After receiving some criticism in his first game as the play caller, offensive coordinator Mike Haywood seems to have settled into his role as the mastermind behind the operation and the unit, as a result, is producing. In the second half against the Cardinal last Saturday, however, Haywood admitted that he tried to slow the pace of the game and subsequently made some calls that he wishes he could take back.
"You want to burn some time off the clock because they weren't really moving the football very well," Haywood said of last Saturday. "I probably made some bad calls. I probably made some bad calls in that period of time trying to burn some clock off, but then we came back in the third drive and moved the ball down and scored and we were just happy to have the opportunity to play them and get out with a win."
Of the seven first downs in the second half, three of these came in the third drive that resulted in the 16-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. Since this series took just over four minutes, that means that Irish offense collectively picked up only four first downs in the rest of the 25 minutes of play in the half. Some of this offensive stagnancy is what helped bring Stanford back into the contest. For starting center Dan Wenger, this is one of the reasons as to why the unit must play assertive for the entire contest.
"We've just got to keep working at it," Wenger said. "It's one of those things where obviously we've had our times like in Stanford when we came out and we stalled. It's something that we have to understand that we can't come out and be flat, we can't just be satisfied being up a couple of scores in the first half, or being able to explode in the first half and then not in the second half. We need a 60-minute, complete explosion."
Stanford didn't necessarily alter their game plan after the first half, so for Wenger, it is a difficult process to take steps to cure the problem, although he does see a simple solution to avoid it — consistency.
"No not necessarily," Wenger said. "They were still playing the same defense, the same personnel. Everything was pretty much the same on their part. I don't know what it was. We just have to keep constantly working hard and trying to get that full 60-minute game."
His offensive coordinator agreed with Wenger in saying that the Cardinal really didn't make any adjustments.
"They played well throughout the entire game," he said. "They didn't do anything different."
So how does Haywood see the first step towards solving the problem? He thinks they can improve the process of finishing opponents through something the squad does almost everyday through practice.
"You sometimes do it in practice," Haywood said. "We did it today in practice. And turning it on and off and going through different modes, I think that once you start practicing it, guys get a better feel for it."
Right tackle and one of the longest tenured starters on the Irish, Sam Young completely concurs that daily repetition is how this squad can improve on the closing out of their games.
"You can see that there's a direct correlation between what you do in practice and with what transpires in the game," Young said. "Today we had a good practice, and tomorrow's got to be a better one and Thursday's more of a mental practice and keeping it sharp … throughout these stages, everyday we have to get better and continuing to have that fire in practice and that intensity in practice, because if you're practicing your rear end off, it kind of makes Saturday a little bit easier."
Not only is practice essential when trying to perfect the act of burning the clock in the later stages of the game, but also film study and self-assessment.
"There's always time when you're watching film and you see how close you are from making a big play," Wenger said. "You just kind of cringe and think, ‘oh man, only if,' we try to eliminate those ‘only ifs' and obviously that's what the week of practice is for, trying to get better and trying to strive to make the plays as perfect as possible. We understand that that's not going to happen, but a lot of times we're on the verge of breaking one and we just need to give that much more effort to get there."
Although Notre Dame ended up winning the contest last Saturday, much of the criticism hurled towards the improving team is that it could have finished off the Cardinal in a much more dominant fashion. For Wenger and his teammates, it is both frustrating and a tool that can motivate the offense to play complete games.
"Yeah, you know, it really is," Wenger said whether the inability to finish the Cardinal frustrated the squad. "As a player's standpoint it is. Had we come out in the second half against Stanford like we did against Purdue and kind of just put the nail in the coffin right there, I think we would have had a very complete game and might have surprised more people."
To get the job done the Irish have to want it. They have to want to control the tempo and finish off reeling opponents. "I think just giving that extra effort," Wenger cited as a way to improve. "We can't be complacent with having a good half. Like at Stanford, 21-7 going into the half, we can't be happy with that. We have to come out with the same hunger, like it's 0-0 again."
Notre Dame pulled out the seven-point victory last week. However, since four of the next five Irish contests will be in hostile environments on the road, they will have to do a better job of closing games out. Whether that includes smash mouth football highlighted by running, or short, quick intermediary passes, they need to play complete games. The following stretch of games is one that is both challenging and a crossroads for this young squad. If not, the road atmosphere could spell the end of the luck of the Irish in what has been a positive start to a transitional season.