It’s easy to overreact to Week 1, but after consecutive heartstopping victories, three Notre Dame weaknesses have clearly emerged. If the Irish are to start winning games with any level of comfort – or even consider surviving their midseason gauntlet of a schedule – these weaknesses must be addressed and improved upon. It felt like Notre Dame’s game versus Toledo would be measured by far more than the result. However, rather than seize control and work on ironing out the wrinkles, Notre Dame struggled. The Irish won 32-29, but sans the final game-winning drive and defensive stand, little from the game felt like a victory. Entering as 17-point favorites, the Irish (2-0) scraped for every point against the Rockets (1-1).
3 Notre Dame Weaknesses That Must Be Fixed
Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was a sought-after man this offseason, with the Irish winning that recruiting battle. However, Freeman’s defenses have not impressed through two weeks. A decent first three quarters against Florida State was followed by a putrid fourth quarter. Against Toledo, it was a similar pattern. Three solid quarters, and then awful production at the worst possible moments. After allowing 16 points in three quarters – seven coming on a pick-six – the Irish folded and allowed two touchdowns. They were exceptionally lucky that Toledo didn’t slide, run down the clock, and kick a game-winning field goal.
While it’s been an up and down start for the Irish defensively, there have certainly been positives. They’ve given up only three combined offensive touchdowns in the first three-quarters of their two games. However, allowing 31 points in their two fourth quarters is a concerning trend. And it starts with the rush defense.
Last year, the Irish didn’t surrender a 100-yard rushing performance to an opposing back until December. They shut down UNC’s vaunted running back duo – both now NFL backs. They stuffed Travis Etienne in a primetime clash in South Bend. It was the linchpin of this defense. But now, it’s clearly one of the biggest Notre Dame weaknesses. This time, it was Toledo’s Bryant Koback who took advantage – notching 122 yards on 21 carries.
The Rockets pounded out 4.3 yards per carry on the day en route to edging the Irish in the time of possession battle. Notre Dame is going to have to face some very good backfields this season. They’ll see a Navy team that does nothing but run the ball, a Virginia Tech squad that imposed their will in the trenches against UNC, and even a solid rushing attack next week against Purdue – just to name a few. The road to 12-0 is almost certainly an impossible task without better performance against the run. For Notre Dame, the linebacker room and defensive line were supposed to be the strength of this defense, and they need to improve on their early-season efforts.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the struggles that the Irish are having on the offensive line. The quarterback play has been for the most part fantastic, the wide receivers are playing well, and Michael Mayer is doing Michael Mayer things at tight end. And the running backs are performing well – when they get the chance. However, the struggles continually come in the trenches. Notre Dame was missing freshman left tackle Blake Fisher, who is out for about eight weeks. Michael Carmody got the spot, but center Jarrett Patterson also shifted over, and reserve Tosh Baker also got some run. The Irish were desperately trying to find a way to shore up the line in a way that allows them to run the ball the way they want to.
Kyren Williams broke off one 43-yard run for a touchdown – and true freshman recruit Tyler Buchner had some success. But the Irish of 2020 could do more than that. They would run the ball when everyone knew they would run the ball, and they would get the necessary yards. This year, that hasn’t been the case. Outside Williams’ big run, he gained just 35 yards on 15 other carries. Sophomore Chris Tyree notched 12 yards on his seven carries. Thankfully, the passing game has been good enough to compensate for the Irish. Jack Coan’s prolific abilities through the air have kept the ‘0’ intact in the loss column. But it’s going to be an issue against stiffer defenses.
And furthermore, the lack of protection from the offensive line is going to begin causing more issues to the passing game. Coan is not a particularly mobile quarterback, and the offense was anemic for the better part of three quarters on Saturday. As Toledo brought pressure on Notre Dame’s overmatched offensive line, Coan had to throw it away, settle for short check downs, or take a sack. Buchner’s dual-threat ability forced Toledo to respect the run even more, which did open a few things up.
With two-back sets plus Buchner in the backfield, the Irish have three legitimate running threats. This allowed Buchner to average nearly ten yards per carry. He led two Notre Dame scoring drives, and he was 3-3 through the air for 78 yards. The Buchner-led offense featured many more option plays and got the ball to Notre Dame’s best athletes in the open field. It was effective on Saturday, but certainly, Coan is still the more polished pocket passer and the starter. To give their transfer opportunities for further success, the Irish must figure out the sieve that is their offensive line right now.
Big Play Defense
Just two games into the Marcus Freeman era and Notre Dame has accomplished some ‘firsts’ – but not good ones. In two games, the Irish have surrendered four plays of 60+ yards – matching the total under former defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Lea was the coordinator for three seasons. Taking out those four plays over two games, the defense doesn’t feel like one of the major Notre Dame weaknesses. Instead, it’s given opponents an extra 24 points in two clashes. Had Notre Dame won 38-24 and 31-20 versus Florida State and Toledo, the narrative around the Irish would be much different. But instead, it’s a pair of three-point victories and escapes acts that are quickly dropping Notre Dame out of the early CFP conversation.
The problems have come in different ways, as both opponents victimized the Irish with a bomber play through the air, but also broke off a huge run. The secondary has ultimately played well so far. They had three interceptions and generally limited Florida State in the opener. Against Toledo, the defense was stifling at times and only gave up 221 passing yards. However, in one concerning trend, the Irish were unable to stop Devin Maddox – Toledo’s top receiver. Maddox racked up 135 yards on nine catches. The Irish last year struggled against big pass plays, and they had a tough time shutting down top receivers. Maddox is talented, but certainly not the best receiver the Irish will see in this season. They absolutely need to improve against the pass and get some lockdown cornerback coverage before the quality of competition picks up dramatically.
Notre Dame Weaknesses Threaten Early Loss
There was a time where the first three games seemed like the easy portion of the schedule. Toledo was never supposed to be a challenge. The atmosphere was considered the most difficult part of the Florida State game. But both games were absolute nailbiters. Now Purdue is up next, and the Boilermakers are off to a solid 2-0 start. They’ve received good quarterback play and very solid defense. With the Boilermakers preceding a five-game stretch of four top-25 opponents (plus recently ranked USC), things look dangerous for the Irish. These three issues have to be atop the priority board if Notre Dame is to make any significant push for a major bowl in 2021.