The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern

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A little less than 48 hours after Notre Dame’s loss to Northwestern, it doesn’t seem like too many people are over it. So let’s dispense with the introductions and pull the band-aid.

Here’s the good, bad and ugly from Saturday’s disastrous 43-40 loss to the Wildcats.

 

GOOD

Will Fuller. Right now, Notre Dame’s sophomore wide receiver has 13 touchdowns, tied for the lead in the NCAA, and on pace to break Golden Tate’s record of 15 scores in his Biletnikoff Award-winning junior season.

Once again, Fuller had a monster day, scoring three times on his nine catches for 159 yards. He beat a good Northwestern secondary on deep routes, screen routes and everything in between. He also dropped two or three balls, reminding you that Fuller is still a work-in-progress, an exciting proposition as we look to the future.

 

Tarean Folston. The sophomore running back bounced back, running for 106 yards on 20 carries Saturday. He scored a nifty touchdown on a spin move at the goal line, and also showed the type of vision and patience that’s become a staple of his game.

While it feels like we saw too much of Cam McDaniel or grumbled every time Folston wasn’t in the backfield, he had five times as many rushing opportunities as McDaniel, who gained 12 yards on his four runs — including the game-turning fumble when the Irish were trying to run out the clock.

 

Matthias Farley. Another game, another really big play for Farley, who is turning into one of the lone bright spots on a defense that’ll be discussed for much of the “Bad” section. The senior (with a fifth-year available) stepped in front of a pass near the Irish goal line and returned it 39 yards.

Farley is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. His 6.5 tackles-for-loss are also tied for the team lead. It’s been a nice bounce-back season for the veteran who struggled last year at safety.

 

Forcing Turnovers. Notre Dame forced four of them. (And nearly a fifth that would’ve iced the game if it didn’t bounce from the arms of two diving defenders and squirt out of bounds.)

And Austin Collinsworth’s scoop and score was the defense’s first touchdown after Max Redfield’s block on Devin Gardner nullified Elijah Shumate’s pick six.

 

BAD

The Defense. So it’s gotten ugly. Really ugly. Just how ugly? Historically ugly.

This five-game run is the worst in the history of Notre Dame football for allowing points. Per BlueandGold’s Lou Somogyi, the doldrums of 2007 saw the Irish give up 166 points to open the 2007 season. This five-game streak has seen the Irish give up 211.

To keep everything under this one stench-filled lid, let’s go through the bullet points.

  • Tackling. Boy, it got comical for a bit out there. For as nice of a season as Cole Luke has had, I think he’s still trying to drag down a receiver while futilely punching at the football. That’s not to say Luke was alone, as it was a group fail out there, as the Irish turned the least explosive offense in power-five football into a group of worldbeaters.
  • The First Half. Lord only knows how many more points Northwestern would’ve scored had they not gotten hit with a rash of the drops. But the Irish’s first-half effort against the Wildcats’ version of hurry-up was likely (hopefully) rock bottom for this group.Having rewatched the game twice over the weekend, I’ll spare the gory details. But the ground game had major breaches, the pass defense allowed the chains to move early and often (Northwestern converted just 8 of 20 third downs, but it sure felt like a lot more), and the situational awareness of this group continues to be really distressing.
  •  Injuries. I’m listing this third for those of you who like to take to the comments and accuse me of being too kind. But at this point, it’s difficult to call this defense Notre Dame’s, when in a perfect world half of this group would be watching and learning still.We’ll find out more about Sheldon Day’s future this season on Tuesday, as the junior defensive tackle had an MRI yesterday to take a look at his knee. The same with freshman tackle Daniel Cage, who has played some impressive snaps this season. But the front seven of this football team — a group that had no margin for error from a depth perspective during training camp — has hit a critical state.The secondary isn’t much better. Getting Austin Collinsworth back was a nice boost, but the captain isn’t a great fit as an “in space” defender. But when you’re counting on a guy with a shoulder harness and a cornerback with a broken foot to be two key components, it’s going to result in 10-catch days for Kyle Prater.

 

Kyle Brindza. Notre Dame’s senior specialist had a horrific day at the office. He missed two key field goals that ended up being critical points. He also struggled punting the football, with two big misses setting up the Wildcats with great field position.

Brindza had help — a botched hold by Malik Zaire set up Brindza’s blocked extra point. But the senior kicker hooked a 38-yard field goal as the first half ended that could’ve extended Notre Dame’s halftime lead to a touchdown. The senior kicker also missed a crucial field goal in overtime, hooking another ball left to gift wrap the Wildcats’ victory in their first possession of overtime.

Punting the football was also a struggle. Brindza’s first bad punt — a 27-yarder — gave Northwestern the ball near midfield. It didn’t bite the Irish, with the defense stopping the Wildcats on a missed pass on 4th-and-3 in the second quarter.

But on 4th-and-9 from the Northwestern 44, Brindza took the field with an 11-point lead and the opportunity to pin the Wildcats deep with six minutes left in the game. Instead, he shanked a 17-yarder that jump-started Northwestern, with the Wildcats going nine plays and 73-yards in just 1:58.

Notre Dame’s all-time leading field goal kicker is making just 57 percent of his kicks this year, dropping his career average down to a musty 72 percent. With the center exchange and holder problems the Irish have had, it’s certainly not all on him. But a key veteran on the Irish roster is struggling… a recurring theme that we’ll get to later.

 

Drue Tranquill. Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder tried to get a good football game out of Tranquill this weekend at safety, starting the freshman in place of Max Redfield. The move backfired in a big way, with Tranquill near or around many of the big Northwestern plays that went the Wildcats way.

On Sunday, Kelly explained his rationale for starting Tranquill.

“We thought that Drue gave us a better chance at that position,” Kelly said, a few questions before explaining the logic. “The game comes a little bit easier at times. Max is learning the game still. Drue has a little bit better feel for the game. It doesn’t mean he’s there. He certainly made a lot of mistakes in his first start. But we just felt like tackling and football knowledge, he may have been a guy that we wanted to give a shot, and we gave him a shot at starting, and now we’ll evaluate where we are at that position today and tomorrow.”

In defense of the decision, Kelly and VanGorder likely figured that a heavy dose of run plays and short passes would allow Tranquill to thrive in tight spaces, as he’s shown that ability through the earlier part of the season. But as a true, half-field safety, the freshman struggled mightily, showing a frustrating lack of success when it came to the basics of the position.

As a wake-up call to Redfield, this might work. We saw the sophomore make a big play on special teams and eventually work into the rotation at safety. But Tranquill sure isn’t a free safety — something Kelly said openly last month — and you have to wonder if Eilar Hardy will get some work against Louisville, even though he spent two months collecting dust away from the program while the academic investigation played out.

 

UGLY

The Guys in the Headsets. It was not a banner day for the guys in charge of the Irish football program. While thousands of angry diatribes have already beaten the decision to go for two points to death, it’s still a head-scratching decision by Brian Kelly that allowed the Wildcats to stay in the game and ultimately win it.

Pinning this defeat on one mistake is completely unfair though. It was a team loss, with the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline and in the box all sharing the blame.

But after 10 games, it’s clear that this coaching staff needs to protect the team from itself. Offensively, that means putting some shackles back on the unit, even if it takes away from the productivity. While the box score will show complete play-calling balance with both 40 runs and 40 passes, the red zone play-calling had some people scratching their heads and allowing this offense to continue to turn the ball over has people shockingly asking for a return to the vanilla days of yesteryear.

Defensively, it’s very difficult to put all of this on Brian VanGorder. Especially when the first-year coordinator has more first-year contributors on the field than players who actually know what they’re doing. But too often we saw a defensive front with just Nyles Morgan behind it, the type of alignment that everybody in the stadium knows won’t work. Epecially as the freshman still sees things for the first time.

Any talk of firing coaches or hypothetical hot seats is silly. I repeat. Any talk of firing coaches or hot seats is silly.

After all, the game plan was there for Notre Dame to win if the guys on the field even competently did their jobs. But sometimes you win by not putting yourself in a position to lose.

That might need to be the strategy moving forward.

 

Leadership. If this team is missing anything, it’s a strong leadership presence in the locker room. And if this team is crying out for one thing more obvious than anything else, it’s a leader among men on the field.

Yes, I know the Irish have Cam McDaniel, Austin Collinsworth, Sheldon Day and Nick Martin wearing the “C” on their chests. But there is a gulf between the guys leading the team on the field and the ones supposed to be leading it off of it, and that was apparent in a game like this one.

I am not in the locker room. And this isn’t a “call out” or some hand grenade meant to indict a team that by all reports is doing everything their coaching staff asks. But the best players on this roster aren’t the team’s best leaders, and that’s incredibly apparent in games where you need veteran leaders to lead by example on the field.

That didn’t happen on Saturday, with Cam McDaniel fumbling the game away in a kill-the-clock situation. Or kicker Kyle Brindza, a four-year veteran, and not just a specialist, punting and kicking Northwestern back into the football game. (The Irish field goal/PAT unit was on the field seven times. They scored four points and gave up two. That’s not good.)

It’s not all the captains fault. Austin Collinsworth scored a key touchdown, in his only true action this season after being injured in the days before the opener. Sheldon Day may be Notre Dame’s most unblockable defensive lineman, but his first sack of the season came not long before suffering an injury. Nick Martin’s leadership skills don’t likely extend beyond the offensive line, a product of starting just 10 games before this season and being in the shadow of his older brother for three seasons.

There was a lot of discussion about naming captains this preseason. Ultimately, Kelly decided on veteran leaders, naming four guys who have “been there” in McDaniel, Collinsworth, Martin and Day. But the “loyal soldiers” approach hasn’t exactly paid off. And you’re fair to wonder if not having Everett Golson and Joe Schmidt wearing Cs is hurting this program.

Golson has been the face of this team, wearing the struggles of the offense on a weekly basis. That ownership is recognized by his teammates. Schmidt was the MVP of the defense before his injury. A force of nature on and off the field, he’s far removed from any walk-on label that still sticks to him in the media.

One of the challenges of a young team is straddling the line between the present and the future. Nine of the top 10 leading tacklers on defense have eligibility remaining. Same with the offense, where only McDaniel, Ben Koyack and Christian Lombard exhaust their eligibility from the two-deep.

If the Irish want to find a way to be successful in these final two regular season games, they’re going to need to find leadership both on the field and in the locker room from an emerging cast of characters. Schmidt can’t do it, not with a cast on his leg.

But the opportunity is there for Everett Golson, Tarean Folston or Will Fuller to seize those reins on offense, demanding accountability from a group that hasn’t played with it. And after looking lost without Schmidt by his side, Jaylon Smith is the obvious answer on a defense searching desperately for one.

In times like these, a bunker mentality is needed. We’ll see who takes charge moving forward in a critical juncture for the program.