Before I go into my final “Three Things” observations of the 2020-21 season, I’d like to share a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that I think is quite apt right about now.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
If you are sitting around saying you wish the Notre Dame Fighting Irish had been excluded from the playoff so they might have had a cushier matchup in a New Year’s Six bowl game, stop. It is always, always better to fail while daring greatly than to take the coward’s way out. Eventually the Irish are going to break through in one of these games, and you are going to be very glad they weren’t afraid to take the matchup.
I will also refer salty fans of the Texas A&M Aggies to the quote above, and remind them who they are in it. I will also remind them that you can’t hand-wave away your four-possession loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide this season while also arguing that losses by Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham should be counted against the Irish in 2020. Your team had a chance and blew it. Get over it.
With those two items out of the way, let’s talk about what we saw yesterday. It was a depressingly familiar sequence for viewers of this year’s ACC Championship game as the Irish fell behind in the first half, made defensive adjustments to stabilize the game but were unable to generate enough offense to climb back into it. The Irish did show more fight in this game than in that ACC Championship or their previous playoff game in Arlington, and we’ll get into some of those silver linings in this column. Still, at the end of the day the Irish were decisively beaten, and there were plenty of areas of improvement to look at going into 2021.
Murder on the outside
Alabama was better than Notre Dame all over the field on Friday, but it was on the perimeter - on both sides of the ball - where the differences went from marginal to monumental. The Irish were able to run the ball on the Tide, their tight ends could compete in the middle of the field and the defense was able to adjust and mostly contain Najee Harris after a rough start. But there was no man on the Irish roster that was anywhere near as dangerous down the field as Devonta Smith, or as dominant in the secondary as Patrick Surtain II. Those two were men among boys and absolutely tortured their counterparts in white and gold all afternoon.
It’s hard to fault the Irish for not being able to measure up to these two because the personnel simply weren’t there to do so. Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek could play to the best of their abilities and still not get open. Nick McCloud and Clarence Lewis could do the same and still get burned. The Irish have struggled in recruiting top-flight wide receivers and corners in recent classes, and that gap showed yesterday. Irish fans do have much to be excited about in that area of the field in incoming classes, which is cause for excitement. But it was made clear Friday that they are not there yet.
Necessary risks don’t always pay off
Brian Kelly was up-front about his team’s need to be more aggressive in their gameplan to compete with Alabama, and it was evident in the way this game unfolded. It made sense to take the ball to start the game, as the Irish realistically needed to score and control the ball from the outset. They failed to do so, but it was the only option they had. The game would not have gone better if Alabama had taken a lead before the Irish even touched the ball.
Similarly, the Irish had to go for it on fourth down more often in this game than they normally would have, and there were fewer points on the board than there might have been because of that (i.e., in a normal game the Irish would have taken three points on the drive that featured Michael Mayer’s negated touchdown and ended in a turnover on downs). It is also likely that Ian Book was coached to take more chances through the air rather than tucking and running as he so often does, and it was an interception on one such risky throw that finally broke the back of the Irish in the third quarter.
It was clear that the Irish came into this game ready to fight and take risks, and that was necessary for them to win. Unfortunately they weren’t able to execute, and that was that.
The Irish were soundly beaten in this game, but any honest viewer of it and the 2012 and 2018 title bids would tell you that this Irish team put forth a better effort than its predecessors. There were a few solid performances in this game that deserve to be highlighted, and some signs that this team, while still not there yet, is slowly getting closer to being championship-worthy.
Kyren Williams put forth an gritty and productive effort on a difficult offensive day for Notre Dame. Beyond production on the ground, he provided critical energy and leadership at points in the game where it looked like the Irish might be down for the count, continuing to fight and inspiring his teammates to do so as well. Don’t be surprised at all to see a C on the Bellyman’s chest next year.
Michael Mayer had an impressive game as well, and when the Irish were successful in moving the ball it was because Ian Book was able to use him as a security blanket. After a woeful start on defense, the Irish kept fighting and found ways to contain the Tide, holding them to well below their typical scoring output despite their early dominance.
This doesn’t feel good, folks, but let’s remember how grateful we were to have a season at all this year - and how great a season it was. There’s plenty to be excited about in the future, and I’m excited to see this program continue to get closer and closer to the mountaintop.