CHICAGO – There was a lot of big-picture discussion about the state of Notre Dame's season after the No. 12 Irish dispatched 18th-ranked Wisconsin 41-13 at Soldier Field this afternoon.
That will happen when a team wins (or loses) a game in such a way that it causes those outside the program to recalibrate expectations for the rest of the campaign. Notre Dame had that kind of win against the Badgers, stifling what had been an outstanding running attack and showing that a quasi air-raid offense can be at least somewhat effective with either Jack Coan or Drew Pyne at quarterback.
After three performances to start the year that ranged from middling on the high end to downright worrying on the lower end, the Irish played up to their competition today, running their record to 4-0 and getting past the first hurdle in a stretch of five consecutive games that will, in all likelihood, define the season. Coach Brian Kelly had cautioned after each of the first three games that his team was nowhere near a finished product and he reiterated that after today's victory.
"Everybody's trying to peg teams early on, like who are they?" Kelly said. "We're still trying to figure ourselves out, but everyone already had us figured out as to who we were. I just know that it's a resilient group that believes it's going to win. ... There's some talent on this football team that's young, that's inexperienced, but there's such a strong commitment to preparation, they work so hard in preparing and then they believe they're going to win.
"Man, when you put those things together – now you've gotta go make plays, but they just have a strong will. ... Somebody might come in and take that away one week, but we've told them we're all in with this team in preparing every week and giving it our best shot."
That work-in-progress quality about the Irish is different from last season, when they rolled for much of the campaign behind a group of talented veterans that had been there, done that. This team, with youngsters at key positions and a new quarterback, was likely always going to need some time to gel. It came through when it mattered against the Badgers today and there's still more room to grow.
"Last year, we knew what we had," Kelly said. "We were veteran team. We hunkered down, put three tight ends on the field, this is what we were and lived with it. This year, we're trying to figure it out as we go. We're in no-(running) back one play and score a touchdown and the next (play) we're in a three-tight-end set. We're trying to cobble it out as we go."
While there were major question marks on offense and defense in the early weeks, it's pretty clear the defense has progressed at a faster rate. That was always likely to be the case, in part because the Irish needed a few games to get used to new coordinator Marcus Freeman's scheme and also because there are fewer youngsters on that side of the ball. I wrote after the Irish beat Purdue last week that the defense's performance against the Boilermakers was a glimpse of what a Freeman-led unit can be with the talent now available to him. If that was a glimpse, today was a long look.
The Irish got consistent push up front against what was supposedly one of the better offensive lines in the country and held the Badgers to just 2.6 yards per carry. Notre Dame also intercepted four passes, two from cornerback Cam Hart, who bounced back from a somewhat difficult performance against Purdue's David Bell, an All-Big Ten receiver. Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz might deserve a lion's share of the blame/credit for the interceptions, but the Irish still had to make the plays and they did. The Badgers had two chunk gains, a 44-yard seam route to a tight end and a 35-yard shovel pass. Outside of that, it was a dominant defensive day and showcased the keys to Freeman's defenses: aggressiveness and takeaways.
The offense remains much more of a question mark, especially after quarterback Jack Coan got hurt in the third quarter. Backup Drew Pyne came in and did a nice job, though Kelly says Coan will return as the starter as soon as he's healthy, which the Irish believe could be next week against Cincinnati. But no matter whom is under center, Notre Dame has concerns on offense. The Irish appear to be almost completely incapable of running the ball against a good defense. Their longest gain on the ground today was a whopping seven yards and the offensive line failed to open many holes for Kyren Williams (though Wisconsin's lightning-quick linebackers also made the holes look somewhat smaller).
With so many issues running the ball, Notre Dame went to a very pass-heavy offense this afternoon – Kelly said that had been the plan all week – and it worked, to a certain extent. Notre Dame put together three sustained drives in the first half, but only came away with 10 points, including none after a 70-yard possession that ended in a missed field goal. The second half featured only one scoring drive on offense and that was after a turnover had set Notre Dame up at midfield. Neither Coan nor Pyne is built to throw 50 times a game and Coan especially is having trouble evading opposing rushes: he was sacked five times today and the fifth takedown caused his injury. The pass-catchers, especially Kevin Austin Jr. and Michael Mayer, are terrific, but they need others to step up.
It would help if Notre Dame could get healthy along the offensive line, but that appears to be a while away, with starting left tackle Blake Fisher likely out until late October. Backup Tosh Baker struggled today and although the Irish adjusted, putting Joe Alt at the position and bringing in extra tight ends and running backs to help pass protect, the line is still held together with duct tape and it's tough to get in a rhythm with an ever-changing front.
But despite those issues, Notre Dame is undefeated and could well move back into the top 10 in the AP Poll when the rankings are released Sunday. The Irish are on to Cincinnati and their coach is enjoying the ride.
"I'm having fun coaching them," Kelly said. "They're not perfect by any means, but they're going be better in November and that's the nice part about it. That energizes you as a coach."