Friends, join me in mourning the playoff hopes of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who were on the ropes from the start and ultimately knocked out in the fourth quarter in Muhammad Ali’s hometown. This will primarily be a discussion of how Notre Dame’s mistakes set up this loss, but it is worth saying a lot of credit is due to the Louisville Cardinals and Jeff Brohm for coming up with excellent gameplans on both sides of the ball and generating a tough home atmosphere that ended up being the perfect trap for an exhausted and tentative Irish squad. With what they showed Saturday and the recent showings of the Florida State Seminoles, the Cards look more than up to the task of taking home the ACC crown this season.
With that said, this was still a game where Notre Dame fans were right to expect their team to win, and right to be angry at their implosion in the midst of an opportunistic and physical, but still very beatable Cardinal team. Channeling that self-destructive streak and recognizing our defeat in the land of bourbon, here is your Irish tune of the week:
There are a lot of guilty parties in the loss, so let’s see if we can restrict ourselves to just three.
This Team is Gassed
One thing that was clear in watching this game was the effect of body blows from the two brutally physical games that preceded it - the Irish were exhausted all over the field, particularly on the offensive line and on defense. We can discuss all day the failures of Notre Dame’s coaching to address this, but some of this outcome can absolutely be traced back to this being the seventh of eight consecutive games for the Irish dating back to August, a stretch in which all of Notre Dame’s easier opponents and most of its home games were front-loaded.
If you think this is me making excuses, I can assure you it is not. Nobody made the Irish open across the ocean in Week 0. Nobody made them schedule Tennessee State or Central Michigan early in the season instead of using byes before entering what would obviously be the most difficult stretch of their season and placing one of those buy games later on. Nobody made them set up a four-game stretch in which two guaranteed top-10 opponents sandwiched two away matchups in the ACC, again without any byes before. These decisions were made by an administration and athletic department that prioritized its own grandiosity over the strategic and functional priorities of the team by insisting on scheduling an international matchup no benefit whatsoever to the team’s goals and arrogantly treating ACC road trips as functional substitutes for byes and/or buy games in between the season’s two biggest challenges.
You can absolutely lay blame at the feet of the Irish coaching staff for the way the Irish units up front, both of which possessed enormous talent advantages over their counterparts in red, were blown off the ball all night, for the way their receivers and quarterback couldn’t get in sync, and for the way they were thoroughly out-schemed by a coach and quarterback we had seen the Irish beat in years past. You can blame them for not having this Irish team physically prepared for the schedule that was put in front of them. But save a spot of contempt in your heart for the institutional vanity and complacency that put this game where it was in the 2023 campaign.
By the way: both Notre Dame and Louisville have byes in two weeks, so yes, there was absolutely a way to avoid this problem.
Gerad Parker Is Out of Ideas
Sam Hartman’s performance in this game was less than ideal and Notre Dame’s pass blocking did him no favors, but the root of Notre Dame’s struggles was in the ground game - or lack thereof, as the Irish rushed for only 44 yards. With virtually no running threat and the Irish consistently behind schedule, the Cards were able to pin their ears back on third down and pressure Hartman heavily throughout the game. In a game where the Irish offensive line had a clear physical advantage and there were no injuries to Notre Dame’s deep stable of running backs, how could the Irish not get the ball moving on the ground?
The answer can actually be traced back to last week’s game against Duke, where the Irish similarly struggled before Audric Estime’s 30-yard touchdown run in the final seconds. That night and last in Louisville, Gerad Parker and co. showed absolutely no creativity in response to what their opponents were bringing to the table, namely stacked boxes, effective run blitzing and an absolute determination to stop Audric Estime from gashing them up the gut.
Your opponent is doing everything they can to take away the middle of the line of scrimmage and with it your primary back - do you run the ball with misdirection, get quick hitters out on the edge to speedier players, run screen passes to punish frequent blitzes, or lean more on one of your other backs with a different skillset (say the guy who averaged 7 YPC, but only got 5 carries)? You most certainly do not do any of those things, except maybe in obvious down and distances where you no longer have the element of surprise. For the most part though, you continue to hammer away at the same inside runs over and over and get minimal gains until you have run out of time and are forced to abandon the run entirely. Why do you do this, you might ask?
But seriously, if you can come up with a better reason why the offensive brain trust at Notre Dame has been completely unable to generate a reliable running attack over the past two games with the tools they have at their disposal, I’m all ears.
The Defense Breaks, Inevitably
On the theme of things breaking down and being gassed, let’s talk about the performance of Notre Dame’s defense in this game. A lot of fingers can be pointed at killer penalties and schematic breakdowns late in the game as Al Golden’s unit desperately tried to keep the Irish in it. All of that is valid, but I also think it’s of secondary importance, because as bad as it is, it’s the kind of nonsense that happens when your offense is completely ineffective and keeps your defense on the field for an unconscionable amount of time. Fatigue and frustration are going to set in and eventually any offense with competent players and coaches, which Louisville absolutely has, is going to figure out what you are doing and break through.
This is the third straight week that the Irish have leaned on their defense time and time again and counted on them to win games with very little help on the offensive side of the ball. Viewers of modern college football should not be surprised to find the Irish 1-2 in those games, and indeed the Irish have asked entirely too much of what is still - and was for most of Saturday night - a very, very good defense. With Caleb Williams and the USC Trojans coming to town next week, let’s hope the Irish have learned that lesson.