It was far from pretty. The Irish needed a late touchdown yet again from DeShone Kizer and Will Fuller to avoid a loss that would have felt like a nightmare. On a night know for tricks and treats, it felt for much of the evening like the Irish were playing a trick on themselves. The result is fine: Notre Dame proved victorious over the Temple Owls 24-20. If this game were measured as a type of candy, it was far from being a Reese’s Cup. In fact, it’s insulting to mention Reese’s with that performance. It was better than candy corn. I’ll give the Irish that as well. Let’s settle somewhere around the Three Musketeers range of candy – it’s chocolate (a win) but lacks the substance and filling to fully satisfy the Irish faithful.
There was some stuff that happened on the sidelines between Brian Kelly and Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach David Grimes that will draw some attention from pundits, and we’ll likely circle around to it later this week, but given that it had zero impact on the game that occurred on the field, I shall waste no more words on it here.
The refs….oh boy. They were worse than Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, and that’s saying something. If you have no idea what I mean by the reference, consider yourself lucky. Elijah Shumate was ejected on a second half targeting call that would have required either or both players to possess the ability to fly to avoid the contact. The evidence against the targeting rule in its current form continues to grow, gif by gif, vine by vine, of completely absurd plays that result in a player being ejected. That may be a topic later this week too.
For now, let’s go a little deeper on some things from the game that stuck out to me:
DeShone Kizer: Kizer fell just one yard shy of 300 passing yards. He set career highs in passing attempts, rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. With the inability to get CJ Prosise going, the entire offense fell on Kizer’s shoulders. Kizer alone accounted for nearly 95% of Notre Dame’s offensive yards. His 143 rushing yards fell a mere 3 yards short of the ND quarterback single-game record (Bill Etter, 146 yards, 1969 v. Navy. Stat courtesy of Michael Bertsch). This was already Kizer’s third game leading a fourth quarter comeback for a victory. Despite all of these successes, this also felt like Kizer’s worst game in several respects. For the first time in Kizer’s career, he had a multi-interception game. The interceptions were magnified by the fact that both came in the opponent’s red zone. The second quarter interception in particular came on a terrible decision to try to force a pass when a simple throw away would have led to a chip shot field goal attempt. Kizer acknowledged as much after the game that that decision was on him and a “rookie” mistake.
The learning curve with Kizer is understandable. Thrust into the starter position, he’s handled adversity extremely well. In interviews, his maturity and intelligence shine. He’s big. He’s got a big arm. And as Temple learned last night, he’s got some wheels. That said, Kizer’s decision-making needs to become more consistent. He now has 6 interceptions in 6 starts. He’s thrown at least one interception in 5 of 6 starts. It’s just a half season, and marks just the first 6 starts of Kizer’s career, but consider this facial comparison on interception rate:[table “” not found /]
Kizer’s performance has certainly been better than 2014 Golson or 2013 Rees. I don’t want anyone to confuse my concern with reality. He’s also got less game experience. 2014 Golson and 2013 Rees were both seniors whereas Kizer is just a sophomore. So, while there’s plenty of room for optimism, ball security and decision-making need to get better for the Irish to progress throughout the rest of the season. Winning games while losing the turnover battle has been an exception in the Kelly era and one the team will not want to make a habit of testing.
Temple’s Defense: It would be unfair not to give credit to Temple’s defense. Prior to the game I was critical on whether they were in fact good or whether they’d just played bad teams. Using Football Outsider’s S&P rankings (#SportsMath!) as the guide, prior to the game last night the best offense the Owls had faced was Cincinnati who ranked 46th nationally prior to yesterday’s game. They’d also faced 3 of the 9 worst offenses in the FBS ranks. Notre Dame went into the game ranked 6th, and I fully expected Notre Dame to expose the Owls.
Matt Rhule’s group had different ideas. It was obvious their goal was to take away CJ Prosise. Temple consistently loaded the box and aggressively pursued anything that remotely looked like a run to Prosise. This over-pursuit helped open up the 79 yard Kizer touchdown run, but all and all, the Owls won the day as it related to Prosise. The Irish offensive line never got rolling, and while I’m sure it happened some, it seemed like you never saw the linemen making it to the second level of the Temple defense. Prosise finished with just 25 yards on 14 carries. His 14 carries were the only carries by an ND running back all game.
I hope Irish fans could appreciate Temple’s effort. The game should have felt like a vintage Bob Diaco performance. Temple for the most part was willing to concede smaller chunks of yardage to avoid big plays down field. Their secondary was extremely physical (and yes, overly physical on more than one occasion…some that were called for penalties, others that could/should have been penalties). Will Fuller’s long reception of the night was the 17 yard touchdown pass. He finished with just 46 receiving yards on 5 catches. Deep in their own territory, Temple continued to scratch, claw, and force the Irish to work for every inch. They were rewarded with the two red zone turnovers.
Temple’s defense has surrendered more yards to their opponent than their offense has gained numerous times this year, and yet they now rank 7th nationally in points per game allowed (15.8). Their red zone scoring percentage surrendered is 9th nationally at 70%. Think about that: 3 out of every 10 times an opponent has made it to Temple’s red zone, they’ve come away with 0 points. They rank 9th nationally in yards per point as well giving up 1 point for every 20.8 yards their opponents get. For comparison – Notre Dame ranks 31st nationally giving up a point for every 16 yards they surrender.
Plain and simple – Temple’s defense put in the work to compensate for allowing nearly double the yards of the Irish defense. Sure, opportunity and luck played a role in that. But Irish fans love to harken back to the good ‘ole days of 2012, and well, I can think of few defenses that were more opportunistic than that one.
Red Zone Offense: Speaking of those two red zone turnovers…Notre Dame now ranks 73rd nationally scoring points on 82.14% of red zone possessions. This comes on the heels of the 2014 season when the Irish finished 79th nationally in red zone scoring percentage. Last year’s was particularly difficult because Notre Dame saw the 14th most red zone attempts per game. This year, they’re closer to the middle of the pack getting to the opponent’s red zone about 3.5 times per game.
In the Brian Kelly era, the best the Irish have finished in red zone scoring percentage was 2010 when they finished 51st nationally. The ability to finish drives in the red zone has been a nearly endless source of frustration for both the team (I’m sure) as well as fans. If we consider the percentage of red zone attempts ending in a touchdown, it gets worse.
Notre Dame now sits 85th nationally converting just 57.58% of red zone attempts into touchdowns.
This has been a historically terrible area for Kelly’s Irish teams:
Red Zone Attempts Ending in Touchdowns[table “” not found /]
Four of six seasons (including this year to date), Kelly’s offense has been ranked 80th or worse at converting red zone attempts to touchdowns. I’m sure many will have theories about “man ball” and fullbacks and whatever else, but whatever the reason, the result has been missed opportunities. Last night’s was just the most recent. Two fewer red zone turnovers and two more red zone touchdowns and that is not a close game.
The Irish get a Pitt team coming off a disappointing loss next and then face two pretty terrible teams in Wake Forest and Boston College. This is a good time to get the team’s head on straight to hopefully set up a game of massive importance with Stanford to end the regular season. It could go without saying, but let’s say it anyways, the offense, for as good as it’s been, needs to clean up these deficiencies if the Irish hope to up end Stanford at the end of the season. For now, let’s get ready for a Narduzzi of an upcoming game.
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