Grades are out for Notre Dame’s decisive 41-3 victory over the Miami Hurricanes last Saturday in Chicago’s storied Soldier Field. Many high marks for both sides of the football with the offensive output being some of the best the Irish faithful have witnessed in years. So without any further delay, here’s the week five report card.
Everett Golson took more than one step toward being a better quarterback against Miami – he vaulted. Golson completed 77 percent of his passes while showing off his arm and his ability to spread the ball around to nine different receivers. He also used his feet to buy himself time when appropriate and showed patience in staying within the pocket much better than he has in recent games. The most encouraging part of this game came at the end of first half when he calmly engineered a drive that put his team into field goal range with only one second remaining.
Head coach Brian Kelly finally got Golson involved in the running game with designed option plays as well as a quarterback draw. Although used sparingly in the first half, this aspect of the offense will become more and more prevalent as the season wears on. There is no question he has the ability to be a true dual-threat quarterback and drive defenses crazy with his talent. Grade: A
I was impressed with the Irish backs this past weekend and the patience they showed running the inside zone. The knock from me had been their tendency to cutback against the defense too soon and not give the play a chance to develop. Against Miami they really pressed it to the front side well and made their move once the defense flowed to them, making the cutback extremely effective. I also felt if either the inside or outside zone was available out the front door they took what they could get on several occasions.
Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and George Atkinson III combined to rush for 266 of the 376 total rushing yards the Irish had. Wood and Atkinson both eclipsed the 100 yard mark while averaging 6.6 and 12.3 yards per rush respectively. Cam McDaniel even joined the party toward the end of the contest and rushed for 55 yards on 11 carries. Every touchdown Notre Dame had against Miami came on the ground and the running backs were responsible for all five of them. Grade: A
The Irish wide receivers continue to make plays in the passing game and as I’ve said in past weeks have really stepped up to be a reliable group of route runners and pass catchers. This group accounted for half of Golson’s completions against Miami with TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels leading the way to combine for seven receptions. Daniels came the closest to actually dropping a pass this year when a ball from Tommy Rees was thrown behind him in the first series. Daniels’ body was going one way and the ball was going the other - to make that catch would have been possible but difficult.
I focused more of my attention to wide receiver blocking this week and I was really impressed with Daniel Smith’s ability to be physical in his stalk blocking. Smith isn’t targeted much in the passing game, but could be the most reliable receiver when blocking on the perimeter. All of the receivers did a fairly decent job blocking this week and I believe it’s important to realize how difficult it really is to block an agile defensive back for an extended period of time. Grade: A-
The Notre Dame tight ends combined for three catches against Miami and it truly can be stated this week the flow of the game prevented them from having more. With the way the Irish were running the ball against the Hurricanes the need to target Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, or Ben Koyack was not essential in the success of the game plan. Two of the three completed passes were shorter routes that I would like to see more of moving forward - these are easy throws and forces the defense to be accountable for the tight end whether he is inline or split wide.
I’ve been raving about Troy Niklas as a blocker since watching the game live Saturday night. The mental errors are gone and all I see is a confident player who literally buries the opposition any chance he gets. He doesn’t seem to see blocking as a chore or something he has to do, but more like the reason why he was put on this earth. Eifert was on his game as well and when both of them are split wide and the offense runs anything to the outside they are a formidable duo for defensive backs to contend with. Grade: A
Let’s get the negative out of the way first. There were some assignment and communication errors on pass protection in the first half that were the result of some pretty basic stunts by Miami. One occasion the defensive end over tackle Zach Martin came in unblocked and on another center Braxton Cave and guard Chris Watt stopped blocking the man they were double-teaming because one thought the other had him. My concern is these mistakes were on the veteran side of the line where you’d expect these errors to be few and far in-between. As the game wore on the mistakes were fixed, but in the meantime they were saved by a mobile quarterback.
The run blocking was clearly the best it’s been since Navy and possibly even better which makes sense as an offensive line without injury should start gelling really well by the fifth week of the season. Mike Golic Jr. looked the most aggressive and confident he’s been all season and Christian Lombard seems to settling in at right tackle which is good with Stanford coming to town this week. Watt continues to be the best run blocker the Irish have, but Cave and Martin were very good this week as well.
Whenever a group is responsible for over 370 yards rushing, five rushing touchdowns, and two backs going over 100 yards they have to be doing many things correctly. Grade: A-
This group continues to be extremely difficult to block in the running game and I would hate to be an offensive lineman trying to move Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III, or Kapron Lewis-Moore off the line of scrimmage. What gets overlooked by some is how quick these three are once they’ve shed whoever is trying to block them. Taking on a block and stuffing their gap is one thing, but their ability to disengage and get after a smaller and quicker running back is really impressive.
For whatever reason the pass rush was not as dominant as it’s been through the first four weeks of the season. Credit may go to Miami’s offensive line, but for the first game all season the defense failed to register a sack on 35 pass attempts. As the game wore on the pressure increased to the tune of five quarterback hurries which did cause Hurricane quarterback Stephen Morris to throw some errant passes. There were also a few occasion when contain wasn’t kept on Morris and he was able to get outside the pocket and extend the play. Grade: A-
Manti Te’o led all defenders on both teams Saturday with ten tackles, eight of them being solos. He picked up right where he left off against Michigan and is an aggressive player who doesn’t get enough credit to how fast he’s been playing this season. His lateral movement and closing speed has become an elite part of his game.
Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese played well against the Hurricanes and I believe they're feeding off Te’o’s energy as the season has progressed. I used to think Fox was the better player, but at this point of the season they are interchangeable and I’m comfortable with either one of them being in the game.
Danny Spond was his normal consistent self against Miami and is very rarely out of position on the field. The things he does that don’t show up on the stat sheet, such as set the edge or take on the lead blocker, is vitally important to the success of the defense.
Prince Shembo accounted for two quarterback hurries and was generally a load for Miami to block. He didn’t stand out as much as he did the first four weeks of the season, but he was still an effort player who got after it and contributed any way he could. Grade: A
The first series of the game the Irish safeties were beat deep twice in four plays and fortunately both very catchable passes were dropped by Miami’s Phillip Dorsett. I’m still astounded that happened based upon how much the Hurricane offense has lived and died on the big play the first five weeks of the season. I believe the football game takes on a very different tone if either of those passes are completed and the Irish find themselves trailing 7-0.
The entire secondary seemed to settle down as the game went on and eventually got used to the speed of the Miami offense. The longest pass play for the Hurricanes was 28 yards which is well below the big play capability they’ve shown all year. They were also content with letting Miami dink and dunk their way down the field, which is perfectly acceptable with the lead the Irish had in the second half.
KeiVarae Russell played well and showed he likes to be a physical presence from his corner spot finishing second behind Te’o with six tackles. Grade: B
Ben Turk punted once, but left a lot to be desired as his end zone effort left Miami with great field position near the end of the first half. Fortunately the Irish defense held and the Hurricanes missed their field goal.
Kyle Brindza missed a field goal with one second left in the first half after the offense put together a great drive to get into field goal position. Those are the ones Brindza really needs to make to put an exclamation point on the effort the offense puts forth in situations like that.
Kickoff coverage was pretty good except for Dorsett getting loose a bit on one in the second half. Other than that I felt they did a nice job of containing freshman star Duke Johnson. Grade: B+
Brian Kelly had his team ready coming off the bye week and it showed in the emotion and dominating fashion they beat Miami. Offensively he stuck with what was working as one drive in the second half was all rushing plays. He’s gradually introducing different aspects of the offense as is evident in getting Golson more involved in the running game. He’s not coddling Golson, or anyone else for that matter, as his benching the first series of the game showed. Kelly’s biggest challenge of the season will be this Saturday when Stanford invades South Bend and tries to give the Irish their first loss of the season.
Bob Diaco’s defense held the explosive Hurricanes to just 285 yards of total offense. A feat within itself, but to hold them to just one field goal is truly phenomenal. This marks the third game in a row his defense has not given up a touchdown. I felt he could have pressured Morris a little more, but with the lead the Irish had it was perhaps not worth sacrificing coverage for pressure. Grade: A