The Notre Dame Fighting Irish played one of their stranger games in recent memory on Saturday, grinding out a 12-7 win against the mercurial Louisville Cardinals. Beyond the consistency of the Irish defense, nothing seemed to make sense in this ugly, profoundly weird football game. In the end the Irish prevailed, extending their home winning streak and keeping their College Football Playoff dreams alive. Let’s talk about three of the major threads during this hideous affair and then never speak of it again.
I didn’t realize Notre Dame and Louisville were service academies
One of the truly uncanny things about this contest was the game flow, which was more or less equivalent to your average Army-Navy showdown. The game was fast-paced in the worst way, as Irish plodded, but moved forward on the ground and struggled to throw while the Cardinals rarely succeeded in moving the ball at all. The ball moved at a snail’s pace, which in turn made the game itself fly by. Notre Dame only had seven drives in the entire game; Louisville had six.
This became an intentional part of Notre Dame’s game plan once they took the lead in the second half, as the Irish knew their defense had the Cards’ number and went into “let’s just not f*** up and we’ll probably win” mode. There was a chicken-and-egg relationship between Notre Dame’s lack of offensive production and the clock movement in this game. Ian Book and co. were limited in their opportunities to make plays by the fast pace of the game, but that pace was in part a result of their inability to score early or often. This isn’t a viable strategy moving forward but it was enough to carry the team through another week, and in 2020 that might be all we can ask for.
This team’s foundation is sound
Anyone with a football background will tell you the building blocks of a successful team are: running the ball effectively, hard-nosed defense, and discipline to avoid penalties and turnovers. That theory was put to the test on Saturday as the Irish displayed each of these essential qualities and almost no others, but were still able to eke out a win. The difference between the two teams was especially stark on the discipline front, as the Cardinals committed a handful of devastating penalties to give the Irish a leg up.
These are the essentials that Irish fans spent the better part of this century lamenting the team not having, and it is good to know that even if nothing else is working this team will still have the mettle and muscle to win most of its games. On the flip side, that foundation alone isn’t enough to win the games the Irish want and need to win to achieve their goals.
It’s well past time for the passing game to step up
Even the most hidebound #RTDB devotees will tell you that the Irish absolutely need to show a stronger passing attack if they want to win the ACC or reach the College Football Playoff. Ian Book seemed to have the yips at times and missed some throws he should have made, most notably a would-be touchdown down the seam to a wide-open Michael Mayer on the first drive. At the same time, let’s make this clear: he wasn’t getting much help. A very beatable Louisville secondary was able to completely lock down the Irish receivers on several occasions, leaving Book to scramble or take a sack. Javon McKinley followed up a career effort against the Florida State Seminoles with a mystifying day in which he dropped several catchable balls, while Ben Skowronek and Kevin Austin combined for three receptions total.
While the Irish were able to skate by on the strength of their defense and running game on Saturday, the Irish quarterback and receivers will need to step up if they want to win against the Pittsburgh Panthers next week, let alone the Clemson Tigers.