Rakes Report #174: And I'm not saying that we could save you, but we could put you in a place where you could save yourself (The Wisconsin Review)

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~optional musical accompaniment~

1) We spend a decent amount of time pondering Notre Dame’s place in the hierarchy of college football, which thankfully for much of the last few years has been Near The Top. A program in a similar neighborhood over that same stretch was Wisconsin, with the Badgers notching a couple of the New Year’s Six bowl wins that have eluded the Irish and finding sustained success atop the Big Ten West. In a clear piece of evidence that while Notre Dame may remain a few paces behind the Tide they are indeed better than pretty much everyone else, the Irish went into Soldier Field with an offensive line and run game that’s barely functioning, down the services of a captain on the defensive line and in need of turning to their third quarterback in a close game against a Top 20 team.

What was the result? They ended up shattering the Badgers. Paul Chryst’s job stability is being questioned, the faith in the much ballyhooed quarterback who was going to take them to another level has given out and a season where they returned a gazillion starters (versus Notre Dame’s post-2020 exodus to the NFL) for another run at the Big Ten title game is already on the brink. Not a bad day’s work for the Irish as they improve to 4-0 on the season, winners of 20 of the last 22.

For much of the afternoon, Notre Dame was caught in a Big Ten West body swap horror film, where every single yard, play and first down felt pivotal. But shortly after “Jump Around” and the Badgers taking a 13-10 lead, the game was played on more friendly terms. Chris Tyree had what will almost certainly be considered one of the plays of the season, returning a kickoff at his team’s most desperate moment as called by a giddy Gus Johnson. That was followed by the defense stepping up for a strip sack and then a tidy drive by Drew Pyne, thrown into the fray for his first snaps of the season. He was aided by Kevin Austin, who recovered from a poor showing against Purdue to help Pyne extend the lead, pulling in a nifty third down conversion to keep things moving before scoring his second touchdown of the game. (Michael Mayer also made a nice, large target for a 22-yard gain.) From there, Wisconsin’s drive chart was Sad Missed Field Goal, Interception, Pick Six, Pick Six. The first 15 quarters of Irish football this season were not the most aesthetically pleasing, making the 31-point explosion a joyous occasion.

2) With the Badgers bottling up the Irish rushing attack Jack Coan had a lot on his plate against his former team, performing with mixed results. He manufactured some extended drives in the early going and found Austin for a bomb to give the Irish their first lead. He also underthrew a few deep balls — I’m telling you, one of these games Braden Lenzy is going to have a four-catch, 150-yard day — and participated in my least favorite parlor game, “Was that sack on the quarterback or the offensive line?” Loved the early second-and-17 conversion to Avery Davis as well after two of the first offensive snaps were sacks.

Brian Kelly said he expected Coan to be available for Saturday and that if he was healthy he’d be the starter. Kelly also said they expected Tyler Buchner to be ready for the Bearcats, and considering how well Pyne played in limited reps, the tilt-a-whirling quarterback situation continues apace.

A few additional offensive notes: On the second drive of the game, the Irish got all the way down to the Wisconsin ten-yard line throwing the ball, only to see Tommy Rees call consecutive runs. That wasn’t good, nor were a couple of the second-and-long run calls, but I understand there’s only so much he can do with the current line situation and likely some hesitancy to fully embrace the Throw The Damn Ball ethos. I like the addition of Joe Alt and Andrew Kristofic to the blocking fray, which might help elevate things this year but also help them get more reps for the future. Please hurry back, Blake Fisher – as fun as it was to win by four touchdowns, I’m not sure it will be easy to keep doing that with just three rushing yards on the day. Kyren Williams’ blitz pickups were A++.

Another positive was that Pyne was quite poised upon entering game. One fair criticism of Kelly’s tenure is that he’s been unable to get that A1, no-doubt, first-round elite talent at quarterback, but for over a decade we’ve seen guys pulled from the sidelines who step in capably to do the job. I want the Heisman contender at quarterback as much as the next fan, but as you watch a day of college football and see how many teams have huge holes at that position it’s worth appreciating a long stretch of consistent competency.

Quick sidebar: If you want some of these thoughts in audio form, Jessica Smetana and I recorded an instant reaction podcast on Sunday morning, which includes a dramatic reading of the Badger blog post linked above. Keep your eye on your preferred podcast app later this week for an advanced stats review of the first trimester. Okay back to it.

3) One thing that made me feel better about the early struggles of the defense is that much of what was going wrong was so obvious (mainly, weird alignments as Marcus Freeman adjusted to his personnel and missed tackles as that personnel adjusted to the flow of the new system) that even a total scheme dummy like me could identify potential tweaks. After shutting out Purdue on third-down conversions in the second half last week, the Irish took it to another level on Saturday, holding the Badgers to just 1-of-14 on third down for the day, with the early fourth-down suffocation thrown in for good measure. They were without Kurt Hinish in the middle, but it was Next Man Up, with Rylie Mills, Howard Cross and Jacob Lacey capably stepping further into the fray as Jayson Ademilola continued an All-American-caliber September.

The Irish were 91st in the nation in opponent third down conversion going into the Purdue game, moved to 67th after its conclusion and are now all the way up to 24th. Small sample sizes obviously early in the season and there’s no opponent adjustment in that — I don’t think the Irish have faced anything above maybe an average offense at this point, but defenses appear to be way ahead of their counterparts across the sport so maybe that’s just how it is this season — but it’s a key sign that things are continuing to trend in the right direction.

Delighted for Cam Hart to come through with a pair of picks as he continues to settle in at corner – on his second one, it looked like he was running the route for Wisconsin. The Jack Kiser and Drew White pick sixes are rewards for guys who’ve continued to grind as they transition to the new system, Kiser showing incredible awareness to peel off on Graham Mertz’s comically floated out route and White doing the same in a frenzied middle of the field. These are three-star recruits who’ve now been coached by both Freeman and Clark Lea, essentially giving them doctorates in linebacking, and you’re seeing that preparation and work come to fruition. It was also nice to see Jordan Botelho go from zero defensive snaps to over two dozen, as he has the capability to change one of these upcoming games in the backfield.

Against Penn State, Wisconsin was able to actually move the ball before melting down in the red zone, with their top two tailbacks piecing together 177 yards (on 44 carries) and the pass-catching combo of Danny Davis and Jake Ferguson getting 151 yards (on 17 receptions). Ferguson, a Mackey Award contender in the preseason, was eliminated from the game with a single catch for 11 yards which is what happens when you’re a tight end lined up across from Kyle Hamilton. Chez Mellusi, the lead tailback, mustered 54 yards on 18 carries, with a long of just ten. Even Mertz was at least close to 60 percent on his pass attempts against the Nittany Lions versus tumbling to 18 of 41 on Saturday. Michigan’s new defense has been good against some weak competition through the season’s first month, so will be curious to see how the Badgers and Wolverines match up on Saturday.  

4) We’re already running long and I don’t want to spend much time bagging on Mertz here, but I would like to say I remain very pleased about the result of last season’s Notre Dame/Boston College game, considering all the potential narrative baggage that accompanied it. The early shining success of Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields combined with the stretch Lincoln Riley had going in Norman perhaps deceived people into thinking the process of quarterback recruiting and development is easy and that is not the case.

5) Following a shaky start, with Jay Bramblett losing the field position battle early and Jonathan Doerer missing his first attempt, it was a pretty good day for Brian Polian’s unit: Bramblett bombed a 72-yarder, Doerer made his next two (including from 51 to tie it early when the idea of 41 points seemed fantastical) and Tyree changed the entire game. I know folks love to talk about punt returns so worth noting the Irish are average nationally (between 55th and 65th) in punt return yardage per game, yards per punt return attempt and punt return attempts per game.

6) Winning Is Hard/Schadenfreude Round Up: Where to even start. Clemson picked up their second loss of the season against NC State, barely mustering 200 yards of offense as the folks in Death Valley begin to appreciate the Lawrence/Etienne backfield even more. (After DJ Uiagalelei averaged 5 yards per passing attempt against Georgia Tech last week, he was down to 4.3 on Saturday.) They weren’t the only Top 10 team to lose, as Arkansas took out Texas A&M. Remember when Iowa State was a trendy preseason playoff pick? Well, they also enter October with two losses after falling in Waco.

Auburn trailed Georgia State for much of the game. Iowa trailed Colorado State, a team that lost to Vanderbilt, in the first half. Ohio State was down early to Akron. Oklahoma mustered 16 points at home against West Virginia as fans chanted for the back-up quarterback. Scott Frost’s special teams melted down and cost the Huskers a chance to steal one in East Lansing. Mack Brown and Sam Howell lost on the road again, getting blown out at Georgia Tech as a double-digit favorite. Florida State is 0-4 after losing at home to Louisville. Michigan struggled with Rutgers. TCU lost at home to SMU as a double-digit favorite.

Minnesota was a 31-point home favorite against Bowling Green and lost. I’m comfortable keeping the current Notre Dame coaching staff in place versus replacing them with P.J. Fleck. Southern Cal’s post-Helton bump quickly receded Saturday night, as they were blown out by Oregon State in the Coliseum. Hey, do you know who beat the Beavers to open the season? Purdue! Who barely beat Illinois on Saturday but hey any win is a good win when you’re in the rough and tumble Big Ten West.

7) I understand that there are Notre Dame fans who don’t like Brian Kelly, as conceding he’s good at his job would mean they’d have to admit they were wrong about his hiring and their sundry calls for his termination, and hey some people choose to work out issues via their college football fandom that would be better addressed with some sort of professional counseling. That’s fine, and it’s not my job to change their minds, but I will say I do not know how much better Kelly could have handled the breaking of Knute Rockne’s school win record. He’s been asked about it nonstop for a fortnight and at every opportunity he shifts the praise to his players and the administration, finally landing on the self-deprecating and accurate “I’m the guy with the most wins without a national title.” I also liked these two quotes from Saturday’s postgame press conference:

Like last year, we knew what we had. Right? We were a veteran team. We had some holes. Right? We hunkered down. We put three tight ends on the field. This is what we were. And, you know, kind of lived with it. This is like we're trying to figure it out as we go. We're in no back one play, and then we score a touchdown. Next time, we're in three tight ends. We're trying to cobble it out as we go. And three tackles later on the left side. We've gone through three quarterbacks this year. We'll keep the continuity the best we can. But, like I said, we'll be challenged again next week against a really good Cincinnati team. We'll figure it out then too.

Now, we've got a long way to go still. But they're getting better each week. I just -- I'm having fun coaching them. They're not perfect by any means. But they're going to be better in November. And that's the nice part about it. And that's what energizes you as a coach. We're not a perfect team, but I like coaching them.

In an ideal world, our favorite team would just roll out week after week with no glaring issues and crush people. We’re not living on that timeline this fall, so I will accept “A hardworking roster and coaching staff trying to piece together enough positive plays to build enough successful drives to keep winning as the team finds its footing and identity.” There will likely be some disappointments over the next two months but I appreciate a team that isn’t even quite sure what its fastball is yet finding a way to win. You don’t have to give them back, even if they’re ugly.

8) As far as big-picture narrative potential, the Fox crew was effusive in their praise for the Irish in the game’s aftermath, with the studio crew loving them up during subsequent halftimes in addition to a kind Joel Klatt reaction video that was circulated on social media. For the rest of the season, if the top of the rankings or playoffs are being discussed and the Irish have maintained a presence in those conversations, you know Gus Johnson is going to say something along the lines of “And we saw what the Irish could do with that defense a little earlier in the season and wow! Ha ha!” The Irish are also now shareholders in the Badgers and should they right the ship — a possibility, not a prediction, because yikes that passing game — all that transitive glory will be sent Notre Dame’s direction. Also it’s just fun the Irish have a 41-13 win over a Top 20 Wisconsin team forever in the record books, because the context of that fourth quarter will quickly fade.

9) Major test upcoming, as Cincinnati is off a bye week trying to achieve the biggest win in school history, understanding that with all the chaos at the top there might actually be a chance for a 13-0 Group of Five team with a win in South Bend to steal a playoff bid. They bring in a defense as tough as the Irish have seen and a quarterback who is much better than what we saw on Saturday, with Desmond Ridder combining lethal legs with a nice touch on the deep ball thus far. It did not seem like our lads lacked for energy or confidence in the closing minutes at Soldier Field so I suspect they will be ready. On defense, they’ll need to dominate a so-so Bearcats offensive line while keeping Ridder corralled while the offense will have to grind out whatever they can regardless of who’s getting snaps, targeting the dudes who will not have their names called in the first few rounds of April’s draft.

The gauntlet has commenced and there are no gimmes, despite the many warts festooned across October’s opponents. The bye week and a potential perfect first half to the season are both starting to appear on the horizon but there’s so much to be done before then with a great Cincinnati program and a tricky trip to Blacksburg standing in the way. Keep working, keep getting better and most importantly keep winning. Go Irish, Beat Bearcats.

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