Leftovers & Links: The folly of Notre Dame’s slow start


The problem with a slow start is not its inherent effect on a game, but its absolute effect on perception. Notre Dame may have gained only seven yards in Saturday’s first quarter against Duke, trailing 3-0 at the break when the University announced a contract extension for Irish head coach Brian Kelly, but that plodding beginning hardly held back Notre Dame as much as it initially seemed.

The Irish had an 87 percent chance of winning when looking at the stats afterward, arguably a better description of the game as a whole than the 27-13 final score. Looking from a more practical view, from the 11:29 mark in the third quarter onward, the Blue Devils never possessed the ball within one score of Notre Dame. These are the effects of out-gaining an opponent by 107 yards, by gaining a full yard more per play, by winning the turnover battle.

None of that happening in the first quarter — when Duke outgained the Irish by a mere 144 yards — does not change the fact that it all happened.

One cannot outright dismiss the offensive line’s indifference to blocking in the first frame of the season, and inconsistent starts are a week or two away from becoming the most consistent piece of fifth-year quarterback Ian Book’s career. When acknowledging them, though, one also cannot forget to point out the line found its footing to clear the way for 192 rushing yards on 39 attempts (sacks adjusted), a 4.9 yards per carry average, and Book averaged 8.5 yards per passing attempt, a marked uptick from last year’s 7.6. (For further context: Book averaged 8.8 yards per attempt in 2018.)

“It’s difficult to duplicate game-like speed when you haven’t had that for such a long time,” Kelly said. “My expectation was that it was going to be a process, that we just had to be patient.”

That patience is not just required of Notre Dame. Similar sentiments will come from across the country for at least the next few weeks, and pending a Big Ten change of heart today, perhaps the next few months in staggered servings.

There were only 15 games this weekend featuring two FBS-level teams. All due offense to UTEP, that would be more accurately described as 14 games. Among them, five quarterbacks entered the year with reasonable expectations of making national headlines. Including Book, three of them struggled, at least compared to those preconceptions.

Book: 19-of-31 for 263 passing yards with one touchdown and one interception.
North Carolina sophomore Sam Howell: 25-of-34 for 294 passing yards with one touchdown and two interceptions; first game in his career without multiple touchdown passes.
Iowa State junior Brock Purdy: 16-of-35 for 145 passing yards with no touchdowns and one interception in a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.

Without 21 fourth-quarter points, the Tar Heels would have been in a tight game against Syracuse, winning 31-6 in the end. To be clear, the Orange are likely to be one of the worst Power Five teams in the country this year. But like Book, Howell found his footing. That patience is not an Irish specialty, though it is something Book noted.

“Even when we might have had a slow start in the first half, I didn’t see anybody shy away,” he said. “Everybody was like, ‘Okay, let’s get ready to go. We have a whole second quarter, third quarter and fourth quarter to go. We’re fine. There’s no reason to freak out.’ …

“That’s what I see in this team. I don’t see anybody giving up and I just see the will to win in all these guys.”

That “will to win” may have been for naught if not for Notre Dame’s special teams.

Book said he had no idea the fake punt was coming, probably best for his stress levels as the Irish trailed and were about to attempt a trick play from their own 21-yard line.

“My thought process was, I hope the heck it works,” Kelly said. “… [Sophomore punter Jay Bramblett] is a very good athlete and you saw that he had to cut back to make that first down. Felt very confident that he was going to get an opportunity to convert that, and we needed a little bit of momentum so I just felt like it was the right time to make the call.”

Bramblett had already punted three times in the first quarter, allowing only eight yards in returns and pinning two of them within the 20-yard line. He was not the only Notre Dame kicker in stride from the outset.

Neither of Irish senior kicker Jonathan Doerer’s field goals were the prettiest of his career, but they both went through the uprights. That was not something to take for granted.

Patience, adjustments and special teams were enough to push Notre Dame to 1-0. That record is more important than a nominal bump up to No. 7 in the polls, a three-spot rise due entirely to the Big Ten’s and Pac-12’s absences, now in effect in the polls, unlike in the preseason.

One last thing, how can we creatively remind you this weekend’s game against South Florida (2:30 ET) is on the USA Network due to a conflict with the U.S. Open? Does this suffice? Great.

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