Texas, which flirted with the idea of making a coaching change weeks ago, is rumored to be considering it again, and targeting Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly as its top candidate.
If that rumor proves to be accurate, Kelly should take the job. Because the limitations of modern-day Notre Dame football continue to present themselves at the worst possible times.
Everyone has heard by now how Notre Dame struggles in postseason games, those games that come when the Fighting Irish can’t either pick their own schedules, or hide within a one-other-team ACC. Had Trevor Lawrence not been sidelined with Covid-19 issues the first time Notre Dame and Clemson faced off in the middle of the regular season, Alabama would have been playing Texas A&M in a rematch today, or maybe Cincinnati if the media pressure to include non-Power 5 teams had finally reached the point it could sway the College Football Playoff committee.
The reason for these struggles is simple: Notre Dame’s recruiting can’t keep up with Southern public universities. Between Notre Dame’s academic standards and a lack of speedy athletes in its home state of Indiana, Notre Dame has to be able to go out into the nation as a whole and recruit against those Southern powerhouses, or somehow find a way to break through the barriers that the only two continuously competitive Northern teams – Michigan and Ohio State – have been able to erect.
But just like the old, memorable Oldsmobile ad tagline – “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” – this isn’t your father’s (and especially not your grandfather’s) Notre Dame. Gone are the days when the Notre Dame program represented the default setting for any top-level high school football player interested in fame and NFL fortune. And if Notre Dame can’t figure out a way to fix this, just like Oldsmobile, Notre Dame risks becoming defunct.
There are still enough fathers and grandfathers out there that remember Notre Dame’s glory years, and its status as a Catholic educational icon will always give it a leg up over similarly past-their-prime private schools, such as Miami and BYU, but modern football demands the full commitment to winning. That means financial, and it also means letting the football program dictate some of the terms to the academic side of the school. Lou Holtz, the last Notre Dame coach to win at a high level consistently, knew this; there seems to have been an internal struggle in South Bend between school leadership and program leadership ever since.
It has manifested itself during Brian Kelly’s tenure most notably as a lack of difference-makers at the skill positions. Skill positions in football aren’t the hardest to learn, but they are notoriously hard to recruit for. Some high school superstars, through no fault of their own or their coaches, just don’t pan out. They don’t grow, they don’t develop, they can’t grasp complex schemes. When the high-school playbook is “give Joe the ball and watch him run,” they excel against those who would much rather be caught fishing than spending extra time in a weight room or in film study.
At the college level, though, the number of slack-offs shrinks to near zero, and for a school like Notre Dame, which is not recruiting enough raw volume of talented wide receivers and cornerbacks, it puts immense pressure on Kelly’s staff to have no misses among the players that they do get. It’s just an impossible ask.
Want to see it in action? Against Alabama, Notre Dame’s wide receivers caught 8 passes for 96 yards. The rest of Ian Book’s yardage went to tight ends and running backs. Ponder that fact for a moment: 27 completions, 19 of which had to go to short-yardage and check-downs. And 4 of those 8 passes to receivers went into the slot, to possession receiver Ben Skowronek. Meanwhile, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith had 7 catches for 130 yards and 3 touchdowns all by himself.
Kelly seemed like the perfect fit for Notre Dame when he was hired there, and he probably still represents the best possible coach Notre Dame could attract. But if Kelly values winning above the heartstrings of South Bend, he’ll listen if and when Texas comes calling.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Notre Dame:
1. Notre Dame’s middle defense was better than advertised – and also showed Dickerson’s value. The Fighting Irish defensive line as a whole certainly lived up to its statistical rankings, and Alabama had a hard time finding success against the second level of the defense, led by Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Najee Harris only carried the ball 15 times, as Alabama was held to 50 offensive snaps – thanks to Kelly’s offensive gameplan for Notre Dame, which was built on shortening the game – but Harris still managed 125 yards from scrimmage. Much of that, though, was on one play, and it was a run Harris had to bounce to the outside after RT Evan Neal got pushed back into the backfield.
The fact Harris got most of the yardage after a superhuman leapfrog over CB Nick McCloud probably led to Alabama’s score shortly afterward, as Notre Dame appeared to be in shock for a few plays. Harris was never truly bottled up by Notre Dame, but he wasn’t able to get the extra yardage inside like he did against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. It’s no surprise that part of the reason why was the falloff from Landon Dickerson to Chris Owens at center. Owens performed about on par with what he has proven able to do over his career, but there was more middle pressure than usual on QB Mac Jones, and more runs that couldn’t seem to find that elusive inside crease.
2. Alabama’s secondary may have played its game of the year, all things considered. First of all, Alabama was without S Malachi Moore, who got injured in practice this week and was replaced by Brian Branch for the entirety of this game. Alabama also made a change at free safety, choosing DeMarcco Hellams over Daniel Wright, likely due to the need for a safety better in run support than Wright. Hellams led Alabama in the tackles and even came up with a sack of Ian Book on a safety blitz. The work of cornerbacks Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe basically rendered Notre Dame’s outside receivers as non-factors. Javon McKinley, the only Irish player considered to be a proven outside threat, caught 2 passes for 20 yards.
Notre Dame completed the bulk of its passes to tight ends and running backs, and very few throws went downfield. Also, there were no real bust plays like there was against Florida’s more talented receiver group. This was the biggest mismatch on the field and Alabama leveraged it to perfection.
3. Notre Dame OL probably outperformed expectations, but Alabama’s middle pass rush kept Book off-balance throughout the game. Alabama came away with just two sacks on the day, and officially recorded no QB pressures, although anyone who watched the game would tell you that Book’s internal clock was set to spin-cycle from the opening snap onward. QB hurries, as a stat, seem to vary from official scorer to official scorer; Christian Barmore, D.J. Dale, Byron Young, Christian Harris and Dylan Moses all forced Book to bail out on his main route on multiple occasions.
Nick Saban mentioned in the postgame that Alabama’s strategy was to force Book outside the pocket (“run him laterally”), as they didn’t believe Book could hurt them outside the pocket, and they were right. Book finished the game averaging just 5.9 yards per pass attempt, and despite chewing up a lot of yardage on the last two drives, when both teams were basically just playing out the string, he finished with only 55 yards on 15 carries, a 3.7-yard average.
4. Playcalling flow, especially in the second half, meandered. From about the midpoint of the second quarter on, this was not Steve Sarkisian’s most groundbreaking work, but it got the job done. Alabama was on pace for a much more effusive output before the staff seemed to flip a switch and go into get-home mode. Perhaps this was in preparation for the Ohio State/Clemson winner later in the day, so as not to tip off Alabama’s eventual opponent as to what it could expect to see coming, but at this point in the season most opponents already have a pretty good book on Alabama. Given the offensive fireworks both Clemson and Ohio State can put up, Alabama will have to play its game of the year on offense in the College Football National Championship Game. The players will need all the help they can get from the braintrust on the sidelines, too.
5. Mac Jones showed again just how good he really is. Because of his unlikely ascension to the job in the face of competition from the next great thing – that would be true freshman Bryce Young, who doesn’t deserve to get caught up in any of Jones’ own hype or even that generated for himself by recruiting pundits – Mac Jones finds himself, 12 games into the 2020-2021 season, still trying to answer critics’ skepticism that he might just be the best quarterback in the country. It certainly isn’t Kyle Trask, who put up gaudy statistics for three-quarters of the season before throwing a bunch of interceptions down the stretch; it’s not Ian Book, who Jones out-dueled in this game. It may yet be Trevor Lawrence, but Clemson was overwhelmed by Ohio State and while Lawrence threw for 400 yards in the game, he also fumbled the ball three times, losing one of them, and pitched an interception.
Against Notre Dame, Jones threw four touchdowns and didn’t turn the ball over, but he also showed some decent scrambling ability. And the reason why — mostly because Alabama’s offensive line isn’t the same without Landon Dickerson — could wind up being incredibly important in Alabama’s next game. Despite not having his friend Dickerson in front of him, Jones was still able to complete 25 of 30 pass attempts for 297 yards and never looked much affected by the coverages Notre Dame threw up in front of him. It could be argued that the only people to stop Jones on this day were Nick Saban and Steve Sarkisian, who were more than happy to help Brian Kelly shorten the game and get on to the next one.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN