Notre Dame football: Will rush hour ever come for Irish?

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - The absence of questions Tuesday regarding the Notre Dame football team’s postgame singing policy or outrage regarding Shamrock Series swag was probably a welcome development for Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

But also a sign of serious concern over the play of his suddenly unranked team.

Perhaps the most perplexing development five games into the season has been the underwhelming numbers produced by an Irish defensive line that Phil Steele Magazine, for one, projected as the nation’s best.

It’s impossible to completely statistically isolate the defensive line’s effectiveness, or lack thereof, from the holes elsewhere on the defense, but the most glaring numbers relate to the pass rush.

At this juncture last season, Notre Dame ranked 20th in the country in sacks with 14 through five games. In the latest NCAA rankings, the Irish are 119th in the FBS, ahead of only UMass, UTEP, Miami of Ohio and Air Force.

Depending on who’s counting, the Irish have either three or four sacks.

Purdue called five days after Notre Dame’s 31-24 victory on Sept. 14 to inform the Irish of a scoring change – they were deleting cornerback Bennett Jackson’s sack in that game, claiming the play that resulted in a loss was a planned quarterback run.

Notre Dame strongly disputed that ruling. But since the home team’s stats are official, that leaves ND counting four sacks and the NCAA three — two from end Stephon Tuitt and one from outside linebacker Ishaq Williams.

“I think it's been a mixed bag,” Kelly said Tuesday of the pass rush. “At times it's been better over the last couple weeks, but it needs to continue to get better, no question.”

This week would be the week to show marked improvement. No. 22 Arizona State (3-1) has the best national ranking in passing offense (7th), total offense (15th) and scoring offense (11th) of any team on the Irish schedule.

The two teams meet in uniforms specifically designed for this matchup Saturday night (7:30 EDT; NBC-TV) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. It’s the fifth straight year ND has moved a home game off campus and the second time that move has been to Texas.

ASU senior running back Marion Grice leads the nation in scoring at 18 points a game. That’s 5.23 points more a contest than ND’s defense allowed last season. Four of his 12 touchdowns have been on receptions, which tops the nation among running backs.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly, the ASU career leader in completion percentage and passing efficiency, leads an attack that piled up 612 total yards Saturday night against a USC defense that’s still in the top 20 but is no longer with its head coach, Lane Kiffin.

The Trojans, another October Irish opponent, are being led by interim coach Ed Orgeron since shortly after the 62-41 ASU victory.

Taylor Kelly is one of three FBS quarterbacks to throw for at least 300 yards in each of his starts this season (Oregon State’s Sean Mannion and Ball State’s Keith Wenning are the others). The teams that have been most successful against him in his career, though, are the ones who can bring pressure and force mistakes.

Taylor Kelly is 9-0 as a starter in games in which doesn’t throw at least one interception, 2-6 when he does.

Arizona State isn’t particularly adept at protecting Taylor Kelly, ranking 51st nationally in sacks allowed. But then again, three of ND’s first five opponents (Temple, Purdue and Michigan) ranked below 50 in that category.

Some of ND’s opponents’ success at avoiding sacks has been less about protection and more about strategy — getting rid of the ball quickly, getting the ball out on the perimeter and away from ND’s big bodies.

And the Irish struggle to stop it.

“What we haven't done well, quite frankly, is the ordinary things,” Brian Kelly said. “And last year we did the ordinary things much better. We have to do the ordinary things much better.”

He is less concerned about fixes on the defense, though, than he is with an offense that is now employing a complementary quarterback concept to try to stem its regression.

“We're going to play, I believe, well enough defensively to win the rest of our games,” Brian Kelly said. “We've got to get ourselves where we have enough balance offensively to run the ball and throw the ball effectively. And as you know, our margin isn't great. You can't turn the ball over. You turn it over and give points up, (you're) going to be fighting against it.”

Personnel matters

•Junior outside linebacker Ben Councell’s appeal to overturn his automatic suspension for targeting was denied, Kelly said Tuesday.

Councell, thus, will have to sit out the first half of ND’s Shamrock Series matchup with Arizona State Saturday as part of the new, stiffer targeting repercussions. Sophomore Romeo Okwara will move up the depth chart to back up freshman starter Jaylon Smith.

Councell was ejected last Saturday and received a 15-yard penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit he exacted on Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay during the fourth quarter of ND’s 35-21 loss to the Sooners.

•Kelly reports starting defensive end Sheldon Day (sprained ankle) is better physically than he was last week. The sophomore hasn’t played since suffering the injury last in ND’s 31-24 win at Purdue on Sept. 14, but he did practice last week and is expected to this week.

“We think that he's going to be able to help us this weekend,” Kelly said.

Government fallout

That Saturday’s Air Force game at Navy Saturday may be canceled or postponed due to the U.S. Government shutdown makes it somewhat less than a stretch to see how it might affect Notre Dame eventually.

The Irish are scheduled to visit Air Force on Oct. 26 and host Navy the following Saturday. However, all intercollegiate athletic events at the service academies have been suspended during the shutdown.

Air Force’s and Navy’s football teams, however, did practice Tuesday as if the game were going to be played. Saturday’s Boston College-Army game is also in doubt.

If the unlikely event that the government impasse that caused the shutdown should drag into late October, would ND consider scheduling an FCS opponent or two to fill in?

“Oh, I'd love to look at an FCS opponent,” Kelly said half-joking. “I would be one vote in a room with a lot of probably nos.”

Notre Dame is one of three FBS schools never to have played an FCS team. UCLA and USC are the others.

Toxic Twitter

Sports website collegespun.com accumulated a gnarly collection of tweets purportedly from Notre Dame fans expressing their extreme displeasure with Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees, following his three-interception performance Saturday against Oklahoma.

One fan, the web site claims, created a petition last night, asking President Barack Obama to intervene and bench Rees. The petition, housed at the U.S. Government’s “We The People” website, is now inaccessible due to the federal government shutdown.

But the Rees rancor persists, prompting a question for Kelly on how the QB is handling it.

“Look, if you're the starting quarterback at Notre Dame and you can't handle those things that are inevitably going to come your way after a loss, then you can't be the quarterback at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “It comes with the business of being the quarterback at Notre Dame. You have to avoid the noise, when it's good and when it's bad. And that's just the nature of it.”

Squibs

•AT&T Stadium officials have announced the retractable roof will be closed for Saturday night’s game in Arlington, Texas, between the Irish and Arizona State due to the forecast of a 30 percent chance of rain.

•Tom Hammond will step into his old ND broadcast play-by-play duties this weekend for NBC. Dan Hicks, who replaced Hammond this season in that role, will be handling duties covering the Presidents Cup golf matches this weekend in Dublin, Ohio.

•NFL Films is back in town, putting together a behind-the-scenes look at Notre Dame football, as it did last season. The “Onward Notre Dame” show will first air at 5 p.m. on Oct. 19 on NBC before the Irish-USC game.

•Saturday will mark the 13th time in college football history that USC and Notre Dame have come up on a team’s schedule (in either order) in consecutive games. No team has been yet able to pull off the sweep.

ASU was one of those teams, falling to both teams in 1998. Only two teams won the first game of the perfects – Michigan State in 1987 and South Carolina in 1983. Both lost by more than 20 points to the Irish in the second game.

•Notre Dame recruit Tyler Newsome, a kicker/punter from Carrollton, Ga., has been selected to play in the Semper Fidelis Bowl high school all-star game Jan. 5 in Carson, Calif.

•Three years and 8½ months after enrolling early at Notre Dame, former Irish safety Chris Badger finally got to play in a college football game.

Badger, who transferred to BYU just prior to the start of the season, had a cameo for the Cougars Friday night in their 37-10 victory over Middle Tennessee State but did not record a tackle.

“It was a rush,” Badger wrote on his Facebook page, “and something I've been working towards for 8 years. Couldn't be happier and I'm excited to keep getting better and playing even more.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix III (1) tries to block a throw from Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook (18). Quarterback sacks have been tough to come by for Nix and the Irish defensive line. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER