DURHAM, N.C. — What degree of wackiness awaits?
If it’s a road game (it is) and if it’s a night game (yet again), odds are something strange lurks as a storyline for the Notre Dame offense. It’s been that way since Labor Day night in Louisville.
Quarterback Ian Book completed 14 of 23 for 193 yards for an offense that seemed to sputter too much toward 425 yards and 35 points. But it was the throw that found the nose of a Louisville dance team member (sorry, Elizabeth Scott), that drew the most attention. Where was the explosive plays? The big-game dudes? The quick strikes that we were told would be a big part of the plan? Ah, opening-game jitters many opined, it would come.
The wait’s dragged on for games. For weeks. For months.
On the road against Georgia, the Irish offense struggled between silent snap counts and clap counts (whoops, another illegal motion penalty). And Irish faithful still are trying to figure out exactly how the offense hoped to operate in the rain and wind and misery at Michigan, where it muddled its way to an anemic 180 total yards in that 45-14 dismantling.
Now comes a visit to Duke (4-4) and another late night. This one’s featured on an ACC Network that many in South Bend likely will scramble to see. Hint, don’t call the Tribune sports department — we’re not in charge of programming this game on this network.
This trip to the South may be what Book needs to move this offense North.
A native of Northern California, Book’s been good in North Carolina. Two years ago, in the rain forest-like humidity of Kenan Stadium, Book stepped in for injured starter Brandon Wimbush, threw for 146 yards and rushed for 45 more in a 33-10 thrashing of North Carolina. Last September, about 80 minutes west on Interstate 40, Book replaced Wimbush as starter and shredded Wake Forest. He completed 25-of-34 for 325 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for three more. His backup days were over.
Wimbush now is a backup at Central Florida while Book deals with life as the starter. He quieted some of that noise last week. Now comes a chance to build off last week’s great escape of a drive — 18 plays, 87 yards in 2:59 to help the No. 15 Irish (6-2) scramble back and beat Virginia Tech (21-20).
This Duke defense (ranked 54th in rush defense, 43rd for passing yards allowed and 40th overall in FBS) shouldn’t cause Book much stress. He should have time to set his feet set his sights on a big night. Find Chase Claypool (again). Find Cole Kmet (more, please). Find another play-maker (hello, Braden Lenzy). Play with the same confidence that he oozed at the podium post-Virginia Tech.
Same goes for the entire Irish offense. With a third of the season left, it’s a group that’s scrambled to find any semblance of solid footing. What does this group do well? Even kind of well?
Run it? The Irish are ranked 72nd in the country at 160.9 yards per game. Throw it? They’re 42nd in passing offense at 255.8. Control the ball? Not at 113th for time possession (27.0 per game). Score it? How about 39th (33.8 ppg.). Overall? Notre Dame enters Saturday ranked 57th in the nation for total offense (416.6).
You get the picture, and it’s not a pretty one. It’s been a season-long struggle to establish anything for a group that had such high expectations in August, but one that hasn’t come anywhere close to hitting those heights, for myriad reasons. The last time offensive coordinator Chip Long met the media — in a tightly-timed 10-minute question and answer window during preseason camp — one of the first questions he fielded raised a red flag.
How nice was it to have so many (seven) returning starters?
Long’s answer was part prophetic.
“They’ve got to stay healthy,” he said. “You can get pretty young pretty quickly in a matter of a week here.”
This has been an incomplete group from the minute Kmet cracked a collarbone in a one-on-one drill at Culver Academy. So much for the next man up philosophy. For the Irish offense, it’s been next man down. Kmet goes down. Then former wide receiver Michael Young, who also snapped a collarbone in August, parachuted out as an eventual graduate transfer in October. Jafar Armstrong lasted one series against Louisville. He’s just now looking the part. Tony Jones lasted one half against Michigan. He should be back Saturday. Chris Finke has struggled with consistency. The younger play makers have practiced and played young.
Just when it seemed like Book was close to having a full hand to play, right guard Tommy Kraemer was lost in the Michigan game with a knee injury. His return is unclear. Right tackle Robert Hainsey suffered a broken ankle against Virginia Tech. We won’t see him until spring.
What would be nice to see Saturday is some offense. Some points. Some yards. Some rhythm. Some tempo. More first downs and fewer three-and-outs. Book at the controls spreading it around. Armstrong and Jones cranking out yards. Claypool and Kmet and somebody else making catches. A parade of guys in gold pants and white jerseys into the end zone.
Let’s see this group go do it against someone not named Bowling Green or New Mexico. Let’s see them do it on the road.
“We’re going to have to be on offensively,” said coach Brian Kelly, nowhere near satisfied with the group’s stagnant execution. “We’ve got some more plays to make. I’m fully confident we’re going to make them.”
This is a night to give the defense a break where they don’t have to go out and win the game. Plenty of heavy lifting awaits next week against No. 25 Navy. Put this one in the hands of the offense on a night when they should feel right at home weather-wise. It was 70 degrees and sunny here much of the week. It got crisp Friday morning. Midwest crisp. It will stay that way with temperatures likely to tumble into the 30s by kickoff.
Perfect football weather. Perfect night for the Irish offense to flex its collective muscle and eliminate that road weirdness.