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Hoonhout: Irish need better tests than RedHawks

| Monday, October 2, 2017

So far this season, Brian Kelly has stressed the need for Notre Dame to dominate its opponent, regardless of who that opponent is.

The Irish did their best to emulate that Saturday.

Facing off against Miami (OH) for only the second time in school history, the Irish (4-1) ran all over the RedHawks (2-3, 1-0 MAC), 52-17. Notre Dame’s 45 first-half points were the most under a Kelly-led team in the first half, and right from the get-go, it was clear what the Irish intended to do — blow out a team they should.

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush drops back to pass during Notre Dame’s 52-17 win over Miami (OH) on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush drops back to pass during Notre Dame’s 52-17 win over Miami (OH) on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

And while Notre Dame looked good on both sides of the ball and honoring the late Ara Parseghian, who went to Miami (OH), was a nice touch, I really question the purpose of this game.

Because Notre Dame is known for playing schools like USC, Stanford and the Miami Hurricanes. Not the Miami RedHawks.

Now sure, there have to be some throwaway games on every team’s schedule. But for the independent Irish, even the throwaway games should have value.

Part of the lure of playing as an independent is the ability to feasibly build a schedule loaded with strong opposition. And don’t get me wrong, Notre Dame plays a good schedule — the Irish have finished in the top 35 of strength of schedule each of the past five seasons. But for Notre Dame, a program that prides itself on being one of the giants in college football, playing teams in conferences outside the Power-5 does nothing to help grow that tradition. The win against the RedHawks is a perfect example.

What did the Irish prove on Saturday? That they can beat teams they’re supposed to beat? Sure, Brian Kelly’s team didn’t get worse. But it might have wasted a golden opportunity to get better.

The Irish run game, which has been the foundation of the offense, had some scares with two runnings backs — junior Josh Adams and sophomore Tony Jones Jr. — suffering injuries. Starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed a meager 38 percent of his passes, not completing some seemingly simple throws, but also not being helped by the receiving corps, which had multiple drops on the day. The defense still struggled to defend the pass, particularly over the middle of the field. And the Irish proved the program’s backups can close out a game, as the starters rested in the fourth.

The RedHawks offered the Irish a great chance to work on their weaknesses, to build on a start to the season that has Irish fans dreaming of the playoff. But realistically, beating a team like Miami does nothing to bring those dreams to reality.

If Notre Dame wants to make a real push for the playoff, it is going to have to beat teams a lot better than the RedHawks. That’s why this game mattered, not only because the Irish didn’t play a team that posed an actual test, but also because they still had issues in developing consistency in their passing game and passing defense, the two areas that need the most work.

Yes, there were certainly positives. But if the Irish really want to develop the mindset of dominating their opponent, they should only be content with a flawless performance against teams like the RedHawks. The 14-0 start in just under four minutes was that, but when a team plays its third-string quarterback in the fourth quarter, it’s safe to say Notre Dame coasted to the finish line.

The Irish now sit at 4-1, with a very realistic chance of being 5-1 when they welcome to USC to town. But to compare playing USC to playing Miami (OH) just isn’t realistic. Beating the RedHawks may boost Notre Dame’s confidence in preparation for the Trojans, but it’s hard to argue that beating a Power-5 program which actually poses a challenge to the Irish wouldn’t have been a bigger boost.

Starting a season on a strong note is always a good sign for a team. And with Notre Dame blowing out its opponent in three of its four wins, it’s easy to see why people are getting excited about the 2017 team. But don’t forget about Georgia. The Irish failed their only real test this season, albeit barely so to a very good team.

For Notre Dame, a program built on a tradition of excellence, those tests are what really matter. Brian Kelly and Notre Dame don’t want to just win games, they want to win a national championship.

That’s why the games in between tests like the Bulldogs and the Trojans should pose a challenge to the Irish, an opportunity to really develop.

Beating Miami (OH) just doesn’t fit the bill.

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

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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