Rakes Report #132: Making the best of every virtue and vice (The Bye Week Review)

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I hope everyone made the most out of their idle weekend, enjoying some cheeseburgers and the tranquility of knowing Notre Dame would survive unscathed. If you had the opportunity, Saturday was a really fun stretch of football, a chance to kick back and watch horrors befall college football teams that are not the one we support, which is always a treat. Since we’re rested and ready, let’s hit a few items before we look ahead to Saturday.

Regarding the aforementioned team we support, our friend Jamie Uyeyama of Irish Sports Daily came by the pod earlier this week to hand out midterm grades. Over the course of our conversation it became apparent that not only is this team pretty good — they’re 5-1, after all — but also how much potential for growth remains with this roster. It’s possible that guys in expanded roles will hit a wall and regress as the season goes on, but with the way the staff has been careful to rotate it’s just as likely they keep improving.

How are the newcomers in the back seven like Kyle Hamilton, JOK, Drew White and Jack Lamb going to look against Boston College and Stanford if they’re already doing so well in their first extended action? Could Cole Kmet get even better as he is further removed from his injury? What about Michael Young? Could we see even more from Braden Lenzy the rest of the way? What heights might the defensive tackle rotation reach? What if the offensive line grows as much from Game Six to Game Twelve as it did from Game One to Game Six?

There’s also the potential to wring more out of the upperclassmen. Both Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman have been good, but we know they have higher ceilings that could be reached, particularly if the linebacker play in front of them keeps progressing. Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem have done some nice work but we also know they can do even more, while Ian Book and Chris Finke showed last season there is some more potential production from that captain combination. Could Asmar Bilal just continue his trajectory of getting better every single game? No improvement is certain — perhaps through six games you just are what you are — but the Irish have so many young, talented guys that the team we see in Palo Alto and in the bowl might be much better than the one we saw over the first half of the season, which was no slouch.

Winning Is Hard/Schadenfreude Round Up: Wisconsin went into Champaign a 31-point favorite over an Illinois team that seemed to be spiraling into a coaching change and lost on a last second kick. Instead of turning to their bread and butter on the final drive to run out the clock, Paul Chryst directed the Badgers to throw multiple times, allowing the Illini to snag an impressive pick before driving down for the kick at the buzzer. This quickly switches the narrative on the Badgers season: Their next game is a trip to Columbus to face the Buckeye war machine before road games with Minnesota and Nebraska in addition to Iowa at home. In one sprinkle of magic from Lovie Smith’s beard, the Badgers went from a playoff contender to a team that might need some help to win its division. This is also the second straight season Wisconsin has lost as a top ten team to one that was unranked, following up last year’s home defeat to BYU as a 24-point favorite.

Speaking of BYU, they took down another undefeated team, knocking off Boise State in Provo. The Bronco loss opens the door for all kinds of fun for the Group of 5 spot, with App State, SMU and Cincinnati now looming and Boise still very much in play. (The Group of 5 representative may be of interest to Notre Dame fans, but we’re not addressing that at length until we get past the next game.) Texas almost had a brutal loss, but got a last second kick to survive Kansas in Austin. The Longhorns still have to play Baylor (undefeated after a monster rally in Stillwater) and Iowa State so a Red River Rematch is not destiny in the Big 12 title game.

Washington lost a fun one at home to Oregon, so the Huskies are now 5-3 with losses to Stanford (who just got blown out at home by 1-5 UCLA) and Cal (who lost at home to Oregon State). Missouri was undefeated in the SEC but they lost to Vanderbilt, a team that seemed to have given up after getting crushed by UNLV at home last week. Georgia and Kentucky were tied at zero at the half. Florida trailed South Carolina going into the fourth quarter but pulled out another nice win. Tennessee was about to make it a one-score game late against Bama but in a tribute to the 2011 Fighting Irish saw a fourth and goal from the one-inch line turn into seven points for the Tide. Jeremy Pruitt responded by losing his mind, if you want to play a game of What If Brian Kelly Did This?

The Hurricanes were an 18-point home favorite over Georgia Tech, a team still very much in Year Zero as they attempt to move on from the triple option under Geoff Collins. Didn’t matter: Canes missed some short field goals, lost in overtime and now sit at 3-4. Speaking of 3-4, that’s also Florida State’s record after losing a field goal duel to Wake Forest. (Willie Taggart tried a go-ahead 50-yarder on 4th and 6 in the rain. Didn’t work out.)

Opponent watch: USC drilled Arizona, leading 34-0 in the fourth quarter before a pair of vanity touchdowns from the Wildcats made it a 41-14 final. The Trojans play on Friday evening in Boulder if you want to see how the Kedon Slovis offense does at elevation. Virginia dropped the hammer on Duke, winning 48-14 to end a two-game skid. Boston College responded to losing their starting quarterback for the year by blowing out NC State (hey, Dave Doeren) while Virginia Tech continued to salvage its season with a six-overtime win over Mack Brown and the Tar Heels, so they will come into South Bend — off a bye, natch — at 5-2.

A game I did not address was Michigan/Penn State, which generated evolving narratives over the course of the evening. When the Nittany Lions worked their way up to a 21-0 lead, it seemed like the story going into Saturday evening’s visit to Ann Arbor would be “Can Notre Dame perhaps end the Jim Harbaugh Era?”. But the Wolverines rallied, coming within a dropped fourth down pass of tying the game.

(One question with this is how good is Penn State. They scored 17 points against both Iowa and Pitt, solid teams to be sure but not juggernauts. James Franklin is also adept at blowing leads in big games — as he has against Ohio State and Sparty the last two years — while bungling clock management, as you saw at the end of the first half. They have stiffer tests upcoming with trips to East Lansing, Minneapolis and Columbus so we’ll have a much better idea by season’s end, just not by kickoff Saturday unless the result with Sparty is severely tilted one way or the other.)

In a way, the comments after the game should be emasculating for a team that many people picked to make the playoff prior the season: Good job not giving up, guys! You really tried hard! But it was a circle the wagons moment and it did almost work, giving this program the chance to feel like it’s on the verge of putting it all together. You can see the potential obituaries for this Michigan team now: “The second half against Penn State was the real turning point. Sure, they lost to national champ Ohio State, but they knocked off Notre Dame, Sparty and [SEC bowl opponent here] on the way to a 10-3 season and it’s really something to build off of when you consider the depths of the Rodriguez and Hoke tenures.”

I very much do not want that to be the story told come January. Don Brown’s defense is going to leave guys open for Ian Book but he has to be able to hit them despite the waves of pressure that will be crashing in on him all game. Brandon Wimbush found guys for a half and that was enough. Dwayne Haskins found them for a game and it was annihilation. The offensive line has been so very good for the past month but they need to raise their level again, both in protecting Book and in punching holes for Tony Jones and God willing Jafar Armstrong. Get Cole Kmet and Chase Claypool matched up on safeties and linebackers, run them up the seam and lob it up there. Uncork Braden Lenzy and/or Michael Young. Book has to be great to win Saturday and while I think he can come through, we’ve also seen him struggle with fronts like this so it’s far from a guarantee.

On defense, it’s time for the line to repeat the Virginia performance. Shea Patterson had a nice second half after looking lost in the early going in Happy Valley, but it will be on Julian and Khalid and their friends to make him very uncomfortable all night and to force some turnovers. The back seven has been solid all year but they are going to have to be on lock tackling because there is a lot of throwing the ball out to the flat and attempting to make plays in space. Michigan’s lead back averaged over 5 yards per rush with two scores against a talented Penn State front, so go ahead and contain that, too.

A rosy theory on the Michigan offense was laid out over the past week on Cover 3, CBS Sports’ national college football podcast*: It’s not that Josh Gattis’ new offense is a failure, it’s just that it’s not a success yet, as it takes time to adjust to a new system. Whether that’s true or not we’ll find out in the coming games, but you could see some green shoots for them this weekend. Nico Collins is trouble and critical drop aside Ronnie Bell was getting loose. Zach Charbonnet and Donovan Peoples-Jones were five-star recruits while Tarik Black was just outside the Top 100. This isn’t some scrappy upstart as they very much have dudes who can do damage if Clark Lea and his charges are prepared.

* I am borderline pathological with my inability to listen to national college football podcasts because eventually they say a tiny thing wrong about Notre Dame and I develop unhealthy parasocial grudges against the hosts but I’ve been listening to Cover 3 since August and it’s really a delight. They have had only fair takes on the Irish so far, which I think is aided by the fact they are friendly with Brady Quinn, who guested recently. (When one of the hosts took USC to make the playoff as a longshot bet, he later reported that Brady texted him to ask what the hell he was doing.) Anyway, if you are looking for another college football pod in your life, give Cover 3 a try. Thank you to everyone who sent national CFB pod suggestions my way earlier this year and please keep them coming.

Notre Dame has won in Ann Arbor exactly once since 1993 and Vegas has installed them as underdogs in this edition. The Irish have won on the road by double digits just twice in the entire history of the series (1987 and 1943), if you want an idea of whether this might be close or not. Michigan cannot make the playoff and they have essentially been eliminated from Big Ten title contention so all they have left is getting the scalps of their rivals. It’s primetime, they’re going to play highlights from the last few trips, Fowler and Herbstreit will be annoying, the team and crowd will be desperate, and the whole thing could be traumatic for Irish fans.

With all that said, I think the Irish are better than the Wolverines. They are tougher and they have better coordinators and they’re coming off a bye while their hosts must rally after a draining road trip to State College. As frenzied as the crowd will likely be at the jump, they are so beaten down that a strong start would likely eliminate them as a factor. Come out strong early, disabuse Michigan and their fans of the notion this might be close and learn from Penn State’s mistakes by staying aggressive until the very end.

If Notre Dame can get past this game, the entire season opens up in front of them. Stanford might get healthy and Navy will be annoying and both BC and VT have shown some fight but Notre Dame is better than all of them. Survive Saturday night and the path to consecutive 12-1 seasons opens up. This is the last scheduled game in the series and the Irish can say goodbye with three straight wins which would be a fitting close to dealing with this nonsense program.

Much like the USC game, the Irish can have an objectively successful season even if they lose Saturday night — what a privilege to maybe be in a position to complain that 11-2 didn’t quite do it for you — but they can’t have a special season if the next step in the journey is a loss.

Make it special. Go Irish. Beat Michigan. Please.