The first bullet point of the note I hastily typed around 11pm PST to collect my thoughts on that extremely Notre Damey Notre Dame game reads: “god damn you guys, it’s so fun to win so many fuckin football games,” and ain’t that the truth. What’s particularly fun about yesterday’s result is how nonchalantly the Irish recovered from inevitable early mistakes to decimate a team that’s #16 in the 247 talent composite rankings. And it’s not just that they recovered from mistakes, but that they recovered from BIG mistakes, at times even leaning on the guilty party to right the ship. Of course Brian Kelly wasn’t going to bench Shaun Crawford after he got beat over the top for a score — it happens — but with a cadre of running backs rearing to go, he didn’t have to go right back to Kyren Williams after his early generosity with the football. But Kelly made the correct call to stick with his #1, and that faith was rewarded in spades.
There was a lot made this week about PFF’s rating the Irish offensive line as the clear best in the country — I for one am skeptical of the context-less figures they endlessly churn out — but…maybe they are? No one has that answer for sure, but it’s undeniable that you can’t exclude this group from the debate. Florida State does still sorta suck, sure, but their defensive front is quite talented and they were just fully neutralized. It’s time to at least stretch the ole “Jeff Quinn is getting it all together” muscles. There’s a constant give and take between the line and backs making the other look better, but on Williams’ and Chris Tyree’s long TD runs, the backs had nothing to do but bolt straight to the endzone untouched, which makes things a hell of a lot easier (not that most of their yardage came easy; that duo is fast and strong and probably the best running back combo we’ve seen in some time).
We’ve made this point recently, but man, it’s just so sick how deep and good the line on the other side of the ball is. There were some missed tackles and assignments across the defense, sure, but they still gave the inexperienced FSU o-line fits and showed out no matter the personnel package. It’s hard to freak out too much about that defensive performance, because: Clark Lea is still in charge; backs were repeatedly against the wall through no fault of their own; facing a promising dual-threat QB without much tape, after a three-week layoff, is no easy task. I could go on about mitigating factors, but Lea certainly wouldn’t accept those as excuses. That unit has some screws to tighten, but if the team (and their opponents) stay virus-free, things should get better with some quickness.
That defensive inconsistency was, honestly, a sight to see — it’s not often that ND is that out of sorts after halftime! I do think that Jordan Travis might be the real deal, up and down as he is at this point in his career. FSU’s third-down inefficiency was masked by a 100% conversion rate on fourth down, and even though it felt like the Irish front was struggling to contain the run at times, they did hold their opponent to just 3.8 yards per carry. I think we should collectively take a moment to look inward and double check that we’re appreciating JOK as much as we should be. I’m sure you are! Just double check, because he is absolutely ridiculous, along with, of course, Kyle Hamilton. Even when the defense is slightly off, those guys are something else, and what’s the point of football but to marvel at dudes like that. We’re pro-dude marveling here at NDOB.
To get a sense of what that “mediocre” defensive performance really was, the Irish offense carried the ball two more times for an additional 200 YARDS, meaning they averaged 4.6 more yards on each rushing attempt. We’re alright. If we want to talk ceiling, which we should, that ceiling is probably as high as Ian Book’s. There’s so much talent all around, and Ian is so undeniably valuable, but a great team needs a great quarterback. I still don’t know if I’d call that performance great without any qualifiers, but it was on the whole the best he’s looked in 2020, from pocket presence to decision making to accuracy regardless of throw type (finding open guys while on the run had been a sore spot, but Book looked totally comfortable yesterday doing just that). Can’t say enough good things about offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
Ian’s deep shots to Javon McKinley and that tight window bullet to Michael Mayer were some of the best throws we’ve seen from him in some time (there is, however, still lots of work to be done in the screen game). This was all with a limited Kevin Austin (and a hobbled Lawrence Keys, I think?) — Javon had his best game in blue and gold, getting separation and making difficult grabs and just absolutely looking the part. Ian was a weapon while on the move, showing the necessary intuition in terms of scrambling, feeling the pocket, and throwing on the run as needed. We don’t need Ian to be the best QB in the country, we need THIS — accuracy and willingness to take realistic shots and the ability to move in the space his line provides — and we got it against a really talented (and supremely messy) team.
So I think the story here is that the offense can carry things when called upon, which is simply brilliant news for Notre Dame. At times, it’s felt like the defense can’t afford to have an off night, but the offense responded exactly as they needed to, and the end result was never really in doubt. Hard to lose football games when two backs hit the century mark at almost ten yards a pop! Receiver production is still an area of concern, but McKinley (correctly labeled a “beast” by his head coach) and Braden Lenzy having their best games of the season is a good building block. Every Irish fan is a broken record when talking about Kevin Austin, but it’s still worth mentioning. Get him fully up to speed by 11/7 and we’re really cooking.
It stands to reason that the defense (and special teams, shouts to Jon Doerer for seemingly only missing kicks that don’t matter) will find another gear and get fully up to speed over the next few weeks. If Brian Kelly and crew can keep getting that level of production from their quarterback, running backs, and offensive line, plus an unleashed #4, geez. That Notre Dame, the one that can spot multiple scores to a quality opponent off the bat and still manage to barely break a sweat, is a big time college football team. I’m ready to ring the alarm and shout that we might actually be deserving of a top five ranking. Let’s just hope we get to keep watching them play.