Mazurek: Irish defense will fix its problems versus Miami
Marek Mazurek | Friday, November 10, 2017
If you looked at the comments on Notre Dame message boards after last Saturday’s game, you’d think the Irish lost and were eliminated from the College Football Playoff hunt.
But Notre Dame won, 48-37, against a solid Wake Forest team. The Irish (8-1) are still very much alive in the Playoff rankings.
Despite the 11-point win, there are a number of things worried fans could point to about Saturday’s game as problem areas.
The two most important players on Notre Dame’s offense looked banged up, with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush suffering a hand contusion and junior running back Josh Adams only had 22 yards on five carries.
Mike Elko’s defense — which hadn’t given up more than 20 points all year — surrendered 37 points to the Demon Deacons, in addition to giving up 537 yards of offense.
To address the first concern, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said both Adams and Wimbush will be good to go against the Hurricanes (8-0, 6-0 ACC), and both Adams and Wimbush themselves have said the same thing.
And even if Adams is dealing with some headache issues, the other three Irish backs have shown they’re capable of running well behind one of the best offensive lines in the country.
And even if his hand is a little sore, Wimbush made a huge step in his most recent game, throwing for 280 yards — which would have easily been over 300 if his receivers had made a catch or two more.
Oh, and he also ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
If that’s the Wimbush we see in Miami on Saturday, the Irish offense should be just fine. And who knows, with Adams sitting out and diminishing his Heisman chances, maybe some of that pressure goes away, which could help in the long run.
Defensively, too, it’s OK to breathe in. And now breathe out. Because Notre Dame’s defense will be just fine.
In his Tuesday press conference, Kelly stated the unit’s preparation wasn’t as good as it’s been in the past. That’s an easy problem to fix.
Senior linebacker Drue Tranquill called the defensive performance “humbling in a good way,” and if that letdown serves as a wake-up call, then Miami might be in trouble. The Irish recently held two top-15 teams to just 14 points in consecutive weeks, and Notre Dame fans seem too quick to forget that.
But mentality aside, let’s take a closer look at the Wake Forest game. Yes, the 37 points on the scoreboard were less than ideal, but it’s important to remember 14 of those points came in the final nine minutes of the game, when the Irish had a very secure lead. The Demon Deacons’ last touchdown came with just 51 seconds left in the game.
You always want a full 60 minutes of focus and energy, but 59:09 of focus isn’t bad.
It’s also important to remember that Wake Forest knew what Notre Dame was doing to a certain extent. Mike Elko was the defensive coordinator for the Demon Deacons for three seasons and brought the same system he used at Wake Forest up to South Bend. Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan even said Wake Forest recognized certain looks the Irish threw at it during the game.
What’s more, Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford was the most experienced starting quarterback Notre Dame has faced all year on paper, being a senior and four-year starter.
Yes, Notre Dame’s defense had its worst showing of the season last week. But there is every reason to believe Kelly and Elko will have their squad ready to play come Saturday.
And yes, a matchup against a supremely talented and very athletic Miami team is not one where the Irish will be heavily favored. Top-10 teams are top-10 teams for a reason, and Miami is no exception.
But if Miami does win and Notre Dame gets its playoff hopes crushed, it won’t be because the defense is suddenly bad or because Wimbush can’t throw. It’ll be because the Hurricanes made a few more plays in key situations, just as is the case with almost every game between two good teams.
In any other season, I wouldn’t trust Kelly’s ability to turn around his team’s mindset and effort.
But this year is different, and this team’s leadership is different than last year’s, so I choose to take Kelly and Morgan and Tranquill at their words.
And until proven otherwise, Irish fans should too.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.