The celebration was likely cathartic. The night of, less a time to dwell on the negative, but rather let loose after finally—finally—winning a tight game.
Of course, that doesn’t make Sunday morning’s tape session any easier. It doesn’t erase some of the frustrating mistakes that kept Miami in the game early as they were wobbling on the ropes, propped the Canes up with special teams blunders, and very nearly handed them the win until snapping back to reality.
In other words, the win was good. But there was plenty of bad and ugly mixed in there as well.
Let’s get to it.
Jarron Jones. The afternoon Jones put together was nothing short of extraordinary. The fifth-year senior earned his first game ball, and had the most tackles-for-loss of any FBS player in a single game this season. And it wasn’t against a directional school, it was Miami.
Jones was too good to take off the field, playing a season-high 54 snaps, far and away the most he’s played this season. But he was asked to hold the point of attack and do so in a game where Daniel Cage left the field after just 22 plays and went into the team’s concussion protocol.
Jones gave the game ball to his mom. Which is always the right decision.
The Defense. Give it up to the rebuilt Irish defense, essentially winning the game for Notre Dame by playing an absolutely dominant first 20-plus minutes and closing the game off with a big-time sack of Brad Kaaya. The Irish dominated at the point of attack with 12 TFLs, the most the Irish have made since 2005. The secondary held up, playing plenty of man coverage and not giving up a single catch of 25 yards or more.
In short, if this is what an on-the-fly staff can do with this crew, there might be some hope that this could be a job that’ll attract a high-level national candidate. Because there’s young talent on this defense. And we’re watching it come together quite nicely.
Kelly applauded the defensive game plan postgame. And no play epitomized the job the rebuilt staff did more than the game’s final snap—when the Irish caught the Miami offensive line with a delayed Nyles Morgan blitz, a sack that ended the game.
The Resolve. Could you have blamed the Irish for giving up? Because looking at my Twitter mentions and the general well-being of fans watching this game go backwards in real-time, it was ugly out there. Very ugly, with most of you having given up.
So while we can nitpick about the way the Irish won (I’m not sure this resolve could’ve handled a Miami recovery on Durham Smythe‘s goal line fumble), the Irish were technically due a break, and credit should go to this young team for not packing it in after another week where crisis hit.
Tackling. How much better did this team tackle? Watching Drue Tranquill come up and hit, Nyles Morgan make eight solo stops and the young secondary do their job limiting yards after catches, it was a nice piece of in-season progress for a group that looked woeful early in the season.
DeShone Kizer. He missed some throws—something Kelly almost made light of Saturday night. But he also kept the Irish on schedule, out of long down-and-distances, and did a much better job of converting on third down, 8 of 16 on the day.
After feeling like he was the lone contributor on the offense the past few weeks, the Irish seemed to almost purposely spread it around—10 different players making catches and Josh Adams supplying the game’s defining offensive play. More importantly, Kizer didn’t turn the ball over, a mistake that would’ve been too much to overcome the way the Irish were already giving it away on special teams.
Devin Studstill might not have had his name called once on the NBC broadcast. And you know what? That’s a good thing. The Irish safety play in the run game was critically important, and Studstill was a big part of that.
Julian Love & Donte Vaughn. Just a reminder, those are freshman cornerbacks—and a duo that really didn’t play much until a quarter of the way into the season. But Love and Vaughn held their own out there against a talented Miami receiving corps, with both Love and Vaughn making very nice plays on the football.
Kevin Stepherson & Equanimeous St. Brown. Two young receivers making big plays. St. Brown’s touchdown catch was critical and Stepherson showed why Brian Kelly likes him outside at the X receiver spot.
The 27-point run. When this team goes cold, it goes ice cold. And while they managed to get out of the tailspin before they crashed and burned, these type of swings are just so, so damaging.
Want to know how you let a team back in the game? You take a hot start and you go like this after thre-straight scoring drives:
Punt, FG, Fumble, Punt, Halftime, Punt, Turnover on Downs, Punt, Fumble.
Thirteen possessions. Three to start the game with scores. Two to end the game with scores. And then the nine in the middle. Yuck.
Seniors Coming up Short. With the game at pivotal places, three veterans had a chance to do big things. Instead, they did the opposite.
With two receivers for one defensive back, captain Torii Hunter Jr. had to make a block to spring C.J. Sanders on 4th-and-1. Instead, he swung and missed and Sanders was drilled for a loss, a huge momentum swing that had Miami tie the game with a field goal heading into the 4th quarter.
Senior tight end Durham Smythe made the bone-headed decision to extend the ball for the goal line as he leapt for the end zone. Instead, he fumbled away what could’ve been the game until DeShone Kizer bailed him out.
(Smythe took to Twitter in appreciation, a move I respect immensely.)
Lastly, captain Mike McGlinchey made a head-scratching mistake, jumping offsides when the Irish had the ball at the Miami one-yard line with a chance to give the Irish some serious breathing room by punching in a touchdown. Instead, the veteran inexplicably jumped, pushing the Irish back outside the 5-yard line, forcing the Irish to make a special teams play—something they struggled to do most of the day.
All three of these mistakes are things that happen in football games. But they’re mistakes from a young team you expect out of your young players, not three veteran leaders.
The offensive line is still really inconsistent. And a look at the postgame grades from PFF tell you why. McGlinchey had his worst game of the season. On the other side, Bars played his best game since Duke, a big afternoon for the first-year starter in a tough matchup. After Colin McGovern only lasted five plays before going into the concussion protocol, Hunter Bivin struggled badly at right guard—the second really tough game in a row he’s played.
Next to him, Sam Mustipher got his bad snaps out of his system. But he got dominated, according to PFF’s grading. Put it into context: Jarron Jones made Miami center Nick Linder look like a high schooler out there, grading out as a team-worst -4.7. On the other side of the ball, Mustipher had a -4.6.
Troy Pride, there will be days like this. The freshman struggled in coverage and got picked on by Miami’s receiving corps, targeted five times and giving up four catches. Throw in a pass interference call and the muffed punt that hit him and it was a tough day at the office from the freshman.
The special teams. At this point, it’s difficult to ignore. Scott Booker’s special teams are horrendous, and it’s a really horrible mix of bad execution, shoddy fundamentals and back-breaking mistakes.
The Irish have plenty of young players on the field and it’s easy to say mistakes by underclassmen like Pride, Jalen Elliott and C.J. Sanders are part of the maturation process. But after losing the NC State game on a rugby punt call, the Irish almost lost this one because of four crucial mistakes—the muff, getting caught on an onside kick (something Mark Richt acknowledged that they saw on film from previous weeks), another blocked punt and Sanders’ inexplicable gift to the Canes for a go-ahead score.
Booker is a young coach. He’s a good recruiter. He’s got a harder job than usual with the tight end missing Alizé Jones and no other coach able to take over the special teams. Both Mike Elston and Mike Denbrock have experience coaching the unit, but Elston runs the Irish recruiting efforts and Denbrock is the team’s play caller and associate head coach.
Kelly has defended Booker publicly. Then again, he did the same thing before relieving Brian VanGorder of his duties.