Analysis: Brian Kelly must undo Notre Dame's self-inflicted identity crisis on offense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Even in the world of small sample size and possibly distorted context, the numbers are worth chewing on.

Central Connecticut State, an FCS team that regularly jousts with the likes of the Bryants, Duquesnes and Wagners of the college football world, grounded out 174 rushing yards on 38 carries for a 4.6 average in a season-opening loss to …

Ball State.

The same team that came into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday and shackled an Irish running game to the tune of 2.9 yards per carry (117 yards on 41 carries) in a valiant 24-16 near miss of upsetting the nation’s still eighth-ranked football team in both major polls.

Apparently they did, though, manage to upset the Irish fan base.

The Blue Devils, in their losing encounter with Ball State (1-1), ceded one sack for six yards in 28 pass attempts against a revamped Cardinal 3-4 defense they had no film of to help in preparation. The Irish (2-0), which had at least that tape to study, were mauled for four sacks and losses of 25 yards, in 31 pass attempts.

The worse news is Vanderbilt (2-0) comes to town Saturday tied for third nationally in sacks.

Then comes Wake Forest on the road (eighth), Stanford at home (tied for third), then Virginia Tech and Pitt (both 28th) before finally facing an opponent with a ranking below 50th in that category (Navy at 56th, Oct. 28 in San Diego).

That and an ND running game that ranks 103rd nationally after two weeks — 96 spots below where it finished last season — puts the onus on first-year offensive line coach Jeff Quinn to work the same kind of magic on the field that he’s been doing on the recruiting trail for the past nine months.

Yet offensive line chemistry and development can’t be microwaved. and sometimes a realignment makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t.

For Notre Dame ninth-year head coach Brian Kelly, re-investing in the five linemen who emerged as starters during the final weeks of spring is more palatable to him at this juncture than reconfiguring.

“You have four out of the five guys that are starters coming back from a team that played pretty good football on the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said Sunday. “(Robert) Hainsey, (Tommy) Kraemer, (Sam) Mustipher, (Alex) Bars — those four guys have been with us now and played a lot of football.

“To go in and pull one of those guys out of the starting unit, you’re really taking a major step back to do that, because they have so much experience. We have to get them playing at a higher level, more consistent level, and a more physical level.”

The newcomer to the group is junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, and he looked every bit the part of a newcomer Saturday in his second career start.

His backup on paper is true freshman Jarrett Patterson. In reality, it’s more likely sophomore Hainsey, who still doesn’t appear to have fully recovered from an August leg injury and/or the near-two week layoff that accompanied it.

“You’re going to live with some of the things, some of the mistakes with Liam, because he’s a first-time starter,” Kelly said. “The five guys that are out there are going to be out there. We just have to, at this point, coach them. They have to take good coaching. We have to continue to work to get better each and every week there.”

The most encouraging and refreshing take from Kelly on Sunday was his distancing himself — albeit very indirectly — from his postgame defense of an offensive game plan Saturday against Ball State that looked like an opposing defensive coordinator drew it up for the Irish.

“I think we need to define who we are,” Kelly said. “It’s important that as we develop our passing game over these next four, six, eight weeks — however long we’re playing here — that we are cognizant of who we are, who Brandon is.”

Saturday’s play calling, which included zero planned runs for Wimbush in the first half, was largely a template for who Wimbush isn’t.

Which in turn puts more pressure on the offensive line, which in turn exposes the running backs’ growing pains.

Which viciously cycles back to putting Wimbush in worst-case scenarios for him, reflected Saturday in three interceptions and having the ball stripped from him for a near fourth turnover to go along with a career-worst minus-7 yards in his rushing column.

The senior did throw for a career-high 297 yards on 17-of-31 accuracy around the miscues, which in Saturday’s context doesn’t advance him as an offensive asset or Notre Dame as an aspiring playoff team.

The odd thing about confronting a Ball State defense Saturday with the football equivalent of navigating a monsoon in your car with one headlight on is that Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long seemed to have the aha moment in August with regard to playing to Wimbush’s strengths instead of trying to coax him to play like Jimmy Clausen.

They’re fortunate that ND’s defense stood up to the demands of being on the field for a school-record 97 plays (hat tip to Blue & Gold Illustrated’s Lou Somogyi for the historical perspective) without regressing along with the offense.

That allowed Kelly to record just his sixth win at Notre Dame of the 71 (including vacated victories) in which the Irish lost both the rushing battle and the edge in turnovers.

“We have some new players that we’re putting in the mix,” Kelly said of the offense. “We’re in that process of kind of figuring out our identity on the offensive side of the ball.”

A double dip of Stanford/Virginia Tech awaits the Irish at the end of the month. Vanderbilt, with routs of Middle Tennessee State and Nevada, is better defensively than Ball State and they arrive in less than a week.

At least Kelly now knows what the offensive identity shouldn’t look like.

Best of both worlds

Joe Migas, a 48-year-old Granger resident who works in retail, saw his worlds colliding this week and capitalized on it.

The Ball State graduate, who happens to be a Notre Dame fan (particularly in men’s basketball), came up with the notion Thursday night of making a T-shirt to commemorate the first-ever football meeting between the Cardinals and the Irish:

Catholics vs. “C” Students

“I have some friends who own a T-shirt business,” Migas said Sunday. “I jokingly said, ‘We blew this. We had a chance to make these shirts.’ They just happened to have some shirts lying around in the basement and said they would get them done in about 12 hours.”

On Saturday he couldn’t keep up with the demand. After giving away 10 to 15 shirts to friends and family, the rest of the lot of 100 for sale went fast, thanks to fans spotting them on Facebook and at Migas’ tailgate.

“We could have sold three times that many,” Migas said. “We were sitting on a gold mine. I wish I had thought of it earlier.”

Ball State’s plucky performance in the 24-16 loss eased the pain.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the way they played.”

Quick hits

Freshman C’Bo Flemister got his first college game action on Saturday, returning three kickoffs for 65 yards.

But Kelly isn’t eager to expand his role beyond special teams yet and get him into the mix at running back.

“There’s some things that we really like about C’Bo’s vision, innate ability to run the football,” Kelly said. “(But) we’re really trying to get Tony Jones and Jafar Armstrong (going) in particular. Avery (Davis), we’re going to keep utilizing him, but it’s going to take some time.

“If we use C’Bo in there, we’re taking reps away from Avery. We need these young players to get reps. How can you get all four of these players experience at the same time? It’s difficult right now. So I think you’re going to see him in some situations, but they’re going to be sparingly.”

• Tight end Cole Kmet is the only major injury concern this week, per Kelly. The sophomore suffered an ankle injury in Saturday’s game and will be re-evaluated throughout the week.

• Former top 100 national recruit Justin Brent seems to have finally found a home at his third college position. The Irish transfer, who has dabbled at wide receiver and running back as a career backup at two schools, had two tackles and a fumble recovery Saturday as a reserve safety for Nevada in a 41-10 loss at Vanderbilt.

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) runs the ball during the Ball State at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

No. 8 NOTRE DAME (2-0) vs. VANDERBILT (2-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1)

Line: Notre Dame by 15½