Noie: Myriad reasons why Notre Dame offense finally rolling
Three home victories and a climb into the Top 10 of the national rankings should have been a satisfactory start for the No. 8 Notre Dame football team.
It wasn’t. Feelings festered on one side of the ball for the Irish (4-0). Feelings that as good as Notre Dame’s offense operated in segments against Michigan and Ball State and Vanderbilt, it could have done more. Should have done more. Gained more yards. Scored more points. Dominated. Dived deeper into offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook.
The Irish won three games, but a lot of the offensive guys left Notre Dame Stadium afterward on those Saturdays feeling like they hadn’t scratched the surface. As play-makers and point-producers.
“There was,” said wide receiver Chris Finke, “some frustrations the first three weeks.”
Something had to be done. If it wasn’t, coach Brian Kelly believed something would break. Soon. The offense and its inability to sustain drives, to pound teams when they were there to be pounded, to get on a roll was quietly taxing other areas. On defense. On special teams. So something was done. Something big.
On the surface, it seemed all Notre Dame needed was a change at the most important position — quarterback. Out went senior starter Brandon Wimbush, who had gone 12-3 as a starter in his year-plus time in that spot. In came junior Ian Book, who made his second career start — both in North Carolina and both against Atlantic Coast Conference teams — and up went the production on offense.
In its first road game against Wake Forest, Notre Dame secured season highs for points (56), total yards (566), first downs (28), passing yards (325) and yards per play (7.4). Those numbers the first three games had averaged 23.3, 365.3, 21.6, 200.6 and 5.1. For the first time this season, the offense met Long’s combined baseline of getting at least 250 passing yards and 200 rushing yards (241 vs. Wake) in a game.
True, it was done against one of the country’s worst defenses (Wake Forest ranks 113th out of 129 FBS schools), but Ball State (89th) isn’t exactly the Monster of the Mid-American Conference. Vanderbilt’s defense (63rd) doesn’t necessarily keep a lot of play-callers in the Southeastern Conference up all night.
Was it just the decision to start Book that ignited everything? Maybe, maybe not.
“I don’t think there was anything different,” said running back Jafar Armstrong. “It was the same game plan, the same mentality.”
“We were more prepared and ready to get the job done,” he said.
Prepared and ready not just because Book started and starred. Because of Armstrong, a guy Kelly said wasn’t ready to do against Michigan (15 carries, 35 yards) what he was ready to do against Wake Forest (eight carries, 98 yards). Because of Tony Jones, who continues to figure out how to be a high-level back. Because of freshman Kevin Austin and sophomore Michael Young, talented wide receivers who made big plays against Wake Forest, plays that they just weren’t ready to offer the first three weeks.
Notre Dame got its offense rolling, and looks to keep rolling Saturday against No. 7 Stanford in a prime-time matchup at Notre Dame Stadium (NBC, 7:30 p.m.) because more guys are ready to do more. The training wheels that guided them through the first three weeks are off.
Time to get rolling.
It’s likely not going to come as easily this week as it did the previous one. Stanford’s defense is good. Really good. A veteran unit with guys who know how to impact games. Guys who know how to win in hostile atmospheres. Saturday’s night scene likely won’t be any crazier than last week at Autzen Stadium out in Eugene, Ore. The Cardinal won’t be intimidated. Won’t be wide-eyed. Won’t be ill-prepared for the myriad offensive looks Long might unleash.
“Top-10 matchup with a rival team, it doesn’t get much better than that,” Armstrong said. “We’re just ready for the fight.”
The Irish are more ready because more guys are contributing. Delivering. Eating. Against Michigan, only four Irish carried the football. Seven receivers caught passes. Against Ball State, Notre Dame again had four different guys run the ball, six different guys catch it. Those contributors moved to four and eight against Vanderbilt. But last week, in the heat and humidity of Winston-Salem, seven Irish had at least one carry. Ten guys caught at least one pass.
“We want guys to emerge,” Kelly said of potential playmakers. “We’ve been begging for it.”
Book spread it around and got everyone involved. Running backs ran the ball. Tight ends and wide receivers caught the ball. When nothing else was available, Book tucked it away and scampered for three scores. Afterward, Finke remembers thinking, is what the offense could look like — should look like — every single week. Regardless of what defense is lined up across the way.
“I don’t know exactly what it was, but once we got rolling, it kind of snowballed,” Finke said. “One guy makes a play, it gets other guys making plays and it’s kind of contagious.”
When Notre Dame’s offense operates like that, everybody wants in. Buys in. Jumps in with both feet. They practice harder. Make it a point to chase perfection. Finish their routes because Book will keep the play alive and find you. Or you. Give him the ball. Or him. Who’s the next guy in line to make a play? A plethora of options open for Long.
For the first time this season, Notre Dame is coming clear of one game and preparing for another after the offensive effort wasn’t frustrating.
“It’s really fun when guys are seeing guys make different plays,” said Armstrong. “We’re scoring and making plays, guys calm down, guys are more comfortable for sure. When guys are making plays, it makes it harder for the defense to figure out what we’re doing.”
The Irish know this — the Cardinal (tied for 55th in total defense) may figure more out. Defensive end Jovan Swann just keeps attacking. Bobby Okereke spearheads a four-man linebacker corps that features two seniors and two fifth-year guys. They’ve seen and done a lot. Cornerback Paulson Adebo once was a Notre Dame commit. They can play. So can the rest of the Cardinal. Why?
“They’re Stanford,” said left guard Alex Bars. “They’re a good defense.”
The Irish believe they have a good offense. One that finally understands what it takes to complete the process. Didn’t happen the first three weeks. Didn’t happen with Wimbush taking the majority of the snaps. Happened last week with Book. Approach this game the way they did the last, and the Irish believe they can achieve similar results.
“We finally had that sense of urgency to get that next punch in and finish them,” Bars said. “If we can keep that consistency from last week to this week, we should be able to execute pretty well.”
As good as Notre Dame was offensively against Wake Forest, it believes it again can be against Stanford. Then Virginia Tech. Then Pittsburgh. Wake wasn’t a one-time flash effort. It was a starting point. For Book. For Armstrong. For Long. For everyone.
“We,” Finke said, “want to pick up where we left off.”
Where’s that? Simple. Different guys making plays at different times. Armstrong running. Book directing. The tight ends and wide receivers catching. Making it all look easy. Efficient.
“If we just do our job,” Armstrong said, “we’ll get the ‘W.’”