-

The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.

-

archive

Joseph: Notre Dame so close, but so far from breakthrough (Sept. 16)

Allan Joseph | Thursday, September 15, 2011

So close, yet so far.

Irish coach Brian Kelly made it very clear after last week’s gut-wrenching loss to Michigan that Notre Dame is not yet a good football team. But how close are the Irish to being a good football team?

So close, yet so far.

It’s been the story of Notre Dame’s season this far. Against South Florida, the Irish fell behind by a big margin, but then made a comeback. They closed the gap to three points, but they never really had a chance to take the lead at the end.

Against Michigan, it was the other way around with an eerily familiar ending. Notre Dame jumped out to an early lead to silence the record crowd, but Denard Robinson turned in another performance for the ages and led the Wolverines to a late victory that every Irish fan knew was possible.

So close, yet so far.

The offensive line has been one of the best frontline units in years. They’ve given the largely immobile Tommy Rees plenty of time to find open receivers. More importantly and impressively, the big guys up front have opened up huge running lanes for the tailbacks. Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray have seen daylight more often than any Irish back in recent memory. Wood has been a revelation, turning in two 100-yard performances that could have been more if the playcalling had gone his way.

It’s not just the running game. Michael Floyd continues to cement his status as (at least statistically) the best wide receiver in Notre Dame history. Theo Riddick bounced back from a tough opening game, T.J. Jones has continued to improve and Tyler Eifert has continued a proud tradition of high-quality tight ends.

There’s a reason Notre Dame has the 10th most yards in the country, and against a tougher-than-average schedule to boot.

They’re so close.

On the other hand, turnovers have killed too many drives. Rees has thrown far too many interceptions. Some have been dumb throws, and some have just been plain bad. Rees, Wood and Gray have also combined for some costly fumbles. The Irish give the ball away far more often than they should, and it’s killing any chances they have at victory. What’s worse, nothing in the last two games suggests this will change.

They’re so far.

The story is the same on the other side of the ball. The defensive line has benefited from strong senior leadership in Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson, and Louis Nix has led a crop of burgeoning young players. The linebackers have generally played well, and Robert Blanton has been a very, very capable cornerback.

They’re so close.

The problem has been the mistakes. Last week, the secondary made Robinson look like a far better thrower than he is, and that’s in large part attributable to some inexplicable lapses in coverage. The defense stood firm for much of the game, but it chose the worst time to make its worst mistakes. After helping contain Robinson for much of the game, Darius Fleming picked a terrible time to be juked out of his shoes on a screen pass. No one has any explanation for why Jeremy Gallon was so wide open on the right side for a 64-yard pass with half a minute to go. Two seniors committed drive-extending late-hit penalties in the fourth quarter against South Florida when the offense could have used every second it got.

They’re so far.

This weekend will tell us much more about where the Irish really are. Is this a squad that really is on the verge of a breakthrough? The players believe so. Or is this is a squad that isn’t as good as everyone thought it would be? Maybe the Irish are still a year or two away from expecting easy victories over good-but-not-great teams like South Florida and Michigan.

Ultimately, the Irish can’t be both so close and so far forever. Over the course of a football season, the truth about a football team is exposed. The big question about this football team will be answered.

So close, yet so far.

Which one is it?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu