Klonsinski: Notre Dame still needs to put forth a complete effort
Zach Klonsinski | Thursday, September 24, 2015
Despite all the questions about how the Irish would fare with sophomore DeShone Kizer as their starting quarterback, the Notre Dame offense passed its first big test.
A strong performance against Georgia Tech essentially put the game away before the fourth quarter until the hiccups in the final minutes. Senior running back C.J. Prosise nearly eclipsed 200 yards and scampered for the longest Irish run in the history of Notre Dame Stadium. Junior receiver Will Fuller continued piling up yards, touchdowns and Heisman ballots. And Kizer, for the most part, managed to guide the machine and hang on to the football.
The scary thing, though? The Irish offense is far from clicking on all cylinders yet.
But the even scarier thought, for opposing teams and the Irish faithful alike?
Neither is the defense.
The offense left some points on the board against the Yellow Jackets on Saturday, most notably Kizer and junior receiver Corey Robinson failing to be on the same page in the end zone late midway the second quarter. Kizer threw the fade route to the back pylon, but Robinson read Yellow Jacket senior cornerback D.J. White jumping the fade route and stayed inside. White came away with the interception. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday there were errors on both ends of the pass: a bad read by Zaire and the failure of Robinson to stick to the timing route.
Following the interception, the Yellow Jacket offense marched 80 yards in four plays to tie the game at seven after managing only 44 yards on its first four drives combined.
To the Irish offense’s credit, it responded with a long touchdown drive of its own to reclaim the advantage, 13-7. The defense forced a three-and-out and got the offense the ball again at its own 30-yard line with 1:07 on the clock and the chance to seize momentum back going into halftime.
Then freshman tight end Alize Jones fumbled, and Georgia Tech got the ball on the Notre Dame 45-yard line with 47 seconds and one timeout left in what could have been a disastrous end of the half for the Irish. Instead the Irish defense held, and the Yellow Jackets missed a field-goal attempt.
Despite these miscues and a few drops from Irish receivers, Notre Dame’s offense didn’t miss a beat with Kizer calling the shots.
What should have Notre Dame fans terrified, however, is the defensive inconsistency that again reared its ugly head this season.
Against Texas, the Irish defense was nearly perfect, only allowing one big play that set up the Longhorns’ only score of the game.
The next week in Virginia, however, it was anything but polished as it was picked apart by a sub-par Cavalier offense, needing Kizer and Fuller’s heroics to bail it out.
For 53 minutes last Saturday, the Notre Dame defense again looked like nothing could faze it, holding the explosive Yellow Jacket offense to a total of 151 yards on 11 drives, outside of the 80-yard scoring drive following the interception.
Then suddenly the wheels came off: It looked like the defense just quit, thinking it had the game was already won.
Just 122 yards, two touchdowns and an onside kick later, Notre Dame needed a sliding onside-kick recovery by junior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. to preserve the unsettlingly close 30-22 victory.
Sure, up 30-7 with seven minutes remaining against a triple-option offense is a pretty strong position to be in.
But the Notre Dame defense lost sight of Georgia Tech’s explosiveness and opened the floodgates for a team that put up 134 points in its first two games this season.
The Irish got complacent, just as they had against Virginia two weeks earlier. They lost the fire and hunger that drove them against Texas and the first 53 minutes of the game last weekend.
Now the is, which defense shows up this weekend against Massachusetts?
At first glance, it appears to be an easy Irish win. Of course, there never seems to be such a thing for Notre Dame.
Two weeks after the Irish secondary failed to contain Virginia’s Matt Johns and Canaan Severin, the duo they face this week will pose an even greater challenge. UMass is based around a strong passing game led by graduate student quarterback Blake Frohnaphel and senior receiver Tajae Sharpe.
Sharpe hauled in the 10th-most receiving yards last season in all of the FBS, and he’s already piled up 294 yards on 22 catches this year. Frohnaphel finished 22nd overall in passing yards last season — despite not playing a bowl game or the final two games of the regular season due to injury.
In short: They love to tear defenses to shreds when given the opportunity.
UMass sets up as a perfect trap game, sandwiched between Georgia Tech and a huge test in Death Valley against Clemson, so in hindsight, the final minutes against Georgia Tech may have been the most important part of that game moving forward: The defense needs to use it as inspiration to come out with its hair on fire Saturday afternoon.
If it doesn’t, the Irish could be in for a stressful — and potentially catastrophic — day at Notre Dame Stadium.
Follow Zach Klonsinski on Twitter: @zklonsinski
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.