There were far too many things that seemed to be going Florida State’s way late in the 4th quarter on Sunday night in Doak Campbell Stadium. Beyond the fact that the Seminoles were honoring the late Bobby Bowden, McKenzie Milton had just come off the bench to complete a seemingly impossible comeback, and Notre Dame’s defense was inexplicably allowing big play after big play on the ground. After Ryan Fitzgerald drilled a 43-yard field goal with 0:40 seconds remaining in the game to draw the Seminoles even with Notre Dame at 35-35, a sense of doom seemed to settle over Irish Nation. In fact, one could have been forgiven if they begin to have flashbacks to the nightmarish 2016 season opener against Texas in which the Irish lost a wild contest in overtime.
Displaying the mettle of a program that has been to the College Football Playoff two out of the past three seasons, the Irish defense stiffened in the first overtime period. Florida State faced a 3rd and 4 on their opening possession of overtime when Marcus Freeman dialed up a blitz, allowing JD Bertrand to come screaming up the middle to force Milton into a mistake when he lost control of the football while backpedaling. Initially ruled on the field as a fumble, the replay booth potentially iced Fitzgerald as they reviewed the play. Ultimately, the booth decided Milton’s hand was coming forward and thus ruled the play as an incomplete pass. Fitzgerald hooked his 37-yard attempt wide left, opening the door for the Irish to escape Tallahassee with a heart-pounding victory. Refusing to waste the opportunity, the ensuing possession culminated with a Jonathan Doerer 41-yard field goal from the right hash to give Notre Dame the 38-35 victory.
When reviewing the box score, there were head-scratching items all around. Notre Dame was only able to grind out 65 yards on the ground. That figure alone typically spells doom for a Brian Kelly-coached team. While the offensive line held up for the most part in pass protection, the unit struggled to find any cohesion on the ground, leading to a 1.9 yards per rush. Not only was the line breaking in 4 new starters, but they also had to rely on Michael Carmody to replace Blake Fisher for the 2nd half after Fisher suffered a right knee injury late in the 2nd quarter.
On the positive side, Jack Coan was able to drive the ball downfield all night, ending the evening 26/35 on his passing attempts, 366 passing yards, with 4 touchdowns and 1 interception. Coan had passing touchdowns of 41 yards, 23 yards, 37 yards, and 6 yards. Overall, the wide receivers looked explosive, and Coan displayed a calm demeanor and great decision-making throughout the night. Michael Mayer finished with 9 receptions for 120 yards and 1 touchdown, and Kevin Austin chipped in 4 receptions for 91 yards and 1 touchdown.
On defense, the results were a mixed bag. The initial two Seminole drives netted a total of -9 yards. However, on Florida State’s third possession of the night, Jashaun Corbin broke off an 89-yard rushing touchdown to re-energize the crowd and provide a glimpse of what was to come the remainder of the night. In total, the Irish defense allowed three plays of 60 yards or more. For comparison, Clark Lea’s defenses permitted three such plays over the course of three seasons. The 35 points allowed by the Marcus Freeman-led defense matched the total number of times Clark Lea permitted 35 points in regulation over the course of his three seasons. While certainly not an indictment on Freeman, the comparison is moreso meant to demonstrate that this year’s team has all sorts of transitions occurring.
What was most maddening was the fact the Irish bounced between dominating the Seminole offensive line with 5 sacks and continuing to be gashed on the ground for big run after big run. Freeman’s inability to adjust and take away the run was curious. While the defense played a 3 man front for most of the night, it was clear by the middle of the 3rd and 4th quarter that something needed to be changed. In the past, Lea’s defenses may have had a rough drive or two to open the game but were quickly able to make adjustments. Again, this was one game. However, after having been spoiled for the past 3 years, the inability to adjust was glaring.
Thankfully, the defense will have Kyle Hamilton to help make up for whatever may arise on the back end. Hamilton proved his value to the defense with two big interceptions, one in which he almost impossibly came from the far hash to intercept a pass along the near sideline. The Irish did win the turnover battle, 3-1, which made it even more perplexing how the game was as close as what it ended up being.
Overall, the Irish haven’t changed the narrative in my head at all. This will be a team that will need to grow throughout the year to get to where they need to go. It may not always be pretty, but the most important aspect is winning week in and week out. Kelly acknowledged the need for growth and improved execution in the coming weeks during the postgame interview. Buckle up for a heck of a season ahead.