Is it possible for a football team to win in dominating fashion by 23 points and still have the game look and feel like a garbage fire? Your Notre Dame Fighting Irish are innovating new fan experiences every week, and this Saturday they chose to do so by answering that question in the affirmative in a 44-21 win over the UNLV Rebels. I can’t think of a better way to sum it up than the following now-immortal image:
There were obviously plenty of good moments in this game, in which the Irish quickly seized an insurmountable lead and the Rebels never truly threatened, but there were also plenty of moments that made the prospect of seeing this team go toe-to-toe with the Syracuse Orange and Clemson Tigers in the next two weeks seem less than appetizing. We’ll take a look at a bit of both in this week’s Three Things.
Red Zone Woes
Probably the biggest thing that made this game less palatable than it should have been was Notre Dame’s utter futility in the red zone. Three touchdowns and three field goals is a perfectly good offensive output for a half, but is less acceptable within the context of seven red-zone trips, with multiple drives actually starting inside the 20. As was the case with the previous week’s general futility, a mix of factors were at work here. There was questionable playcalling, with Tommy Rees opting to have his struggling QB pass twice in a row on third- and fourth-and-short inside the 10; and poor execution, with drops galore and Drew Pyne locking in on Michael Mayer at the expense of all other targets and throwing a tipped-ball interception. None of this hurt in a game where the Irish so thoroughly outclassed their opponent, but in games to come Notre Dame will have to take advantage of these opportunities or they will lose.
I would be remiss to ignore the red-zone struggles of the Irish defense as well, as UNLV converted fourth downs inside the Irish 20 on two different drives to score touchdowns - one of which saw Harrison Bailey run through or around several Irish pass rushers in one of the most irritating plays I have ever seen - and marred an otherwise solid effort. Again, with the Irish needing to play and win close games against solid teams moving forward, they cannot afford these breakdowns moving forward.
A Culture-Driven Win
To the extent the Irish exhibited consistency in this game, it was in the areas Marcus Freeman has highlighted as defining the program: offensive and defensive line play. Harry Hiestand’s unit generally did what it should have against an overmatched Rebels’ front seven, keeping Drew Pyne on his feet and creating tractor-sized holes for Logan Diggs in the second half.
On defense, the Irish were constantly in the Rebels’ backfield, racking up four sacks and another four hurries, with nine total TFLs. Isaiah Foskey was of course the star, what with his two blocked punts and three sacks, but special recognition also goes to Rylie Mills and Howard Cross for consistently pushing back on UNLV up front and creating constant discomfort for their quarterbacks. The Irish allowed a couple big plays, as is tradition, and had the aforementioned red-zone breakdowns; but for the vast majority of this game the Irish defense was on the attack and stifling the Rebels.
Drew Pyne’s Tunnel Vision
The most concerning development in this game for the long term was Drew Pyne’s continuing regression: The Irish signal-caller again saw his accuracy slide from the 70-80% clip we had seen earlier in the year to 14-of-28, with a 35.8 QBR. Too often Pyne seems to be in his own head, not seeing the field and rushing to safety in the form of Michael Mayer even when he has great protection and the play is still developing. Representative plays took place on both of Notre Dame’s first-quarter field-goal drives: on both drives, Pyne locked in on Mayer early on third down and fired to him ahead of the sticks even as Notre Dame’s receivers were just starting to come open. One was caught by Mayer short of the sticks, the other was incomplete - both ended promising drives. Mayer, who had an outstanding game, still only caught half his targets, many of which came with multiple defenders all over the All-American tight end.
In fairness to Pyne, Notre Dame’s other receivers didn’t always seem an attractive option, with Lorenzo Styles in particular disappearing in a game where he should have dominated. Then again, there were numerous occasions on which Irish receivers - Braden Lenzy in particular - were open and simply not seen by the Irish quarterback. Yes, the wideouts have been a disappointment this year, but they aren’t going to be able to improve without their quarterback giving them chances. Pyne, strangely, has seemed so far to be more comfortable on the road and in adverse situations - one hopes that holds true considering the slate the Irish have coming up.