Notre Dame football: Sizing up pressing Irish issues


South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - A week after blurting out to the world that his starting quarterback, Tommy Rees, has pimples during an otherwise complimentary rant, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly chose not to point out that Michigan has something similar afflicting its aspiring BCS résumé.

It’s safe to say that the latter is negatively affecting 22nd-ranked Notre Dame’s big picture much more profoundly.

It’s not that the Irish (3-1) aren’t statistically and aesthetically flawed without the Michigan quotient, but the team that beat the Irish 41-30 three Saturdays ago in Ann Arbor. Mich., has spluttered its way to two of the most unimpressive wins in its history the past two weeks.

The Wolverines escaped Akron (28-24) and UConn (24-21), two teams whose only win between them was over FCS’ James Madison. The Huskies, in fact, had a much harder time with FCS’ Towson than with Michigan. Meanwhile, Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, touted as both a Heisman candidate and a future NFL franchise quarterback in early September, now ranks 67th nationally in passing efficiency — 14 spots below Rees.

What that means for Notre Dame if it wants to climb over the Wolverines and eventually into contention for a BCS berth, is that the Irish must separate themselves from that Michigan game, rebranding as an evolved version that creates the impression that if the two teams met again the result would be reversed.

Even though the Irish did that in only small and nuanced doses Saturday in a 17-13 defense-and-penalty-fest with Michigan State, Kelly does have a strong history of his teams, in fact, evolving and playing their best football in November.

During the FBS portion of Kelly’s coaching career (Central Michigan, Cincinnati and ND), he’s 29-16 in August/September, 27-9 in October and 28-7 in regular-season games in November and December. In his last 30 such games, he’s 27-3, including 10-1 at ND.

Now the Sept. 22 statistical snapshot, which looks like it belongs to a Conference USA team:

Offensively the Irish are 99th in rushing, (out of 123 in the FBS), 32nd in passing yards, 71st in total offense and 77th in scoring offense. The 224 total yards put up Saturday against what remains the nation’s leader in total defense were the fewest yards produced by an Irish team in a game since Charlie Weis’ second-to-last season as head coach (2008),

On the other side of the ball, ND is ranked 28th in rushing defense, 40th in pass-efficiency defense, 41st in total defense, 45th in scoring defense, 114th in sacks and 110th in tackles for loss.

“I think we're still trying to find ourselves in the running game,” Kelly said when asked where he saw potential areas where the Irish could break through on both sides of the ball. “The running back position, we're rotating four guys right now. We saw two freshmen play for us at the wide receiver position. So I think there's a great deal of development going on there.”

“I think defensively, the middle linebacker position, Jarrett Grace, playing really a lot on Saturday, played a strong game for us. I think our secondary is evolving and playing better and better. They were much more physical in the way that we want them to play.

“Yeah, the team is just evolving. What we were struggling with was playing 60 plays really well and a half dozen plays not so well. I think we're getting closer to playing every player and every play. That's how you evolve into November, where everybody, all 11, are fitting the plays correctly each and every time.”

Of the eight teams remaining on the schedule, this Saturday’s opponent, 14th-ranked Oklahoma (3-0), is the one that will either give Kelly’s hopes for improvement a substantive boost, or push the Irish out of the top 25 all together.

While fifth-ranked Stanford is the highest-ranked team left on the Irish schedule, Oklahoma is the only ND opponent to rank in the top 40 nationally in both total offense and total defense. Actually, the Sooners are in the top 25 in both.

That caveat is that they’re largely untested. West Virginia, No. 71 in the Sagarin computer ratings this week, is the highest-ranked of Oklahoma’s three opponents to date.

Oklahoma is an early three-point favorite. The Irish were 12-point underdogs when they played as the higher-ranked team in last year’s clash in Norman, a 30-13 Notre Dame triumph.

The margin of error is thin. The Irish probably can only lose one more game the rest of way and still make the requisite top 14 in the BCS standings to be considered for the last round of BCS bowls. A 9-3 record or worse likely means a bowl dumpster dive.

Here then are some of the most-pressing issues that could make the difference in Notre Dame’s postseason plans:

Should Notre Dame consider a complementary quarterback?

Rees has delivered the top item on Kelly’s wish list — fewer turnovers. He has two in four games this season after amassing nine through four games in 2011, his last season as ND’s No. 1 quarterback.

But has the senior hit his ceiling in terms of potential improvement the rest of the way?

Opposing defenses seem to think so, or are at least gambling that that’s the case. They crowd the line of scrimmage to take away the run and dare Rees to beat them deep.

Everett Golson faced the same thing as the Irish starter early last year. His better consistency in the deep passing game was one of the factors that eventually opened up the Irish running game. More impactful to breaking the cycle was Golson himself getting involved in the running game.

That’s not going to happen with Rees.

And the deep passing game isn’t even an option in the red zone, where the Irish often go with an empty backfield and not even the pretense of thinking about running the ball. The result is a national ranking of 112th in red-zone offense, a Kelly Era worst.

And that’s why it might makes sense for Kelly to consider senior Andrew Hendrix or freshman Malik Zaire, both mobile QBs, in certain situations.

Zaire spent the past week running the scout team offense after finally being cleared by team doctors following at least a three-week bout with mononucleosis. He’ll move back up to the varsity this week and learn the Irish game plan, Kelly said Sunday.

“You always want to prepare your third quarterback that if he needs to go in the game, he's ready to go,” Kelly said.

Another strong pass defense (Oklahoma is ninth) on the heels of MSU’s top-ranked pass defense should give Kelly a pretty good indication of how ready Zaire and/or Hendrix really need to be or if Rees can break the defensive template with better efficiency and or some quick, deep strikes.

Is Jarrett Grace the answer at middle linebacker?

The 6-foot-3, 248-pound junior drew his first career start Saturday and recorded eight tackles, tying for the team high, and seemed to bring a cohesion to a defense that had been sorely lacking it since All-American Manti Te’o exhausted his eligibility.

Michigan State, admittedly is a struggling offense, but their 254 total yards and 13 points against the Irish both represented season lows for the Spartans.

It appears then that Dan Fox will move back over to his natural weakside linebacker position and time-share with fellow fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese.

“You're looking for a play-maker at that position,” Kelly said of Grace. “Then the physicality that we want. ... He's just got natural linebacker instincts.”

But in ND’s system, the middle linebacker also leads and gets teammates in the right position, and Kelly sees Grace as a fit there, too.

“A lot of our players follow Jarrett, because he's a guy that they can trust,” Kelly said. “He's very hard-working, leads by example. Yeah, it would not surprise me that many, many of our players would follow him.”

Is Stephon Tuitt all the way back?

The junior preseason All-America defensive end more than doubled his season tackle total on Saturday with six against Michigan State. One of those was a sack, and he put constant stress on an MSU offensive line that came into the game ranked fifth nationally in sacks allowed.

Kelly detailed in August that Tuitt’s sports hernia surgery in March was still physically compromising him (and likely mentally too). On Sunday, Kelly revealed some of that had carried into the season.

“In camp he dealt with a strain in the same area, where he struggled at times really being able to cut loose,” Kelly said. “He's feeling great. He had a great week of practice. His volume is up. His reps are up. You could see he's really starting to come on.”

Nose guard Louis Nix had his best production to date on Saturday with a season-high six tackles — one off his career high. And Kelly is optimistic sophomore end Sheldon Day can rejoin the starting lineup Saturday after being held out of the Michigan State game while healing from a sprained ankle.

Oklahoma should provide an accurate gauge as to whether Saturday’s surge by Tuitt and the defensive line is sustainable. The Sooners have, by far, the best running attack the Irish have seen since the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. Oklahoma ranks 16th nationally in rushing offense.

Who’s the next freshman to make a push?

Eleven members of what Kelly considers perhaps his best freshman class ever have seen at least cameos this season. Wide receiver Corey Robinson did more than that Saturday. He had three catches for 54 yards against MSU, and all three came on third down and resulted in first downs.

Two other times passes to Robinson resulted in pass-interference penalties that gave the Irish first downs. MSU had four pass-interference penalties in all and a defensive holding call while amassing 115 yards in penalties.

Fellow receiver Will Fuller also ended up in the stat column. His first career catch went for 37 yards, the longest offensive play for either side in the game.

So who’s next?

Offensively, it could be running back Tarean Folston, who looked the part on his four carries for 12 yards against now the nation’s No. 2 rushing defense.

“Just like his vision, his size (5-10, 207),” Kelly said. “I guess more than anything else, you can see that he's got a nice forward lean. Very talented kid out of the backfield as well — so I think all the things that we're looking for in a back.

“We just wanted to get him in the game, give him an opportunity. His really only opportunity was when the game was in hand against Temple. We wanted to see him when the game was on the line, and we thought he did very well.”

Defensively, safety Max Redfield appears to be quietly making a move.

“We really see a young man that is making the progress that we thought he would,” Kelly said. “I mean, it's a situation where ... he becomes our fourth (safety) right now. But he has definitely taken the steps forward that he's getting closer and closer where he could be battling for some playing time.”

Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford (33) gets physical with Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson (2) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER