Saturday night’s debacle makes my article that was published last week seem foolish. It’s kind of laughable how I somehow convinced myself that this team was College Football Playoff-worthy after their razor-thin loss to Georgia on the road. I guess the article wasn’t completely inaccurate, as the Irish sure as hell made an impression on Saturday, but it's one that confirms the media’s narrative that they do not show up in big games. I do still think that narrative is overblown, but how does any Irish fan watch that game and come to the conclusion that this program is close to being considered among the college football elites? Time and time again this program has one game a year in which the team simply does not show up mentally. The Irish were pushed around all game long by a team that is inferior to them in terms of roster talent, and it speaks to the lack of preparation both emotionally and from an x’s and o’s standpoint.
It’s no surprise that the Irish struggled offensively given the physical limitations of their skilled positions and the monsoon-like conditions. However, it was surprising how dominated the Irish were at the point of attack, a.k.a. the line of scrimmage. Their defensive line was completely worked by the Michigan offensive line to the tune of over 300 yards rushing. Given the talent of the Irish front seven, featuring two future NFL defensive ends in Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, that is completely inexcusable. It’s a testament to Notre Dame once again lacking the sheer aggression and mental preparedness on a national stage. The entire Notre Dame roster did not come ready to play, which is both on the players and the coaching staff. Everybody looked lost. If it was a case where Michigan’s players were simply more talented than ND's, I and the rest of the fanbase really wouldn’t be that upset. But that is not the case here, and Saturday night is a movie the entire Irish fanbase has seen many times before. It’s much deeper than simply the players' ability. This is the type of loss that allows fans to not only question the players, but the coaching staff, and even the program as a whole.
I have been adamant that the mediocre Irish offense is not solely due to Ian Book, and that remains true. However, Book is a below-average quarterback, and there are zero reasons why the Irish faithful should continue to blindly defend him. Not only does he have severe physical limitations with his arm strength, but he also gets happy feet in the pocket whenever there is an ounce of pressure. He consistently does not step up in the pocket and look downfield like a good, not even great, QB would do. When the biggest Irish advocate of anyone in the country feels the need to publicly say something, you know its bad:
It’d be bad enough if the negatives about Book stopped there. Nope. He does not make the right reads pre-snap, either. Below shows a crucial fourth-down play in Michigan territory that, if properly executed, could have resulted in ND ending the first half with a touchdown and only a ten-point deficit.
As Jafar Armstrong is motioning to the field side, a linebacker follows him. This leaves the middle of the field wide open for stud wide receiver Chase Claypool’s slant route and an easy first down. But Book already has his mind made up pre-snap that he’s throwing to Armstrong, and the Irish turn the ball over on downs. I’m not sure if Book just didn’t even try to read the defense or if it was a misread, but either way it’s unacceptable. It’s not like Michigan was disguising coverages here. The backer goes in an all-out sprint mirroring Armstrong’s motion and it leaves Claypool left on an island with an inferior cornerback. How does Book not see that?
It's about time to question whether redshirt freshman Phil Jurkovec deserves the starting nod. Book has one more year of eligibility, so you can't just forget about him, as he could still be the better option between the two. However, Jurkovec needs to start receiving meaningful snaps so he can be properly evaluated. ND cannot go into the offseason having no idea who the better option at QB is for the 2020 season. Book read defenses very well last season but has completely lost that ability. He is yet another example of QB’s regressing in their second year as a starter under Brian Kelly, which is truly one of the most puzzling aspects of the Brian Kelly era. I am as big of a Kelly defender as anyone, but his inability to develop QB’s is well documented and it is one of the main reasons ND struggles to get over the hump from being a ‘good’ program into the elites of college football. It puts a ceiling on the entire program.
Another aspect of the offense that is underwhelming is offensive coordinator Chip Long. His decision to call slow-developing, lateral run-pass options (RPOs) all night in monsoon-like conditions is an atrocity from a strategy standpoint. You have a very big, physical offensive line with two explosive backs, Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong, yet you run horizontally all game long? It makes no sense. Michigan ran downhill directly at the teeth of the “loaded” Irish defensive line and guess what: it worked. Given weather conditions like that, the game plan should be simplified. You run the ball between the tackles and throw it 12 times like Michigan did, rather than run slow-developing RPOs and throw the ball 25 times, like ND did. The players did not come to play, but the coaching staff deserves equal blame. The fact of the matter is that right now ND's best win of the season is Louisville on the road. Yikes. Brian Kelly is a great coach with a 27-6 record in his last 33 games, but getting over the hump and joining the college football elites seems impossible for Notre Dame right now. I’m not sure if that’s the way it will forever be at Notre Dame given their academic restrictions and poor geography or if Brian Kelly is the reason. I don’t know.
Featured Photo: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire