Notre Dame Season Opener Provided Cause to Manage Expectations

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“We hadn’t played spring ball, and we didn’t play in December. If he [Tyler James] was expecting that we were going to come out like a shiny new car, he’s been reading too much internet chatter.”

-Brian Kelly 

Managing your expectations is the key to happiness. Sure, there’s excitement for the start of the college football season, mostly because we weren’t sure there’d even be a football season. I mean, yes, Duke is a basketball school and they came into South Bend with a 5-7 record in 2019, but to paraphrase Barry Switzer, football is football.

It’s a game of repetition, mental and physical, and it never changes. 

So during a pandemic, when teams have lost spring ball and have had only limited practices, both teams’ lack of repetitions became apparent after the opening kickoff. It was shocking how quickly the excitement for Notre Dame football turned into anger after the Irish defense surrendered a 56-yard catch and run to Eli Pancol. 

The anger boiled over as Notre Dame opened the second quarter with only seven yards of total offense. The onslaught of questions and reevaluations of each player’s talent began.

There were questions about the offensive line’s capability, there was frustration about receivers being unable to get separation, and of course, where the hell was Braden Lenzy? 

The Irish struggled to move the ball, and it took a gutsy fake punt on 4th and 8 with Jay Bramlett to get Notre Dame over midfield. When Kyren Williams crossed the goal-line for the game’s first touchdown, nearly 20 minutes had elapsed. The touchdown gave Notre Dame a 7-3 lead. Not a great start for a team Vegas predicted to win by 19.5 points. 

Patience for Ian Book appeared to be wearing thin online as he struggled to find receivers, missed high on short, easy throws, and continually threw off-balance for most of the game. On his only touchdown of the day, the ball was misplaced.

Book threw the ball to Avery Davis’s inside shoulder, instead of outside shoulder, causing him to have to fight through the defender’s body, high-point the ball, and make a phenomenal catch

How can a veteran quarterback play so poorly?

Well, apart from inexperience at the receiver position, the lack of practice on offense creates bad timing on routes, missed blocks up front, and a litany of silly penalties (illegal formation, too many men on the field, etc.) that, luckily, the Irish didn’t have. 

For the next couple of games, as fans, it’s probably best to have this on repeat.

Let’s talk about the defense. I tweeted Stadium Sports Network’s college football analyst and former North Carolina Tar Heel cornerback, Michael Felder, to find solace in a former football player’s opinion.

As you can see, we both agreed. Aren’t echo chambers the best?

In all seriousness, without spring practices (which I loathed when I played), it should be expected that the Irish would be rusty. 

“Look, it’s difficult to duplicate game-like speed when you haven’t had that for such a long time. So my expectation is that it was going to be a process and that we just have to be patient, and you saw we were patient.” 

-Brian Kelly 

Never has spring ball mattered more than it will this year. Often capped by the Blue and Gold scrimmage, fans often miss that spring ball provides players with development opportunities. Let’s go back to the slant route to Eli Pancol that broke for 56-yards. 

Tight end Noah Gray runs a pick route on safety DJ Brown, and safety Shaun Crawford takes a great angle to avoid the pileup created by Gray, but when he breaks down to make the tackle, it becomes clear he’s taken the wrong angle as he swipes in desperation at Pancol’s ankles.

The next missed tackle comes from DJ Brown, who has shed the tight end’s block, perhaps a bit too late, and cannot wrap up the Duke wide receiver. 

As Pancol breaks free with Kyle Hamilton and TaRiq Bracy in pursuit, Nick McCloud overpursues from the backside, allowing Pancol to cut from midfield towards the sideline, adding another 17 yards onto his catch before being dragged down by Bracy at the Notre Dame seven-yard line. 

Fans can expect the Irish defense to fix these mistakes because these are simple mistakes that come from lack of repetition. Spring ball is nothing if not a refresher on the basics of football. There are countless reps dedicated to tackling and pursuit angles. Then after practice, you get to see yourself on film doing it right or wrong. 

Notre Dame may have won 27-13, but you can believe Clark Lea will have that slant to Pancol dialed up in the film room heading into South Florida.  

If you thought the season was strange with limited attendance, and coaches, fans, referees all wearing masks, and the players socially distanced while singing the alma mater, the pandemic has added in another wrinkle.

The gravity of the games hasn’t changed. To make the College Football Playoff, Notre Dame will most likely need to win the ACC. But with the lack of reps in the offseason, these “must-win” games are serving double-duty — providing practice like reps and giving the players opportunities to be graded on film. 

As fans, this is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. There are two options. You can treat this season as if it were normal, and you’ll wake up in your bed hungover on Sunday, believing that this team is underachieving and hoping for Urban Meyer to come out of retirement.

Or you can remain patient, and you’ll get to witness first hand the impressive power of the world’s eighth wonder — repetition. 

Join me on Twitter @iiiatkins14 every Saturday

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