At the three-quarter mark of the 2016 season, we’ve called upon former Notre Dame fullback Marc Edwards, the Norwood, Ohio product and ’96 captain, to evaluate the state of Notre Dame football.
QUESTION: When you watch this team, what do you see as the main problems?
MARC EDWARDS: I’ve experienced a lot of things on good teams and bad. Winning is contagious and losing is contagious. Teams that are good in the early part of the season find ways to win close games, and then once you win a couple of those close games, you just know you’re going to find a way to win. Losing is the exact same thing. Teams that lose close games early in the season tend to continue that trend.
That’s a lot of what’s gone on with this team this year. Talent-wise, at times, we’ve looked as good as anybody in the country. Not for entire games, but stretches of games, we’ve looked fantastic and dominant on both sides of the ball. Then our special teams will give up some goofy plays, or we’re looking good on one side of the ball and the other side of the ball looks poor.
We haven’t been able to put together all aspects of the game yet. That leads to close games and then not being able to come through in situational football, which has been a big detriment this year. That goes back to coaching to a certain degree. Players have to catch the ball and run the right routes and not fumble and things like that. That’s not necessarily coaching. You can stress ball security, but at a certain point, it’s up to the players to execute.
When C.J. (Sanders) had the muffed punt against Miami, that’s not necessarily coaching; that’s a kid panicking at the wrong time. He’s coached not to catch the ball inside the five, but he let the ball bounce, he panicked and then he fumbled into the end zone.
The situational stuff at the end of games like the four-minute drill to close out the game or the two-minute drill to go down and score at the end of the game, some of that’s coaching, some of that’s play-calling. That’s been our biggest detriment this year, the situational football.
All six of the losses could have been won by one single play, and if that had happened, we’d be talking about how resilient this team is instead. But we have found news ways to lose in each of those games. We haven’t been playing the best situational football at the end of games.
Q: When you look at this team, do you wonder how much of the offensive problems are a result of a lack of a physical approach? There’s a physicality needed where you can’t just press a button and all of a sudden they’re more physical. Do you see that?
ME: Absolutely. In the Miami game, the 3rd-and-2, 4th-and-1 sequence in which they checked out of a run and threw the ball was despicable. We throw a screen pass and lose three yards.
Going back to the Charlie Weis days, his teams struggled in short-yardage, too. Charlie wasn’t fired because of offensive play. It was defense. The offense put up numbers, but his offense struggled in short-yardage and goal line.
We’re seeing some of that now because these offensive linemen nowadays line up in a two-point stance, what, 60 percent of the time? They’re not used to firing out and running the ball downhill. Half of our runs are read- and stretch-option. We’re running side to side or reading the play, and eventually the running back puts his foot in the ground and goes upfield instead of lining up in the pistol or getting under center and running the ball downhill.
It’s very tough to have both mentalities as an offensive lineman. I’m going to line up in a two-point stance, pass block, and then all of a sudden, I’m going to put my finger in the dirt, put all my weight forward and run somebody over.
Football is different than it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s with all the cutesy offenses that throw the ball around the field. It’s entertaining as heck, but at crunch time, it’s tough to turn that on. I would like to see guys with their fingers in the dirt instead of those two-point stances. But that’s what this coaching staff likes. We’ve put up some video-game type numbers because of it as well.
Q: We know how good DeShone Kizer is capable of playing. But he had some real accuracy issues against Navy and has struggled the second half of the season. He ended up being 19-of-27 against Navy, but half-a-dozen of those completions took a receiver to his knees or were thrown behind the receiver. What are you seeing from DeShone Kizer?
ME: Out of the gate, the offense wasn’t an issue. We were scoring big-time points while the switch at defensive coordinator was made. We put up video-game numbers, Kizer was throwing the ball all around, and he was going to be the No. 1 pick. He was playing at that high of a level.
Somewhere along the line – he was pulled from the game in the second half against Stanford – it was like his confidence was shaken. Maybe he’s not quite the same.
The N.C. State game was a joke. It shouldn’t have been played in the first place. But it goes back to coaching where they shouldn’t have thrown the ball 25, 30 times or whatever it was. That should have been a game like Boston College my junior year when Ron Powlus was 6-for-10. We should have run the ball and we kept trying to throw the ball. That and when he was pulled against Stanford were two instances where his confidence was shaken because last year and up until that point, the guy was lights out.
So there have been a few chinks in the armor, not to the point where I’ve lost confidence that he’s the guy. But you’re seeing a little bit of the vulnerabilities that we didn’t see before.
Q: Defensively, Notre Dame had a lot of trouble getting off the field against Navy. But since the coordinator change, it’s the offense that has struggled and the defense has gotten better. What have you seen?
ME: I agree. It started with that N.C. State game. Obviously, it was unfair conditions in that game, but we really haven’t picked it back up since then.
The defense against Navy was frustrating because we never really got them off-schedule. To stop that option, you’ve got to get them off-schedule. They were getting three, four, five yards every single play, and then they got the ball with seven-and-a-half minutes left and then just ran out the clock. We had them on third down, we had them on fourth down and they didn’t waver one bit. I know it’s a different type of offense, but it had the feeling that they were running it down Notre Dame’s throat.
But overall the defense has performed admirably since N.C. State, and the offense hasn’t picked it up, which gets back to the inability to put all three phases of the game together in any one week. Even in the Miami game, the offense and defense played well, but the special teams were a disaster. We gave up 27 points, but realistically, the defense gave up maybe 13. We can’t put all three phases together.
Q: When you played at Notre Dame, you usually – with the exception of 1994 when you went to the Fiesta Bowl at 6-4-1 – had much more to play for in November. The pride in being a Notre Dame football player will be really tested over the next three weeks.
ME: You’re always playing for something when you’re at Notre Dame. Obviously, you shouldn’t be in this situation. That’s how you feel when it happens to you as a player.
But you shouldn’t be at Notre Dame if the gold helmet doesn’t mean something to you. They wouldn’t have brought you there in the first place.
In addition to having that pride in Notre Dame, each of those guys has a tremendous amount to play for individually, whether that’s cementing their place on the Notre Dame team next season, or whether that’s cementing their place in the NFL draft. Or it could simply be these are the last games you’re playing as a football player.
So there’s always something to play for, and as long as they’re bringing the right kind of kids in, they’ll be playing for that gold on their helmet and that should be more than enough motivation.