Too close for comfort seems to be the theme for the start of the 2021 Notre Dame football season. The Irish squeaked out another victory this past Saturday against Toledo in a 32-29 game and I don’t even know where to begin with the breakdown of this year’s team. After two consecutive weeks of less than stellar performances, my confidence for the rest of the schedule has significantly diminished. Am I counting the Irish out already? No, but there will need to be some major (and I mean major) improvements that take place in the next few weeks for me to get any sort of comfortability back.
On both sides of the ball, the Notre Dame team that we have seen on the field seems to be lacking any sort of fire. The defense is giving up points and big plays and the offense seems to go in spurts – looking unstoppable for a drive and then going into a lull for multiple drives, and even quarters, in a row. My overall lack of comfort stems from the lack of comfort on display by the Irish players on the field. Now, it’s not all gloom and doom as the Irish are still 2-0 and ranked in the top 25, but they did fall from their eighth place ranking to number 12 in the most recent AP poll and rightfully so; they are not playing like a top ten caliber team at the moment.
Defensively, my concern is the number of big plays that have already been given up. In the two games that have been played during this 2021 campaign, the Irish defense has already let up four plays of 60+ yards. In the entire time of Clark Lea’s Defensive Coordinator tenure with the Irish, Notre Dame only gave up three. In addition to these big plays, Notre Dame has also given up a combined 31 points in the fourth quarter this season, a number that is not sustainable as the level of competition increases as the season goes on. If we take a look at the bigger picture, the Cincinnati defense under Marcus Freeman was nothing special in his first year there and drastically improved in years two and three. Is there a learning curve? Is the defense overly complex? Is the right personnel being used? These are all questions that deserve answers and unfortunately, I do not have them now. Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly did speak to simplifying the defensive schemes in his Monday press conference, but it is clear that some adjustments need to be made. Fortunately, the Irish defense is consists of some big-time playmakers and overall great athletes and I do have the confidence that these types of lackluster performances will be turned around. On the other side of the ball however, I am a bit less optimistic.
After marching down the field and putting seven points on the board during Notre Dame’s first drive against the Rockets, the Irish then went the next seven possessions with not a single other point and the play of the Irish offensive line – well, I don’t even have words to describe how poor that has looked. Toledo was able to record six sacks in Saturday’s contest and has dropped the Irish to dead last in sacks allowed among Power 5 teams. Yes, dead last. With Notre Dame being considered “Offensive Line University”, this type of play is not only bad compared to Notre Dame standards, but simply bad in general. I know that injuries have plagued the offensive line unit, but with the amount of talent and high-star recruits that are in the program, the drop off in performance should not be this significant. It hurts to say, but through two games (apart from Jarrett Patterson), this looks to be Notre Dame’s worst offensive line since the mid-2000s. Due to this lack of performance by the offensive line, Irish quarterback Jack Coan has had minimal time to throw the ball and does not have the running ability to escape the collapsing pocket. When Coan is given the necessary time to make a play, his throws have been impressive, and he looks to have built up a good deal of trust with the Notre Dame receivers and tight ends.
To go along with that, Irish running back Kyren Williams has been hit behind the line of scrimmage on two thirds of his rushing attempts this season – again, the highest by any Power 5 back through the first two games. Williams and Tyree might be the best one-two combination of running backs in the country and the unacceptably poor performance of the offensive line has significantly diminished their output. We were able to get more than just a glimpse at Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner on Saturday, coming into the Toledo game for 19 snaps. Buchner’s ability to get outside of the pocket and extend plays with his legs proved to be effective but cannot and should not be looked at as a band-aid to fix the woes. Buchner did finish the game with 78 yards through the air and one touchdown while tacking on another 68 yards on the ground while Coan completed 21 of his 33 pass attempts for 239 yards and two touchdowns.
Looking ahead to the upcoming matchup against the Boilermakers of Purdue, Notre Dame’s 25 game home winning streak is on the line, and I think that this game will set the tone, whether good or bad, for how the rest of Notre Dame’s season will play out. Under head coach Jeff Brohm, the Boilermakers are also coming in 2-0 to Saturday’s matchup, coming off a 49-0 win over Connecticut last Saturday. At the beginning of the year, I did not have much reason for this game to be a concern, but with the way the Irish have been performing, Saturday’s matchup carries a lot more weight than many of us would have expected.
The Purdue offense is lead by Junior quarterback Jack Plummer, who has completed nearly 74% of his throws this year, averaging just over nine yards per reception. With the Boilermakers’ lead back and Mishawaka, IN. native, Zander Horvath, suffering a broken leg against UCONN, Purdue’s offense can be expected to be pass-heavy for this upcoming contest. Two Boilermakers to keep an eye on in the pass game are both Juniors, wide receiver David Bell and tight end Payne Durham (great name, by the way). Bell and Durham combined for 10 catches, 175 yards, and four of Purdue’s seven touchdowns last week.
On the defensive side of the ball for the Boilermakers, All-American Junior defensive end George Karlaftis is going to be a handful for the Irish offensive line. Looking back to the 2019 season, the last full year of football for the Big 10 teams, Karlaftis finished the year with 54 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and one interception. Karlaftis participated in Notre Dame football camps while in high school and walked away without an offer from the Irish, giving him a chip on the shoulder that he will be looking to prove during the upcoming matchup. The good news for Irish fans is that this Purdue defense only has one sack throughout their first two games of the 2021 season, but as mentioned in the beginning of this article, Notre Dame’s offensive line will really need to step up their play.
For the Irish offense, I am hoping to see more creative ways to keep tight end Michael Mayer involved. Toledo played bracket coverage on Mayer for most last week’s game, putting a damper on his overall production. I would really love to see some improvements in the Irish running game as well, but unfortunately that ties directly into the offensive line play as well. If Notre Dame can keep a cleaner pocket for Coan (or Buchner) and not allow defenders in the backfield to immediately shut down the run game, I do think the Irish will have success. Unfortunately, my confidence levels are not too high at the moment. I expect a much better performance by the Irish defense as Isaiah Foskey, JD Bertrand, and Kyle Hamilton have been making their impact felt. The Irish are currently one touchdown favorites going into Saturday’s game, and I honestly don’t know how to feel about this line. If adjustments have been made by the Notre Dame coaching staff throughout this past week, I could very well see the Irish winning rather comfortably – by 10 to 14 points; but if we see the same or similar performances as what was shown in the first two matchups, there is no doubt in my mind that the home winning streak could come to an end. I don’t want to be a “downer” when it comes to Notre Dame football as I have been a lifelong fan, but the product that we have seen on the field has been subpar to say the least. I’m going to pick with my heart and not my head for a prediction and say that the Irish will move on to 3-0 on the season with a 31-24 victory, but man does that feel dicey. Let’s hope for some drastic turnaround, getting the Irish back on track and ready for the daunting next five games following Purdue. Don’t forget – if you are going to attend the game on Saturday, it’s a GREEN OUT!
Go Irish. Beat Boilermakers.
A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:
Florida State: 0-2 overall, lost to Jacksonville State 20-17
Toledo: 1-1 overall, lost to Notre Dame 32-29
Purdue: 2-0 overall, beat Connecticut 49-0
Wisconsin: 1-1 overall, beat Eastern Michigan 34-7, currently ranked #18
Cincinnati: 2-0 overall, beat Murray State 42-7, currently ranked #8
Virginia Tech: 2-0 overall, beat Middle Tennessee 35-14, currently ranked #15
USC: 1-1 overall, lost to Stanford 42-28, fired their head coach
North Carolina: 1-1 overall, beat Georgia State 59-17, currently ranked #21
Navy: 0-2 overall, lost to Air Force 23-3
Virginia: 2-0 overall, beat Illinois 42-14
Georgia Tech: 1-1 overall, beat Kennesaw State 45-17
Stanford: 1-1 overall, beat USC 42-28