We’re still getting back into the groove of “Notre Dame Football Thoughts” here. After “The Worst Week of ND Football History That I’ve Ever Experienced,” and then “The Most Poorly Timed Bye Week In College Football History,” I took the entire weekend off from College Football, so it might take a bit of time to get the engine turned over, but at least we’ve got the Irish Blogger Gathering to help. This week, Anthony of the superlative-earning Clashmore Mike is doing the questioning (and will post on that fact shortly, I’m sure). Below, we do the answering…
1. Notre Dame is currently 4-5 with three games left in the season. First, are you surprised by the wins and losses so far? And second, given how the Irish have played, what is a realistic expectation for the remainder of the season?
I’d be lying if I tried to claim that I wasn’t surprised by the losses to Tulsa and Navy. Tulsa, in particular, so long as we’re looking at it through the vacuum sealed lens that the Ghost of College Games Past and I would be looking at a schedule 3 months ago. The other 3 losses: 1 to the early-season-Heisman-winner, 1 to the Big Ten’s once-apparent candidate for a BCS MNC, and 1 to the best team on the west coast not named Oregon, would have left me neither surprised or nonplussed. I’d have been determinedly plussed at those. But the 2 losses to Navy and Tulsa, mitigating factors aside, have me nonplussed. Still, this is a gray, dirty world we live in, full of mitigating factors, tragedy, and confusing tangents. So maybe, today, Tulsa has me less nonplussed than I’d otherwise be. Still, Navy by… what was the score again? Navy – fourtytwelve, Notre Dame – Negative Alot? Yeah. I didn’t see that coming at all. Though a loss, in a purely binary sense, to Navy, would not have shocked me back in August. So basically I’m left perplexed.
The most realistic expectation for the rest of the Irish season? 0-3. Notre Dame has shown no capability for playing a game of football with a team that is capable of playing a game of football since Michigan State destroyed our hearts and minds by showing reckless disregard for their own hearts. And Notre Dame has shown even less capability to defend the option offense.
2. A little report card in the spirit of the bye week. What player or position unit has been the biggest surprise of the year and what player/position unit has been the biggest disappointment?
I think the biggest pleasant surprise has been the Middle Linebackers. You expect Manti Te’o to be Manti Te’o. You don’t have any idea what to expect from the other MIKE. And so when the other MIKE turns out to be Carlo Calabrese sticking his massive metaphorical staff into the dirt between the tackles and announcing, “You Shall Not Pass!” it’s rather nice to see as a Notre Dame fan trained over the last decade and a half to fully expect any unknown variables to push the football equation into X = massive fail.
The biggest disappointment, however, has got to be the outside linebackers as a whole. Brian Smith just had his best game since his freshman year… playing as the WILL inside linebacker. Up until then, all Smith has done this season is infuriate me. Meanwhile the rest of the OLBs have proven that, as a ND fan, when wondering about what a late fall-camp battle for position supremacy might mean, it’s always, always best to assume it means that the 3 or 4 guys having that battle are having less a battle and more a tickle-fight-of-ineptitude. If anyone I speak to ever asks me if I think ND can beat Army, I just look wistfully over at our OLBs and shake my head. I’d forgotten the rule: “As a ND Fan, when in doubt, expect the absolute worst,” and went ahead and hoped that this group was finally turning a corner. In fairness to me, even if I’d expected the absolute worst, I’m not sure I could have expected what we’re getting from them. The top-ranking OLB in tackles on the Irish roster is 8th on the team (Fleming). Thinking back on the questions Kelly fielded during camp, about what positives he saw from each OLB starting candidate, I have to applaud the man for being so quick-thinking and creative.
3. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco caught plenty of slack after the debacle against Navy, and rightly so. But his unit bounced back with arguably their best performance of the year against a prolific Tulsa offense. So which version is the real Diaco? Is it the one that had no answer for Navy? Or is it the one that had his troops prepared against Tulsa (and most other Irish opponents)?
Our version of Diaco is (as you might guess from my previous answer) largely correlated with our version of OLBs. Our version of OLBs sucks. Thus, our version of Diaco…
Oh, and we can’t go Nickle because we don’t have enough people the coaches trust to go Nickle. Utah knows this. Utah has to walk around campus in bibs this week what with all the salivating.
Kidding aside, I think a lot of what we’ve seen on both sides of the ball for the Irish, good and bad, has a lot to do with my strong suspicion that Coach Kelly subscribes to a dogged (and dogmatic) adherence to “the system” that he and his coaches are going to utilize throughout Kelly’s tenure at ND. That may well mean leaning heavily on a crew of OLBs much of the season no matter how disappointing that crew of OLBs manages to be through the entire season.
I think Diaco is probably capable of being a very good DC. I think he’s shown, more often than not, that he currently is a very capable DC. But for whatever reason (I’m looking at you, OLBs), he took over 80 years of knowledge in how to defend the option, and threw that out the window in favor of the “put Manti Te’o out there, ask him to do everything, and then say a prayer” tactic, and I’m not sure that was the best move. (Note: I’m fully open to the notion that my analysis of ND’s approach to defending the option is incorrect. In which case, OH MY GOD, please tell me that wasn’t ND trying to defend the option using classic tactics.)
4. Off the heels of a near miss against Air Force, Utah was undressed by TCU in their first “real” test of the season. Are the Utes pretenders and does Notre Dame have a shot at winning Saturday? What will be the key matchup next week in South Bend?
Despite the tone of my previous answers, sure, Notre Dame has a shot at winning. That sort of goes without saying, no? But Utah also has 8 guys averaging at least 1 catch per game, and we don’t have a Nickle package, so…
Hey, looking over the Ute’s schedule, you see that Notre Dame and Utah have one thing in common: Their best “win” of the season came against Pitt. So that’s nice. And the Irish beat Pitt far more easily than Utah beat Pitt. And the results of TCU/Utah looked a lot like what I imagine TCU/ND would look like this season.
All that said, I’m expecting the result of Utah/ND to look a lot like what I envision TCU/ND would look like.
Hey, when in doubt…
Key Matchup: Tommy Rees vs. Utah’s #25 Pass Defense. Sure, Utah is 73rd in Pass Efficiency Defense, but we’re not passing against Tulsa anymore, Toto.
Other Key Matchup: ND’s Punt Return Defense vs. Utah’s Punt Returners. Something looked broken against Tulsa, which scored a Punt Return TD against the Irish. If that ain’t fixed, Utah’s #1 ranked Punt Return team (20.76 yards/attempt) will annihilate any hope the Irish may have ever had of beating the Utes.