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

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The Shamrock Series was a snoozer. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t refreshing. After all, that’s what a good nap does. Recharge the batteries, unplug for a moment, and wake-up refreshed and ready to tackle what’s ahead.

Let’s hope that’s what Army does for this Irish team. Because what’s ahead looks daunting, even if Virginia Tech had its own problems with the triple option.

With two weeks left in the regular season and Notre Dame needing to sweep weekends with the Hokies and that scrappy upstart in South-Central Los Angeles, a postseason bowl berth may only get the Irish an extra handful of practices before a tier-two destination, but the reward will be much greater.

Because in a year like this, that’s enough to feel good about the season—at least from a momentum perspective. (Relax, everyone—just from a momentum perspective.)

So with the Hokies preparing for South Bend and Senior Day ahead, let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame vs. Army.

 

THE GOOD

James Onwualu. This might be one of those seasons that gets overlooked because of the performance of the team as a whole. But Onwualu’s senior year is everything you could’ve asked for from the captain, leading the defense in TFLs and just a single pass break up behind the team leader, his diversity on display both on the stat sheet as well as on the field.

On Saturday, Onwualu led the Irish in tackles with 13 stops and also made a few key plays behind the line of scrimmage. He was comfortable in coverage and chasing down the quarterback. He played like a natural at a position that was hardly his first stop.

Onwualu came into Notre Dame as a wide receiver after playing everywhere on the high school field. After starting games as a freshman (mostly for his blocking), he moved across the line of scrimmage and immediately found his way onto the field, starts in all four seasons in one of the more impressive developmental trajectories we’ve seen in the Kelly era.

 

Durham SmytheLooks who’s getting at home in the opponent’s end zone? Smythe, a senior we’ve waited to see break loose for the better part of his four seasons, did so against Army, two catches and two touchdowns.

End zone safety valve is a much better place to be than thanking quarterback DeShone Kizer for saving his rear end after his goal line fumble against Miami very nearly put the game at risk. And after two-straight games with scores, Smythe is on his way to getting some of that missing tight end production back.

Smythe had his big game a few hours from his hometown, scoring twice in front of family and friends. And while he won’t become the next Tyler Effect or Kyle Rudolph, Brian Kelly praised the veteran for carrying the load this season, especially after losing Alizé Jones before the season.

“Durham is a veteran. He’s seen a lot of things, played a lot of football,” Kelly said. “I’ll tell you his biggest contribution is he’s a guy that has to do a lot for us, whether he’s blocking or running vertical routes or option routes. He’s asked to do a lot. He’s a committed player. He’s high character and well-respected by his teammates.”

 

Julian Love. Notre Dame’s freshman earned himself a heap of praise postgame and I was ready to anoint him the next big thing in the Irish secondary, too. Even if his stat-line didn’t wow you—three tackles (half a TFL) and an interception—his ability to step in at safety and play strong in support gives you a taste of just how cerebral Love is as a football player.

Love led the Irish defense from a PFF grading perspective, a credit to his job in coverage as well as his steady run support. And after the game, he earned a whole lot of praise from his teammates.

“If he can keep it up and still have the off-the-field traits and still work hard, I think he definitely has the potential to be a captain,” fellow cornerback Cole Luke told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

“To a lot of people football is important but it’s not everything. To Julian football is important and it’s damn near everything. It’s very close. He shows it in practice, he shows it on the field too.”

There isn’t anything that Love does that jumps out at you. He’s not the biggest, fastest, or freakiest guy on the field. But as this secondary looks for a new foundation next season, Love might be a key piece, capable of playing just about anywhere.

 

Quick Hits: 

Another option opponent, another monster game by Greer Martini. His two-play sequence essentially shut down an Army red zone appearance, with Martini stuffing back-to-back plays for the Black Knights in scoring range.

Let’s thankfully put to rest the Jarron Jones doesn’t like playing against the option. (What defensive lineman does?) The fifth-year senior played 20 snaps—a handful of them with the game well out of reach and he was productive in run support. He only made two tackles, but he graded out as the team’s second-best front seven player in run support.

The postgame, he won with this tweet.

DeShone Kizer‘s completion percentage was only a shade above 60 percent, but he seemed better on the possession throws and once again was rock-solid on third down. Watching Kizer work through his reads and get to both sides of the field was a nice benefit to the offensive line holding its own.

He certainly doesn’t have that next gear, but Tarean Folston sure looks smooth running the football. He’ll be an interesting fifth-year candidate, a year of eligibility remaining but uncertain to win any more carries.

What we see from Folston these next two weeks is anybody’s guess. But it’d be great to see him pick up some critical carries, and even better if he’s able to add a spark.

It was very good to see Malik Zaire out there running around with the football. Well deserved, even if he didn’t get a chance to air it out.

Welcome to the starting lineup, Mark Harrell. The fifth-year senior finally earned a start and backed it up with a strong performance in the trenches. At this point, you almost have to think that Harrell will get the chance to do it again against Virginia Tech, the right guard job up for grabs it appears.

C.J. Sanders. Can’t ask to start a football game any better.

 

THE BAD

For the first time this year, nobody stands out for solo billing. But let’s run through a few (mostly ticky-tacky) issues I spotted:

Center Sam Mustipher had another clean game snapping the football. But he had his hands full with nose tackle Andrew McLean. Mustipher graded out really poorly per PFF, giving McLean his best game on the season by a multiple of four.

Kevin Stepherson looks like the real deal on the outside. But if he wants to emulate Will Fuller, letting sure touchdowns slide through his hands is the one part of Fuller’s game he could ignore.

I liked the fact that Jon Bonner got a ton of snaps on the interior of the defensive line. I’d have liked it better if he played a little bit better against the run.

 

UGLY

Glad to leave this empty for a week. Especially glad not to include those Shamrock Series uniforms. They might have been my favorite of the group.