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Louisville Review: So Close Yet So Far Away

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The Irish fought back hard but couldn't close the deal against Louisville this past Saturday.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame put up a valiant effort against Louisville this past Saturday. Unfortunately, not many people are impressed by valiant efforts when a loss is the end game.

Play-Call of the Game: Golson 5-yard Pass to Koyack

I'm a sucker for that play-action shuffle pass to the tight end. I believe this is the second time we've run it this year. However, I've lamented this year how unproductive Koyack has been with the ball in his hands. It's not so much that he's less athletic than his immediate predecessors, although that's part of it, but he's not overly aggressive with the ball in his hand.

It's almost as if he's waiting for contact instead of busting through the field trying to gain as many yards as possible. When I think of Koyack I picture him catching a pass, taking a couple steps, and crouching down low to the field waiting for the safety to take his legs out.

It'll be interesting to see what the NFL thinks of Koyack's prospects at the next level. It's shaping up to be a disappointing crop of tight ends and the Oil City product has a meager 28 receptions, 294 yards, 2 touchdowns, at just 10.5 yards per catch.

Armchair Quarterback

I thought it was kind of funny that after the first half Golson was 6 for 9 passing and on the cusp of being benched while Bonnafon was 4 for 12 and the talk was how well the freshman was playing. You don't often see those numbers correlate to such discussions.

Two bad plays buried Golson in the first half. Obviously they were his interception and then the 32-yard 'fumble' that crippled Notre Dame's last full drive of the first half. I've been adamant about many of Golson's interceptions being not that bad but his pick in this game definitely fit that category.

While I thought Golson deserved criticism for the fumble the commentary from Mayock and Flutie seemed way over the top. Even if you want to kill him for losing the ball and not initially hustling at least point out that Golson was able to recover and smartly knock the ball out of bounds. What's more, what about the fact that a free rusher came at Golson, he did protect the ball and wasn't careless with it, and the Irish lineman clumsily boots the ball even further backwards with no one around him?

Scores of people wanted to follow Mayock and Flutie's opinion and sit Golson. They said his body language is poor, he's rattled, maybe getting Zaire some reps would help settle Golson down. I've even seen a bunch of people say that Golson looked lost and not in control after that fumble.

GOLSON CAME BACK AND HIT HIS FIRST THREE PASSES TO START THE SECOND HALF THE LAST OF WHICH WAS A TOUCHDOWN PASS.

Golson came right back and led two quick touchdown drives to get the Irish back into the game. He finished the second half going 10 of 15 for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns, plus the key 2-point conversion scramble.

Look, I know there's a narrative out there that Golson has regressed and that he's not responding well to being such a huge piece of the offense. While I think conflating turnovers with overall regression is absurdly simplistic this game was yet another instance of Golson fighting through a couple mistakes and playing well down the stretch.

I found it shocking how little credit Golson received for his second half performance, primarily because so many thought he couldn't handle the spotlight. Once again, Kelly sticks with him and it paid off, but hey I don't expect anyone to congratulate him on that coaching decision.

It's almost as if everyone stopped watching after the first half which, come to think of it, might have actually happened.

Turning Point: Brindza's Missed Field Goal

No brainer as this effectively ended the game.

I'll let Punter Bro break the play down frame by frame and give us some more insight and detail into how the game-tying kick went astray.

Surprising Stat: Louisville's 8 Penalties

One of the things I was wondering during this game was how Irish fans would react to 6 false start penalties on the offensive line if that happened to Notre Dame. Oh, we'd never hear the end of the lack discipline!

Do you think any of the post-game threads across the internet extolling Petrino's play-calling brought up these penalties? Of course not. It's just one of those things when it's not happening to your team it's easy to dismiss but when it happens to your team the axes come out in full force.

Unheralded Star: Jacob Matuska

The redshirt freshman saw his first extensive playing time of his career and played pretty well. Matuska finished with 4 solo tackles (second on the team behind Jaylon Smith) and his first career sack. Well done!

Missed Opportunity: Defense Immediately After 20-17 Irish Lead

As I already mentioned the Irish came out and took control in the second half. The defense forced a pair of three-and-outs from Louisville while the offense put the ball in the end zone twice to take a 20-17 lead. What followed by the Cardinal offense really set Notre Dame back a lot.

Bonnafon only threw 3 passes over two drives (all on the first drive) and completed two of them, the last connecting with DaVonte Parker for a 21-yard touchdown. The follow up drive was simply 6 straight run plays culminating in a 15-yard touchdown by Brandon Radcliff.

These two drives to take an 11-point lead were a major gut punch. The defense had impressively settled down since the first quarter and then just got overwhelmed. Bonnafon completed two passes for 41 yards and Louisville as a team ran for 110 yards on 10 carries. That was almost half of the Cardinals' total rushing in just those two series.

Flag of the Game: Nyles Morgan 15-yard Facemask

You were thinking I'd go with Morgan's personal foul for text book targeting, didn't you? Not when Louisville ended up missing a field goal on that drive and Morgan's replacement in Greer Martini made the fateful 13-yard sack on third down.

Early in the game a Brindza punt pinned Louisville down at their 7-yard line then our friends at Irish Illustrated put the jinx into full effect.

Surely the Cardinals weren't going to march nearly the entire field and score back-to-back touchdowns to open the game?

What made this drive so frustrating was that it began with a false start by Louisville. Then on second down Morgan swarmed running back Michael Dyer for no gain but committed the facemask penalty to allow Louisville to move from a third and long in the shadow of their goal posts to a first down at their 23-yard line.

Louisville also hit a 52-yard pass on 3rd & 16 later in the drive which was not cool.

Red Zone TD Success: 40%

Notre Dame's improved red zone play took another tumble over the weekend. The Irish settled for two field goals inside the red zone in the first half. However, the opening two drives to start the second half added touchdowns from inside the red zone. Brindza's miss on the last drive was the lone drive inside the red zone where the offense came away without points.

The Irish currently sit at 47th nationally in red zone touchdown conversion percent up from 100th last year.

Schemes n Such

This was one of the stronger gameplans from Brian Kelly for this season. The offense was only able to run a season-low 53 plays (11 fewer than the previous season low set against both Rice & Navy) and I was rather impressed with the way Kelly stayed patient with the run game, particularly since the Irish trailed for all but 6 minutes of the game. It'll get lost in the typical bickering that Folston didn't get 752 carries but this was a rare instance where Kelly stayed balanced on offense when down by more than one score.

I actually read a comment from someone who said that the Florida State game was an example of Kelly utilizing Folston properly and that this Louisville game was yet another travesty of ignoring Tarean in the run game.

Against the Seminoles, the offense ran 87 plays and Folston got 21 carries for 24.1% rushing attempts to total snaps. Against the Cardinals Folston got 18 carries on 53 snaps for a percentage of 33.9%.

The #RTDB crowd is so convoluted, confused, and lost that these percentages mean absolutely nothing. I mean for goodness sake Golson threw the ball a season-high 52 times against Florida State! People are getting mad about the play-calling balance when Golson throws 24 passes against Louisville!

This is why I can only laugh at the majority of the play-calling criticisms, especially from this game. Anytime there's a loss it's like a Rolodex is blindly flipped through to start placing blame about play-calling.

A lot of focus was put on the final drive by Notre Dame. A common response was that we would have scored had Folston got more carries. Well, obviously. Check the Rolodex and it'll tell you that any other failed plays would have worked if you just ran the ball. Of course, Folston got a carry on first down and only managed to get one yard. Was that a bad play-call? Why not? The play didn't work out?

On second down Kelly dialed up a QB draw that looked to have some room for big yardage, maybe a touchdown, but our senior captain left guard got absolutely blown up right into Golson's face. Bad play-call? Kelly gets raked over the coals for it.

When a play doesn't work out it automatically is subject to poor play-calling, except giving the ball to your running back always gets the benefit of the doubt. That about sums up the circular logic that is so pervasive among football fans.

At any rate, Notre Dame lost and people want to blame Brian Kelly's play-calling. Whatever. I think it's fair to criticize the offense for not scoring 3 touchdowns in the red zone, especially with a shot at winning the game at the end, but that's not necessarily the same as blaming play-calling.

When it's all said and done Notre Dame was poised to score 31 points against a Top 10 defense. Folston's 134 yards were the most Louisville had given up to a runner all season. The Irish averaged 6.32 yards per play against maybe the toughest defense they'll face all season. Take away that ridiculous 32-yard sack and Notre Dame averaged 7.05 YPP against the Cardinals.

This does not happen with a poor gameplan, poor play-calling, and poor execution. Yes, the offense (and special teams) needed to make another play to bring a victory but it just wasn't meant to be. That's just the way it goes sometimes.

Trench Analysis

I actually thought the offensive line was pretty good in this game. They missed a couple assignments that led to a few sacks but even though Louisville wasn't credited with any quarterback hurries (a notoriously poorly kept stat) the line gave Golson enough time for the vast majority of the snaps.

Anytime Folston has the game he produced on the ground the blocking up front was winning a lot of battles. Also, neither Folston or McDaniel had a carry for negative yardage.

The run defense had a bad game. There's no way around that. With sacks removed the Cardinals ran for 275 yards. Now, the injuries are at comical levels right now so there are some excuses for this lack of run defense. Yet, this was strangely a very good game for the line getting after the quarterback. The 4 sacks tied a season high plus Notre Dame was able to total 8 tackles for loss.

Freshmen Update

Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill, Andrew Trumbetti, Greer Martini, Jay Hayes, Tyler Luatua, Nick Watkins, Kolin Hill, and Grant Blankenship were the true freshmen to see the field on Saturday. Morgan and Tranquill picked up starts while the former will miss the first half of the USC game for his targeting penalty against Louisville.

Final Thoughts

  • It's tough to bag too much on the defense. Yes, they were playing a true freshman who didn't look that comfortable throwing the ball (although he did make several beautiful passes) for long stretches. Louisville at times was able to impose their will so even though the 5.8 yards per play doesn't look too bad it was a highly effective average. They just couldn't quite do enough although some credit is needed for limiting Louisville to just 75 yards on 6 series in a row from the early 2nd quarter into the middle of the 3rd quarter. They even got a momentous stop on Louisville's missed field goal drive which was very encouraging.
  • The tackling was really, really poor in this game. Probably the worst of the season. It looks to me like a bunch of young players running around with their hair on fire with a couple veterans simply not playing under control and wrapping up.
  • Austin Collinsworth would be one of those veterans missing a lot of tackles. It's sad to see him playing hurt and trying to do so much out there. He did pick up 1.5 tackles for loss but must have missed at least 4 or 5 tackles.

  • I'm at a loss for the lack of playing time for Redfield and Shumate, as well. The only logical explanation is that they've completely gone in the tank during preparation and practice. It also sounds like from Kelly's comments to the media on Sunday that he's not 100% happy with the coaching back there, either. As I mentioned in last week's podcast I would expect Cooks to relinquish his coaching of the entire secondary, stick with the corners, and a new coach hired to work with the safeties. Someone on the staff will need to go to make room for that to happen.
  • Notre Dame lost again and people are pissed. It's completely understandable. I actually thought Notre Dame played well and fought hard. Any accusations that Brian Kelly has lost the team seem incredibly premature. They are fighting but not all of the horses are available right now. Even though this was a defeat I now believe this team has a better shot--even with the additional injuries to Jarron Jones and possibly Cody Riggs--of going to Los Angeles and beating Southern California. I'm not sure if I will predict a win but I feel better about our chances.
  • If this review is full of snark and seems fairly positive given that Notre Dame just fell to 7-4, and have lost 3 straight games it's partly because I've never seen such an absence of level-headed commentary following an Irish defeat. And it's just not confined to the usual suspects--this is across multiple Notre Dame sites. I know a lot of that is the bitter disappointment of this last month and it's perfectly understandable. Really, it is. But the multitude of comments that I've seen following this game were so detached from what actually played out that it's clear that thoughtful criticism has been thrown to the wayside in favor of hysteria.
  • This is why The Great Gray Area of Kelly is going to drum up so much fighting among Notre Dame fans. It has a magnifying effect and polarizing effect for us. Just look at our comment section lately. About 5% of the comments in Saturday night's Instant Reaction are dealing with actual thoughts from the Louisville game. Usually it's the lunatic fringe's game to push people into corners. Now, we're seeing the common middle start to take up their defenses or offenses. There's a lot of harsh criticism of Kelly and the program which is causing biting defense of the team, and vice versa. I don't claim to have all the answers or any perfect opinions but I am not looking forward to these types of flag planting arguments continuing. To be sure these are hard times which calls for hard discussions but this off-season is going to be miserable.