First off, let’s make one thing clear. This Notre Dame season is not a failure.
Following last season’s 4-8 disaster, if Fighting Irish fans had been told that this year’s team would finish the regular season 9-3 with a bid to an Orlando bowl game likely forthcoming, most would have been thrilled. The team’s turnaround from last season is a massive success in the sense that it’s an important step toward coach Brian Kelly’s stated goal of winning a national championship.
Right now, it just doesn’t feel that way.
Not all 9-3 seasons are created equal. This year’s Irish team spent two weeks at No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, only to lose two of its last three games and see both its Playoff and New Years Six bowl hopes be crushed. That type of finish can leave a sour taste in the mouths of fans — especially when it involves a 41-8 shellacking on national television.
It’s a taste all to familiar to supporters of the Irish.
If there is one defining hallmark of Kelly’s eight-year tenure at Notre Dame, it’s the Irish’s proclivity to stumble to the finish line. That has been especially true in the five seasons since the Irish made it to the national title game in 2012, only to be demolished by Alabama.
In 2013, Notre Dame began the year 7-2 but lost two of its last three games to fall from in position for a BCS bowl berth to participating in the Pinstripe Bowl. The following year, the Irish started the season 6-0 and were ranked as high as No. 5 in the AP Poll before suffering a heartbreaking loss to Florida State. They then went on to lose four of their final five regular season games of the year. In 2015, Notre Dame was in prime position to make the College Football Playoff field before nearly losing to Boston College in Week 12 and then actually falling to Stanford in the season-finale. That team completed its collapse with a 16-point loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Finally, last year, the Irish season went from frustrating to complete debacle as the team lost three of its last four games, missing out on bowl eligibility for the first time since 2009.
What is the cause of the team’s typical late-season malaise? If Kelly, or anyone, for that matter, knew the answer, one would hope it’d have been corrected by now. But it appears to start with a plateau in quarterback play.
As Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune pointed out Monday, only one of the last five quarterbacks who started more than a game for the Irish prior to this season left South Bend without being demoted. That was last year’s starter and current Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshone Kizer, and even he had a worse passer rating last season than in 2015. Tommy Rees, Malik Zaire, Everett Golson and Dayne Christ all saw their numbers dip as their careers progressed, until each was eventually benched.
This year’s quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, didn’t necessarily exhibit signs of regression, but he certainly didn’t seem to improve as a passer.
Wimbush started the season under criticism. Through the team’s first three games, he completed just 51 percent of his passes and threw just two touchdowns compared to two interceptions. He played better during Notre Dame’s seven-game winning streak from Sept. 16 to Nov. 4, largely relying on his legs and protecting the ball. Wimbush scored 21 total touchdowns (10 passing and 11 rushing) and didn’t throw an interception during the six games he started in that span.
However, in the team’s two losses in the last three weeks, against Miami and Stanford, Wimbush completed just under 43 percent of his passes and threw four interceptions. On the season, he ranks 76th nationally in yards per game and 88th in passer rating. His 49.8 percent completion percentage on the year doesn’t crack the top 100.
Wimbush’s struggles in the passing game coincided with a dip in productivity from the Notre Dame rushing attack. Kelly made a point this season of shifting Notre Dame’s identity to take advantage of its supremely talented offensive line, which features two potential top-10 NFL Draft picks in left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey. Through Notre Dame’s first nine games this year, the team averaged nearly 325 yards per game on the ground, which was the most in the nation for an offense that didn’t run the triple option.
But in the Irish’s last three games, it has amassed just 142 yards per game on the ground. The team has also mustered just 17.3 points per game during that span, after averaging 43.4 points per game during the previous seven wins.
In short, once the Notre Dame rushing attack faltered and the team needed Wimbush to win games through the air, he, like several Irish quarterbacks before him, was unable to do so.
The moral of the story isn’t that Wimbush is to blame for Notre Dame losing two of its last three games. Nor is it exclusively the fault of the offensive line, nor tailback Josh Adams, who rushed for just 54 yards per game in the team’s last five games after averaging 146 per game in the first eight contests of the season. There’s probably a number of factors that contributed to the tough stretch for the Irish, including injuries and the pressure that comes with playing on a Notre Dame team that’s in the national title conversation.
But the inability of this year’s offense, and particularly its signal-caller, to adjust as opponents took away its strength — its tendency to make the crushing turnover in the clutch late in the season rather than come up with the clutch score — seems to be a recurring theme for the Irish under Kelly.
Last offseason, Kelly underwent a “soul-searching,” conducting exit interviews with players and changing his offensive scheme in an effort to avoid another season like last year’s. He succeeded. In order to take the next step and put the Irish back in the national championship game, Kelly needs to make another adjustment.
This time, rather than renovating his offense during the offseason, Kelly must find a way to make sure his team continues to progress in season.
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