It's gotta get better next week for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – It’s officially okey-dokey to talk about Clemson now.

No more hushed whispers. Forget the “Yeah, buts…”

Saturday’s 62-27 mauling of UMass turned out to be the Notre Dame football team’s calm before the impending storm.

But it didn’t start out that way.

What the 30-Minutemen were able to accomplish in the first half – trailing Notre Dame by a point, 21-20, with 6:44 left before intermission – will give coach Brian Kelly and his defensive staff plenty to think about in the days and practices leading up to next Saturday night’s showdown in Death Valley.

Kelly said he challenged his team to play at a higher level at the break. UMass coach Mark Whipple said, “We put a little shock into (the Irish) and woke them up.” Notre Dame defensive lineman Sheldon Day said he and his mates were “trying to do too much.” ND linebacker Jaylon Smith, like after Virginia, pointed to “eye” violations. Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell, he of many words in a few seconds, blamed it on “gimmicks.”

Whatever the case, there are concerns.

Hard to scrape out the negatives from a five-touchdown victory, but with a trip to Clemson in the immediate future, dissecting what happened before the contest dissolved into a basketball game is imperative.

Obviously, Clemson’s offense won’t be nearly as forgiving as UMass’.

Kelly said that UMass used 16 different personnel groupings in the first 30 minutes. That, and a reverse pass from Blake Frohnapfel to Shakur Nesmith that netted 56 yards and set up a TD, backed up Russell’s explanation of the gimmicks.

In the first quarter, the Irish were gashed for an 83-yard run by freshman Marquis Young.

“I knew he was fast, but I didn’t know he was that fast,” said Whipple.

But, hey, man-for-man, this was such a lopsided matchup, Notre Dame’s defense should have risen above the gimmicks.

Allowing 20 points and 276 yards in 30 minutes against any Mid-American Conference team is unacceptable, and downright terrifying with an explosive Clemson offense led by DeShaun Watson on the horizon.

It’s gotta get better.

Pressure has to be increased. Frohnapfel threw 40 passes (completing 20 for 233 yards), so it was no surprise whenever he dropped back. Day (three) and Isaac Rochell (two) had their share of hurries, but an Irish defense that was dominant still only generated two sacks.

Cole Luke’s interception has been Notre Dame’s only pick through four games.

With pressure on the quarterback, mistakes happen easier and more often. It can change the tone and direction of the game.

But there has to be a commitment.

Four games into the season, Kelly is still feeling his way through player development on both sides of the ball.

Injuries haven’t impacted the heart and soul of this Irish team. Leaders Smith, Day, center Nick Martin and left tackle Ronnie Stanley are still functioning at an elite level. Guys like defensive linemen Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery (who combined for one tackle Saturday), quarterback DeShone Kizer (15-of-22, 207 yards, 2 TDs, 1 interception), and tight end Alize’ Jones (3 catches, 56 yards) are still in the growth process.

Three straight efforts of rushing for more than 100 yards have allowed C.J. Prosise to graduate into the upper echelon in an accelerated course.

“I know the football team and its heartbeat very well,” Kelly said. “We're still learning about certain players and what their strengths are. That's a fair question as it relates to the kind of players they are and their skill set. I've got a pretty good feel for the pulse of the team and its leadership core, and then how these younger players fit into that group.

“It wasn't a flat team today. It was an excited team that played with a lot of energy, but I do agree that we're still kind of sorting out, you know, the certain roles for the players on this football team.”

It’s gotta get better. Clemson ain’t UMass.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly questions an official during the Notre Dame-Massachusetts NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)