It was a college football Saturday that should have sparked nothing but joy. One of those picture-perfect, postcard worthy mid-October days on campuses across the north and midwest, making fans everywhere feel like they had wandered onto a movie set. A crisp chill and the smell of grills helped complete the sensory immersion. A beautiful fall aesthetic, all around, and then there was the actual football.
Close games with real stakes abounded. Alabama lost to rival Tennessee on a walk-off field goal, marking the latter’s first victory over the dynastic Crimson Tide in well over a decade.
To top the day off, Southern Cal lost in a thriller, sparing us from the “Lincoln Riley is a football messiah” takes for at least a brief time. About the only bad thing that happened was M***igan’s comfortable win over Penn State. All Notre Dame had to do to complete the movie script was get past lowly Stanford.
Ever dedicated to keeping things exciting in South Bend, Notre Dame laid a big ol’ goose egg Saturday night, playing so poorly offensively as to hand Stanford their first win over an FBS foe in over a calendar year. The narrative leading up to the game focused on how inept Stanford had become, especially on defense. A program that once prided itself on physicality had become a pushover, not able to compete with real opponents. Stanford had no business winning under the lights in Notre Dame Stadium, they said. Somehow we all had already forgotten the lessons Marshall had taught us just a month ago.
The defense did yeoman’s work while injury-riddled, keeping Stanford to 16 points and not permitting a touchdown past the first possession. Even that, though, wasn’t enough with how putrid the offensive outing was. Drew Pyne looked way more like a backup quarterback than the in-command passer of the past two games. The o-line looked pretty good in pass protection but rarely had much of a push in run blocking, trapping the running backs and making the worst run defense in the Power 5 look like Georgia. And Tommy Rees’ maddening tendency to get too cute when he doesn’t need to (has one of those jet sweeps *ever* worked? Once four years ago? That’s it? So why are we still calling them?) sure wasn’t helping matters. Throw that together with a bottom-three officiated game I’ve ever watched* (did like one call go against Stanford all night?), and you have all the makings of a fall flat-on-your-face upset.
*I hate being “complain about the refs” guy, but come on. There’s gotta be a line somewhere. There were at least three clear pass interference no-calls on Stanford, including the last play, and everyone from San Francisco to South Bend could see McKee did in fact fumble the ball on Stanford’s go-ahead drive. If Notre Dame had played better, I might make a bigger deal, but the long and short of it is Notre Dame should never have been in a position where the refs made an impact.
Overall there was a clear and somewhat surprising lack of energy on campus all day. It was of course midterms week, which rarely bodes well for the team’s focus and energy. (2018 Pitt is the other clearest example of this post-midterms slump that I can remember — often this is the team’s bye week and boy should it have been this year.) But even if the team is out of it, the fans usually can perk up, especially after what should have been an energizing win in the desert last week. The whole atmosphere on campus just felt flat though. Maybe this was some combination of the chill in the air, a lack of excitement about the team following a rough start, or generally overlooking Stanford as a meaningful game. Whatever the reason, it clearly carried over to the offense, which looked worse than flat (squished?) for a half and by then couldn’t do enough without an explosive passing attack to catch up. It was just one of those days you could just tell things weren’t going to go great.
And, not to beat a dead horse here, but the deficency at wide receiver is really a huge challenge to overcome in 2022. There were by my count no fewer than ten catchable balls that the wideouts either dropped or didn’t do enough to get their hands on. Sure, Pyne overthrew a few good routes, but there was only one or two egregious ones — the rest were catchable with a bit more separation or burst. But the drops killed it; I’m not sure we would have had more if the ball was coated in coconut oil. I’ll ask again — who is this team’s best wide receiver? There’s no clear answer to that question, and that’s precisely the problem. Without elite quarterback play (which was never in the cards this year, even with Buchner), that’s nearly impossible to work around for a modern offense.
For whatever Brian Kelly’s faults as a head coach are, one thing he was very good at was finding ways to win with flawed rosters. Even over the past five seasons, as the Irish won ten games like clockwork, each team had a clear set of deficiencies that they had to learn to play around. Take the 2020 team, for instance — it was actually constructed pretty similarly to the 2022 unit, with a veteran-led, deep defense, an experienced offensive line and a clear weakness at wide receiver. It took that team about half the season to figure out a passing attack, but in the meantime they won all their game because the staff and team figured out how to gameplan around their weaknesses. Marcus Freeman does not have that skill yet, and it may take him a long time to develop it. Fortunately, if all goes according to plan (and that’s a big if at this point), he’ll compensate with his biggest asset as a head coach — his recruiting prowess. If Freeman’s able to avoid rosters with similar deficiencies in the future, it makes gameplanning, especially as a young coach, that much easier. But that solution is two or three years away, at a minimum.
So while I’ll continue to believe the medium-to-long term outlook is good, it’s really anybody’s guess what the rest of this season looks like. After proving once again they can lose to absolutely anybody on their schedule, Notre Dame will have to fight to make a bowl game, especially with heavyweights Clemson and USC lurking. On the other hand, if the Irish team that played in Chapel Hill and Las Vegas shows up more often than not down the stretch, then this might still be a moderately successful year, if well below expectations.
Perhaps Freeman is merely fated to lose his first of every kind of game — first bowl game, first road game, first home game, first rivalry game. If he can get out from this weird jinx, then surely he can start to win more regularly — right?
In other news, Irish hockey is back!
Look, never a great sign for your football team when you starting looking up other sports just to feel something, but it’s unfortunate that these sports often get ignored for months of their seasons until after football wraps up. Hockey in particular I feel always sneaks up on me, starting in early October before the football season even hits the halfway mark. But here we are, starting the long march toward a hopeful return to the NCAA playoffs.
Hockey kicked off (err… puck dropped? Look I don’t know much about hockey ok) last weekend with the “Ice Breaker” tournament in Colorado while the other boys in gold helmets were playing in Vegas. The Irish fared much less well on the ice than on the gridiron, falling to Denver (still mad about that one Frozen Four btw) on Friday before a furious third period comeback against Air Force led to a late tie. This weekend, the roles were reversed as the Irish swept Northern Michigan in South Bend while the football team floundered. An excellent recovery as the Irish head into a home-and-home against Western Michigan next weekend; margins for error are pretty narrow in college hockey when it comes to making the postseason, so every game counts.
It was always kind of the intention of this weekly recap to start discussing other sports as they happened, despite it being called “CFB recap.” I’ll try to start making a conscious effort to do this for Notre Dame’s “Big Four” sports — football, hockey, and women’s and men’s basketball (you know, the sports they get bands for) — as each season gets going. (With apologies to Notre Dame baseball after their College World Series run, I refuse to watch baseball, and not just because the only ND baseball game I went to was like a 15-0 bludgeoning of the home team. Just not my sport, sorry. Wish you guys the best though!) I hope I can bring some spotlights to these sports that don’t get as much press from just the football crowd, but bring just as much (and sometimes more!) joy.
Speaking of which, basketball season is right around the corner! Boy, if ever there was a year to look forward to women’s basketball, this is it.
Too early to start a “countdown to Yukon” clock?
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