Last week’s game in South Bend re-opened the debate on the merits of a moral victory. We went toe-to-toe on national television against a “Top Ten” team on their turf and acquitted ourselves well. Basically, anyone who watched that game had to be impressed with us. The problem, of course, is that we didn’t win. In fact, we found a way to lose. Again. But sometimes, you gain something valuable from a loss – and this was likely one of those times.
A football season is a journey. Sometimes, in hindsight, you find that along the way you were carrying baggage you did not even realize you owned. Last year we went into the Alabama game undefeated and hopeful. We left the field that miserable afternoon demoralized and embarrassed. The hangover carried over to the entire rest of the season: it altered scheme, confidence, enthusiasm, risk-taking. We went into damage control mode, knowing we could not stop the big offenses – we made this prophecy self-fulfilling. Vanderbilt ended up allowing the most SEC points in history – even with several current and future NFL players on the field.
To his credit, Coach Mason seems to have dwelled on what ultimately went wrong in 2017 and he has done his best to fix it. He handed the reins of the defense to Jason Tarver – who has re-infused aggression into the game-plan. OC Andy Ludwig is being allowed to open up the offense – and, perhaps not coincidently, it is loaded with talent and upper class leadership. It is fun to watch. Seeing the defense ground down last year, we have instituted a “depth initiative” that has really borne fruit. The fact that we have out-played and out-scored opponents by a 59-6 clip in the second half in 2018 is no accident. Lessons learned – even late – still count.
For all the reasons last year’s Alabama debacle crushed hope, the Notre Dame game should build confidence. Despite the good start against MTSU and Nevada, no one could truly believe in us until we faced a top team. On Saturday, we not only proved we belonged on the field with the top teams – but it was our own mistakes that proved fatal. We did not scale the mountain, but we still took in the view and saw what is possible if we play to our potential. This is a big attitude adjustment from last year’s hang-dog SEC campaign.
While a popular narrative suggests we “gave” the Notre Dame game away – it was hard-fought and Notre Dame is good. Not #8 good – but Top 20 good. The Irish executed very well in the first half and our defense was on roller-skates with the misdirection, lack of “contain” of the running quarterback, and play-action. Notre Dame’s removal of Wimbush in short yardage and red zone packages actually worked to our advantage. And we stiffened three times to force field goals – while Wimbush ran one scramble to pay-dirt (a play where uncalled holding was egregious) to set up a 16-0 hole early. Notre Dame, again, found us shaking off first quarter cobwebs – a recurring theme.
In fact, our three central concerns: the slow start, the offense’s red zone problems and stopping the opponent’s rushing game continued to haunt us. Notre Dame’s Tony Jones, Jr. is a dangerous runner and he deserves a lot of credit for our “bad tacking.” (Jones led the Irish in receiving yards too.) He was slippery and quick and he absorbed some solid contact. Wimbush operated the “RPSO” (run-pass-scramble option) well. While this kept us off-balance, Notre Dame wanted to throw – and this was not their strength. Also, several bone-crushing hits left their receivers hearing footsteps over the middle. Our pass rush got near Wimbush several times – but he proved too elusive to catch. The ACC crew seemed to call a moratorium on Irish holding for most of the game. That didn’t help. Our D-line needs to take some acting classes to call attention to such grievances.
The defense did enough to win – but not enough to insure a win. There were no sacks – there were no turnovers. And there were opportunities. Joejuan Williams had another big game. LaDarius Wiley contributed ten tackles, Jordan Griffin and Dmitri Moore had eight stops apiece and Donovan Sheffield and Josh Smith added seven. Zaire Jones helped shore up the secondary, but also dropped a gift-wrapped interception that might have meant a touchdown.
Notably, the defense did a good job preventing the “big play.” But we were vulnerable to the running game – and we remained unable to stop the hurry-up-which needs to be fixed. We can expect to see more of it from Carolina’s qb Jake Bentley. And with Deebo Samuel coming to town we need to shore up telegraphing the blitz as Notre Dame threw quick check-downs that Samuel might turn into scores.
Special teams had a few hiccups in our first road game, too. Riley Guay missed a field goal – and one extra point was pretty close. Notre Dame broke a big kick-off return late. Punter Parker Thome continues to dazzle – but, again, Deebo Samuel looms. There is a small margin of error when facing a returner of his skill-set.
The offense remains enigmatic. From the close of the second quarter to our next to last drive, we ran seven straight series that reached Notre Dame territory. At the final gun, we only had 17 points to show for it. The drives ended as follows: (excruciating fumble at the goal line, dropped TD – chip shot field goal, missed field goal, INT in end zone, touchdown, touchdown, lost ball on downs in the red zone.) Our red zone failings are becoming all too routine. I begin to wonder if going hurry-up would help – as we seem quite comfortable going no-huddle, but employ it rarely. It is, in fact, the hurry-up that finally awakened our offense in the second quarter.
Kyle Shurmur played well in his South Bend cameo, throwing for 326 yards and a TD. His only big mistake was an ill-advised INT into triple coverage in the end zone. In a day of solid protection, perhaps his best throw went to Jared Pinkney for a score; he stood in and delivered a dart while getting knocked flat. Pinkney was dominant with 111 receiving yards in addition to the score. Kalijah Lipscomb had 11 grabs for 89 yards. (He also made a huge tackle on the Notre Dame’s INT.) The longball of the game went to C.J. Bolar who showed nice moves after the catch. Shurmur hit ten different receivers. The tandem of Vaughn and Blasingame had 103 rushing yards in 23 carries. It was a good showing by the offense – except on the scoreboard.
There were obvious mistakes – the strip at the one yard line and the failure to recover the ball in the end zone, the dropped walk-in touchdown pass before half-time. A holding call nullified another score – although we still found the end zone. And a general malaise in the first quarter left us playing uphill. It wasn’t just that we lost the turnover battle – but our giveaways were terribly deflating.
Shurmur was great – but he continues to lock in on Lipscomb and Pinkney. He needs to find secondary receivers – and C.J. Bolar, Cam Johnson and Sam Dobbs seem to be making strides. Will Muschamp will be highly attuned to our go-to slant to Lipscomb on short yardage. This is a pick-six waiting to happen if we aren’t careful – although a decoy slant-and-go by Lipscomb could result in a big play for us. (We need to avoid predictability even when we aren’t running up the middle.)
We gained 420 yards and six yards per play against the Irish, while accumulating 23 first downs. We simply need to convert that success into points – and more particularly first half points.
Coach Mason has never beaten South Carolina – but Vandy’s smashmouth style of the recent past has been ill-suited against the Gamecocks who have stuffed the box relentlessly. This year, with our offense using more of the field, the match-up seems better. Additionally, South Carolina’s d-line is somewhat under-sized and if our o-line produces running lanes, this will set up play action where Shurmur thrives. This is the blueprint Georgia used to dismantle Carolina 41-17 in Columbia in the Gamecocks’ last outing – the Dawgs ran for 271 yards (and passed for another 200) en route to 30 first downs. The Gamecocks have had an extra week to think about this beat-down after Hurricane Florence set in. The storm itself – which dumped incomprehensible amounts of rain on the Carolinas – has to be hard to handle. Will the Gamecocks come out determined to put that Georgia debacle behind them – or has the loss of faith gotten into their bones in the last two weeks? The Vegas opening line favored Carolina by 3 – but it has dipped to 2. We are 3-0 against the spread – and by a wide margin in each game.
Both coaches face psychological challenges this week. South Carolina – who many picked to compete for the East title – may be staring down the “Alabama moment” we faced last year. Jake Bentley is talented and the Gamecocks have quick-strike capabilities: but if they start out slowly, serious doubt may creep in. By contrast, quick starts have not been our forte. Having played Notre Dame ferociously, will we come out with a let-down – or with the confidence of a team that can’t wait to get back on the field? My money is on the latter.
Moral victories are not what we want. But in this case – learning just how good we can be (even from defeat) may help this squad pick up a few extra wins this year. This week may be one of them.