Aftermath: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern

NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Day-after analysis and musings following Notre Dame's overtime loss to Northwestern.

1. Will Fuller is tied for 1st among FBS wide outs with the most touchdown catches on the year with 13.

Against Arizona State, Fuller reeled in six catches for 95 yards and one touchdown; yesterday, he finished with nine catches for a career-high 159 yards and three touchdown receptions of 23, 23, and 11 yards, respectively.

He needs to get to 15 in order to tie Notre Dame’s single-season record for most touchdown catches (Michael Floyd, Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight).

Both the screen pass and the corner route appear to be the bread and butter play calls for the Golson to Fuller connection. Fuller’s catch and run of 23 yards for the score in the 3rd quarter occurred resulted from a screen, and it was a thing of beauty to watch Fuller plant, cut and dodge defenders with speed to kill inside the red zone to go virtually untouched for six.

“I’m very confident,” Fuller responded when asked about being on the receiving end of a screen pass. “Our receivers did a great job of protecting me. Any chance I get to get a screen, I try to do my thing, and it works out pretty well.”

Know what else has worked out pretty well? Brian Kelly’s decision to call out his budding sophomore wide out to the media.

Following Fuller’s performance against Navy (three catches for 14 yards and one touchdown), Kelly ignited the fire:

"Well, if Will Fuller practices the way he did last week, he'll (Torii Hunter Jr.) get a lot more playing time.”

“I take criticism pretty well,” Fuller said following last night’s game. “He (Kelly) wanted me to practice harder, go 100 percent every time.”

Interesting enough, when Fuller was pressed further last night about his performance in practice leading up to Navy, he admitted he was unaware of his in-week sub-par effort. He also acknowledged he first learned about his apparent slacking off from Kelly’s comment in the media.

“I really didn’t notice it,” he said. “I heard it from reports in the media.”

2. Sophomore slump for Smith?

Or, is such a thing even possible for Notre Dame’s most athletically gifted and talented defender.

Kelly called Jaylon Smith’s game vs. Arizona State his “best game of the year.” He finished with eight tackles. Yesterday, Smith finished with a team-high 10 tackles (four assisted, six solo), one forced fumble, and zero tackles for loss.

He’s contributing to the stat sheet, but his production level enters murky waters from there. His innate ability to chase down from behind has been alive and well this season, and we all know it’s not a question of effort. Smith’s position move this year coupled with the mid-season loss of middle linebacker Joe Schmidt are playing key roles in the lack of game-changing plays we’re getting from the sophomore linebacker. The tackles for loss, head-shaking display of pure athleticism, and havoc reaped upon the opponent as a result of one player have declined.

There’s a lot on Smith’s plate right now, but the once largely visible signs of a killer instinct have now wavered, and whether that’s squarely a result of scheme not, it’s a sore spot for a Notre Dame defense searching for answers.

3. Inexperience, turnovers don’t tell entire story.

The head coach pointed to coughing up the ball and youth on defense as the primary reasons Notre Dame lost yesterday, but coaching is just as much – if not more – a sizable component in Notre Dame’s part in Northwestern’s come-from-behind victory.

Kelly summed up the loss – “Too many young guys on the field. That's probably the biggest issue right now (on defense) that we're just trying to fight through… We can still win games if we weren't as sloppy as we are offensively. That's my feeling."

Does Notre Dame win if Cam doesn’t fumble? Probably. Does Kelly’s assertion in the spring that “Joe (Schmidt) can't come off the field” entering the forefront of Irish fans’ minds? I’d say so.

Still, offensive play-calling was by no means perfect. Handing off to Chris Brown – a wide receiver - inside the five-yard line resulted in a fumble. Isn’t that when Cam McDaniel is supposed to enter the picture? Alas, easy to assert after the fact…

Was there too much emphasis placed upon the woes of youth in his post-game comments and not enough of owning up to his own gaffes? And, he was asked three separate times about the call to go for two. His responses, in order:

1. “At that point, it was a coin toss of one or two. So we decided to go for two."

2. "Our chart tells us in that situation to go for one, but we were up I think 11 at the time and we felt like given the circumstances, our kicking game situation, that we were going to try to extend it with a two-point play."

3. "There’s no advantage in retrospect. We felt at the time with the struggles in the kicking game that we would have a good opportunity in the two-point play that we picked and we felt very confident that we would be successful.”

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said in post-game that a theme he has preached to his players is assuming the “back-against-the-wall, playoff-type mentality.” And by playoffs, he was referring to high school, when games were won and lost in November. Notre Dame had that mentality once upon a time this season, but it’s no longer present.

4. Notre Dame’s run/pass play selection yesterday is one of the more underrated storylines.

Notre Dame rushed 40 times for 211 yards, including Tarean Folston’s 20 rushes for 108 yards and Everett Golson’s 89 yards on 10 attempts.

The Irish attempted 40 passes, half of them were complete, and Golson ended the day with 287 yards through the air.

Looking at the stat sheet, with 40 plays coming on the ground and 40 through the air, it gives the impression of a well-balanced attack and solid offensive game plan. With the exception of the fumble, Golson’s consistent decision-making to keep it in the read option was fruitful. (Hello, 2015-2016 season…)

But, consider Northwestern entered yesterday ranked outside of the top 100 in rush defense; also consider that its secondary was arguably its top unit on the defensive side of the ball, Folston and Golson were having success moving the ball on the ground, Golson's arm was clearly banged up, and now ask the question, why didn’t Notre Dame run the ball more?

With the exception of a reverse that went for negative yardage, Notre Dame did not have back-to-back run plays until the second quarter.

Notre Dame’s offense opened the second half with a three-and-out at the hands of three consecutive pass plays. Same story in overtime. Results: One-yard completion (Folston), incomplete (Corey Robinson), incomplete (Fuller).

Failing to exploit Northwestern’s front seven and fully utilize Folston’s effectiveness yesterday is summed up as a lost opportunity.


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