Analysis: Where does Notre Dame need most work to become contender?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The numbers suggest there is absolutely no connection. The eyeball test leans that way as well.

However, there are a few common threads between the 2014 Notre Dame football team that resumes its playoff push Saturday in Landover, Md., against Navy (4-4) and the one that ascended in 2012 into the penultimate BCS National Championship Game.

You just have to look really hard for them.

Each team had a transcendent player, each wearing uniform No. 5 — linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o in 2012, and quarterback and Heisman Trophy mention Everett Golson in 2014 — though the 2012 game-manager version of Golson also wore 5.

Each team had great cohesion and chemistry that allowed it to play above its flaws for most of the season. Each team had a mental toughness that showed up on the road in big games.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly and his staff got its first peek of the latter from the 2014 team on Oct. 18 in Tallahassee, Fla., in its near-miss of an upset against defending national champion Florida State.

“I wasn’t as worried about the game, the strategies of the game, but whether the strategies and fundamentals would hold up in the environment that we were in,” Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said of the 31-27 loss. “And our guys didn’t even flinch.

“They were dialed in with a tremendous focus. Their effort was outstanding. The execution was probably the best that it’s been this year.

“Having said that, it didn’t produce a couple of times what we really need to produce, whether it was the red zone, whether it was a big third-down play in the fourth quarter. We just didn’t get it done. We’ve got to learn to do that.”

If they do, the currently seventh-ranked Irish (6-1) have a chance to be as good, maybe better than the 2012 Irish that was the first Irish squad since 1993 to spend some time at the top of the AP poll, finishing at No. 4.

They’re already a more dynamic offense and have better special teams.

But there are key metrics that repeated themselves year after year during the 16-year BCS Era (1998-2013) and figure to be just as relevant at least at the dawn of the College Football Playoff Era.

And when measured against those the three Top 10 teams that statistically looked most like the past 16 champions heading into Saturday’s games were No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Auburn and No. 8 Michigan State, with the Crimson Tide the most numerically compliant to a championship template.

Their flaw is turnover margin (84th out of 125 heading into Saturday). Michigan State’s? Red-zone defense (96th) and special teams. Auburn’s? Not a team that pressures the passer well (68th in sacks).

No. 3 Ole Miss was the closest among the other competitors, with its soft spots being rushing offense (80th) and sacks allowed (94th).

The most flawed? No. 6 Oregon and No. 1 Mississippi State.

The heavily penalized Ducks were 114th in third-down defense, 116th in passing yards allowed, 78th in red-zone defense, 81st in sacks allowed, 70th in pass-efficiency defense and 105th in total defense. Only one team in the BCS Era won a national title with a total defense ranking worse than 25th.

Ironically, it was the 2010 Auburn team that defeated Oregon 22-19 in the only title game matching two sub-top 25 defenses that was the statistical outlier. But the Tigers (60th in total defense) were very good against the run (ninth) and that showed up against Oregon’s fourth-rated rushing offense.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, had offset a 121st ranking in passing yards allowed largely by ranking sixth nationally in interceptions. But can that hold up over the balance of the season?

The Bulldogs were 88th in red-zone offense, 62nd in sacks allowed and 86th in total defense.

Notre Dame falls somewhere in the middle, away from the extremes among the Top 10 teams. For the Irish to evolve into a championship contender, here are the four most critical areas of improvement:

Passing efficiency

Golson has shown a flair for the dramatic and has produced an inordinate amount of inventory for the ESPN SportsCenter highlight gremlins to pick through, but he has to be more consistent in between those Heisman-esque moments when it comes to efficiency.

At 37th nationally heading into Saturday, Golson‘s ranking if it held up over the balance of the season, would represent the best of the Kelly Era at Notre Dame. But it’s not enough to win a championship, or perhaps get deep into the playoff conversation.

Not without a dominant — not to be confused with promising and overachieving — defense and a running game that could take over a game.

Three of the last four national champions, including the 2012 Alabama team that defrocked the Irish, and four of the past 10 led the nation in passing efficiency. Seven of the 10 were 14th or higher.

The lowest such ranking to win a title in that stretch was LSU in 2007 with a No. 37 pass-efficiency ranking, but with a whole lot of other strengths to prop it up (including the aforementioned dominant defense and punishing running game).

Golson’s history is all about evolution and winning while doing it. Including his four seasons at Myrtle Beach High (including a senior season in which he came back from an early-season injury to lead his team to the South Carolina State title), Golson is 60-6 as a starting QB. And in his final two seasons in high school, his TD-to-interception ratio was 72-to-5.

Rushing offense

The Irish don’t have to be an elite rushing team. Look at the top 10 teams in rushing yards per game coming into Saturday, and you don’t see a lot of national playoff contenders in that group: Wisconsin, Navy, Army, Georgia Tech, New Mexico, Nebraska, Indiana, Boston College, Marshall, Air Force.

But the Irish have to be more productive on the ground. It’s not just the No. 65 national ranking — 27 spots below where the 2012 Irish ranked — it’s the yards per carry (4.34) and the lack of big plays from the running backs to date.

ND’s longest run from its three-man rotation at running back is 23 yards, from Cam McDaniel. Non-running backs Malik Zaire (56), Golson (33) and C.J. Prosise (26) all have longer runs.

The potential for more production and explosion is there, and perhaps sophomore Tarean Folston’s breakout game at Florida State is the start of it. The Irish face the Nos. 88, 92 and 63 run defenses the next three games before running into Louisville’s third-ranked rush defense on Nov. 22.

Another key to a possible resurgence may be ND’s reshuffled offensive line, which Kelly said has made significant improvement in each week since making moves affecting four positions three games into the season.

Pass-efficiency defense

There’s no question the 2014 Notre Dame secondary is superior to its 2012 counterpart in every measure but pass defense statistics.

It just goes to show how much more goes into those numbers than just the play of the secondary.

Te’o’s penchant for interceptions and a defensive line that could create pressure without much blitzing helped the 2012 team to a No. 16 pass-efficiency defense ranking. The current Irish were 53rd going into the weekend.

In Arizona State’s quarterback options of Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici and USC’s Cody Kessler are players capable of doing what North Carolina’s Marquise Williams did — sucking Notre Dame into a track meet game if the Irish don’t show improvement in that category.

And in a potential playoff game, the Irish would be likely to meet up with an elite passer again — perhaps even a rematch with Florida State’s Jameis Winston.

Pass rush

VanGorder knew he’d have to get creative in generating a pass rush this season with a returning roster that accounted for just two of the underachieving total of 21 last season.

And with 13 sacks through seven games, the Irish are slightly ahead of that 2013 pace, but not enough to nudge this team to another level defensively.

It’s not always about sacks, it’s about forcing interceptions and throwaways, too. But ND’s slumping pass-efficiency defense numbers don’t suggest that’s happening as consistently as earlier in the season.

Two lessons VanGorder learned and will be able to apply once that Irish get by schematic anomaly run-happy Navy, is ND has got to be better on third down when its base defense personnel get stuck on the field and the Irish pass rush must be better on first and second down, something FSU’s Winston exposed in the second half.

The Irish did hold the Seminoles to an unimpressive 2-of-8 on third down for the game, less than two yards per rush for a game and a long run of 10 yards. The problem in the second half was that the ND defense gave up so many yards on first and second downs in the passing game, FSU rarely had to face a third down.

The potential trump card VanGorder holds is sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith, who has impressed on a national level with his work ethic and athletic ability, but can play at a much higher level once his head stops swimming.

And that includes affecting the pass rush in a positive way.

“Our focus has been to try to get better weekly, and that’s what we’ve got to do,” VanGorder said. “We’re a young defense and if we focus on getting better, all those things will take care of themselves.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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When Notre Dame made its run to the BCS National Championship Game in 2012, a transcendent player who wore No. 5, linebacker Manti Te'o, played a huge role. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)