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Things We Learned: Confounding Notre Dame ‘gets the job done’

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PALO ALTO, Calif. — When Notre Dame freshman defensive end Isaiah Foskey notched the tackle on the final play of Saturday’s 45-24 Irish victory, both sidelines took to the field to exchange postgame pleasantries, just as they do every week. Photographers and reporters milled about their fringes, looking for that unexpected photo or interaction that can shed narrative on the preceding football game, just as they do every week.

Then Stanford Stadium’s stands flowed onto the field, as well. One could be forgiven for thinking Notre Dame fans were storming The Farm, as they certainly outnumbered the Cardinal faithful by game’s end, if not all afternoon. Of course, winning as a three-possession favorite does not warrant charging the field, nor was the seats’ emptying anything but a passive action.

It was a confounding scene in every regard. Confounding that Stanford fell so quickly to 4-8 that neither its fans nor, seemingly, its stadium operations bothered to show up for the season finale. Confounding that a 10-win Notre Dame season garnered such a shoulder shrug of a reaction that those fans taking the field were more in a surprised daze to have field access than they were celebrating the first win in Northern California since 2007. Confounding that one of only seven teams to win 10-plus games each of the last three seasons now enters what could be a tumultuous December.

Such as 2019 went for the Irish.

The only aspect of the moment that made sense was Foskey getting the tackle, in fact notching takedowns on the game’s final two plays to put a bow on his punt block star turn, emphasizing how good Notre Dame’s defense both is and will be. Its offense, well, cue up that confounding description again, even as it averaged a Brian Kelly Era high of 37.1 points per game, a school record when focusing on 12-game regular seasons. (Only 1968 and 1992 featured higher averages in the modern era.)

“Each year, an offense takes its shape based upon who the players are that step up,” Kelly said. “We’re a big-play offense with Chase Claypool and younger players have emerged through the season, and in the last five games it’s been (sophomore receiver) Braden Lenzy. …

“Big-play capabilities, a tight end that can manage the chains for you, and a capable running game when needed to be called upon.”

None of Kelly’s description was inaccurate, even after the Irish struggled with stagnation once again for much of the first half. Claypool continued his transcendent season with two touchdowns, three of junior tight end Cole Kmet’s catches produced first downs while the other two created third-and-shorts, and Notre Dame rushed for 5.1 yards per carry and 190 yards, including 89 in the fourth quarter alone.

That offense found a groove in November, a stretch that, though too late for greater concerns, directly coincided with Lenzy’s gameday contributions, gaining 279 yards in four games and scoring twice. (Lenzy missed the Duke game due to fatigue issues.) Compare that productivity to Lenzy’s impact, or lack thereof, in the two Irish losses this year: one touch for one yard at Michigan, a concussion preventing him from traveling to Georgia.

Irish sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy’s impact in November played a key role in Notre Dame finally finding some semblance of offensive consistency. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Lenzy’s absence in Athens, more than the entire offense’s no-show in Ann Arbor, may be the lasting “What if?” from Notre Dame’s 2019. The Irish knew better than to try to run against the Bulldogs in the 23-17 loss. They had hoped to use Lenzy to boost the ground game, showcasing his speed in some end-around looks, the ones that created a 51-yard touchdown against USC and a 61-yard score against Boston College. He may not have been able to outrun all of Georgia’s defense, but his threat to the edges also loosens up defenses in the middle. That created space for Notre Dame’s running backs against the Cardinal — Tony Jones, Jafar Armstrong and C’Bo Flemister combining for 115 yards on 22 rushes, none overwhelmingly effective but overall productive enough.

This became the needed reality for the Irish offense this season. It could find ways to do damage — How else does Ian Book throw 33 touchdowns and run for four more? — but its dynamism came in only fits and starts, ranked No. 47 in the country with 429.4 yards per game, compared to that scoring average of 37.1 points per game ranking No. 14. It was rarely pretty, and how it worked was often unclear, but it did work.

“I feel like game-to-game, it’s different,” Kmet said. “I think we’re just gritty in that sense. Whatever comes up and whatever’s working for us, we go with. Something may not be working one day and it may be working the next. We kind of just go with the flow in that way.

“We’re not perfect all the time, but we get the job done.”

Much time can be and has been spent praising Notre Dame’s defense under coordinator Clark Lea — “What he really does well is adapt in-game to situations,” Kelly said of the Irish holding Stanford scoreless for nearly 40 minutes after initially giving up 17 points in 20 minutes — but Kmet’s summation of the offense can apply to the whole team and season, despite the 5-0 November offering reasons for optimism.

Notre Dame was not perfect in 2019, literally or figuratively, but it largely got the job done. Future perfection will hinge on the young promise represented by Foskey, Lenzy and Flemister. It may or may not include senior quarterback Ian Book, whose confidence begets a calm approach, in Kelly’s opinion.

How a senior quarterback “in a great place” with the likes of Claypool and Kmet at his disposal still leads to an inconsistent offense will remain confounding until flashing reliably with Lenzy and Kmet in nine months, presuming this coming month does not rob the Irish of too much of the stability so many programs envy.