Attempting to analyze Notre Dame’s spring game every year is an interesting exercise. While there is certainly a good amount of information that can be mined from the Blue/Gold game, conclusions tend to lie in the perspective that you start with.
One person can rave about great QB play and another can be worried about a terrible secondary. One person’s great pass rush could be another person’s astute observation of terrible offensive line play.
Or, as a wise philosopher once said, these conclusions are all true, from a certain point of view.
I myself had a couple of different perspectives in my two viewings of the Blue/Gold game.
During the first one, I was practically dying during my bachelor party. So my focus was mostly on the fish and chips that were in front of me and their healing powers. Under this haze, I saw what I thought was superb play from Malik Zaire and some rather rusty play from Everett Golson. To me, it was absolutely clear that Zaire won the day and Golson needed to get back on track during fall camp to secure his job.
During my second viewing, I saw a much different story. Some of Zaire’s big plays should have been sacks; however, with a no-contact rule on the QB, this was often ignored. Golson benefited from this as well, especially during his one rushing touchdown, which, in my opinion should have been blown dead on the one.
In fact, the first half was the offense’s show with Golson and Zaire taking center change. Color analyst, Mike Mayock made, what I thought was a rather good point during this offensive explosion: it is a lot easier to step into the pass rush when you know you won’t be hit. From that perspective, yes, the QB play is indeed impressive, but what happens after Golson or Zaire get planted on the turf continuously and the threat of another big hit is on the way?
The second half seemed to suggest a rather radical shift as well as the defense suddenly began tallying stops with ease and the dueling QBs started to falter. Toward the end of the game, Brain Kelly’s sideline interview shed a bit of light on this switch. He mentioned that at the beginning of the game, he told defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, to back off a bit. The implication was that Kelly wanted his QBs to have some space to show him what they had under more vanilla looks, but in the second half, Kelly wanted to see how they would perform under tougher conditions.
The box score alone appears to back this assumption up:
Granted, the second half was played under a running clock, making a first half/second half comparison directly is a little disingenuous. However, it still appears that Kelly let VanGorder loose even in the second quarter as the offensive production took a sharp decline. In that quarter, Zaire had four scoring plays to Golson’s one (although it should be noted, one of Zaire’s scoring plays was a long bomb that definitely should’ve been a sack) as opposed to six and three respectively (which included Golson’s TD run that should have also been blown dead) in the first quarter.
In the second half, the defense recorded their only official sacks, pass breakup, and three & outs. The offense in that half had only one scoring play from a QB (Zaire) and the other two came thanks to the legs of Greg Bryant.
So what does this all mean? What perspective should we take here? Should we even bother drawing any conclusions?
Personally, I believe we should assume that the first quarter was Kelly allowing the offense to show what they had. Consider this, perhaps, the offense taking on an inferior team. In this case, the offense excelled with Zaire seemingly making the biggest splash and Golson showing a bit of rust.
In the second quarter and beyond, Kelly challenged his young offense and they struggled. Zaire still had the stronger showing in this period, but what should also be noted is that Greg Bryant made a major impact during this period and had the longest gain of the day (51 yards). While the QB play may have taken a step back, the offense still showed that it has a strong running game to carry it; in fact, the running game is a large reason why the Gold squad only forced one three & out (before the third string came on the field in the last minutes of the game).
Based on the above, I think it’s safe to conclude that Golson, while he has quite a bit of rust that he still needs to work out, is probably not in danger of losing his job. If anything, I agree completely with Steve’s post from yesterday that Zaire’s emergence as a legitimate QB threat will push Golson. Further, should Golson end up knocked out of a game, Zaire should be able to step right in.
Basically, you remember that whole thing of “wow, Kelly seems to run a good offense with any QB at the helm” before he was at ND? Yeah, it’s here now. It’s amazing what he can do when he doesn’t have to basically create two different offenses for two completely different QB skillsets.
So what about the defense? Well, it’s abundantly clear to me that if they stay in a vanilla scheme, a talented and fast offense can light them up, especially in the secondary. This defense will likely rely heavily strong front seven play to both stop the run and create loads of pressure on the QB. Of course, that’s easier said than done. While they had success in this scrimmage going strong on blitzes and pressure, remember that Diaco tried something similar against Michigan with disastrous results. Perhaps though that is a result of Diaco going outside his comfort zone and VanGorder has a better grip on how to properly scheme such an attack.
Overall, we can conclude that this team has a lot of talent. They are still quite young and will have quite a bit of work to do against this brutal schedule, but they will be a force to be reckoned with–from any point of view.