Noie: No offense, but time for offense to get back in gear for No. 9 Notre Dame football team
If the Notre Dame offense was a library book, someone would owe someone some money.
Who might rustle up the required funds?
Maybe first-year offensive coordinator Chip Long. After falling into a nice run-pass rhythm of play-calling much of the season, Long’s had a little difficulty dialing up the right balance the last two weeks.
Or quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who hasn’t played the part of a main man in either of the team’s two marquee matchups/losses.
Or running back Josh Adams, whose Heisman Trophy campaign (#33Trucking) barely got out of the garage before easing off to the shoulder of the college football highway.
Maybe senior captain Mike McGlinchey, the mammoth left tackle who takes personally anything that the group doesn’t do well on a particular Saturday. He’s never been one to point a finger at anyone but himself.
Whatever the case, this group’s overdue.
Overdue to play well.
To be the type of unit it was when ripping off chunk plays and yards and touchdowns in September and October. To be consistent from drive to drive and down to down. Not too emotionally unsettled. To stay away from turnovers and offer a big embrace of execution.
In the run game. In the pass game. On first down. Third down. Every drive. Every quarter. Every half. For an entire game.
Saturday in the season finale at No. 20 Stanford (8-3), where Notre Dame hasn’t won since 2007, would be the perfect place to get it all going downhill again.
Notre Dame (9-2) heads west Thursday ranked eighth in the College Football Playoff standings, ninth in the Associated Press poll.
The drives that Notre Dame couldn’t finish against No. 7 Georgia? Time to finish them. The plays that weren’t made against No. 2 Miami? Time to make them.
“It just starts with our preparation,” McGlinchey said. “It starts with going back to the basics of what we do and trusting our coaching and going to work each day at practice, cleaning up the little details that we need to clean up and continue to try and attack Stanford.”
Everything Notre Dame wants to do offensively was so on point not so long ago. During the Nov. 4 home game against Wake Forest, Notre Dame was downright dominant. The Demon Deacons could have sneaked a 12th or 13th defender onto the field and it wouldn’t have mattered. The Irish rushed for 380 yards and four scores. Wimbush threw for 330 yards with two more scores. When it was over, the Irish had racked up 710 yards — 10 shy of the school record.
The unit was on a serious roll. Until it wasn’t.
Fans in Hard Rock Stadium are still waiting for the Irish offense to appear. In the Nov. 11 loss to Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame finished with 109 yards rushing — basically a little more than a quarter’s worth of work against Wake Forest — and season-low 261 yards of offense. They couldn’t run the ball. Wimbush had zero pocket poise. The end result showed. It was as ugly as the Irish offense.
Last week’s home finale unfolded with an asterisk. Navy’s option attack severely limits production and possession time of its offensive counterpart. Notre Dame managed 327 yards, but never found the rhythm it carried for much of the season. The type of game — one that featured only nine offensive possessions by the Irish — didn’t allow it.
What does Notre Dame do Saturday to get the offense back on track?
“That’s a good question,” said Wimbush, who admitted again earlier this week that he may have been a bit too lax in his last big-game preparation leading into Miami. “You can say that the weather had some factor in last week’s game and we just weren’t clicking in Miami, but before that, things were rolling and we were playing complete offense.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to get back to how we were playing earlier in the season.”
Big game, big opportunity
An offense that has been hampered by injury in recent weeks — Wimbush’s left hand, Adams’ overall aches — may be short-handed Saturday. The status of Equanimeous St. Brown, the team’s second-leading receiver, is uncertain. He continues to work his way back from concussion protocol. St. Brown landed awkwardly on his head while going high for a Wimbush offering early in the Navy game.
If St. Brown can’t go, Miles Boykin will.
“It definitely changes something; you lose a dynamic factor to your offense,” said Wimbush, who took blame for putting St. Brown in a vulnerable position with a pass that sailed way high. “But we have guys that can go make plays.”
It won’t be easy against Stanford’s 3-4 defense. It likes to show a lot of nickel coverage looks. It’s a style that Brian Kelly said this week puts a lot of stress on opposing offenses. Is there a corner coming on a blitz? An extra defender lurking deep in the secondary? A linebacker dropping into coverage? There’s a lot to consider when playing the Cardinal.
“They’re smart guys, so they’re not going to make any mistakes,” Wimbush said. “They’re a disciplined team and we have to execute how we’ve been executing.”
Executing in October and early November, not so much how it’s operated — or hasn’t operated — the last two weeks. That’s when the environment (Miami) and elements (Navy) played parts in what the offense could and couldn’t do. Not so Saturday. Maybe for the first time since Wake Forest, Notre Dame gets a chance to settle down and settle in on offense. No nerve-racking atmosphere. No rain. No wind. No limited possessions. Just football. Line up and let's go.
“It’ll be great,” McGlinchey said. “It’ll be just a normal game between Notre Dame and Stanford. Very excited about that.”
Stanford can offer all the different defensive looks it wants. There’s really one way that the Irish offense can get back to its efficient, executing ways.
In this time of giving, don’t be.
“It’s exactly what we did at Miami that you can’t do — turn the football over,” Kelly said. “You can’t give anybody on the road that energy that gives them extra momentum at home.
“You’ve got to play mistake-free and eliminate big plays. It’s not really rocket science.”
Neither is trying to figure out where Notre Dame stands in the big picture. A year ago, the Irish followed the same itinerary it did this week. Practice on Wednesday, a day free from any academic responsibilities. A team meal early Thanksgiving afternoon before a charter flight west. Only this time, the plane is bound for Northern California. Last year at this time, Notre Dame headed for Southern California a four-win team. The end to everything couldn’t come soon enough.
Now, they're light years away from 4-8. The Irish are closing in on 10 wins. Get it Saturday, and a New Year’s Six bowl game is almost a guarantee.
“It would mean everything,” Wimbush said. “That’s the only thing that’s on our mind right now. God willing, we get that one.”
Getting No. 10 will be a test in myriad ways. A regular season that started in the cold and darkness of January conditioning and a total teardown of just about everything now is down to the final 60 minutes. It’s been a grind. The bye week is so far in the rear-view mirror that many Irish likely don’t know what it feels like not to have something ache at this time of year.
Still, it's time to put any bumps and bruises aside and go and get it. To be Notre Dame. On defense. And, on offense.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Kelly said. “I mean, let’s go. You’ve got one game.
“Rub some dirt on it.”