What a difference a win makes.
With the Irish back in South Bend with a week off before needing to prepare for Southern Cal, Notre Dame can look to the second half of the season, where the schedule could stack up nicely for a late season showdown against Stanford, who survived a scare from Washington late last night.
In a game that swung back and forth quite a few times, the Irish made the plays they needed to make to get the win, all while reminding us that this team is still a work in progress. Let’s run through the good, the bad, and the ugly of Notre Dame’s wild 37-34 victory.
Jaylon Smith. The freshman linebacker led the Irish in tackles, making nine stops, including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Playing his best game in a Notre Dame uniform, Smith’s growing before our eyes, something that Brian Kelly talked about Sunday in his weekly conference call.
“That position is being constantly probed and attacked on a game‑to‑game basis,” Kelly said. “I think the biggest improvement is that he’s learning football and how he’s being attacked at his position week‑in and week‑out.”
Matched up with a set of very quick receivers and a mobile quarterback, Smith was up to the task, while still learning on the job. Crack back blocks, containment on the edge, and different pass coverage responsibilities are all part of what he’ll need to master. But Smith’s got the opportunity to do a lot of great things, many that we noticed Saturday night.
Prince Shembo. He was a man on a mission, playing primarily with his hand on the ground. Shembo reminded Irish fans — and opposing coaching staffs — why the quick passing game might be mandatory, as he was relentless in his pressure of quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Stephon Tuitt. Another really impressive football game for Tuitt, who is playing a ridiculous amount of snaps and doing a really nice job. Tuitt had a key strip sack and was a step away from a couple others, forcing Kelly to run for his life on a a few occasions.
Kelly talked about Tuitt’s recovery from offseason surgery, and his plans for Tuitt’s week off, a break desperately needed for the 6-6 defensive end.
“He needs rest,” Kelly said. “The surgery that he had has affected his back, it’s affected his hip flexors… Some people dismiss it and say, well, you know, you just had minor surgery. Well, it’s affected a lot of things. This is a big man, and you know, he’s really struggled all week with back tightness.”
Tuitt answered the bell, playing a key role for the Irish and playing at a high level for much of the evening.
TJ Jones. In my final thoughts before kickoff, I had Jones tabbed as the team’s most important offensive player. He did more than that, contributing a big return on special teams as well as he led the offense with a rock solid performance.
Against a defense that played basically man to man all evening, Jones and Tommy Rees being in lock-step was essential.
“I think really Tommy feels comfortable knowing where he’s going to be getting in and out of his breaks,” Kelly said. “You know, some of the younger guys, at times, there’s not that certainty of where they are going to be sometimes in press coverage, and obviously one thing TJ does is he gets people off him, because they respect his ability to get over the top easily.”
Dan Fox. After losing his starting job, Fox came back in and played a ton of good football after Jarrett Grace went down. Fox made seven tackles, recovered a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.
A great job by a veteran that’s going to be counted on down the stretch.
Cam McDaniel. Heckuva job by the Texan who ran for the tough yards down the stretch. After suffering what looked like a stinger on a violent head-to-head collision, McDaniel came right back in and continued carrying the load.
Ben Koyack. He’s been a punching bag more than a few times in his three seasons in South Bend, but Koyack came through in the clutch with a big touchdown and some solid blocking, playing the role of a fullback more than a few times.
The Pass Protection. Facing a relentless blitzing defense, Harry Hiestand’s crew did their jobs immaculately, not giving up a sack of Tommy Rees. On the year, the pass blocking as been rock solid, giving up just four sacks on over 200 throws.
Tough injuries to Jarrett Grace and Daniel Smith. Nobody wants to lose a guy for the season, and on Saturday night the Irish lost two. Grace spent the night in Dallas, getting a rod inserted in his fibula. Smith has a fracture in his ankle that’ll end his career playing for Notre Dame.
Kelly talked about the loss of both, with Grace being the biggest blow on the field and Smith being a tough one to stomach in the locker room.
“Jarrett had surgery this morning in Dallas, in which they put a rod in his leg for the fibula fracture,” Kelly explained. “He’ll spend the next couple of nights there. Just talked to him, got off the phone. His spirits are good. You know, that’s a process that could take four to six months. But obviously a big loss for us.”
Kelly also talked about the loss of Smith, whose injury became an emotional moment during halftime.
“I usually don’t use a win‑one‑for‑the‑Gipper talk, and I don’t want to equate it in those terms, but generally speaking, we talked about losing Danny and in particular that he probably wasn’t going to play again,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room, because they love Danny Smith and what he’s done for our program as a dedicated player for Notre Dame. He loves Notre Dame, and we’ve seen him grow as a person and as a player and he’s going to be sorely missed.”
Giving up big third and fourth down conversions. For as well as the Irish defense played, they gave up two critical conversions on third and fourth down. The Sun Devils converted a clutch fourth down beating Austin Collinsworth in man coverage, and then found a hole in Notre Dame’s zone defense on third and 20, especially back-breaking considering that the Irish called a timeout to get on the same page before the play, and ASU tied the game later on that drive.
Add in some uneven play by both Collinsworth and Matthias Farley and there’s still plenty of work to be done by the back end of the defense. As many wondered, Kelly was asked about the progress of Max Redfield, wondering what could be taking so long for the young freshman.
“He’s getting closer and closer,” Kelly said of Redfield. “There’s so many calls, so many things going on out there. It’s a quarterback position when you’re out there at that safety position. It’s not just dropping into cover two.”
Nick Martin’s struggles. With multiple snap infraction calls and some confusion on another false start call, it appears that his match-up with Will Sutton kept Martin’s attention divided.
It wasn’t all bad for Martin. Sutton made just three tackles on the night, with one coming on TJ Jones’ punt return.
Other than Kyle Brindza’s snap-hook mulligan on his first field goal attempt, that he more than made up for with his clutch kicking the rest of the game, the ugly category is going to stay deservedly empty.