What's wrong with Notre Dame?
A bad season got even worse for Notre Dame Saturday, as the Fighting Irish lost their fourth game of the year against NC State, and nearly unplayable conditions simply added insult to injury.
The team’s descent from preseason top-10 team has been rough, as defensive attrition has hit the Irish hard. Coming into the year, the offense was supposed to carry a defense devoid of stars. While that has played out to a point, the defense has experienced a number of injuries on the back end, which has led to more dire circumstances than initially expected.
Through six games, Notre Dame has missed 81 tackles, only 28 away from last year’s total of 109, with another six games to go. Perhaps even worse than the Irish’s tackling is that their pass rush has only hit the quarterback 10 times (one sack, nine QB hits). The pass rush was a major question mark coming into the year, as DE Romeo Okwara and DT Sheldon Day moved on to the NFL after making up a ridiculous 51 percent of Notre Dame’s pressures a year ago. The Irish have yet to find anyone capable of replacing their production, and a lack of pass rush and poor tackling helped lead to defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder losing his job earlier in the season.
The poor defense has put the onus on the offense to carry the team even more than expected. QB DeShone Kizer has made strides as a passer and turned the heads of NFL scouts with his size and arm strength. However, after an outstanding debut on national television Week 1 against Texas, he’s had his ups and downs, especially when it comes to accuracy and fumbles. He also continues to take unnecessary sacks, as he’s been charged with four on the season after being charged with 10 a year ago. For reference, Notre Dame’s offensive line has been charged with four sacks as a unit this season and only eight last year, so Kizer has been responsible for more than his O-line has.
Still, Kizer is not the issue for the Irish, as the lack of defense has put too much on the offense’s shoulders. Other than the hurricane game against NC State, Notre Dame has been in weekly shootout mode, and the pressure has been on the offense to play a perfect yet explosive brand of football.
Despite the 2-4 record, there are reasons for encouragement for Notre Dame, particularly the young receiving corps that has exceeded preseason expectations. Notre Dame lost 60 percent of their touchdowns from year ago, seventh-most among Power-5 teams, but they’ve managed to move the ball efficiently and keep up with the weekly shootouts. The offensive line has handled the loss of first round offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and second-round center Nick Martin, remaining one of the nation’s best all-around units.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the defense’s woes have outweighed any bright spots on offense. The schedule doesn’t get any easier, with Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech and a rejuvenated USC still to come. There remains a lot of pressure on Kizer and the receivers to carry the load down the stretch, but if Notre Dame is going to play in late December, they have to find a way to tackle and rush the passer better than they have in the first half of the season. If they can’t, they may be looking at their worst season since a 3-9 effort in 2007.