Outside the Irish Huddle: Notre Dame Finally Notches an Upset Win

Not too many experts predicted an outcome like this and although I certainly expected a strong and valiant effort coming off of a bye week, I couldn’t have imagined a performance like the Irish gave on Saturday.

Time will tell if this will end up being a really big win, but for now it was a very inspiring and meaningful victory. It was the kind of victory that has eluded Notre Dame for so long: a quality grinded out win against a ranked opponent where the defense played amazing and the team took advantage of nearly every opportunity.

Let’s go Outside the Irish Huddle and take a closer look at Notre Dame’s 28-3 victory over Utah.

Senior Day Atmosphere

Didn’t the atmosphere seem electric inside the stadium for this game? Boy, what a difference from last year when it couldn’t have been any more depressing of a game.

I think this speaks volumes for what Brian Kelly has done so far this year as coach at Notre Dame, because whether it’s fair or not, with everything this team has gone through this year and with all the injuries on offense, this team probably loses handily to Utah with Charlie Weis as coach.

Back to the atmosphere again, was it me or did it feel like a special win was in the brewing from the start? The crowd was actually loud for the majority of the game and the overcast skies and rain seemed lend an aura of grittiness to the team and its attitude.

It was a great way to send off the seniors in their last home game inside Rock’s House.

It also shows that it would do the program well to throw in a night game or two every season. Even though the game started at 2:30 the relative darkness from the skies brought that prime-time feel that is usually lacking for most Notre Dame games.

Grass Took a Beating

It will be interesting to see if this was the last game played with natural grass inside the stadium as I wrote about earlier last week. Due to the rain the field got pretty sloppy and there was a lot of slipping and poor footing.

Worst of all, the field is probably shot beyond all belief after 5,000 people gathered on the field to celebrate the victory. Good thing there will be time for it to recuperate and if the surface does not change we’ll see how the grass looks during the Blue-Gold game in the spring.

Does This Mean There Will be a Bowl Game?

This was a big win but it makes it all the more sweet that the Irish now have an opportunity to go to a bowl game with one more victory in the last two weeks of the season.

It’s funny how nearly every Notre Dame fan was pretty ho-hum and nonchalant about the game against Army at Yankee Stadium this season, but now it has become a fairly big game.

At the beginning of the year I think we would have been pretty shocked if someone told us that we’d need a win over Army to gain bowl eligibility. But then again, most of us didn’t think we’d beat Utah with Crist, Rudolph, Allen, Riddick, Jones and Williams in the lineup before the year started too.

Team Unit Grades

Offensive Line: B

Early in the game the line was struggling to open running lanes (partly Wood’s fault) and they did end up giving two sacks, but they settled down and put together a strong performance.

The line does deserve credit for providing at least a decent running game, especially considering Rees was not a threat to pull it down and Utah knew the Irish would have to rely on quick and short passes.

It was interesting to see Chris Watt getting a decent amount of playing time at left guard. I’m not sure if Chris Stewart was a little banged up or what, but Watt performed pretty well while he was in there.

Wide Receivers: B-

There weren’t a whole lot of balls thrown the receivers’ way because the Irish only attempted 20 passes all game long. When was the last time Notre Dame won a game while attempting that few passes?

Michael Floyd made a few big plays and caught a touchdown, while Duval Kamara took the opportunity to grab some playing time with all the injuries and caught two clutch touchdown passes to add some much needed insurance to the game.

We can throw tight end Tyler Eifert in here even though he spent most of the day blocking. Eifert only caught two balls but did snag a key third down reception that kept the chains moving at a critical moment in the game.

This grade isn’t really indicative of the receiving units play per se, but is more a result of only 129 passing yards.

Running Backs: B+

The running stats weren’t overly impressive (127 yards, 4.4 YPC), but this was a big performance against a team that is typically very strong against the run. It was also nice to see that the Irish didn’t have to throw the ball all the time and could rely on pounding the ball without the offense shrinking into a joke.

Cierre Wood got off to a slow start, missed some open holes and ran into his blockers too often (he had plenty of room to run through a big hole on the fourth down play on the first drive), but he kept his focus and came through with a quality afternoon.

It’s clear that Wood still has a lot of room for improvement, but it is very encouraging to see that he has improved so much this season and can be trusted to stay in and block and carry the running game with Allen done for the season. I’m also very excited not only with his burst of speed and shiftiness in the open field, but also with his toughness and ability to lower his head for some yards.

After missing some time with an injury and being forgotten by many, Jonas Gray came in and ripped off two big runs. If he can stay healthy he could be a big part of the offense in the future, as he has a scary combination of power and speed.

Robert Hughes had a couple tough runs and caught a couple passes as well, adding to the running backs’ workman-like performance against Utah.

Quarterback: A-

This was just an incredible performance from the young freshman Tommy Rees.

He had two balls batted down at the line of scrimmage and made a couple poor throws, but otherwise Rees played about as well as you could have expected for a kid in his first career start.

Rees didn’t turn the ball over, threw three clutch touchdown passes and once again exhibited good knowledge of the offense with a calm, cool demeanor that is rarely seen from an 18 year-old.

I’m still skeptical of his physical limitations, but you have to be pretty amazed at his performances over the past two games. Rees’ play so far has certainly raised the intrigue for the quarterback situation next season, and even if he doesn’t return as a starter next fall it will be good to know that he can come in and run the offense with some ease.

Defensive Line: A

Much like the defense as a whole, this was one of the best performances from the defensive line in a very long time. The most comforting aspect of this domination was just how many reserves were used and rotated in throughout the game.

At any point in the past five or six years it would have been unheard of for an Irish team to use so many defensive linemen and still control the line of scrimmage against a quality opponent like Utah. Particularly, Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams played very well in the interior and freshman Kona Schwenke showed uncanny power and aggressiveness off the edge.

This was a huge boost of confidence for these players and for the future. Without the only senior on the line and possibly the team’s best defender (Ian Williams), this unit showed that it can come through with top-notch execution.

Linebackers: B+

Manti Te’o played solid as always, but the real gem came from Brian Smith who had his best game of the season and possibly of his career. Smith was flying all over the field, made numerous tackles in space and almost came up with a huge interception in the first half.

Darius Fleming continued his season of inconsistency, but freshman Prince Shembo stepped up and played one heck of a game showing flashes of power and speed that could possibly make him an All-American someday.

The linebackers should get a lot of credit for shutting down Utah’s running game, but also in limiting the Utes short passing game with quality coverage on crossing routes and swing passes to the running backs.

Secondary: A

The secondary simply made plays!

They tackled well, played solid in coverage and challenged receivers at the line of scrimmage.

Harrison Smith made a terrific interception, Walls, Gray and Slaughter laid some wood while Blanton came up huge with the blocked punt for a touchdown.

This was one of the best games from the secondary in a long time

Final Thoughts

It hasn’t taken long for the voices to rise touting Utah as a terribly overrated opponent. We’ll see how things shake out but I doubt the Utes will end up anything worse than 10-3 on the season.

The other important thing to remember is that not many people thought Notre Dame would beat Utah with a full roster, let alone half the offense missing. In a wonderful world of hypocrisy, the same people who claimed the Irish had no chance against Utah are probably a lot of the same people claiming that this isn’t a big win.

Never mind all that, but the coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for this performance. I don’t think anyone could have expected such a dominating defensive performance mixed with a reliance on the running game and smart passes from Tommy Rees.

To me, this win means a lot more than the losses to Navy and Tulsa.

After this Utah game there is no way that anyone can say that this defense has not improved this year, not after they delivered one of the best games in years. I think we’ll see some of those Bob Diaco haters quite silent for a while now.

Utah came out flat and still could have been psychologically damaged from their TCU beat down, but you could tell on their faces that they were not prepared for the speed and toughness of the Irish defense.

What makes this performance all the better is that Utah is a balanced spread team with an offense that has typically given the Irish fits in the past. They were ultimately limited to 265 yards of offense, 2.4 yards per carry and only three points.

Three points.

Let that just sink in for a moment.

There’s a tendency to blow this win out of proportion and think about how the team could be really good next year if they played like this nearly every game, but what I think is more important is that Brian Kelly’s foundation building and coaching is finally starting to take root inside the locker room.

It says something when the coaching staff is able to put the players in a position where they could execute defensively at such a high level against Utah. It also says a lot that even with a ton of injuries and a kid making his first career start at quarterback, that the offense was able to function rather competently.

It could have been really easy to quit and lay down, but the Fighting Irish stepped up and delivered a resounding victory.

Let’s see where the momentum takes this team the rest of the way.

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