It’s easy and somewhat understandable to make snap judgments about football teams early in the season when things look a bit different (worse) than we thought they would. But, obviously, it isn’t always wise, because no team is a fully fleshed out organism in mid-September, and because even mediocre football teams have enough juice to alter the trajectory for a quarter or two.
The offense didn’t do much of anything in the first quarter, never really threatening to score (soon-to-be toast of the college football world and true freshman Kyle Hamilton had an easier time finding the end zone). Then it scored 31, 14, and 14 in each successive frame. Slow starts are frustrating, but not necessarily indicative of any serious ailments. Ian Book looked like he might be permanently stuck in the purgatory that is a quarterback’s second year under Brian Kelly, but then he threw for 360 yards and a career high five touchdowns (those numbers are greatly bolstered by a couple long scores on quick tosses that technically count as passes). Inflated stats or not, he did push the ball downfield with way more confidence and success than in week one, which is good news.
What needed to happen yesterday was for Ian to perform well enough against a bad defense to build a well of confidence before Georgia, and that’s what he did. Whether he takes the next step and pays a great game against a great defense remains to be seen, but he’s more or less where he needs to be right now. The real revelations came in terms of who made plays around the quarterback(s). Javon McKinley, who Brian Kelly described as previously “lost in cyberspace” (same?), played his best game in an Irish uniform, and figures to have a regular role moving forward (bumping Chris Finke back into the slot is a best-case kind of move for the offense). Avery Davis flashed some unexpected speed on a 59 yard touchdown, and the mere use of the word “speed” may be enough to increase his future touches. Lawrence Keys showed his talent in both the receiving and return games. It’s unclear if Braden Lenzy will see more than garbage time action, but, again, speed is currency. The more whoosh on the field against quality teams, the better.
Moving on from whoosh, how bout that running game? It remains terribly ineffective in short-yardage situations, which is truly confounding as the line has performed pretty well in most every other situation. The pressure is officially on Jeff Quinn to figure it out. Three of Notre Dame’s top four rushers were…quarterbacks, with Kyren Williams being the only running back to crack twenty yards on the ground. Chip Long might need to get really, *really* creative against Georgia to move the ball on the ground at all. Blerg. We did see a little bit of that involving Keys, Finke, Lenzy and crew on Saturday, but we need more, especially considering how abysmal the offense has been at moving the chains on third down so far this year. We’re better on fourth downs, for whatever that’s worth!
Running game concerns are, unfortunately, not limited to the offensive side of the ball. The Irish defense is allowing nearly five YPC, making them one of the worst rushing defenses in the country. Relatedly, the Georgia Bulldogs are averaging more than seven and a half YPC. The middle of the defense continues to be a bright, flashing warning sign. Not that there weren’t positives — Asmar Bilal stood out, Bo Bauer is a dude that clearly loves to hit people, MTA made his presence felt, and JOK remains freaky. But we need a few more answers fast.
With the necessary disclaimer that the New Mexico quarterback rotation was comically inaccurate and ineffective, the secondary showed out quite nicely, picking off three passes and only allowing 5.2 YPA. Clark Lea might not have much choice but to totally sell out against the run and hope that his secondary can hold strong enough to keep the Irish in the game. Julian Okwara being a near ghost on the stat sheet (one QB hurry) is absolutely confounding, but Daelin Hayes is peaking at the right time and all of a sudden looks like an actual five-star talent. Win some, lose some. Let’s hope a primetime environment turns on the switch for Julian and Khalid Kareem, but right now that preseason hype isn’t adding up to much of anything.
This is a team that’s still finding itself, mostly on the ground (prayers up for Rock’s House). Right now it looks like they found enough in game two to keep game three within reach, but that’s hard to say. For now, the Irish are sitting on a 52 point win, which is a margin of victory that only good teams normally achieve. One big preseason worry has mostly subsided, as Jonathan Doerer did everything right and Jay Bramblett connected on one perfect punt and several other good ones. Other worries are still ripe, but the emergence of a few guys previously written off (and hopefully the imminent return of Cole Kmet?) could help this team make another jump. Either way, it’s about to get real serious real fast.