For a brief moment in time Notre Dame had put it all together in a way that has happened, perhaps never, over the last 20+ years. The Irish had out-played one of the elite teams in the country and defending champs, got a huge defensive stop in a key moment, saw Golson convert an improbable 4th down play, and moments later toss his 4th touchdown pass to win the game on the biggest stage in the regular season.
It almost all happened.
Play-Call of the Game: The Final Punt
I thought about several other plays and I kept coming back to this punt with just over 5 minutes left in the game. Sitting at 4th and 8 from the Florida State 39-yard line I normally would never agree with punting in that position. However, I thought it was important for a few reasons. One, Golson was a little rattled on the drive (nearly threw a pick on a completion to Robinson early in the drive) and the penultimate third down play was an interception if Koyack doesn't draw a penalty. I know the staff wasn't feeling great about settling Golson down in the moment and converting a long first down. Two, it put the ball in Brindza's hands (or foot more precisely) to pin Florida State deep in their own territory. Three, even though the defense had not played well in the second half it showed some trust that they would step up and get the ball back for the offense.
It all worked out perfectly. Brindza's punt was downed at the Florida State 7-yard line. Florida State got away from their passing game and kept the ball on the ground, and the defense played great run defense to get the ball back with plenty of time left in the game.
Given the competition this was Golson's best game of the season. He didn't lose a fumble and was able to chip in several key running plays--including on the last drive--finishing the night with 33 yards. His diving down after runs was a welcome difference from dancing around in traffic looking for extra yardage.
As I said in the intro Golson was a flag away from passing for 4 touchdowns in this game and he did go over 300 yards through the air anyway. He had a couple dangerous throws and made a big mental error on his first interception, but even still I'm not sure how much we are appreciating how well Golson played on this big stage. Oh, he also fumbled a 4th down snap early in the game, too. I remember a couple spring games ago watching Golson struggle with Hegarty (a left-hander) at center. I wonder if that exchange has never developed since Hegarty hasn't played much center but I think it's mostly Golson not being patient enough.
God, if only that 4th down pass would have gone down in Irish lore.
Turning Point: Winston on Fire
When the game comes down to essentially a last second passing play it's easy to say that is the turning point. However, in the big picture it was Florida State's second half adjustments and Winston playing nearly flawlessly that slowly turned the tide. Remember, Notre Dame led for nearly the entire game but thanks to the Seminole's offense picking things up after the break the Irish could never open up a two-score lead to try and put the game away.
Winston finished 15 of 16 for 181 yards in the second half. Yes, you read that right. Some of that was Notre Dame lacking adjustments to Florida State's adjustments but a lot of that was Winston simply beating the Irish with ridiculous decision making and accurate throws. Oddly enough, Winston's final pass attempt of the game came on 3rd and two from the Notre Dame 18-yard line and may have been his best. He just barely sneaked a flag route into a diving Rashad Greene that put the ball at the Notre Dame 3-yard line to set up the game-winning touchdown.
Surprising Stat: 50 Rushing Yards by Florida State
Notre Dame did a tremendous job effectively shutting down the FSU run game and making their offense one dimensional. If only Winston hadn't of caught fire, right? I would say that when the 'Noles needed some tough yardage on their last two scores they were able to cross the goal line but the first series was spotted at the 2-yard line and the second at the 3-yard line. It would be asking a lot to stop FSU running on 6 plays from that close.
Nevertheless, the Irish disrupted running back Dalvin Cook and forced him into just 20 yards on 12 carries. I thought the bigger Karlos Williams did a much better job running with power and gaining tough yardage (see the touchdown runs) but you can live with limiting someone to 25 yards on 8 carries.
Unheralded Star: Jarron Jones
The case could be made that Sheldon Day is the best player in the entire country who isn't necessarily blowing up on the stat sheet. He was limited to only 2 tackles and 1 tackle for loss (although it was Jadaveon Clowney-esque) on the night and has a modest 5.5 tackles for loss through 7 games given his role as a penetrating tackle in a 4-3 defense.
That being said, Jarron Jones played scarily good in this game for a 6-5, 315 pound nose guard: 6 tackles (2nd best on the team) with a game-high 3 tackles for loss in addition to a quarterback hurry. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that Jones was as dominant in this game as we ever saw Louis Nix back in 2012. At times, Jarron was throwing around FSU center Ryan Hoefeld like a little kid, taking on double teams with ease, and knifing through the line to make plays and disrupt running lanes.
Missed Opportunity: Failed 4th Down Conversion on 6th Offensive Drive
If there was an opportunity to open up a two-score lead it was on this drive. Notre Dame traded interceptions with Florida State and took a 14-7 lead on their previous offensive series after picking off Winston. The defense then forced a 3 and out that set up great field position for the offense. Then on 4th and 1 from dead center field a pitch play to Folston just didn't work as Tarean was tripped up trying to get vertical.
That was a strange play where the typical fundamentals for a runner were reversed. A blitzing edge rusher got into the backfield and Folson likely would have easily ran away from the tackler had he stayed on a course to the edge. Instead, he understandably cut quickly inside to get one yard but was tripped up just short.
Flag of the Game
I won't spend much time on this because Larz has a full post breaking down the play and call from the officials. My opinion is that you simply do not throw a flag on that play. If one of the FSU defensive backs shows even the slightest attempt to break towards Robinson the flag would be much easier to swallow. Schematically, the Seminoles got beat.
"Florida State blew the coverage and they got rewarded for it." - Brian Kelly— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) October 19, 2014
It would be different if a Seminoles DB is breaking toward Robinson and then gets picked or held on contact initiated by one of the Irish receivers. There's no doubt in my mind that Prosise goes into blocking mode and by the letter of the law a flag could be thrown there. But Ramsey initiates contact, plays just as physical, and makes zero attempt to break toward Robinson. In the heat of the moment, in that big of a stage, I don't believe a ref should bail out a player who was never going to make a play on Robinson anyway.
That's just a really, really tough flag to throw at this point in the game. You let the players decide the game in that moment and they took it away from them.
Then there's the fact that P.J. Williams took his helmet off which should have given the ball back to Notre Dame with a first down at the 9-yard line. I don't think it's any sort of conspiracy it's just really unfortunate that a ref inserted himself into the game for something that wasn't egregious or clearly forced a Seminole from making a play on the ball.
Red Zone TD Success: 60%
Sadly enough, the final series for the Irish was the only red zone opportunity in which they did not pick up some points. The last series before halftime netted a field goal for Notre Dame from within the red zone and the over-turned touchdown call to Robinson at the end of the game then turned into an interception from Golson. If there's no flag on the final touchdown then the Irish would have put the ball in the end zone on 4 out of 5 red zone opportunities.
Schemes n Such
It was a pass heavy performance (60% passes) but a dandy indeed. 470 total yards, 5.4 yards per play, while the 26 first downs was tied for the second most given up by Florida State during their winning streak stretching back to 2012. I got the sense that Kelly was pushing a little bit in the second half trying to re-gain a lead, or open up a bigger lead, which led to more passing. I would also imagine that with Folston being the hot hand he might not have been able to carry such a heavy workload in the second half after carrying the ball 14 times in the first half.
I'm sure most would agree that this was the best game of the season for the offensive line. They blocked really well for Folston and didn't give up a single tackle for loss on a running back carry all game. Although 3 sacks were surrendered I thought the pass protection was pretty solid across the board.
The defensive line was straight up kicking some you-know-what and taking names for most of the game. The lack of an edge rusher (just 1 sack) continues to hamper their ability to completely take over a game but we knew this was a weakness of the defense going into this season.
Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship, Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, Nick Watkins, and Drue Tranquill were the true freshmen to see the field.
- Some losses happen that can make a fan feel like they were personally injured. The team didn't play well, the coaches performed poorly and it hurt ME. This was not one of those games. In fact, it was about as far away from that type of loss as you can be. Sure, the way the game ended feels like a twisted knife but I feel so damn bad for the players and coaches who laid it all on the line and didn't win. If we're feeling this way I can't imagine how they're feeling.
- A few of you mentioned it in the Instant Reaction post and I'll echo the scratching of the head as to why the ball went to C.J. Prosise 3 straight times from first and goal at the end of the game.
- Speaking of Prosise this appeared to be a game where he was taking a lot of snaps from Amir Carlisle. That probably had to be due to Prosise's blocking ability but I also didn't think Carlisle looked that explosive in the game. The knee injury may still be hampering Amir a little bit which seemed evident when he took a jet sweep and looked uncomfortable making his cut before being smacked hard for a yard loss.
- Perhaps this loss would hurt less if we were still in an old system where one defeat meant your chances for a title were almost assuredly gone. However, when 6 out of the last 10 National Champions suffered at least 1 loss during their seasons it didn't seem to mean as much anyway. What will make the playoffs great is that our remaining regular season games are going to mean a ton and super pressure packed to stay in the race. We'll also be watching other games more intently with more on line for now besides an exhibition game in Arizona or New Orleans.
- There's no doubt Notre Dame made a statement on Saturday night and that is evident in the small drop in the polls. Maybe more so than any game in 2012, the Irish convinced a huge part of the country that they belong among the best teams in the country. I hope the players understand how they moved the needle in that regard.
- With that said, one game doesn't decide your fate and let's remember this does go down in the record books as a stinking loss. The team still has a lot of football left to play and some tough opponents to face. They seem poised to go 11-1, and it is truly amazing that it's not ridiculous to say that right now, but I also want to pump the brakes and say that we're not going to dance right into the top four in the eyes of the playoff committee without a few more battles to win.
- I have to tell you guys, I'm not really sure what to feel right now. At times last night I thought, "This is the best Notre Dame team I've seen in my adult life" and yet we lost. I really didn't think this was a playoff caliber team at the beginning of the year and yet at this point falling to the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl would feel like a disappointment. I realize that may contradict my above statement about pumping the brakes on the playoff. It's just I'm still fearful of this team tripping up at some point the rest of the way because they are still really super young.
- It was a bitter loss but last night was really fun. College football can be awesome.