CHICAGO – Notre Dame can't run the ball.
That's been the story of the first half in its matchup against 18th-ranked Wisconsin today and everything else has flowed from that. The Irish, after struggling to run the ball against three lesser opponents to start the season behind a shaky offensive line, have gotten essentially nothing on the ground against the Badgers today, with its running backs carrying 10 times for 13 yards.
That lack of ability to run the ball has kept the Notre Dame offense mostly in check and has put pressure on the Irish defense. That defense, much-maligned in the first two weeks of the season before improving in Week 3 against Purdue, has mostly held up its end of the bargain and at halftime it's 10-3 in favor of the Irish, thanks to one big play: a 36-yard touchdown pass from Jack Coan to Kevin Austin Jr. along the sideline.
Most significantly, the Irish defense has done a very good job of bottling up the Wisconsin rushing attack, long the bread and butter of the Badgers' program. UW rushed for 356 yards on 55 carries against Eastern Michigan two weeks ago, but it has just 17 yards in the first half against the Irish, who have ably handled the loss of nose tackle Kurt Hinish, who is reportedly not playing because of an undisclosed injury. The players who have helped fill in for him in the middle on defense, Howard Cross III and Jacob Lacey, have both come up big. Cross knifed into the backfield to stuff a run for a 3-yard loss that forced a Wisconsin punt and Lacey moved the line to bring down the runner for no gain on a crucial fourth-and-1 play near the Notre Dame red zone. Those are the plays the Irish need to continue to make if they're going to win this game.
With the defense holding its own for the most part, the offense has gone to the one strategy few likely would have predicted before the game: essentially an air raid. The Irish offensive staff seemed to realize early that it is almost entirely unable to run the ball, so it has put the game in Jack Coan's hands. That seemed to be a flawed strategy in the early going, as Wisconsin brought Coan down for sacks three times in the first few minutes, with Irish third-string left tackle Tosh Baker a particular target of the Badger rush. To the credit of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, the Irish adjusted almost immediately, going to quicker throws and holding running backs and tight ends in as extra blockers.
That put the game on Coan's arm and he's been a mixed bag. The Wisconsin transfer hit one huge pass, a go route to Austin for the touchdown – the ball was perfectly placed and Austin made a terrific catch as the defensive back tried to rip the ball out – and he also led a couple of long drives that ate up a significant amount of clock. The first went 70 yards to the Wisconsin 10, but stalled there and Coan took a 9-yard loss on third down when he tripped over his own lineman's foot. The drive ended in disappointment with a missed 39-yard field goal from Jonathan Doerer.
In the second quarter, the Irish took a deep shot to Braden Lenzy that Coan significantly underthrew into the wind. Lenzy tried to come back for the ball, but was obviously interfered with. Unfortunately for the Irish, the referee watching the play somehow did not agree, one of the more baffling no-calls I've ever seen. Notre Dame still drove into Wisconsin territory, but the drive once again stalled and Doerer had to sneak a 51-yard field goal inside the left upright to knot the score at 3.
Coan did a better job of moving around in the pocket after getting sacked three times early, but he still needs to improve in that area and get the ball out more quickly. It feels as though Notre Dame might need to hit another deep shot or two to win this game, so when he has opportunities (Lenzy has been open downfield twice), he needs to give his receivers a chance at them.
We have a good, old-fashioned defensive struggle here at Soldier Field, worthy of the offensively-challenged, defensively-brilliant Bears teams of the mid-2000s.