Hadley: Notre Dame’s championship hopes seem to fade each week
Greg Hadley | Monday, November 2, 2015
PHILADELPHIA — Barely, just barely, Notre Dame kept its playoff hopes alive against Temple this Saturday with a 24-20 win at Lincoln Financial Field.
Its national title hopes, on the other hand, took another hit.
The Irish may sit at 7-1. They may be ranked eighth in the nation, with many of the teams ahead of them facing daunting end-of-season schedules. But they just don’t look like a team prepared to take on and beat the best in the country.
They haven’t looked capable of that all season. The team’s best wins came against Texas, Georgia Tech and Massachusetts, who sport a combined 7-18 record. Kelly’s squad had to rally desperately in the fourth quarter against Virginia and USC, who are a combined 8-8. After Temple, Notre Dame’s best game this year was Clemson — a loss on the road in the rain, but still a loss.
Senior running back C.J. Prosise has sometimes gashed opposing defenses, putting up five 100-yard games, but other times he has been stifled by intense pressure along the line. That happened again Saturday, as he collected just 25 yards on 14 attempts.
When that has happened, Notre Dame has relied on two offensive weapons: DeShone Kizer’s arm and DeShone Kizer’s legs. Through the air, the sophomore quarterback was as shaky as he’s been all year against the Owls, throwing two red zone picks and going below his season averages on completion percentage, yards per attempt, long and efficiency rating.
On the ground, he did have a 79-yard touchdown run, but considering how junior Malik Zaire fractured his ankle — on a designed QB run — Kelly might want to shy away from pounding the ground with his backup signal-caller.
On defense, the word streaky doesn’t even begin to sum up Notre Dame’s issues. The Irish have faced just two offenses who rank in the top 25 in the nation in yards per game, but rank 47th in yards allowed.
Those yards tend to come in chunks. Fifteen times this year, the Irish have surrendered gains of 35 yards or more. That happened 17 times all of last season and the year before. Kelly has admitted his team needs to get better at handling trick plays, but on a flea flicker against Temple, the secondary looked lost and allowed a 22-yard gain.
And even if there was no trickery involved, Notre Dame still couldn’t stop the Owls from making gains of 25 yards or more four times.
When considering this year’s team, comparisons to 2012’s squad easily come to mind. Three years ago, the Irish had a young quarterback and an experience defense. Three years ago, Notre Dame scraped by to an undefeated regular season, aided by clutch plays and not a small amount of luck.
The 2015 edition of the Irish has talented playmakers — junior receiver Will Fuller and junior linebacker Jaylon Smith in particular — who have come through for Kelly thus far. But it has also been lucky, particularly with a schedule that’s been easier than expected but not ludicrously soft.
But clutch plays can only go as far as Notre Dame’s luck lasts. To be more precise, they can get the Irish to the College Football Playoff. But so far, nothing Notre Dame has done this year suggests it can compete with the best three teams in the country.
To be fair, Kelly has been dealt a bad hand with injuries, and he can’t control his team’s strength of schedule. Playing the teams in front of them with the players available, the Irish have done a remarkable, commendable job this season. Yet all the same, that doesn’t mean they’re capable of besting everyone else.
Saturday night, Notre Dame had the chance to make a statement against a ranked opponent during a week in which practically no other game of consequence was played. And the Irish did manage to come out with a thrilling win that buoyed fans’ hopes for the postseason.
But barely beating Temple merely fit in with the pattern of Notre Dame’s season: good, but not great.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.