Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Notre Dame report card

SAN ANTONIO – Notre Dame ran and passed pretty much at will while the defense never gave Army’s triple-option a foothold. Lo and behold, the special teams were good as well.

Rushing offense
A

Notre Dame’s 261 yards rushing was a single-season high and the first 200-yard effort since the second week of the season against Nevada. The 43 carries were the most since the Texas and Nevada games when the Irish toted it 46 times. The 6.1 yards per carry is a full yard better than the single-game high against Nevada and Miami.

For the first time this season, the Irish had a true three-pronged rushing attack with Tarean Folston leading the way with 84 yards on 13 carries (6.5) and a touchdown. DeShone Kizer scrambled his way to 72 yards on seven carries (10.3). Josh Adams had 70 yards on 15 carries (4.7) and his third rushing touchdown of the campaign.

The Irish took larger chunks than normal. Adams had a 14-yarder, two eights and a 10. Kizer maximized his opportunities with a nine-yarder, a 27, a 23 and a 15. Most of Folston’s opportunities came in the second half when he had two eight-yarders, a pair of nines and a couple of 10s. Malik Zaire came on in the fourth quarter and ran for eight and 12 yards.

Notre Dame took sizeable chunks of land most of the afternoon.

The Irish ran the football just three times on third-and-short, converting two and moving the chains with a 4th-and-1 offside penalty against Army.

Passing offense
B

Although the numbers statistically weren’t as good as they were a week ago when DeShone Kizer completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns, the Irish signalcaller was better in several ways. His accuracy overall was improved, and if Kevin Stepherson holds on to an early-second quarter deep ball, Kizer would have had another 53 yards and a fourth touchdown pass.

Kizer finished 17-of-28 (60.7 percent) for 209 yards and three scores – one to Stepherson (37 yards) and a pair to tight end Durham Smythe, who had his first two-catch game of the season.

In addition to improved accuracy, Kizer was outstanding on third and fourth down, both throwing it and running it. He found Equanimeous St. Brown for 25 on a 3rd-and-14. He hit Josh Adams for six on a 4th-and-2. He connected with Stepherson for eight on a 3rd-and-8. He scrambled for 15 on 3rd-and-13.

Eleven different players caught a pass. Stepherson led the way with five for 75 yards. Of Kizer’s 17 completions, 12 sent to wideouts, three to tight ends and two to running backs.

Notre Dame picked up interference calls on a deep ball to C.J. Sanders and a red-zone throw to St. Brown. Three of Kizer’s 11 incompletions came in the final series of the first half. In addition to Stepherson’s deep-ball drop, Sanders couldn’t cradle a throw to his knees. Kizer threw a bad interception on 1st-and-goal at the three – his first since being taken out of the game in the second half against Stanford.

Rush defense
A

It’s difficult to give a higher grade when a fullback (Darnell Woolfolk) pops for a 40-yarder, a slotback (Jordan Asberry) scampers 37 yards, and a third-string quarterback (Malik McGue) rips off a 32-yarder.

But when you’re playing triple-option and three runs account for 109 of 229 yards rushing, you’ve contained the attack. The other 39 rushes covered 120 yards, which is a measly three yards per carry. That’s impressive. So, too, is holding Army 91 yards under its per-game average on the ground.

For the Irish, it was the usual suspects defending the triple-option. James Onwualu had a team-high 13 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss while fellow linebacker Greer Martini accounted for nine stops and two tackles for loss. His back-to-back sacks in Army’s opening drive of the second half led to a missed 33-yard field goal.

Julian Love, who moved from cornerback to safety specifically for Army’s triple-option, had the most impressive performance a safety can have with just three tackles. He had a lot of ground to cover on the back end and he did his job, particularly on a 4th-and-2 stop.

Of Army’s 42 rushing attempts, Notre Dame unofficially held the Black Knights to three yards or less 19 times.

Pass defense
A+

Both of Army’s completions came in the fourth quarter after Chris Carter – subbing for injured Ahmad Bradshaw – went 0-of-5 through the first three quarters. There was a drop by running back Kell Walker on a deep ball that had Donte Vaughn beat, but the Black Knights had no chance in the passing game.

Jonathan Bonner, making his first start at defensive tackle, flushed Carter from the pocket to force an incompletion. The Irish also benefitted from an overturned call that would have been a 30-yard completion, but also lost a Cole Luke interception due to a replay decision.

Of Army’s eight pass attempts, one was intercepted and four  were broken up. Love picked up his first career interception and just Notre Dame’s seventh of the season (on 254 attempts). Love, Luke and Vaughn had the passes broken up.

It’s easy to give up big plays in the passing game against triple-option teams. Navy’s better at it than Army, and Army entered the game last in the country in yards passing per game. But the Black Knights also averaged 18 yards per its 45 completions through its first nine games.

This was a real quality performance by the Irish with a couple of sacks mixed in.

Special teams
A

Stop the presses! Notre Dame had a great day on special teams with only a negligible slip --  a missed extra point -- on its final touchdown of the day.

Things started in brilliant fashion as C.J. Sanders returned the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown. Justin Yoon converted a 27-yard field goal late in the second quarter. Army had a 33-yard kick return, but the Black Knights’ other five netted a modest 19 yards per return.

Notre Dame benefitted greatly – and this counts in presenting a special teams grade – from Army’s poor special teams play. There was the 22-yard punt that set up Notre Dame’s third touchdown of the first quarter. There was the interference with C.J. Sanders’ attempt to field a punt. There was the holding penalty on an Army kick return. There was the missed 33-yard field goal. There was another bad punt, an 18-yarder, that Notre Dame converted into its seventh touchdown.

Can you give out an A+ with a missed extra point? No, but the performance was top-notch.

Coaching
A+

What is there to criticize about Notre Dame’s performance and the job turned in by the Irish coaching staff? Even the toughest of graders would have difficulty finding fault with anything about this top-to-bottom performance.

The special teams – the bane of Notre Dame fans all over the world – were nearly flawless, starting with the opening kickoff of the game. The run-pass balance offensively led the Irish to their second-highest point total in regulation this season. The defense contained Army’s triple-option and squashed any semblance of a passing game.

In Game 10 of a season that many have said Notre Dame had nothing for which to play, the Irish begged to differ and played hard and well anyway. To be sure, Army truly was an inferior opponent. But they weren’t so inferior most of the season, knocking off Temple and Wake Forest, and challenging Duke. Notre Dame dismantled the Black Knights.

It would have been a much better season had the coaches turned in a few grades like this when there was more at stake. They didn’t, and thus, the Irish now need to defeat Virginia Tech and red-hot USC to qualify for a bowl game. But this grade is for the performance on Nov. 12 in the Alamodome and the staff earned it.


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