Apr 12, 2014, 3:41 PM EDT
Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.
It was a beautiful day in South Bend today, with temperatures close to 70, and 29,000 spectators came out to watch the 85th Annual Blue-Gold Spring Game. After exploding in the first half for a 57-15 lead, the offense (“Blue”) gave up ground to the defense (“Gold”) in the second, hanging on to win 63-58. Here were the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams in our last glimpse of Notre Dame football before August.
The offensive fireworks of the first half were the big story, with Malik Zaire and Everett Golson combining for 446 yards and two touchdowns for the game. Zaire was the player of the game, going 18-25 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Neither quarterback committed a turnover.
With the heavy premium on the pass, it didn’t look like it will be the offense we will necessarily see this fall. I know Kelly likes to pass, but 29 rushes by running backs out of 100 plays isn’t nearly as high as we’ll see in the season. This game was about getting quarterbacks acclimated, and they looked very good.
Obviously, quarterback play was the news item of the day. Both Golson and Zaire looked comfortable and putting up great numbers. They were efficient even throwing a lot of bombs and with several dropped passes. With a running quarterback system, the risk of injury makes the backup that much more important, and Malik Zaire looked more than capable. His proclamations of winning the starting job look possible, and even Kelly admitted after the game that he’ll have to settle on a starter.
I actually thought the running backs were even more impressive. Their numbers on the ground were good – 29 carries for 178 yards, and Greg Bryant dazzled with his 51-yard burst. But they also proved to be great weapons in the passing game. Folston and McDaniel made some great catches downfield, and all of them ran successful screen plays. We didn’t see a lot of running back screens last year, and it looks like it might be a part of the playbook for 2014. If so, it will be a huge asset for an offense that struggled in short-yardage situations. The group also picked up blocks solidly in pass protection.
After the game Kelly said he was impressed with the play of the wide receivers, but a disappointing number of dropped passes stalled the offense at times. There is a lot of youth and depth at wide receiver, but it will probably be the weakness of this offense. Assuming DaVaris Daniels re-enrolls, the unit should look better in the fall. That’s not to say the receivers didn’t make some great plays, however. Corey Robinson had some impressive snags, and C.J. Prosise showed off some speed with a 39-yard touchdown reception in the 1st quarter.
Pass protection was a bit of an issue today, with eight sacks and probably a few more if the quarterbacks were live. I know a couple linemen are hurt, and there’s a lot of talent in the offensive line corps. Harry Hiestand created one of the best pass-protecting units in the country last season, so I’m not too worried about this issue persisting. Part of the problem was also pocket presence by the quarterbacks, who didn’t always know when to get rid of the ball.
After getting lit up in the first half, the defense made it a game in the second, ultimately losing 63-58. Brian Kelly admitted at halftime that the defense was “dialed down” a bit because the goal of the scrimmage was to get the quarterbacks comfortable.
The secondary played very loose off the line, and there was rarely, if ever, a unit that looked like it will be the starting group come August 30. Kelly mentioned Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, and Max Redfield as guys who played limited minutes to see what some of the other players could do.
I was impressed with the pressure the line forced at times. There were eight sacks in the game, and there would have been a few more if the quarterbacks were live. Romeo Okwara especially looked good in the pass rush, collecting three sacks from his new position on the line.
And after the secondary struggled in the first half, I thought they recovered well later in the game with coverage of the deep ball. Cole Luke and Elijah Shumate made a couple of nice plays to break up passes downfield.
Although the defensive backs recovered well to stop deep throws, Golson and Zaire were able to exploit their coverage of short routes. Running backs and tight ends kept getting open in the middle, combining for 16 receptions in the first half out of 25. Linebackers will have to improve their coverage before the fall, but it will help having Ben Councell back and Jaylon Smith playing the whole game. Those two will be key in linebacker coverage.
Running backs only carried the ball 29 times in the game out of 100 plays, so the defense was probably not playing the run a whole lot. But when the offense did keep it on the ground, they ran at will, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. There was only one big play, a spectacular 51 yard run by Greg Bryant, but the running backs consistently found good yardage when their numbers were called. Although the defensive front looked good in forcing pressure, it looks like playing the run will be an area of improvement.
It will be a long four and a half months of anticipation before we see what this team can do against actual competition. This is a very young group, and they will continue to get better over the summer.
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