Notre Dame football: ND at a short-term crossroads

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - That Notre Dame tumbled out of the Associated Press Top 25 Sunday for the first time since being omitted from the 2012 preseason poll is not nearly as significant as what the Irish (3-2) look like statistically dissected at the moment.

The larger context is that this was a team on a mission to close its 28-point gap and all the ugly aesthetics that came with the 42-14 loss to 2012 national champion Alabama last Jan 7. It wasn’t supposed to be about finding the coaching equivalent of duct tape each week to fix new tears in the team’s identity.

A freshman class that is teeming with promise, a strong recruiting push in the 2014 and 2015 cycles and head coach Brian Kelly’s track record of late-season surges all suggest that in the long-term the Irish may indeed trend away from slipping into a full-fledged rebuild.

But in the short term, following Saturday’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, this is a team and a program at a crossroads, less than nine months after playing for a national title. And here’s what that looks like from a numbers standpoint.

There are five key statistical categories that are strong indicators of teams that get to the BCS plateau, and win at that level: rushing offense, rushing defense, total defense, pass-efficiency and turnover margin.

Looking at the last 10 national champions (see chart), most of them excel at all five, but all of them excel at at least three and are respectable in the two others.

Here’s what Alabama’s line looked like last year in terms of national ranking in those five categories: 16-1-1-1-13.

This is what 2012 Notre Dame looked like: 38-11-7-74-27.

This is what 2013 Notre Dame looks like: 92-45-46-81-89.

And this is what the line looks like for a USC team the Irish play Oct. 19 and who just purged head coach Lane Kiffin early Sunday morning: 56-15-19-71-79.

To be fair, even 2013 Alabama is struggling to measure up to the 2012 Tide (69-20-27-32-44), but at least there doesn’t appear to be any recent regression. Not so with the 2013 Irish, who suddenly find themselves underdogs to the most explosive offense they’ve faced this season in 22nd-ranked Arizona State (3-1), Saturday in the Shamrock Series off-site home game in Arlington, Texas.

What hurts Kelly the most in trying to mitigate the perceptual hits that come along with the end of national title contention in September are two things:

1. He came to Notre Dame with a reputation for developing quarterbacks and engineering prolific offenses, and the Irish have yet to finish a season in the top 50 nationally in passing efficiency or in the top 40 in scoring offense.

2. Stanford. The Cardinal have a significantly smaller recruiting pool; less exposure and tradition, and inferior facilities. And they had a head coaching change during their recent run of success.

Kelly’s coping mechanism for himself and his team is focusing on the little picture.

“They’ve been to the national championship game,” Kelly said. “They’ve been to Florida for bowl games. What they’re more interested in is playing well the next game and for the rest of the season.

“One bowl game does not make it for these guys. And they’re more focused, and we’re more focused, on being better as a football team and playing better week to week than the one game that we get at the end of the season.”

With that in mind, here are the biggest of the little-picture issues affecting what the rest of the season, or at least the coming week, might look like:

Quarterback time share: For the first time this season, Kelly dabbled with the complementary quarterback concept Saturday in the Oklahoma game, replacing starter Tommy Rees by bringing fellow senior Andrew Hendrix in through an irregular rotation, within offensive series and then back out again, rather than him running a series or two of his own.

There were some encouraging moments for the wrinkle, but not much in the statistical bottom line to show for it. Hendrix finished with 10 rushing yards on five carries and sailed his only pass attempt intentionally out of bounds to avoid a sack.

“Fortunately we see it every day with Trevor Knight and Blake Bell,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of the offensive surprise. “We go against each other almost every day. So we're pretty used to it. Even though we didn't prepare for it from them, we're used to seeing it, how we go about defending it.”

But Kelly is banking not everyone will be and that the Irish can refine it.

“The way we’re playing certainly it is important for us to run the football,’ Kelly said. “I think that Andrew gives us that dimension that allows us to run the football, help us out in some short-yardage situations where we know it’s been difficult for us with so many guys on the line of scrimmage that it doesn’t turn into throw the football every time.

“We’d like to expand it, where we get him to have some play-action passes and some passing game as well. We don’t want to turn this into a Wildcat. We want him to be part of the offense and one that you have to defend. I think it’s evolving, but I think it’s certainly something that he can fit into and be part of what we do moving forward.”

As far as freshman Malik Zaire getting involved, Kelly said Sunday it’s more likely that he’ll redshirt, unless either Rees or Hendrix sustained an injury.

“We only have the three quarterbacks, so we have to keep him ready to go,” Kelly said. “But I’d prefer not to play him unless we have a medical situation.”

Councell appeal: Kelly said Sunday he hopes to reverse the automatic suspension of outside linebacker Ben Councell for the first half of Saturday’s Arizona State game.

Councell was flagged for the new targeting rule during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Sooners running back Brennan Clay. It’s not only a 15-yard penalty, but it comes with an automatic ejection. And if the penalty occurs during the second half of the game, as Councell’s did, the player is suspended for the first half of the team’s next game.

Intent is what the officials are trying to read when they issue the targeting penalty.

“It’s one of those things that we don’t believe there was any intent there,” Kelly said. “It was a bang-bang play. The rule is clearly an intent, and there was no intent. He was trying to make a play on the ball.”

An officiating crew from the Big 12 worked the game, but the replay officials were from the ACC, and Kelly’s course of action is to channel the appeal through the ACC with the NCAA having the power to overturn or confirm the suspension.

Bryant in limbo: As of Tuesday, Kelly was trying to figure out how to work freshman Greg Bryant, the most highly recruited offensive player in ND’s freshman class, into a crowded running back rotation.

On Sunday morning, Palm Beach Post sports writer Jeff Greer wrote on Twitter that Bryant’s father “was telling people” Friday that his son would end up redshirting this season. Given that Bryant had already seen action in three games this season, that would be impossible unless he were to suffer an injury.

On Sunday afternoon, Kelly revealed Bryant didn’t play in the Oklahoma game because of a knee injury.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Kelly said when asked about the potential redshirt. “When you start talking about medical redshirts and redshirts here at Notre Dame, we are way down that line. We’ve got to slow down a little bit here.

“So for us to talk about it in those terms, all I can tell you is that Greg didn’t play because of a knee injury that he sustained. That’s about it.”

Should Bryant play in a fourth game at any time this season, the injury redshirt would be out of play.

USC fallout: The potential for Notre Dame to be part of a feeding frenzy on USC’s recruiting class, now that head coach Lane Kiffin has been fired, seems like a natural, but 247Sports national recruiting writer Steve Wiltfong notes the opposite may be true in the long run.

The Trojans have seven commitments in their 2014 class, none of whom are five-star designated, and very few garnered strong interest from the Irish earlier in the cycle.

As for the stretch run?

“I just think with a place like USC, they’re going to get a huge momentum boost on the recruiting trail when they name the next head coach,” Wiltfong said. “With whoever it is, there’s going to be a brand new excitement about USC football.

“Now there’s definitely going to be a lull with USC recruiting, because there’s uncertainty, but it’s going to quickly pick up when they see who their new head coach is, and it’s going to be a little tougher to recruit against USC for a year I would think.”

Injury update: Kelly said he had every intention of playing sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day Saturday against Oklahoma until his starter tweaked his heavily taped right ankle in pregame warm-ups.

Day, a starter, missed the Michigan State game Sept. 21 with a sprained ankle he suffered Sept. 14 against Purdue.

“(It) just did not look good,” Kelly said. “The way the game started to unfold — it was not an inside game, Oklahoma was on the perimeter — that was more of a coaching decision than it was anything else relative to the way the game was going to be played by Oklahoma.”

Kelly said he doesn’t expect leading receiver TJ Jones’ ankle injury to become a long-term injury, though he did hold the senior captain out late in the loss to Oklahoma after the injury occurred.

“(Oklahoma was) playing a lot of man coverage,” Kelly said. “We just felt like if he wasn’t 100 percent, there was no sense in putting him in there. If we were in zone coverage, we probably could have gotten away with having him in there.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly reacts to a 35-21 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER