Sometimes the pieces of a promising future can be sneakily significant to a suddenly brightening present.
Even if they’re not conspicuous.
Four weeks after Michigan bullied Notre Dame on both sides of the ball, 45-14, sending Irish coordinator Clark Lea’s defense sinking to a No. 47 ranking nationally in total defense among the 130 college football teams on the FBS level, the Irish woke up Sunday in the 19th spot (319.5 yards per game).
They’re 16th in scoring defense (18,2), 13th in yards per play allowed (4.63) and No. 5 in pass-efficiency defense (107.5 ratings points), to name a few of the superlatives. That’s after allowing a season-best 191 total yards to the nation’s No. 5 rushing team, Boston College, Saturday in a 40-7 Notre Dame Stadium smothering.
Total defense is the most significant common thread among teams that play for and win national championships. Only Auburn in 2010 among the 21 titlists in the BCS/Playoff Era didn’t have a national ranking of at least 25th in that particular metric.
The only one of coach Brian Kelly’s previous nine Irish teams to fit that template at season’s end was the 2012 team (seventh in total defense) that played Alabama for the national title and spent a few weeks at the end of the regular season as college football’s No. 1 team in the polls.
Last year’s ND team that made the College Football Playoff finished 30th in total defense.
The AP No. 15 Irish (9-2) finish the regular season Saturday against Stanford at Stanford Stadium (4 p.m. EST; FOX) against a Cardinal team that has lost three games in a row and four of five, and features the nation’s 101st-ranked squad in total offense.
Then it’s likely on to the Camping World Bowl, Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla., against a Big 12 opponent.
Two subtle contributors to ND’s defensive surge are freshman reserve nose guard Jacob Lacey and suspended sophomore wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
Austin’s contributions have been behind closed doors, in practice sessions, as a member of the offensive scout team that preps ND’s No. 1 defense for games.
With the departure of ND’s top two wide receivers — Chase Claypool and Chris Finke — after the season, Austin could very well contend to be ND’s leading receiver in 2020. He certainly got Claypool’s endorsement last week during weekly player/media availability.
On Sunday, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Coconut Creek, Fla., product got Kelly’s as well.
“He’s been outstanding,” Kelly said. “Our defensive coaches feel like he’s the best player over there (on the scout team), and he’s been outstanding and everything we’ve asked him to do.
“Every challenge that’s been put in front of him — and he’s had numerous, I repeat, numerous challenges placed in front of him — he has succeeded in meeting each one of those challenges. So good things on the horizon for him.”
Lacey’s impact has come on the field on game days. Because of the nature of interior defensive line play, film study shines a brighter light on his significance sometimes more than statistics.
Such was the case Saturday, with Lacey absorbing blocks and double teams but amassing a modest one tackle, while ND’s linebackers were free to flow and make plays on the nation’s third-leading rusher, BC junior AJ Dillon, and company.
Dillon was held to a season-low 56 rushing yards on 14 carries, roughly 90 yards below his average coming in.
“It starts with being assignment-correct,” Kelly said of why Lacey has earned so much trust from the coaching staff so early in his career. “He’s so smart as a football player. Very rarely does he make a mistake in terms of his alignment and his assignment.
“Obviously, he was a very talented player coming in, and a lot of these guys usually are. Some of the things that they can’t translate early on are the complexities of what we’re doing — moving the fronts, aligning correctly.
“He’s as impeccable as it comes to all of those assignment-related things that the defensive line has to do. And we had to do a lot (Saturday).”
The 6-2, 293-pound Lacey played both interior line positions against the Eagles in ND’s defensive line rotation. Those were extremely valuable snaps, given an ankle sprain that kept No. 2 defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola on the sidelines for the entire game and a leg injury that sidelined starter Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa in the opening minute of the second half.
Lacey and redshirt freshman Ja’mion Franklin holding point in turn allowed the Irish coaching staff to keep alive the notion of redshirting impressive freshman defensive tackle Howard Cross III, who has played in the max of four games already allowable under the redshirt rule.
As for raw numbers, Lacey has 12 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss with 0.5 sacks through 10 games played. That’s almost identical to what eventual All-American and first-round NFL Draft pick Jerry Tillery put up as a freshman nose guard over 12 games in 2015 (12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack).
Kelly on Sunday continued to be optimistic about the extent of Tagovailoa-Amosa’s leg injury and has not ruled out the 6-3, 285-pound junior for Saturday’s game at Stanford.
“We like to take precautionary follow-up (MRIs) on players that obviously are key players that are playing a lot of football,” Kelly said of a scheduled Sunday afternoon scan. “We want to make sure that we’re not missing anything.
“We don’t think we are, but we want to make sure in this instance with Myron.”
• Tagovailoa-Amosa’s backup, Jayson Ademilola, appears to be trending toward returning to action Saturday at Stanford after an ankle sprain kept him out of the BC game.
“We worked him out (Sunday),” Kelly said. “The training staff was pleased with what they saw from him. They think that he can help on Saturday against Stanford.”
• Senior backup wide receiver Javon McKinley remains a question mark for the Stanford game in his native California after missing the past two games with a mid-foot sprain.
“(It) is a bit of a tricky injury,” Kelly said. “He has felt good, but he hasn’t been explosive. And at that position, you’ve got to have some explosiveness.
“We’ll have him back out on the field on Tuesday and see what he looks like. If he feels like he can contribute, we’ll have him out there. If not, we won’t.”
McKinley has 11 catches this season for 268 yards, the latter figure fourth-best on the team, with four TDs.
• Junior running back Jafar Armstrong began the season as ND’s No. 1 running back option. Eleven games into the season, including four spent on the sidelines recovering from abdominal surgery, the 6-2, 220-pound former wide receiver finds himself seventh on the team in rushing (70 yards on 35 carries).
Two of the players ahead of him are sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy (140 yards on six carries, with two TDs) and sophomore backup QB Phil Jurkovec (130 yards on 22 carries, 5.9 average).
Armstrong does have 10 receptions for 89 yards, but he’s averaging 2.0 yards a rush with a long run of 11 yards. Saturday against BC, he did make it into the game but didn’t have a touch in either the running game or the passing game.
“He’s doing fine,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s just a matter of it’s been a committee of backs right now in terms of our decision, in particular (running back coach) Lance (Taylor’s) decision in the rotation.
“I wouldn’t read too much into it. (Armstrong) is not in the doghouse. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s working hard. It was just the rotation we had for this past weekend.”
With his fourth interception of the season Saturday, freshman safety Kyle Hamilton — despite playing in a niche/backup role — is tied for 15th nationally in interceptions per game (0.4) and is tied for first among freshmen.
• Irish senior QB Ian Book, ND’s leading rusher in each of the past four games, quietly moved into sixth place Saturday on the school’s all-time, single-season rushing list for quarterbacks, with 487 yards. Just ahead of him is the 2015 season of DeShone Kizer (520 yards).
Book also is just behind Kizer (992 yards) in seventh place on the career QB rushing list, with 974.
• With 12 field goals made in 14 tries, junior Jonathan Doerer is 16th nationally in field goal accuracy (.857).
• Junior Cole Kmet on Saturday tied former All-American Ken MacAfee’s 42-year-old school record for TDs in a season by a tight end (6). He’s also moving up the charts in single-season tight end receptions (36, tied for eighth) and tight end receiving yards (405, 10th).