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Mulvena: For season to be a success, Irish require improvement and outside help

| Friday, September 21, 2018

It’s been tough to evaluate Notre Dame so far this season. After a solid week one victory against Michigan, it was too early to tell where the Irish stood among the country’s top-tier teams, especially considering that the Wolverines didn’t necessarily exceed expectations. A close call against Ball State in week two threw us all for a loop, and we questioned how talented this squad really is.

But after a lackluster week three showing against Vanderbilt, it’s reasonable to take a moment and really evaluate where the Irish stand among the nation’s top-25 and what will need to happen for a successful season, assuming a “successful” season would end with a playoff spot or at least a New Years Six Bowl appearance. It’s still early, but the Irish have now played three teams on three different tiers — Michigan being the highest, Ball State being the lowest, and Vanderbilt somewhere in between. Kelly and his staff have yet to face a real top-10 playoff contender, which will happen about a week from now when they take on No. 7 Stanford, but we’ve seen how the Irish react to varying levels of opponents.

So what do we know right now?

Defense

Going into the season, the Notre Dame defense was the talk of the town, it was the key to a strong season. Continually touted as one of the best defensive units in the nation, we’ve expected this unit wouldn’t be something to worry about.

The defense has done a good job so far, but it certainly has not lived up to the hype. Against Michigan, the Irish held transfer Shea Patterson, claimed to be Michigan’s door to a new era, to 227 yards in the air, zero touchdowns and one interception. That performance showed promise, and it certainly should still be an example of what this defense could do. The next week, the defensive unit contained Riley Neal to 180 yards, one touchdown, and 2 interceptions. I say “contained” because I think that’s a deceiving stat line. Neal shook up the Irish defense several times during that game, and for a moment, it seemed like the Cardinals could dump it over the middle or hit a short out-route whenever they wanted. And then, against Vanderbilt, Kyle Shurmur threw for 326 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That’s not great for the Irish defense. If you can’t keep a bottom-tier SEC team under 300 yards in the air, you can’t expect to be in the same conversation as Georgia or LSU. Plus, the Irish have been alright at stopping the run, but Ball State still rushed for a total of 169 yards against Notre Dame. That’s a lot of ground for a team that scored an average of 12 points in MAC play last year.

The Irish have a solid defense, and my pessimistic attitude towards the unit shouldn’t take away from that. If it plays to its potential, it can contain most teams in the country (probably not Alabama). But this is a defense that will have tremendous trouble with Virginia Tech, Stanford and USC.

Offense

The narrative surrounding the offense was at the other end of the spectrum heading into the season. Everyone knew passing would be a problem as Wimbush attempted to hone his pocket efficiency. And, without Dexter Williams, it was unclear who would carry now-Eagles running back Josh Adams’ torch among the group of backs. It’s reasonable to say that the offense has been a problem this season.

Emma Farnan | The Observer

Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush absorbs a hard hit while running during Notre Dame’s 22-17 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Everyone wants to blame these offensive troubles on Wimbush. I get it. It makes sense. But it’s wrong, and it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how offenses are successful in college football. Brandon Wimbush is a devastating quarterback on the ground, and in college that is not something you can just overlook. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher against Michigan and he tallied the second most rushing yards on the team against Vanderbilt with 84. This asset is simply invaluable for an Irish team with an ailing wide receiving corps. You have to realize that not every team in college football is deep enough to be confident in a QB contain scheme on defense. Not every college team has a Luke Kuechly to wait for a run and demolish the quarterback, and once Wimbush gets going, he can beat some of the best defensive backs in the nation. Stop trying to pick out why Wimbush isn’t passing well, and start looking at how he can be such a threat on the ground.

Other than the quarterback position, some of the younger running backs on the team have shown promise. Tony Jones Jr. looked great against Vanderbilt, rushing for 118 yards on 17 carries, and Jafar Armstrong is a fantastic second option. The Irish will be able to make some noise on the ground going forward.

For the offensive line, the loss of McGlinchey and Nelson is painfully noticeable. This line has some great talent, clearly enough to stop Chase Winovich and Rashan Gray of Michigan, but it looked weak against Ball State, who doesn’t have anyone nearly as quick as Winovich. The line can and should be good, but it definitely needs to work out some kinks.

Special Teams

There’s not much to say here. It needs work with a capital W. However, senior kicker Justin Yoon has been predictably reliable on field goals.

There’s so much more one we could say about this team, but let’s get to the crux of this assessment, the question we all ask ourselves, even if it’s early: Can Notre Dame secure a spot in the College Playoff? And if so, what would need to happen for them to do so?

In a press conference on Sunday, Brian Kelly said, in reference to the offense:

“… if we’re executing, we’re difficult to stop. It’s where we have poor execution.”

I agree with Kelly, and I think it applies not only to the offense, but to the whole team. Notre Dame has the talent for a playoff spot, and it can secure one, if it executes.

But that is a gargantuan “if.” If I were good-looking, I’d drop out of college and be a GQ model. I don’t expect a call from them anytime soon.

Execution is the entire reason the college football season is actually played. The term is a huge buzz word that gets thrown around in sports, and it’s patently ridiculous. Of course execution matters, if it didn’t we’d just hand the trophy to the best team on paper.

The fact of the matter is, a lot is going to need to happen for the Irish to convince the committee that they deserve a playoff spot. They would need some sort of Slumdog Millionare-type scenario to find themselves in the top four. It’s not impossible, as the movie shows us, but it’s certainly improbable.

Here are just a few of the things I think will need to happen for the Irish to have a chance at the playoff.

  1. The Irish have to go undefeated. After two close calls with Ball State and Vanderbilt, and considering the squad’s schedule, it’ll be hard to convince the committee that it deserves a spot with one loss. If the Irish go undefeated, they will have beaten an excellent Stanford team and a very competitive Virginia Tech team. They need those on their resume. Other than that, Michigan doesn’t look all that great and USC has had a disappointing start. Combine that with poor performances against Vanderbilt and Ball State, and those wins against Stanford and Virginia Tech become all the more important.
  2. LSU must beat Alabama and/or Georgia. It looks like there’s a high chance that at least two playoff spots will be taken by SEC teams, and if LSU manages to upset Georgia or Alabama, which it very well could, it’s less likely that a third spot will be occupied by an SEC team. It may sound crazy for three teams from the same conference to be in the playoff, but the Big Ten is weak this year, besides Ohio State, and the Big 12 is nothing to write home about as far as the playoff conversation goes.
  3. The Big Ten Champion must have a conference loss. Let’s say Alabama and Georgia take the top two spots and Clemson, or another ACC team like Virginia Tech, takes the third spot. It’s likely, in that scenario that conference championships will prove crucial, and for the Irish, not having one will be a big problem. If Ohio State wins the Big Ten and manages to go undefeated, it’s unlikely the committee will choose even an undefeated Notre Dame team over them. But, Ohio State has a fairly weak schedule, and the Big Ten just isn’t nearly as good as the SEC this year, so if it takes a loss as the Big Ten Champion and candidate for the playoff, the Irish have a good chance of sneaking in. And it doesn’t have to be Ohio State. Even a one loss Irish team has a good chance of being picked over a one loss Penn State Big Ten Champion team.

There are likely countless other things that will need to happen for the Irish to have a chance at the playoff. And things in the top ten could go so haywire that all of my stipulations won’t matter in two weeks, but these are a few of the things I would look for, outside of the Irish improving, for Notre Dame to have a chance at a highly successful season.

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

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