Defensive struggles push Irish into familiar early season slump
Aidan Thomas | Tuesday, September 24, 2019
Notre Dame has endured an early gauntlet of a schedule, facing Indiana, Michigan State and North Carolina in consecutive games. The Irish lost all three of those games while scoring just one goal combined. 2019 has seen a similar start for Notre Dame, as the Irish are currently slogging through a five-game stretch of Clemson, Indiana, UNC, Michigan State and Virginia. Thus far, their record has been a frustrating 0-2-1, with their once-prolific offense drying up quickly, and their defense continuing to allow goals at a concerning clip. With a Tuesday night bout at Michigan State and a Friday night home tilt versus Virginia upcoming, the Irish are looking for the key to escaping a familiar slump. This year, however, the problems seem to run a little deeper.
Much of the difficult 2018 stretch can be attributed to bad luck and timing. The Irish lost to both Indiana and UNC in overtime, and the winning goal in their 1-0 loss to Michigan State came with barely a minute remaining on the clock. This year, the losses have been more definitive. The stretch started with a disappointing performance at home in a 4-2 loss to Clemson. The Irish never came closer than two goals after Clemson took a 3-1 lead with 42 minutes to play. Their defense proved to be a problem as the Tigers out-shot the Irish 15-5. While a 1-1 draw against Indiana was encouraging, the Irish slipped into their bad habits again in a 2-0 loss to UNC. As has been the case in multiple games for Notre Dame, they were put on the defensive early, surrendering a goal 14 minutes into the match. The Tar Heels iced the victory with 22 minutes to play, as Notre Dame’s offense, which had 10 goals in their first four games, saw their scoreless streak increase to 160 minutes.
Coming off a quarterfinals appearance in the College Cup, this early stretch of futility is concerning for the Irish. After a sizzling 3-0 start, they’ve been outscored 7-3 in their last three contests while being out-shot 55-20. While the game plan may occasionally call for a more passive approach, seeing a high-powered Irish offense sit back and be content with creating counter-attack opportunities is unusual and has not proven to be effective. Notre Dame has led for a total of just 15 minutes in those three games.
The road will not be getting any easier for the Irish either, as they travel to East Lansing to battle the Michigan State Spartans, who reached the College Cup semifinals last year. Following that match, the Irish welcome the Cavaliers to town. Virginia is currently 6-0 and boasts wins over defending national champion Maryland and then No. 2 Duke. It’s a daunting task, and the Irish will need to find some answers if they hope to produce some results. Starting from the back, the Irish need consistency from returning starter Duncan Turnbull. The senior keeper posted a stellar .846 save percentage last year, allowing just four goals in 10 appearances. In just five games this year, he has already given up 11 goals. He has been resourceful, recording seven saves to secure the draw at Indiana, but has also struggled on several occasions, giving up juicy rebounds that have led to several second-chance goals for the opposition. However, the blame doesn’t solely fall on Turnbull. While he could be more consistent, his unsavory .615 save percentage has more to do with his defense’s inability to prevent quality scoring chances. When the Irish were running roughshod over their opponents in the early going, this mattered little, but as their offense has dried up, the weaknesses in their back line have become noticeable. The Clemson game, in particular, exposed these deficiencies. The score was knotted at one as the clock ticked towards halftime when a failed clearance gifted a beautiful scoring chance to the Tigers, who converted a volley for a halftime lead. Shortly after halftime, a miscommunication along the back line led to another easy scoring opportunity for Clemson.
On offense, the Irish have received early contributions from sophomore Jack Lynn, who scored in the first four games. He was never going to maintain that pace, but without his production, the Irish have struggled to find the back of the net. Only a near-post poke from substitute Ben Giacobello in the 40th minute of the Indiana draw has saved the Irish from two consecutive shutouts.
Wednesday is an opportunity to end the dry spell. Despite an impressive performance in the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State has struggled out of the gate in 2019, as they enter their match-up with the Irish on the wrong side of four straight one-goal decisions. They gave up two goals apiece to Dartmouth and Cornell in recent losses, and they’ve scored just three times in six games.
While road games are never easy, Notre Dame needs to take advantage of the Spartans while they’re down, especially heading into a contest with the red-hot Cavaliers, who have outscored their opponents 11-1 en route to a 6-0 start. If they fail to do so, Friday night will be an ugly game and this early slump may spiral into a catastrophic season.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.