USC and UCLA took a page out of the San Andreas fault’s playbook and shook up the (college football) landscape by announcing a move to the Big Ten. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of that move, many a college football writer have mused and will continue to do so regarding how it affects Notre Dame’s status as an independent. That not what I’m here to do.
Sure, this latest instance of realignment feels different from the rest because it will likely compel Notre Dame to do something it has never done in non-COVID-19 times: join a conference. Certain Irish fans will shed a tear over that reality. Meanwhile, certain Irish haters will rejoice that the Golden Domers have finally gotten a dose of conformity — and then those same haters will slowly come to the realization that they were happiest when Notre Dame was independent precisely because it gave them a reason to hate on Notre Dame.
But all that aside, there is an actual season of college football — featuring independent Notre Dame — that will kick off in just seven weeks. So we need to talk about something that plagued the Irish last season. We need to talk about Notre Dame’s end-of-half defense in 2021.
I’m sure some people talked about it during the year, though not enough in my humble opinion. It was a glaring weakness, one that probably kept Notre Dame out of the College Football Playoff and from winning their first major bowl since 1994.
Here’s what I’m talking about specifically:
- Down 10-0 to Cincinnati, Notre Dame gave up a touchdown with 40 seconds left to fall behind 17-0 with Cincinnati getting the ball to start the second half. The Irish caught a break as the Bearcats missed a field goal on their first possession of the second half.
- Up 14-10 at Virginia Tech after scoring with 0:32 left in the second quarter, Notre Dame gave up a five-play, 46-yard drive for a field goal to make it 14-13 at the half. Virginia Tech got the ball to start the second half and made a field goal to take a 16-13 lead.
- Up 17-10 on North Carolina after scoring with 1:23 left in the half, Notre Dame gave up a seven-play, 51-yard drive for a field goal to make it 17-13. The Tar Heels got the ball to start the second half and scored a touchdown to take a 20-17 lead.
- Up 28-7 after a Michael Mayer touchdown with 1:16 remaining, Notre Dame gave up a four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in 0:39. Oklahoma State started the second half with the ball and scored on their first possession to make it 28-21.
To be sure, part of this issue was exacerbated by the infuriating fact that if Notre Dame won a coin toss, Brian Kelly almost never deferred. Conversely, virtually every other college football coach in the country almost always elects to defer if possible. (The reason for that, as illustrated above, is that you can conceivably swing a game with back-to-back scores without the other offense seeing the field).
But regardless of Marcus Freeman’s yet-to-be-seen penchant for electing to receive or defer when he wins the coin toss, Notre Dame will inevitable find itself in situations where an opponent is looking to score at the end of the first half because they get the ball to start the second. And in those situations against quality opponents, Notre Dame has to do better.
If Notre Dame held Cincinnati scoreless or even to a field goal to end the first half, it might be a two-possession game when ND’s offense takes the field again. Then, if Notre Dame goes on a 13-0 scoring run like they did, it’s possibly a tie game. Find a way to win that game and Notre Dame is probably in the College Football Playoff.
As for the Fiesta Bowl, put aside the fact that Notre Dame ran out the clock with 0:39 and three timeouts remaining instead of trying to extend their lead. If the Irish had simply stopped the Cowboys from scoring or held them to a field goal to end the half, then it is at worst an 11-point Notre Dame lead when the offense returns to the field.
Is that a comfortable enough margin to try putting Tyler Buchner in the game to keep OSU’s defense honest? Who’s to say, but it’s just another question from a loss that rendered Notre Dame 0-8 in BCS/New Year’s Six games.
You can certainly throw all the blame for the defensive collapse against Oklahoma State on interim defensive coordinator Mike Elston if you so desire. But the fact is that this problem existed when Freeman was defensive coordinator as well. Now, it’s new DC Al Golden’s problem to solve.
The Irish have enough to worry about in the 2022 season with an opening game at Ohio State, a seemingly lackluster kicking game and a first-time head coach working through the kinks. Fix the end-of-half defense, and the Irish aren’t necessarily golden (pun intended), but one less achilles heel is always a good thing.