Irish vs. Cardinals: Questions Answered

Reviewing our six-pack of questions, five of which proved crucial for Notre Dame in Saturday's 31-28 loss to Louisville.

1.) WIll he choose the lesser of two evils?

The question posited if Irish head coach Brian Kelly would stick with the running game against Louisville's second-ranked rush defense rather than throw the ball all over the field, the latter of which would risk another turnover-riddled game.

The problem Saturday for Notre Dame wasn't the lack of a running game but a lack of offensive snaps -- just 53 compared to Louisville's 71.

The Irish ran as much as they passed, 24 carries vs. 24 pass attempts (add to the former total three sacks suffered by quarterback Everett Golson, plus a kneel-down and fumbled snap, for a technical total of 29 "runs"), and sophomore Tarean Folston produced one of his best career efforts with 134 yards on 18 rushes.

Should they have fed Folston more? I'd rarely argue to the contrary, but there was a fine play-calling mix offered by Kelly Saturday against a team that generally limits foes in the running game. Notre Dame's defense just couldn't get the ball back quickly enough vs. Louisville's ball control attack.

Speaking of which...

2.) What if Louisville decides to hammer away?

The did just that, blowing up Notre Dame's patchwork defensive middle for 14 rushing first downs and 229 yards rushing yards on a whopping 50 carries. As important, they attacked the soft Irish middle early, leaving it more vulnerable late, and when Notre Dame pulled ahead 20-17 midway through the third quarter, Louisville went to work, hammering Brian VanGorder's unit on consecutive possessions for a combined 100 yards on nine carries and a touchdown -- the latter coming on a drive that included five rushing plays and no passes. /p>

The Louisville running game set up another score during the Cardinals decisive pair of bounce back drives when the Irish secondary was caught in a matchup it had tried to avoid all afternoon -- sophomore Devin Butler vs. senior standout DeVante Parker. A fade route touchdown predictably ensued.

3.) Can the Irish take it from them?

The Irish had forced 21 turnovers entering Saturday's contest but came up with just one vs. the Cardinals, a harmless pick of a deep ball near the end of the first half by safety Drue Tranquill.

Part of the pre-game question in this category suggested the Irish needed to be Plus-2 in turnover differential against the Cardinals. They instead broke even, with Everett Golson's lone interception setting up a Cardinals field goal after Notre Dame's defense held from 1st-and-10 at its own 13-yard line.

4.) Can the Irish avoid more than one?

Five turnovers against Syracuse, two against Stanford, three against North Carolina, two against Florida State, one against Navy, five against Arizona State, four vs. Northwestern…

As noted above, the Irish lost possession just once, though a 28-yard loss of a fumbled snap recovered by Golson was a (fitting) consolation prize for the Cardinal's attacking defense. Louisville entered the contest averaging seven tackles-for-loss per game (both teams had eight Saturday), was ranked 10th nationally in sacks with 33 (they finished with three more) and the nation's leader in team interceptions picked off one more as referenced above.

Turnovers didn't lose the game Saturday for the Irish -- a first in this head-shaking three-game losing skid -- the failure to execute in crunch time, did.

5.) Can they rebound? Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan, Kyle Brindza and the Irish safeties:

-- Jones sprained his foot on the first defensive snap of the game (one in which he registered a half-tackle for loss) and played just one play thereafter before being fitted for a walking boot.

-- Morgan struggled to execute his middle linebacker assignments for the third straight contest and exacerbated the situation when he was ejected from the game for a targeting personal foul while hitting Cardinals quarterback Reggie Bonnafon in the face with the crown of his helmet.

Morgan was likewise called for a (blatant) face mask Saturday. Those, coupled with a post-play personal foul against Northwestern, has cost the Irish defense 45 yards on three penalties -- two of them inexcusable -- over the last two games. (Morgan will sit out the first half at USC on Saturday as a result of his second-half ejection against Louisville.)

-- Notre Dame's safeties finished with solid numbers, as Drue Tranquill and Austin Collinsworth combined for 11 tackles including one for loss (Collinsworth) and an interception (Tranquill). But the latter busted a coverage down the pipes on an 52-yard Bonnafon post pass to set up the quarterback's second touchdown run, while the former missed at least three tackles, due in part to his injured left shoulder.

Relatively speaking, the Irish defense was better Saturday than it had been in either of the last two outings, but the safety position remains vulnerable entering the season-finale for the second straight season. Max Redfield's athletic presence would seem necessary against USC's wide receivers corps this weekend, but he played sparingly Saturday.

-- As for Brindza. Outstanding in the punt game but his infamous 32-yard shanked field goal that would have sent the game into overtime was a terrible way to end his home career in South Bend, especially after performing as Notre Dame's Mr. Clutch through his first 2.5 seasons as the team's place-kicker.

6.) Is a "Notre Dame Moment" Upon Us?

It was set up as such, but Kelly and Irish fans will likely rue the day the veteran head coach replaced his holder with inexperienced backup Malik Zaire. It's been a mess since, and Notre Dame has lost two games in its aftermath.

The Irish played hard and their not-yet-ready players performed as well as was reasonably expected for 60 minutes. And unlike the previous week against a poor Northwestern team, did not definitively deserve to lose, as both the Cardinals and the Irish played hard and relatively cleanly Saturday in South Bend).

But Notre Dame's margin of error is razor thin, and poor tackling plus a trio of busted assignments defensively (two vs. the read-option for easy touchdowns), coupled with a red zone offense that couldn't capitalize after two crucial drives proved too much to overcome.


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