The end of the USC game marked not only the beginning of the bye week for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but also the official end of the first half of the season with six games in the books. Typically during this time, you see grades being assigned to units/players/coaches by various media outlets. I thought, rather than assigning letter grades, how about we go a slightly different route? Keeping with the theme of midterms, let’s honor the greatest teacher in cinematic history, Detective John Kimble, from the hit 1990 movie Kindergarten Cop. We’re going to review each position group and grade them by assigning an Arnold Schwarzenegger film to denote their quality. Let’s begin by looking at the offensive position groups:
Commando, for those who are uninitiated, is perhaps the finest pure action film that Arnold’s ever been in. He played John Matrix, retired US military special forces, who must rescue his daughter from a deposed South American dictator and Matrix’s old military buddy gone bad. For action movie connoisseurs, it’s a classic, but unfair or not, it is often overshadowed by some of Arnold’s other movies of that era. That couldn’t be more a more apt comparison for this offensive line. The specter of Harry Hiestand looms over the program, the myth of Quenton Nelson has taken on a larger-than-life feel.
But despite all that, this line has performed on almost an equal level to that 2017 iteration. What? No! Blasphemy! The hive mind shall not allow such statements to be made! Well let off some steam, Bennett, because it’s time to pipe some stats right into you:
Through six games the 2017 Notre Dame offensive line was averaging a robust 6 yards per carry. They had given up just 10 sacks and were generally thought of as a dominant force.
Through six games the 2019 Notre Dame offensive line is averaging a respectable 5.46 yards per carry. They have given up just 9 sacks and are generally thought of as not 2017.
Consider that the guy who was penciled in as the starter, Jafar Armstrong, ran the ball twice in the opener before his abdominal muscle snapped like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, and has only just returned to the field. (One carry against USC.) This has essentially been a one man show back there; that really strikes home how impressive that 5.46ypc really is. Not only that but to drop back and chuck it 47 times at Georgia, and not allow a single sack (we had 40 passes in 2017 against Georgia and gave up 3 sacks), is a testament to the job this unit is doing. Are there procedural issues? Sure, especially in the bigger games (3 false starts in each of the games against Virginia and Georgia), but through 6 games, they’ve had but 9 false starts and only 2 holding calls. That’s not too shabby.
It cannot be argued that Jeff Quinn’s ability to recruit isn’t top tier, and it turns out that it might also be tough to argue that he isn’t a damn good offensive line coach and that much of the hand wringing has been for naught. Jarrett Patterson seems be settling into his role as center after six games, as he and guards Aaron Banks and Tommy Kraemer are coming off a dominant performance against an impressive USC interior line. Robert Hainsey continues to serve as the stalwart anchor as the right tackle, and while Liam Eichenberg had four penalties against Georgia, and two more against Virginia, he has kept his game clean since.
With 10 minutes and 27 seconds left in the game, USC had stormed back to cut the lead to 23-20. The collective sphincters of the Irish faithful had uniformly tightened to the point where you could turn coal into diamonds up in there. So what did they do?
A fifteen play, seventy-five yard drive that ate nearly seven minutes of clock, and finished with an 8 yard touchdown rush from Ian Book. It was as impressive a drive as we have ever seen in the Brian Kelly era. Thirteen of the plays were runs, and the Trojans knew we were going to run it, and the offensive line did not care. It was a thing of beauty, and if they’re able to build on that moving forward, down the line we might be talking about the 2019 line with the same reverence as the 2017.
Before there was Katniss Everdeen saving dystopian America by winning a murder game show, there was Ben “The Butcher of Bakersfield” Richards, Arnold’s character in the 1987 blockbuster The Running Man. As far as Arnold movies go, it’s kinda just okay, the action is a little goofy (there’s a very angry man named Subzero on hockey skates with exploding pucks) and the plot could be used to strain spaghetti, but all and all it’s a fun movie with a really cool concept. A lot like our group of receivers to this point, definite holes but conceptually there’s a lot to like.
Chase Claypool is pacing all pass catchers with 27 grabs for 394 yards and 4 touchdowns. He has been as advertised when the ball is thrown his way; there doesn’t ever seem to be a moment where he couldn’t be open if the ball was just thrown up. Tight End Cole Kmet is next on the team, with 21 for 265 and 3TDs, despite missing the first two games due to his collarbone injury in fall camp. Is it hyperbole to say that Kmet might be the best TE in the Kelly era? Maybe. But he is almost like a Dragon Ball Z fusion of Tyler Eifert and Kyle Rudolph, a rare combination of body control, size, strength and ability to get open. The one nitpick I have on Kmet is that he has whiffed on a handful of blocks that could have sprung big plays, but that’s entirely correctable.
After that, things begin to look a little dicey... Chris Finke is 3rd on the team with 15 for 182 yards, but the numbers don’t really tell the story of Finke’s season at all. Whether it’s because he was forced out of his comfort zone (having to line up outside instead of the slot) due to the injury to Michael Young or it’s straining under the pressure of expectations, Chris Finke has not been the reliable player he showed to be last season. Dropping passes on third downs, a key interception bouncing off his hands against Georgia, and a general lack of his slippery self, has left many of us puzzled. Water tends to find its level with a veteran like Finke, so it’s unlikely his struggles continue, though if they do there are some players who could step up in the slot. Speaking of which... Braden Lenzy sure is a fun gadget player. In his seven touches this season, Lenzy is averaging 22.1 yards/play. We got a taste in garbage time against New Mexico, but it wasn’t until the USC game that we were left straight titillated at the possibilities:
Lawrence Keys III (7 for 70) should be healthy after the bye. And, with another week to improve his health, we might finally get to see the Michael Young that was touted by the coaching staff and beat reporters all fall camp. There is a lot of young speed between those three young receivers that could certainly help jump-start the passing game.
The Running Man Moment
Javon McKinley’s catch and run against New Mexico was very fun and something I expect we’ll see a lot more of (catch and runs) in Ann Arbor. Some of our most successful pass plays have come when we’ve allowed our receivers to catch it and become The Running Man (all right, I apologize, that was bad): Chase Claypool’s 34 yard scamper against Louisville, Avery Davis’ long TD against New Mexico.
Conan the Barbarian, Arnold’s big Hollywood break and the movie that launched his career. A tale of a young man whose family was murdered and forced into a life of bondage, breaks free from his shackles and goes on a rampage of vengeance to overthrow an evil tyrant. How does this relate to the running backs, you might ask? Story-wise, not at all. But Tony Jones, Jr. is Conan the Barbarian. Is he fast? No, but neither was Conan. It’s about strength and a determined stubbornness. If I had told you before the season that Jafar Armstrong would have two rushes through six games and we were averaging 5.46 yards per carry, you’d laugh in my face. The thing is, that 5.46 is the team average, Jones is outperforming even that, averaging 7 ypc and 92.83 yards/game on 80 carries for 557 yards. A few quick Jones:
- He’s currently 27th in all of CFB in yards per carry.
- He’s got 19 carries of 10+ yards, good for 13th in the nation.
- And four carries of 30+ yards, which is 9th.
The fact this kid isn’t being heralded by every single Irish fan just goes to show we can’t get over our preconceived opinions. If any other running back on this roster was putting up these stats we’d be frothing at the mouth, but because Tony Jones Jr is an unflashy senior, it’s a collective shoulder shrug. I will be the first to admit that I buried Jones after last season but I can admit I was wrong. He is the steadying hand that keeps this offense moving, and frankly is the offensive MVP of the first half of 2019. We’ll see what happens to Tony’s workload once Jafar is fully back in the mix but if Jones can manage to average just 63ypg in the next 7 games, he’ll finish with a 1000-yard season, a feat no one saw coming.
Conan the Barbarian Moment
You thought I was going to go Last Action Hero right? Maybe Terminator Genisys? End Of Days? Nope. Kindergarten Cop and I am very proud of this one for Ian Book. Kindergarten Cop is an action movie of sorts, at least the premise is. John Kimble is a cop who has to go undercover as a Kindergarten teacher in order to find a drug kingpin before he can murder his wife and child. This is PRIME Arnold mind you, it came out the same year as Total Recall and the year before Terminator 2. You see Arnold really pull his punches in this one(from an action standpoint) and that’s why I feel it best aligns to number 12. Outside the Georgia game Ian Book hasn’t been asked to do a whole lot this season. Nothing like the Stanford game last year or even the Northwestern game. His numbers aren’t terrible by any stretch, 108/171 63.2% 1419yds 14TD/2INT and 8.3ypa, yet they feel lacking. Some perspective:
- 31st in YPA (Jake Fromm is 25th at 8.5)
- 49th in completion percentage (We see Shea Paterson in two weeks, he’s at 95th with 57.1%)
- 12th in passing touchdowns, and there are only 4 QBs with fewer interceptions.
Is he pushing the ball downfield? No. I believe it was 2 attempts of more than 20 yards against USC? Does he seem to have happy feet? Of the 9 sacks we’ve allowed, 3 can unquestionably be placed squarely on his happy feet. Should he be taking more risks and feeding his tall pass catchers in Kmet and Claypool? I happen to think so. But he also willed this team to win on that final possession against USC with a ballsy pickup on 3rd and 10 and then the 8yd TD run.
The fact is, Ian Book is taking care of the football. His accuracy has definitely taken a step back, but there have been some balls receivers should have caught. Both the interceptions he’s thrown could have been avoided if the WR he was targeting had made the play. For now, it seems as though Chip Long is content to have Book manage the game. And you know what? That’s all right. Detective John Kimble didn’t need to punch anyone for a large chunk of Kindergarten Cop. He helped kids learn, he saved a ferret from a burning building, learned patience, found love...but in the end when Dominic’s life was in danger? He stepped up. Even in the Georgia game, Ian almost came up in the clutch if not for a blown assignment on the line. Until Ian fails to come through, he’s earned the right to ride or die.
Kindergarten Cop Moment
The score is 21-14, the stadium formerly known as Papa John’s is rocking. Midway through the 3rd, Ian Book orchestrates a two-play drive with a crosser to Claypool and then a 26yard touchdown to Tremble up the middle to end the party.