Notre Dame had little trouble running the ball at Louisville in its 35-17 Labor Day victory, yet rather than lean into the ground game, the Irish seemed to force passes throughout the first half. It was fair to wonder, why not run the Cardinals into the ground?
On three touchdown drives before halftime, Notre Dame gained 162 yards on 14 rushes, an average of 11.57 yards per carry, while attempting five passes (including a sack). On the five other scoreless drives, senior quarterback Ian Book dropped back to pass 11 times, compared to nine rushing plays.
It seemed justified to think Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long was refusing to adapt to a soft defensive front. But what if it had nothing to do with Louisville? If/when this pattern repeats itself Saturday against New Mexico (2:30 ET; NBC), it may be foresight, not stubbornness.
No. 3 Georgia gave up 116 rushing yards on 30 carries to Vanderbilt in its opener, followed by all of 23 yards on 27 attempts to Murray State last week. No. 7 Notre Dame is unquestionably better than both the Commodores and the Racers, but it is still unlikely to set an offensive tone via the ground game against the Bulldogs.
Long’s first priority is certainly to outscore the Lobos, just as it was to outpace the Cardinals, but the Irish should be able to do that any which way they choose. Notre Dame was and will be better served working on its passing game rhythm, giving it a better chance at getting down the field a few times against Georgia’s stellar defense. (This is where a cornucopia of stats and rankings praising the Bulldogs would be used if a month further into the season, but all such numbers are skewed only two weeks into the year.)
Perhaps because he has been without two of his top receiving options, not to mention his best pass-catching running back, maybe simply due to offseason rust, or possibly just because these things happen, Book needs to find that rhythm against New Mexico.
By his own admission, it was not on hand against Louisville, especially early.
“I felt a little bit rusty, but I’ve got a lot to learn from it,” Book said following that victory and his 14-of-23 for 193 yards stat line.
The deceptive part of those numbers is Book went 7-of-11 for 130 yards and a touchdown without taking a sack in the second half. Long’s insistence on working through jitters was already reaping rewards. Certainly not enough, though, considering Book did not attempt a single pass 20 yards downfield.
The Irish presumably can run all over New Mexico if they so choose, and there will be value to getting certain running backs those carries, but next week’s top-10 matchup will hinge on Book’s performance. That will take priority for Long, and it will include both a semblance of a downfield attack and better third-down diagnoses.
Notre Dame went just 5-of-12 on third downs on Labor Day, and when asked Thursday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly could rattle off the mistakes on those seven failures from the top of his head. Sure, that should be somewhat expected of a football coach, but it also reflected how much Notre Dame focused on those miscues during its idle week. This was not a 12-day stretch of rest and relaxation. The Irish practiced daily, scrimmaged and dwelled on the season-opening lackluster performance.
On the surface, those third-down struggles traced to the offensive line not getting enough of a push. That was, at most, only part of the problem. Kelly said three of the 3rd-and-short failures should not have been runs at all.
“The ball should have gone out on the perimeter.”
Kelly did not specifically mention Book there, but the implication was clear. The wrong choice was made on a run-pass option. Two more of the shortfalls were the results of a failure to function through the air.
“We were open and didn’t execute quite as well.”
Again, that sentence rather implicitly looks at Book.
A year ago, these were the exact strengths that elevated Book above Brandon Wimbush. The former made the right reads, made the right passes and made them accurately. Failing to do so repeatedly at Louisville was forgivable; failing to do so next weekend will lead to a blowout. That leaves Saturday to return to form.
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That form may or may not involve junior tight end Cole Kmet. If it does, Book will suddenly have a grouping of tight ends to aid his cause in Kmet, junior Brock Wright and sophomore Tommy Tremble, the breakout star from two weeks ago.
“Tommy still brings that vertical threat,” Kelly said Monday. “Cole brings both (a vertical threat and an ability to block), and then Brock is certainly extremely gifted in those areas. So three tight ends makes us a really deep team at that position.”
With or without Kmet, Book’s form will set a tone for Notre Dame, one that will be needed in Athens and one that Kelly knows his other veterans need to follow. The likes of fifth-year receiver Chris Finke, and senior defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem all underperformed in the opener.
“A lot of our veterans got caught up in a little bit too much of wanting to make plays instead of being much more focused on their technique,” Kelly said. “Consequently, (that) got them into some trouble.
“They did a great job this past off week getting focused back on their technique and I’m confident you’ll see that this weekend.”
This may all seem a bit much to ask from a game against an overmatched opponent like New Mexico, but this is the only game between now and a primetime date between the hedges. Not that some work for the younger players should not be found, as well.
As laid out earlier in the week, the Irish will need to find reps for inexperienced players at both running back and defensive tackle. In particular, freshman running back Kyren Williams should get a few chances to redeem himself for a dropped pass at Louisville.
“Kyren Williams just needs to play and make a couple plays,” Kelly said Thursday. “If you see Kyren on the field Saturday, it’ll be make a catch, make a run.
“Where does confidence come from? A lot of these guys are four- and five-star players and they were really confident in high school, but they go onto a different stage in college football and they have a lot of confidence in themselves, but they need to see that confidence realized with making a play. All [Williams] needs to do is make a play. … It’s about making a play and gaining that self-confidence that they had, realize that I am the player I thought I was.”
Kelly was talking about Williams, but the sentiment could probably be applied roster-wide after the Labor Day frustrations and with Georgia looming.