Notre Dame Football Analysis: Unraveling ND’s largest mysteries

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

There’s something about the way the 22nd-ranked Notre Dame football team looks through three enigmatic games and how I felt when my kids made me breakfast for Father’s Day for the first time. I believed there was actually goodness in there somewhere, amidst the half-bottle of syrup poured over undercooked sausages, overcooked eggs and something that largely resembled pancakes. But what kept running through my mind were scenarios on how to gracefully get out of eating it. In the end, there weren’t any. And there aren’t any for Brian Kelly, either. The post-BCS National Championship Game splash the Irish wanted to make is instead a perceptual mish-mash of pleasant — sometimes even shocking — surprises, disappointments and mysteries. Even Kelly admit-ted late Saturday night after ND’s 31-24 comeback win over Purdue that he was still trying to “get his hands around this thing.” The AP electorate dropped the Irish (2-1) one spot in the writers’ poll for the close call, and perhaps residually Michigan’s near-fail against Akron. ND hung firm at 21 in the coaches’ poll, but that’s still a trajectory that projects to bowl dumpster-diving this postseason. It’s easy to imagine the various computers used in the BCS rankings, this one final season, are having similar issues, and would be even more combustible if scoring margins were included. Case in point, the Sagarin computer thinks ND is the nation’s No. 26 team this week and Michigan No. 27. If you play the compare- the-scores game in your head, you deserve the migraine that is sure to act as a chaser. Let’s see, Fordham put more points up on Temple than did Notre Dame, and Akron had a much easier time corralling Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner than the Irish, and Gardner was projected as a Heisman Trophy contender AND future NFL franchise quarterback in some circles a week ago, but now ND quarterback Tommy Rees is six spots ahead of him (32 to 38) in the national pass-efficiency rankings. So does that make Tommy Rees a future NFL franchise quarterback?The national stats are just snapshots, and distorted ones at that as the college football season reaches its quarter pole. But there are still trends and clues contained within them. Kelly used the words “evolve” and “evolution” a total of six times in a brief postmortem of the Purdue game with the media on Sunday. That implies what flaws exist are fixable. “I knew it was going to take us a little time to get the pieces together,” Kelly said. The irony is that the one piece that figured to be the hardest to evaluate in affecting Notre Dame’s ultimate bottom line this season, Rees, may be the one playing the highest above expectations at this point. And that will have to continue if there is going to be true team evolution. The Irish have yet to face a team yet that ranks in the top 40 in total defense. Over the next four weeks, they get four in the top 25 — No. 1 (Michigan State), No. 14 (Oklahoma), No. 21 (Arizona State) and No. 4 (USC). All four rank in the top 20 in pass-efficiency defense, including the Spartans leading the country in that category as well. The scariest part of what lies ahead offensively, though, is that Purdue and the nation’s 58th-ranked defense were able to dictate to Notre Dame largely what its pass/run ratio should look like (until Cam McDaniel and the Irish offensive line took the game over midway through the fourth quarter), just as Michigan did the week before.What happens when an elite defense imposes its will? Here’s a look at the two biggest mysteries that have yet to unravel and a stab at how they may turn out: 1. Can the Irish become an elite defense? From observers who know ND’s talent base well, the defensive unit that this year ranks 26-63-56-57 in run, pass-efficiency, total and scoring defense, respectively, is more talented than the one that finished 11-16-7-2 last year. And statistically, the latter is what BCS teams look like. That’s the profile. Flawed defensive teams have crashed the BCS party — the 2005 and ’06 Irish teams to name a couple, and some Big East champions — but those teams tend to get exposed on the big stage if they’re fortunate enough to reach there at all. The fact that this Irish team has yet to play a top-50 offense and has faced two ranked 95 or lower (out of 123 in the FBS) means there’s plenty of work ahead. “We’re still finding out who’s the middle linebacker, who’s playing safety,” Kelly said. There are enough athletes and competition in the sec-ondary to expect improvement in that area long term. More reasons for optimism are players such as freshman drop linebacker Jaylon Smith and sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day are showing more star power by the day and could be exponentially better come November. The odd part about them is they may be the defense’s best natural leaders, and that’s a tricky dynamic when it comes to chemistry. And it doesn’t take a nuanced eye to see that the Irish are garnering an incomplete at best if you’re grading defensive chemistry. Kelly persists with a three-man rotation of Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace at the two inside linebacker spots, which may be more necessity than choice if one of the three is physically compromised. So far, opposing offensive coordinators call plays as if they feel this is the soft spot in the defense.Along the defensive line, junior preseason All-America end Stephon Tuitt has four tackles, including a sack, through three games — getting his only tackle against Purdue in the fourth quarter. A year ago, through three games he had five sacks among his 12 tackles. But stats can be especially deceiving when it comes to measuring defensive linemen game by game. “This (Purdue) is probably his best game of the year in terms of just being on every play,” Kelly said, “just physically at the point of attack, two gapping, doing the things we want him to do, effort level. I really liked his play up front.” That ND is trending upward with its run defense is a positive, given the fact its remaining nine opponents are all in the top 60 nationally in rushing offense, save No. 85 Arizona State, while only the Sun Devils at No. 8 have a prolific enough passing attack to make the top 65 in that category. But if you’re looking at the strongest hints of improvement, look beyond the numbers. When the players on this defense start playing for the guys next to them, when they act like a family instead of talking about it, when there’s a resolve emanating from the player ranks that’s palpable, your evolution will follow. 2. Is Rees the long-term answer at quarterback? If he continues to put up an efficiency-rating of better than 150, he will be.Teams that pass well, not necessarily prolifically, are a benchmark of BCS teams. And of the eight BCS starting quarterbacks who had enough pass attempts and games played to qualify for the national rankings last year, six of them were in the top 30. The exceptions were Notre Dame’s Everett Golson (62) and Florida’s Jeff Driskel (61). In each of the five BCS games, the team with the starting quarterback who possessed the better pass-efficiency rating won.While Rees is currently outside the top 25 nationally, his rate of 154.7, if it held up over the season, would likely be enough to land him there.Rees’ success, though, will depend on how the offense evolves around him. If Chris Brown can join the TJ Jones-DaVaris Daniels party at wide receiver and if tight end Troy Niklas can find consistency, the passing game jumps up another level. The running game is the head-scratcher. Overall, the Irish at 50th in total offense and 65th in scoring offense are slightly improved from last season, but their productivity is too slanted toward the pass (16th in pass offense, 92nd in rush offense) for sustained success. Last year, getting Golson involved in the running game and the backs and linemen adjusting to line coach Harry Hiestand’s new zone-blocking scheme eventually pulled the Irish out of a similar running funk early in 2012. Getting Rees involved as a runner isn’t an option. So who or what’s going to provide the octane for the running attack? Cam McDaniel certainly brings toughness, ball security and the vision to see cut-back lanes and seams. Freshman Greg Bryant (and classmate Tarean Folston) is brimming with potential, but it hasn’t met opportunity. Amir Carlisle figures to shake off an off night at Purdue, which leaves George Atkinson III as the one among them with the most experience and also the most to prove. If you’re looking for strong hints of staying power with this offense, look for better balance, better production in the red zone and a few new faces to emerge among the already growing number of contributors. Squibs Kelly said Sunday that suspended linebacker Kendall Moore and safety Eilar Hardy are back in good standing after missing the Purdue game for violations of team rules. Freshman quarterback Malik Zaire strongly hinted on his Twitter account Sunday that he had been fully cleared to practice and possibly play after missing the first three games of the season while recovering from mononucleosis. When asked Sunday if that was indeed the case, Kelly responded, “Yeah, but he might be suspended for violating the rules relative to in-formation. We'll have to get back to you on that.” There was no chuckle that followed and Zaire’s tweet was subsequently deleted. Zaire is ND’s third-string quarterback. Wide receiver Luke Massa, who began his ND career as a QB, had been ND’s emergency option the past three weeks. Among Irish individual players in the top 25 statistically, Atkinson is 16th in kickoff returns, while Daniels is 25th in receiving yardage.ND’s biggest room for improvement comes on kickoff coverage. The Irish rank 119th.

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly reacts to his teams performance in the first half during the game between Notre Dame and Purdue on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN