling backward into the College Football Playoff. The most-likely scenario involves current-No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Miami and No. 5 Wisconsin all finishing the season undefeated, and No. 4 Oklahoma losing twice to West Virginia and cult hero quarterback Will Greier.

At that point, the debate would be between 10-2 Notre Dame, 10-2 Georgia (currently No. 7), 11-2 Clemson (currently No. 2) and 11-2 Ohio State (currently No. 9). Based off committee chairman Kirby Hocutt’s comments Tuesday night, the edge would go to Clemson. The committee is giving the Tigers some leeway for suffering their only lose to-date largely without their starting quarterback due to a concussion. Even when he played at Syracuse, an injured ankle robbed Kelly Bryant off much of his dynamism.

Clemson also travels to South Carolina, so add a Gamecocks upset to the Irish wish list. For thoroughness’ sake, perhaps hope Georgia Tech also upsets Georgia in two weeks.

Of course, after enough chaos, 13-0 Central Florida (currently No. 15) should enter the conversation simply out of principle.

Opponents’ Round-up
Temple (5-5): The Owls beat Cincinnati 35-24 on Friday, but now brace for a visit from undefeated Central Florida (12 p.m. ET; ESPNU). The Knights are favored by two touchdowns and given their need to hope for chaos and impress the committee, perhaps that margin is too slim. A combined points total over/under of 56 hints at a 35-21 conclusion.

Georgia (9-1): The Bulldogs suffered their first loss, a 40-17 whooping at Auburn. These things happen at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Georgia gets to recover with a visit from Kentucky (3:30 p.m. ET; CBS). Favored by three touchdowns with an over/under of 51, Georgia should cruise to something along the lines of a 36-15 victory.

Boston College (5-5): In a pyrrhic defeat, the Eagles both lost to North Carolina State 17-14 and lost their starting quarterback freshman Anthony Brown for the season to a right leg injury. Brown had led the way to Boston College’s resurgence from a 1-3 and 2-4 start, possibly saving head coach Steve Addazio’s job in the process.

The Eagles still hope for bowl eligibility, and that may cement another season for Addazio. This weekend gives them a ripe chance at securing it with a visit from Connecticut (7 p.m. ET; CBS Sports Network). Even without Brown, Boston College is favored by 21.5 points with an over/under of 50.5. A 26-14 victory would satisfy Addazio just fine.

Michigan State (7-3): The Spartans’ upstart hopes came to a sudden halt with a 48-3 loss at Ohio State. Suffice it to say, the Buckeyes are motivated.

Michigan State can return to the positive side of the ledger this weekend against Maryland (4 p.m. ET; FOX). Favored by 16.5 points with an over/under of 43.5, bookmakers expect the Spartans to prevail 30-13.

Miami (OH) (4-6): The RedHawks kept their bowl hopes alive with a 24-14 victory over Akron last Tuesday. They will need to keep on winning tonight (Wednesday) against Eastern Michigan (7 p.m. ET; CBS Sports Network). Favored by 2.5 points with an over/under of 50, Miami would hypothetically squeak by 26-24, but do not underestimate the Eagles.

North Carolina (2-8): The Tar Heels won. The Tar Heels won. Repeat, repeat, the Tar Heels won.

North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 34-31 on Thursday, ending a six-game losing streak. The Tar Heels should make it two in a row this weekend, hosting Western Carolina (3 p.m. ET; ACC Network).

USC (9-2): The Trojans won their third consecutive game by multiple possessions since falling in South Bend, this time 38-24 at Colorado. To conclude their season, they will look to do the same to UCLA (8 p.m. ET; ABC). Expectations are for USC to indeed finish with an exclamation point, favored by 16 with an over/under of 71. Putting up 43 in the final week of their regular season would probably be okay with the Trojans.

North Carolina State (7-3): Barely squeezing past Boston College was enough for the Wolfpack, looking to stay in the mix for a playoff-eligible bowl should both Clemson and Miami somehow make the Playoff. North Carolina State heads to Wake Forest this weekend (7:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) as two-point underdogs. An over/under of 63 hints at a 32-30 final. That seems like a lot, and it seems like the wrong team is favored.

Wake Forest (6-4): The Demon Deacons scored 64 in a come-from-behind victory over Syracuse, trailing 38-24 at halftime but outscoring the Orange 24-0 in the fourth quarter to notch a 64-43 victory.

Miami (FL) (9-0): The Hurricanes won this past weekend, if anyone missed that bit of information. They now host Virginia (12 p.m. ET; ABC). Expect another blowout. Bookmakers project a 35-16 result.

Navy (6-3): The Midshipmen barely got past SMU, 43-40.

Stanford (7-3): The Cardinal upset Washington 30-22 on Friday thanks to home-field advantage and a short week for the Huskies. It welcomes Cal (8 p.m. ET, FOX) this weekend with expectations of a two-touchdown victory, perhaps something along the lines of 35-20.


Note: This space will continue to refer to the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Peach bowls as playoff-eligible bowls this year, not pieces of the “New Year’s Six.” The Cotton Bowl will be held Dec. 29 this year while the Fiesta and Orange Bowls are on Dec. 30. Those aren’t exactly New Year’s.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

Associated Press
66 Comments

Notre Dame simply was not ready for Miami on Saturday. By the time the first quarter ended and the Hurricanes were posed to build on a 14-0 lead, that was quite apparent. With hindsight, Irish coach Brian Kelly can see the reasons for the 41-8 loss were already at hand before his team even took the field.

“In retrospect, it was a big game, there was a lot to the atmosphere,” Kelly said Sunday. “Our guys really wanted to win. They wanted to win really, really bad.

“I have to do a better job of keeping them in a moment and keeping them from being distracted by all of that’s going on around them.”

Kelly detected a bit more pregame energy in the Notre Dame locker room due to the stakes and the surroundings. Though the Irish routinely play in front of bigger crowds and have twice faced top-15 teams in recent weeks, there was a different feel in Hard Rock Stadium.

“I’ve never given [big games and atmosphere] too much thought, because we play in a big game atmosphere at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “But this one was a little bit different. A number of these kids hadn’t played in a game of this magnitude, since maybe the [2015] Clemson game, and I don’t know if there were many defensive players on the field for that.

“We’ll have to take a good close look at that of making sure we prepare our guys. I have to do a better job of making sure they are in the moment.”

Tracing back to that No. 6 Notre Dame at No. 11 Clemson game, only now-junior, then-freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery recorded a defensive tackle that day, making four. Six other current Irish defenders saw the field, including now-senior, then-sophomore defensive back Nick Coleman making a special teams tackle.

Those jitters showed immediately after each of Notre Dame’s first two turnovers Saturday. Once the Hard Rock crowd was, well, rocking, Miami had little trouble finding the end zone, including covering 32 yards in two plays to go up 14-0.

Those turnovers were a worst-case possibility realized.
Kelly insisted Saturday night he saw none of the Hurricanes onslaught coming. If he anticipated it at all, he expected it to be predicated on turnovers.

“If I saw the turnover chain passed around the bench like Gatorade, that was probably going to be my biggest concern,” he said. “Unfortunately that came to fruition.”

He described junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s first interception as “a bit of a high throw … that should be executed.” The second was thrown behind intended target sophomore receiver Chase Claypool.

“That’s just being more accurate and being on time with the throw.”

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s miscue came on misreading the coverage, identifying what was a man defense as a zone.

“We have to coach him better in that situation.”

The fourth turnover, a strip-sack fumble in the fourth quarter, could have been avoided only if Wimbush had felt the pressure and stepped up in the pocket.

“We have to demand that in practice there’s that attention to detail,” Kelly said. “Because the process really escaped us in some of those turnovers and that really was a major problem for us Saturday night.”

On injuries
Junior running back Josh Adams suffered a neck sprain Saturday night, but Kelly was not worried about any lasting effects with Navy arriving at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Associated Press
103 Comments

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.

Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams struggled to outrace Miami to the edge Saturday, finishing with only 40 yards on 16 carries. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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.”

Even an elite left tackle like Irish fifth-year lineman Mike McGlinchey can do only so much against a top-flight defensive front. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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.)

By the end of the night, the Miami student section was likely the rowdiest party in south Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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.

Claypool’s drops perhaps a harbinger of Notre Dame success to come

Getty Images
77 Comments

Chase Claypool would not even grant the hypothetical’s premise. He knew how many yards he ended up with in Notre Dame’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest last weekend. He knew he caught nine passes and found the end zone once to gain 180 yards.

He would not speculate how much gaudier those numbers could have been if he had not dropped a likely 57-yard touchdown along the sideline early in the third quarter. Quick math would remove his 27-yard reception (as well as another drop, albeit a tougher ball to snag) later on the same drive and realize Claypool came oh-so-close to a nine-catch, 210-yard, two-touchdown afternoon.

“If I didn’t drop those passes, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten the other big gains,” Claypool countered. “I don’t think of it as a negative for dropping two passes. Obviously I need to work on that, but I don’t think of it as I could have had more yards. Maybe I would have had less yards.”

To be clear, Claypool was appropriately self-critical for the drops. That is part of why he would not acknowledge the possible statistical boosts. He just wasn’t so critical as to let the missed opportunities define his day. His fellow receivers made sure of that much.

“I was beating myself up on the sideline, and every single receiver said, you’re good, it’s going to come to you,” Claypool said. “… We’re kind of a family, so to have that security knowing that they have your back, it’s easy to come back from something like that.”

After the most-notable drop, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush kept the ball himself to gain 14 yards and a third-down conversion. Having reset the chains, he again looked for one of his receivers. This time junior Equanimeous St. Brown failed his quarterback. Wimbush then turned to sophomore running back Deon McIntosh to get back ahead of the chains before finally connecting with Claypool for the 27-yarder. Two more incompletions toward Claypool and the drive resulted in a 22-yard field goal.

“There were a lot of points that we left up on the board,” Wimbush said. “It’s scary and I say that every week, but one of these weeks we will connect and everything will be clicking.

“I’m not worried about those guys dropping balls. I’ve got to continue to give them opportunities to go make plays because those guys are playmakers.”

Claypool, specifically, has emerged as a playmaker. After last year’s breakout, St. Brown was widely-expected to be showcased this season. Sophomore Kevin Stepherson flashed enough speed in 2016, it was trusted he would quickly again once he got on the field. The physical Claypool, though, was only a tantalizing-but-unknown possibility.

“He’s a young guy that I wouldn’t say has got it all figured out yet,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “He’s learning every day, but he comes with a great attitude. He wants to get better.

“He’s definitely ascending. He’s not going to be a guy that plateaus out.”

At Boston College on Sept. 16, Claypool was Wimbush’s most-consistent option at receiver. That meant he caught two passes for eight yards. Such were the difficulties in the passing game, the struggles among the receivers and the impotent definition of success. The two catches did set up Claypool as someone Wimbush could trust, drops or not.

The results of that trust have progressively shown themselves. A week later Claypool pulled in four catches for 56 yards. After the dropped deep ball last Saturday, Wimbush still targeted Claypool five more times, completing three of them for 105 yards, most notably a 34-yard touchdown with Claypool using and needing every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame to cross the goal line.

“After I dropped that pass, there was no way I wasn’t scoring here, so I went for it,” Claypool said. “… I have to thank Brandon for trusting me after I dropped a couple passes and then going back to me on the next drives. Without [Wimbush and the Irish offensive line], I couldn’t have done it. It’s obviously big to have that big game moving forward, getting closer to the Playoffs.”

Indeed it is, and Notre Dame will likely need more of the same from Claypool going against Miami’s No. 3 passing efficiency defense tonight. The Hurricanes undoubtedly know the Irish will try to control the game with a running attack led by junior running back Josh Adams. Stopping that becomes much more difficult if also worried about Claypool and Stepherson.

Hence Wimbush’s continued promise of, “One of these weeks we will connect and everything will be clicking …”

As for Claypool’s dropped chance down the sideline a week ago, the cause behind it was rather natural. He was trying to get to that clicking stage a bit sooner than he should have.

“I knew if I caught it I would have a touchdown,” he said. “I was thinking, I catch this, I’m running right away to score. So I ran before I caught it, basically. It happens, I guess.”

It happened. If the difference in seven weeks is going from a two-catch, eight-yard day to a day when the postgame interview is spent denying charitable thought experiments to elevate yardage totals past 200 yards, then the trend indicates the tonight’s prime-time, top-10 contest will be another step forward in Notre Dame’s passing game.