Evaluating the Irish: Act I
In a theatrical setting, the acts of a play signify two very different halves of the production. The first act introduces the characters, the protagonist and antagonist are established, and a problem or conflict comes to fruition. It’s not until the second act that the plot thickens, reaching the climax of the production, and the problem is resolved in some manner. My high school literature teacher would be proud.
In many ways, the layout of a play or theatrical production is similar to the current Notre Dame football season. Half way through the season, the current Irish squad finds itself at the intermission and on the brink of beginning act two. The characters, main and secondary, have been introduced and problems have presented themselves and are waiting to be resolved. As the middle of the season draws to a close and the second half is all but underway, what problems are most pertinent to a favorable result in act two?
The Problem of Consistency
This has been a recurring theme throughout most of the season and even in this series of articles. But, it’s clear that the Irish simply haven’t avoided the stereotype that has become synonymous with the team in years past. At times, they play like a Top 10 team, and at other points, they play like a bottom-feeder. This year is no exception. Oftentimes, Notre Dame gets off to great start, but ends up fizzling out near the end of the contests. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on the offensive side of the ball.
Because the quarterback plays such a vital role in Brian Kelly’s offense—reading opposing defensive coverages and then, if need be, deciding to call an audible, throw the ball, or to run the ball himself if no receiver is open—it comes as no surprise that the offense goes as Dayne Crist goes. And right now, as a quarterback that’s started just six games, inconsistency is the name of the game. Dayne Crist will likely become a very successful quarterback for the Irish and will eventually adapt to Kelly’s offense, but right now there’s several things that Crist must remedy if the Notre Dame’s offense can hope to put together a consistent performance from beginning to end.
Can the Irish offense, and Dayne Crist in particular, continue to improve as the Irish hit a stretch of less-than-average opponents?
Eliminating the Exception
A big factor that contributes to the inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball is the amount of mental errors that stall what would otherwise be a productive drive. After the Pittsburgh game, Brian Kelly remarked, “We are really good at stubbing our toe.” And those mental errors are what is keeping the Irish from closing out games, when they’ve had the majority of the momentum, the same way that they started them.
While the Irish are tied for 13th out of 120 FBS teams in the nation in penalties per game with 4.5, they are ranked 71st in the nation, giving away an average of 1.7 fumbles per game and are tied with 22 other teams for 60th in the nation, giving up 1 interception per game. And while giving up an average of 2.7 turnovers per game won’t kill a team that’s firing on all cylinders, the Irish can’t afford these costly turnovers, especially when they occur at the most inopportune times. Even though Notre Dame failed to turn over the ball against Pittsburgh, that kind of mistake-free football has been the exception this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, while they are playing fairly solid, the Irish have been particularly prone to giving up one or two big plays per game. Against Pittsburgh, they gave up a long touchdown reception to Jonathan Baldwin and a long rushing touchdown to Ray Graham. Even though those two plays didn’t affect the outcome (after all, Notre Dame won), big plays have been the factor in close losses earlier in the season—a particularly long run by Denard Robinson early in the game against Michigan, and the game-winning fake field goal by Michigan State come immediately to mind.
Can the Irish offense avoid mental errors to help sustain productive drives? Can the defense continue to play tough while also minimizing their big play vulnerability?
Helping or Hurting?
As Notre Dame heads into a three game stretch of less-than-average opponents, one question that Brian Kelly will have to answer is whether or not to risk sitting some key players through the next game or two to rest up and heal for their games against Utah and USC or have those players continue to play with nagging injuries in order to foster some sort of cohesion and attempt to establish consistency with their presence.
The most notable injuries are to right guard Taylor Dever and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. While Kyle Rudolph at 75% is still better than most tight ends in the country, as the Irish face Utah and USC, a healthy Kyle Rudolph could go a long way toward giving Dayne Crist another deep threat along with Michael Floyd, something that the Irish have not gotten out of Rudolph in his limited capacity. Additionally, if Tyler Eifert can heal up, he will provide some much-needed depth at the tight end position where Mike Ragone, who hasn’t played a significant amount this season, has struggled in limited action. Finally, if Taylor Dever can get back to full strength, Zack Martin can move back to the left tackle position to protect Crist’s blindside.
With the next three opponents, does Brian Kelly sit some ailing players in an effort to get back to full strength later in the season, or does he try to play some of these players in hopes of establishing some sort of consistency and rhythm that will hopefully continue through the end of the year?
Beggars Can’t Be Choosers
After the game against Pittsburgh, Brian Kelly made it clear that the Irish are in no position to be worried about “style points” when it comes to winning games. For him, winning is enough right now, no matter how.
“It’s not a beauty contest yet for us. It’s certainly not that. But my job is to get Notre Dame to win football games and we’re starting to do that,” Kelly said.
But, after some Notre Dame fans had their annual meltdown after the loss to Stanford, should Irish fans be worried about style points? Is a win enough or does it matter how the Irish win? As the Irish plan to face Western Michigan, Navy, and Tulsa before Utah on November 13th, if it’s style points that some Irish fans want, it’s possible that the next three games could be the best opportunity. However, if Kelly decides to face the next three contests without the players with nagging injuries, can Irish fans cope with winning in ho-hum fashion?
Right now, wins are more important to this team’s psyche and overall development than “style points.” And if the Irish can continue to win through the next three games leading into the game against Utah, extending the win streak to five in a row, style points should be the last thing on fan’s minds.
As my dad always said, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”