After a miserable September, the Irish kicked off October in a far more fitting fashion. Their 50-33 win, a much-needed victory after a week of chaos inside the Gug, hopefully served to settle down a program that has had to restructure its coaching staff and revise its goals before the season’s first month was finished.
While it’s a short-term band-aid if there ever was one, the victory gets the program back on course. It makes a bowl appearance more probably than not, and it gives a young Irish roster some positive affirmations.
So before we turn the page on the Orange, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Equanimeous St. Brown. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver is building confidence by the bushel. At least he should be. Because at a position where most expected the W to be the weakness, St. Brown is the Irish’s No. 1 receiver.
That leap was something that some saw coming after hints during a freshman season where St. Brown’s practice exploits were rumored. But a slow spring and the ascent of Kevin Stepherson in the spring had few talking about the sophomore. But with six touchdowns and 541 yards through four games, St. Brown is on track for a monster season.
Donte Vaughn. The true freshman cornerback led the defense in snaps, playing all 78 for the Irish. And for the most part he acquitted himself quite nicely.
The lanky, 6-foot-2 coverman spent a large portion of the afternoon matched up against Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo, and for the most part he held him in check. That was a battle Brian Kelly seemed fairly comfortable about the freshman’s ability to hold up—so good that they slid Cole Luke inside to the nickel and kept Vaughn matched up with Syracuse’s most dangerous weapon, a guy putting up All-American numbers through the season’s first quarter.
Vaughn might have solidified a starting role for the remainder of the season.
Te’von Coney. Moved around the field, Coney was at his most impactful on Saturday afternoon, making seven official tackles and multiple times blowing up a play at the point of attack.
Schematically it was wonderful to see Coney moved all over the field, at times lining up over a wide receiver in a bunch formation, destroying blocks as the Orange tried to beat him with a few quick throws, all of which Coney did a great job covering.
Given the chance to start for Brian VanGorder after Greer Martini played a tough Texas game, Coney has struggled with consistency since then. But against Syracuse, he looked like the kind of “in space” linebacker who had very high expectations before this season.
Dexter Williams. Given the chance after a nice game against Duke, Williams made the most out of his opportunity—his 59-yard touchdown run a gain that salvaged the rushing attack.
It also turned the running back race on its head. Williams continues to move up the depth chart, likely closer to being the starter than the third-stringer at this point. And Kelly gave Williams credit for the development he’s shown on and off the field.
“He’s gotten bigger and stronger and faster, but where I see it is off the field. He’s grown in maturity, and I think that that’s translated itself on the field,” Kelly said on Sunday.
“He comes to practice every day with great energy and enthusiasm and I think that that has a lot to do with him being very comfortable here at Notre Dame. But let’s not mistake the fact that he’s also put on about 15 pounds. He’s explosive, and that’s all because he’s made that commitment to obviously Notre Dame and himself.”
The Big Chunk Offensive Plays. Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams and Kevin Stepherson all took big plays to the house. And those four scores did plenty to erase some of the other inefficiencies in the offensive performance.
A year after the Irish had the most explosive offense in school history, big plays won the day. And they were a sight for sore eyes. Even better? All three of these playmakers are underclassmen.
* When Jay Hayes began to emerge as a starting candidate for the weakside starting defensive end position, it always seemed like a curious fit. That explains why Hayes was used differently this weekend, and still found a way to notch nearly two dozen snaps.
“He did some pretty good things. He’s a big physical kid,” Kelly said.
Kelly talked about Hayes’ challenge as a “tweener,” not quite a three-technique, and not really a weakside defensive end, either. But with the Irish needed to be tougher at the point of attack, Hayes gave them a boost.
* I’ve probably set the bar too high, but you’ve got to include DeShone Kizer in the “good” if he throws for the third-highest yardage total in school history. It wasn’t a perfect afternoon in the offense, but he made some really nice throws and he played a second half that Kelly really liked.
* The run defense took a nice step forward, limiting big plays and featuring some impressive work by Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, James Onwualu and Coney. Making Syracuse one-dimensional was key and credit the Irish front seven for doing that.
* Jarron Jones is the best kick blocker I’ve watched. His ability to both get a push and use his length to elevate sure is a nice luxury. That two-point swing was huge.
* You can’t get done with the good without mentioning Greg Hudson. It must’ve been a great week for the former Notre Dame linebacker who did a great job being a team player this week.
The Slow Start on Defense. It looked like things were headed in a very bad direction after watching the defense the first two series. Quick strike touchdowns. Free runners streaking vertically through the secondary. And whatever changes dialed up midweek looked like bad ideas.
But the Irish found their footing and actually had a pretty impressive outing, especially in the second half. But what a crazy start to the football game—with points hitting the board like a pinball machine.
The Run Blocking. It’s going to be an important week for Harry Hiestand’s troops. Because North Carolina State has a solid defensive line—much better than Syracuse. And take away two big runs and the Irish ground game was really mediocre, getting no push in the trenches and failing to win as they attacked the edges of the Orange defense.
Colin McGovern tapped out as he tried to fight through a high-ankle sprain. Hunter Bivin was the next man in and struggled at times. Alex Bars got noticed a few times for the wrong reasons, too.
If this season has done anything, it’s served as a reminder that last year’s offensive line was incredible and that the Irish miss first-rounder Ronnie Stanley and second-rounder Nick Martin.
The False Start Penalties. The next guy to jump offsides on 3rd-and-less-than-five should get stuck carrying the dirty laundry back to campus. Notre Dame’s defensive front—certainly a group eager to impressive—wasn’t all that sharp on Eric Dungey’s hard count.
New Rule: If you can pass admissions at Notre Dame, you should be able to watch the football and not bite on the hard count on 3rd-and-short.
The targeting penalty. Devin Studstill getting thrown out of the game—after a replay official triggered the review—was all the worst parts of a rule that seems to be good sense, but rarely gets properly enforced.
Listening to Kelly postgame, you could hear a head coach who was clearly frustrated, with the loss of Studstill a huge impact on an already young and inexperienced secondary.
“He was definitely not targeting. I don’t understand the rule,” Kelly said.
That was one ugly win. And that’s a good thing. Because for the past few seasons we’ve had a hard time remembering that an ugly win is a good thing, and too often we’ve gotten wrapped up in style points as most struggled to enjoy Saturdays where the Irish sang the fight song postgame but didn’t play up to their potential.
Well, one terrible September goes a long way toward a remedy.
With next weekend’s kickoff set for noon, the Irish dodge a primetime bullet that usually comes with a highly-ranked Irish team going on the road. That’s mostly a good thing, especially if the Wolfpack—and their fans— find themselves a little slow rolling out of bed.
But at this point, there’s no such thing as a bad win. So good, bad, or ugly—any way to get it done will be good enough for this crew.