Sacks reduced Notre Dame’s rushing total to 59 yards on 38 carries (1.6 yards per carry). But even if you subtract the sacking of DeShone Kizer five times, the Irish still netted just 64 yards on 20 carries by running backs Josh Adams (14-for-51, 3.6) and Dexter Williams (6-for-13, 2.2). Until a 12-yard run by Adams midway through the fourth quarter, Notre Dame’s long run had been a six-yarder by Adams.
Clearly, a lack of emphasis on the rushing attack is a significant part of Notre Dame’s running game issues and, ultimately, the reason for this failing grade. Associate head coach Mike Denbrock said earlier in the week that the Irish would have two game plans ready, depending upon the weather conditions. Subtract the sacks alone and the Irish had 33 running plays to 31 pass attempts on a day when the passing game was never going to work.
Notre Dame faced 3rd-and-3 or less just twice, running once (and falling short) and passing the other time (incomplete).
The weather conditions certainly dictated at least a series or two with Malik Zaire as the wildcat quarterback. He had one carry for a loss of one when there was no choice but to put him in as the medical staff tended to Kizer.
On a day when running the football was essential, the Irish treated it as if were just another sunny day in North Carolina and the passing game eventually would materialize.
DeShone Kizer completed 9-of-26 (34.6 percent) for 54 yards, a long of 11, and five sacks.
Equanimeous St. Brown and Torii Hunter, Jr., each had the long catches of the day at 11 yards. Yet that didn’t stop the Irish from throwing the ball downfield on passes that weren’t 50-50 balls, but rather, more like 10-90 balls.
Unofficially, the Irish were 1-of-8 on third-down pass attempts. The most notable pass completions came on an 11-yarder to Hunter on 2nd-and-10 in the second quarter, and nine- and 12-yarders to St. Brown in Notre Dame’s productive (18 plays, 60 yards) but final drive for naught.
Admittedly, this was no day to throw the football, as N.C. State learned by attempting just 14 passes and not turning the football over through the air. Meanwhile, Kizer was intercepted for the fifth time this season while averaging 2.0 yards per pass and 6.0 yards per completion.
With the Wolfpack averaging 208 yards rushing coming into the game, the Irish did a solid job against the entire group of ball carriers by limiting them to 3.1 yards per N.C. State’s 51 rushing attempts.
But that’s a deceiving number. Botched snaps contributed significantly to the 3.1-yard rushing average. Meanwhile, Matthew Dayes gained 126 yards on 23 carries (5.5) while backup quarterback Jalan McClendon – who ran out of the wildcat formation – totaled 56 yards on 10 carries (5.6). Between them, that’s 182 yards on 33 carries (5.5), which is way too much, especially when you consider how tough the sledding was for the Irish ground game. All of McClendon’s damage was done in the second half.
This grade is one that must be derived from the reality of the situation more than the actual cumulative stats. No, the Irish didn’t allow any rushing touchdowns and limited most of N.C. State’s rushing damage to a handful of series. But the Wolfpack were able to flip the field on the ground in the second half, and all they needed was two scores because the Irish could manage just one.
Irish Illustrated gives out this grade grudgingly because Notre Dame did little to deserve it. Ryan Finley was not prepared/in the proper frame of mind to pass the football in these weather conditions. He couldn’t even catch the shotgun snap cleanly, let alone throw it efficiently.
He finished 5-of-12 for 27 yards while Jalan McClendon completed both of his passes for 14 yards. N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren had the presence of mind to realize early that Finley and the passing game would be stymied. So they threw it just nine times in the first half and five in the second, instead turning to the ground game with Matthew Dayes and McClendon.
The Irish “deserve” an A because they didn’t yield anything of note in the passing game. But N.C. State’s approach ultimately led to a worse rush defense grade for the Irish.
Justin Yoon showed a lot of courage and wherewithal by drilling a 40-yard field goal in dreadful conditions in the third quarter. He knew he had to hurry and he knew he had to hit a line drive. It was a tremendous ad-lib move that allowed the Irish to tie the game early in the third quarter.
But this continues to be an area that significantly and consistently contributes to losses as a blocked punt early in the fourth quarter was turned into an easy 16-yard touchdown return that proved to be the game-winning margin.
It’s usually something different every week. This time, it was a newfangled blocking scheme for a rugby-style punt with two blockers instead of three. Pharoah McKever was the fortunate recipient of a low punt by Tyler Newsome, and Dexter Wright returned it for the score.
Newsome hit a 69-yard bomb of a punt with the wind, but that did little to compensate for his inability to keep the Irish out of harm’s way on the crucial block. Notre Dame also benefitted from a 32-yard missed field goal by Kyle Bambard in the first quarter. Bambard was not afforded an opportunity to attempt a 35-yard field goal on a mishandled snap.
Such plays count for the Irish; the blocked punt counts for more.
Notre Dame’s makeshift defense continues to show progress, keeping N.C. State out of the end zone and rallying to the football much better than it did during Brian VanGorder’s run. That’s the only reason this isn’t a failing grade.
The offensive braintrust is doing this team a disservice. The game plan was wrong for the opponent and the weather conditions. The emphasis on the pass under these circumstances set the offense up for failure.
The insertion of Malik Zaire to provide a running spark for the offense was, according to Brian Kelly, not even considered, even after Dave Doeren gave the Irish the blueprint. Doeren inserted their wildcat quarterback, Jalan McClendon, whose ability to lift the Wolfpack attack and flip field position ultimately led to the opportunity to score the winning touchdown.
Kelly even admitted after the game that he felt like the coaching staff “let them down” because the team arrived with energy and heart. Kelly said the team was prepared to play and was not flat, but that there’s the feeling among the coaches that they should have “been there for them.”
Kelly was despondent after the football game. He was the picture of a beaten man. While such distress is understandable, it’s a lack of leadership when an ailing team needed it so badly.