Things To Learn: Notre Dame seeks offensive, defensive consistency on conflicting timelines

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Somehow, Notre Dame beating Florida State 42-26 and rising to No. 4 in the (inconsequential) polls left an incomplete feeling for the Irish. Perhaps it was due to allowing 405 yards to the woebegone Seminoles, maybe it was because they fell behind throughout the first quarter, most likely it was the running game’s inability to dress up that final score with a touchdown in the final two minutes, despite having first-and-goal at the 10-yard line.

“If you would look at what we felt were some concerns from last week, we were trying to get the perfect call in there, and at times maybe didn’t have our players with their cleats in the ground,” head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “We’re going to be simpler, we’re going to attack the line of scrimmage, we’re going to be a physical football team.”

On the flipside, there were pluses to the showing; scoring 42 points would not have happened without them, of course.

Focusing on only one game, the most recent data point if not also a flawed one thanks to the tiered effects of Notre Dame’s coronavirus outbreak, mandates a focus on those successes and failures. The Irish offense revealed a capability not yet seen in 2020 and not consistently seen in 2019, while the defense offered a vulnerability not before witnessed during defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s tenure.

Tunneling in on one game like that is not the proper way to approach analyzing a season, particularly not one as fraught as 2020. Notre Dame’s week of practice leading into facing the Seminoles at times barely resembled practice, some players taxed with increased reps while those they filled in for were beset with an emphasis on conditioning.

“It was a different experience because you would go out there and you wouldn’t have the full squad, so you get a little bit more reps,” sixth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford said, adding those reps were beneficial for him while prepping for a spot-start at cornerback. “… When the guys came back, we made sure their conditioning level was up, their strength was up. That’s important right now.

“We have to worry about everyone’s health before we can put them on the field and winning games.”

That meant Crawford was back at corner while the Irish were without graduate transfer Nick McCloud, sophomore Cam Hart and freshman Clarence Lewis, just as they had been all week in practice. The sole cornerback remaining, sophomore Tariq Bracy, was coming off two weeks away from football himself.

“You get away from football for a few days, weeks, you’re not going to play the same at first,” Bracy said.

More than ever, this season should not be viewed linearly, but with a long view of its eventual, hopeful, tentative conclusion — one game influencing the opinions of past weeks, offering more insight to those events, and thus suggesting what may come next, those suggestions always hesitant at best.

As such, facing Louisville (1-3, 0-3 ACC) can paradoxically counteract the narrow view afforded by topping Florida State.

That begins, as most things in football do, with Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book, coming off a 16-of-25 showing for 201 yards and two touchdowns. They may seem modest stats, the yardage in particular, but when able to lean on the ground game to the tune of 353 yards, passing efficiency becomes paramount. Averaging eight yards per attempt fit that bill.

“Maybe a perspective that he had gained,” Kelly said after the game. “He was very calm in the pocket. I thought he saw the field well. He was aggressive in pushing the ball down the field. It was nice to see.

“If we continue to see that from Ian Book, he’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

To reach the wanted heights this season, Notre Dame needs Book to be more than a game manager, but less than a world-beater. The Irish offensive line might handle those duties all on its own. Days of 200+ yards on 25 or fewer attempts will suffice, and they may leave enough room for growth to satiate Book’s apparent wants.

“Whatever level people look at Ian Book and say he’s a B quarterback or he’s a B+ quarterback, in his mind, he wants to be an A+ quarterback,” Kelly said Thursday. “That is great because it always allows us for coaching and teaching on a day-to-day basis as it relates to, again, a position that is scrutinized so much on a day-to-day basis.”

That scrutiny should, in part, extend to Book’s receivers. Junior Braden Lenzy took pride this offseason in developing into a full-blown receiver, rather than merely a speed threat. That played into his decision to change to No. 0 from No. 25.

“When I looked at 25, it reminded me of who I was in high school and early on in college, just a sprinter, a runner, a track guy playing football,” he said before facing Florida State. “I thought getting a single digit number would make me feel more like a true receiver, which is what I feel like I’ve developed into.”

Taking an underneath pass through traffic into the end zone against the Seminoles was something a “true receiver” would do, and should do more often moving forward.

Similarly, Kelly publicly praising fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley as a “beast” following his five-catch, 107-yard career peak was praise meant more for McKinley’s own ears, in the room at the time, than the media on the other end of the Zoom conference. If Book is to continue to push the ball down the field, he will need a reliable and physical receiver to push to, a role to be filled by either McKinley or junior Kevin Austin, still a question mark coming off his August broken foot.

Louisville gives up 34.3 points per game, No. 63 of 76 teams to play to date, along with 233.0 passing yards per game. The Cardinals will give Book, Lenzy and McKinley opportunities to prove their work against the Seminoles was not a one-off but rather a suggestion of what awaits throughout October and into November.

That confidence will be necessary if Lea’s defense does not return to form. Admittedly, defensive personnel bore the brunt of the Notre Dame outbreak, which saw about 30 players test positive for the coronavirus and upward of 40 total have to miss two weeks of on-field work. (That is not to say the offense was immune, simply the minority in this instance.) If Allen Iverson had offered his most-infamous rant in a college football setting, it would have held no credence whatsoever.

“It all starts in practice,” Irish sophomore Kyle Hamilton said. “Last week we had a couple days where we had iffy practices, and we can’t really afford that.”

Leaning on unproven commodities along the defensive line is never a recipe for success. Nor is moving a safety with three major leg injuries in his past closer to the line of scrimmage, despite Crawford’s never-ending game attitude.

Crawford will be back at safety against Louisville (2:30 ET; NBC), per Kelly, with Lewis and Hart back alongside Bracy, perhaps McCloud as well, pending his shoulder’s status this weekend.

“We feel like that’s where [Crawford] can best help our football team, although he did a really solid job for us at corner,” Kelly said.

Returning Crawford alongside Hamilton will give Notre Dame its best chance at containing the Cardinals’ playmakers, most notably junior receiver Tutu Atwell, who led Louisville with five catches for 47 yards against the Irish on Labor Day last season and has 281 yards and four scores on 25 receptions through four games this year.

“It’s hard to cover speed and you can’t teach it, so we have to game plan around it,” Hamilton said. “… When [Atwell] comes in, he’s just a gamebreaker who every time he gets the ball in his hands, he could go the distance.

“We have to play with our eyes, know where he’s at at all times, and try to figure out how to stop him.”

Stopping Atwell will put faith back into Lea’s defense, confirming the mistakes against Florida State were more the result of the outbreak than of a slippage, further proving what the eyes see one week may not be as true as immediate reaction insists.