NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It was hardly a clash of titans in the trenches when Notre Dame’s defense lined up against Nevada’s four returning starters on the offensive line. The Wolf Pack did, however, pave the way for two 1,000-yard rushers a year ago in the formidable if not stacked Mountain West.
But the Irish clearly won the line of scrimmage by limiting Nevada to just 99 yards rushing on 30 carries, including a mere 50 on 17 carries (2.9) by James Butler, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards a year ago.
The Irish set the tone in their 39-10 victory midway through the first quarter when on fourth down and less than yard, Nevada head coach Brian Polian decided to test his offensive line – and Notre Dame’s defensive front – by going for it. Nyles Morgan penetrated and Daniel Cage finished Butler off and the Irish had a much-coveted red zone stop after allowing Texas six touchdowns on seven red-zone appearances.
The Irish scored the first 32 points of the game before Nevada penetrated the red zone again. This time, Isaac Rochell dumped Butler for a gain of one on 3rd-and-7. Nevada kicked a field goal and the Irish dropped their 69.3 defensive red-zone touchdown percentage a notch.
It’s a step with a much bigger footprint awaiting Saturday night against the Spartans.
• The loss of Shaun Crawford is one of those injuries that everybody writes about during the off-season entitled: Players (Insert Name of Team) Can’t Afford to Lose. Not only does it sabotage the weapon that is Crawford as a nickel back, but it takes away Notre Dame’s speediest cornerback.
Now, all talk of limiting Nick Coleman and looking for a better alternative goes out the window. Coleman is the man opposite Cole Luke, no questions asked. Nick Watkins is not healthy yet. Coleman clearly is ahead of the likes of Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride, Jr. (although Love may be narrowing the gap as the nickel replacing Crawford).
Coleman played much better against Nevada than he did versus Texas. But he also wasn’t going against one of the nation’s top 110-meter hurdlers like he did last week in Austin. He looked bad on one deep ball in which he slipped. But for the most part, he was anonymous, which is a good sign. Cornerbacks who don’t show up in the picture often are cornerbacks who aren’t getting attack.
The loss of Crawford, however, is heartbreaking on a personal level. The kid missed all of last season with a torn ACL and now he’ll miss – are we assuming too much? -- the last 12¾ games with what is believed to be an Achilles injury that could very well be a career-changer.
(It should be noted that Brian Kelly never affirmatively confirmed what NBC reported as an Achilles tear.)
You always lose at least a little long-term with an ACL. An Achilles is a debilitating injury with a recovery time that generally exceeds today’s ACL protocol.
Not blessed with great size, an Achilles injury is one that Crawford could not afford to have. It would take him a peg or two down physically long-term, and that’s nothing but a damn shame for a truly gifted athlete with one of the highest football IQs on the team.
• Sans Torii Hunter, the Irish got their young receivers involved.
At Texas, it was Hunter, Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders and no one else. Not the tight ends, not other young receivers like Miles Boykin, Corey Holmes, Chase Claypool, Kevin Stepherson and Chris Finke. (Running back Josh Adams was the other key ingredient against Texas.)
Of course, St. Brown and Sanders are young and they’ve ascended. St. Brown now has 11 catches in two games and two scores against Texas; Sanders has eight with a pair of touchdowns. They’ve arrived, and hopefully for the Irish, Hunter will be back for Michigan State.
Against Nevada, Stepherson caught the first three passes of his career, including a 22-yarder and a four-yard touchdown toss from DeShone Kizer. Finke, Holmes and Claypool each caught their first collegiate passes with Finke snagging a couple for 19.
Stepherson, Finke and Holmes all made their first career catches while Stepherson scored his first touchdown. All good stuff. Still can’t get the tight end involved, and make no mistake, Hunter’s presence will make them all better. He is needed against Michigan State and a host of quality secondaries on the Irish schedule.
Again, this was not one of the nation’s best secondaries, but the Wolf Pack boast a couple of capable safeties and it’s good to get those youngsters’ feet wet with a huge step up in competition next week.
Another key component was that Kizer hooked up with Sanders and Stepherson for red-zone scores. That’s been a trouble area for the Irish. Kizer admitted that he would not have had the patience to go through his second and third reads last year.
Progress for Notre Dame’s young receivers and progress for Kizer as well.
• Whether it’s because of the ACL injury or because he was never that fast to begin with, Tarean Folston looks like a shell of the back we tended to think he was when he arrived at Notre Dame in 2014.
Folston was never a breakaway back. He made his small claim to fame with good pad level, the willingness to burrow his way between the tackles, and a nifty jump-cut that helped him gain 539 yards on 90 carries (5.98 per attempt) during a five-game stretch in the second half of his rookie season (2014).
It is important the Irish keep Folston as a contributor as the season progresses. But Josh Adams is the star in the making, and unless Dexter Williams has fumbling issues, he offers more potential than Folston.
Adams snapped off a 43-yard run to help get him to 106 yards rushing on just 10 carries. Williams cleaned up in the second half with 59 yards on eight carries and his second career touchdown.
Folston has to remain a big part of what they do. He has too much savvy and know-how to be excluded. But Adams and Williams need to get touches, especially with Kizer (23 touches through two games) on pace to carry 150 times over the course of a 13-game season.
Can he hold up taking that many shots? That’s why Adams, Folston and Williams need a nice distribution with Adams and Williams showing the highest upside.
• Don’t look now but the Irish have won seven in a row at home. Notre Dame has not established itself as a juggernaut on its home turf. But seven in a row is significant progress for Kelly, who lost five of his first 11 with the Irish.