Ward: The strengths and pitfalls of the season opener
Jimmy Ward | Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Although Notre Dame was able to avoid disaster in their season opener against Florida State, they only escaped it by the skin of their teeth. Their play was plagued with inconsistencies that left many questions still begging to be answered. However, at the end of the day, they were able to get it done on the road in a difficult atmosphere against some good competition. The game, and even the press conferences that followed, were not free from a gaff or two, but the Irish are 1-0.
Jack Coan was able to lead the Irish with a nearly flawless stat line, and although the run game struggled behind, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees drew up a balanced attack that got the job done even when it came to crunch time. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman deserves some credit too, dialing up sets that were getting his players to the ball and pressuring the opposition’s quarterbacks throughout. Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer was Coan’s favorite target on the day and, though he had some costly drops, he showed his talent and utility proved to be a valuable part of this roster. And I’d be remiss not to show senior kicker Johnathan Doerer some love after coming through in the clutch and nailing one straight through the uprights when his name was called.
Although it was the special teams unit that won this game for the Irish, it was this same unit that produced the majority of its problems. Doerer did his duties when called upon, and there weren’t any of the issues that we saw last season in regard to fielding kickoffs or punts, but it was the play calling and communication that fell short. Junior punter Jay Bramblett had just one short punt that gave the Seminoles the ball in good position, but the majority of the problems seemed to have come from elsewhere. After struggling at the positions for a season, Notre Dame finally seemed to find their guys for punt and kick returns with the tandem of sophomore running backs Kyren Willams and Chris Tyree handling each of the duties respectively. These are two highly capable athletes that meet the requirements these demanding positions ask of an individual. The only problem is that it seemed as though they had been told to avoid returning kicks when possible. Williams did return a couple of punts with no issue, but there were several instances where Tyree could have easily turned a couple of yards off a kickoff and opted for a fair catch instead.
The special teams group might have been responsible for the game-winning play, but they were also the group on the field when the tide started to turn on the Irish, and would eventually give way to a massive comeback. Early in the fourth quarter after the Seminoles had just scored to shrink their deficit to 28-38 from 20-38, the Irish were forced to punt after a failed 3rd and 10. Bramblett would get hit and spun around while he was still in the air from sending off the punt. It was one of many blatantly obvious calls that was missed by the officiating crew on the evening, but it was how the coaching staff handled it that worried me most. There had already been some questionable calls by the officials up to this point in the game, and in such a critical moment more could have been done on the part of the coaching staff to prevent a bad call. Officiating is always a profession that is open to scrutiny, but in such critical moments of games, it is important as a coach to know the rules of the game and be a good communicator with the referees. Whether it be special teams coordinator Brian Polian or head coach Brian Kelly himself who fell short in this situation, I am not sure. But falling short and not acting proactively in that situation and in that moment almost cost Notre Dame the game against the Seminoles, and the blame certainly can’t fall on anyone with pads on. Perhaps these minor issues with the special teams crew will get sorted out this weekend as Toledo heads into town for Notre Dame’s home opener.