Analysis: Next ND plot twist needs to be better pass defense
SOUTH BEND — The sweetest plot twist thus far in Notre Dame Football, the reality TV show and actual reality, came Sunday morning courtesy of an MRI on Corey Robinson’s tweaked knee.
The Irish junior wide receiver, who missed Saturday’s 62-27 offensive overkill of UMass, injured the knee in pregame warmups. But after receiving a cortisone shot on Sunday, Robinson is expected to be back practicing on Tuesday.
The injury story line was getting a little monotonous anyway, surely for Irish head coach Brian Kelly, whose team held steady at No. 6 in the latest AP poll released Sunday, and likely for the legion of Showtime viewers as well.
Now if only Kelly can manipulate the script regarding the heretofore underwhelming Irish pass defense.
On a national statistical report rife with superlatives, ND laboring in what was thought to be a projected area of strength is like a spaghetti sauce stain.
And it’s a particularly relevant one at that as the sixth-ranked Irish (4-0) move into the center of the college football universe this week with a road test Saturday at No. 12 Clemson (3-0). Kickoff is 8 p.m., and ABC has the national telecast.
ESPN’s College GameDay crashes the party for the first meeting between the two teams in Clemson, S.C., since 1977.
The Irish rank 49th in pass-efficiency defense, having not faced a passing offense with an efficiency ranking higher than 50th. The remaining Irish schedule is heavy on teams that either don’t pass often, don’t pass well or both. But Clemson Saturday and USC at home on Oct. 17 are the statistical outliers.
Both are led by quarterbacks deep in the conversation of who is the best at that position nationally. Clemson sophomore Deshaun Watson ranks 18th this season, and would have ranked No. 1 last season ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota had he enough games to qualify for the national statistics.
A broken hand and a torn ACL prompted the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder from Gainesville, Ga., to miss five games last season, and spring practice as well.
USC’s Cody Kessler is No. 2 nationally in passing efficiency and the Trojans rank 10th in passing yards per game. Sandwiched in between those two, on Oct. 10, is a premier running quarterback in Keenan Reynolds, who with 73 career TDs runs is five short of breaking former Wisconsin running back Montee Ball’s FBS record.
The return of cornerback KeiVarae Russell, after a season-long academic-related hiatus, the dramatic offseason improvements of safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate and the August ascension of cornerback Devin Butler combined with steady corner Cole Luke fueled optimism about the unit’s high ceiling.
So far, they’ve rarely scraped it. Saturday the Irish yielded a season-high 302 passing yards, though Luke did record the first interception of the season by the Irish.
“I think there's times where we're competing and challenging throws, and then there's some times that we're not,” Kelly assessed Sunday of his secondary. “I think that if you're asking (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder and (defensive backs) coach (Todd) Lyght, what we're looking for is consistency and competing for the ball.
“Some of it is technique, where we're losing at the line of scrimmage in some instances, and then some of it is just not being as aggressive as we'd like to be to the ball.”
Could some of it lead to personnel shuffles?
If so, backup safety Avery Sebastian (broken foot) won’t be one of them. The Cal transfer, whom Kelly hoped to get back this week, had an X-ray taken Sunday and will be out another three weeks.
Kelly mixed and matched at free safety on Saturday, with Matthias Farley drawing the start (two tackles) and Redfield (four tackles) coming on in relief. Redfield missed the Georgia Tech game on Sept. 19, in part Kelly said because of the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option scheme.
The coach said the cast Redfield has been playing with since early September was also a factor. Redfield suffered a broken right thumb in the Sept. 5 opener against Texas.
“Max certainly got an opportunity in the second half when we played a lot more zone,” Kelly said. “We like the fact that he's certainly got great speed and the ability to play the ball.
“We're a little concerned with his tackling, but we see that that is coming along and he's feeling a lot more confident. He's three weeks now with that cast. I think we're going to see more and more confidence each and every week with him.”
Freshman Nick Coleman impressed Kelly Saturday and could move into a more significant role in the rotation.
It’s not all about the secondary, though. The Irish front seven has been spotty at creating pressure in a defensive scheme predicated on doing just that.
ND ranks 51st in sacks after facing teams ranked 123rd, 64th, 36th and 70th in sacks allowed. Clemson and USC (tied for 70th) are susceptible, especially the Tigers given that they’ve played Wofford, Appalachian State and Louisville.
So the Irish need to find a way to turn up the heat.
Passing Chemistry 101
After his second collegiate start, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer finds himself at No. 27 nationally in completion percentage (.677) and 25th in the all-encompassing pass-efficiency category (156.8).
If that held up over the balance of the season, it would rank the highest mark by a Kelly-coached quarterback at Notre Dame.
As it stands, he’s two spots ahead of former Notre Dame QB Everett Golson (now at Florida State), and 45 spots ahead of another Irish transfer, Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati).
Michigan State standout Connor Cook, for comparison’s sake, is 32nd. UCLA freshman prodigy Josh Rosen is 63rd, Ohio State starter Cardale Jones 78th and Alabama QB Jacob Coker 86th.
As a team — with injured starter Malik Zaire’s and freshman Brandon Wimbush’s stats added in, the Irish rank 19th.
Kizer will be facing the nation’s No. 3 team in pass-efficiency on Saturday. But at least he’ll have a valuable resource on the sidelines with him — Zaire.
Kelly confirmed Sunday that the junior, out for the year with a broken ankle, will make the trip with the rest of the team.
“Malik Zaire didn't miss a meeting this past week,” the coach said. “That just tells you about him as a person.
“Then yesterday he was in the locker room pregame and he was there postgame. That kind of influence, when you have an injured player just goes so far. He has the ability to talk to the quarterbacks and that goes such a long way.”
And it’s not just Zaire who has been supportive. When freshman Brandon Wimbush ran for a 58-yard TD Saturday in the UMass game, Kizer ran to the end zone to celebrate with the true freshman.
“DeShone and Brandon and Malik and Montgomery (VanGorder) are very close,” Kelly said. “Really it's a room that I sit in every day, and I can tell you that they have a very close relationship. You know, when Malik went down, the first guy that was in the room to see him was Brandon and DeShone.
“So it doesn't surprise me that it's reciprocal now with DeShone and Brandon. It's just a group that's a bit unique. Last year it wasn't like that, but this is a different group of kids.”
Precision for Prosise
Despite a day when he received extra attention on defense, junior Will Fuller remains a factor in the national receiving stats — 11th in receiving yards per game (113.5), tied for third in TD receptions (6) and 25th in yards per reception.
Punter Tyler Newsome, following an ND single-game record day for punting average (52.4) is 11th nationally in punting average (47.1).
ND’s biggest statistical star remains converted wide receiver (and former safety) C.J. Prosise. The senior, who has a fifth-year option, moved up a spot to No. 5 nationally in rushing yards per game (150.0). He’s seventh in yards per carry (8.11) and tied for 11th in rushing TDs (6).
“Autry Denson does a great job,” Kelly said Saturday when asked about Prosise’s successful transition. “He's our all-time leading rusher here at Notre Dame (and the first-year running backs coach).
“He's able to have conversations about the position that are real in a way that he's played the position, so he can really impact him with a lot of knowledge, so that's been very helpful in his learning curve.
“I'd say the other thing would be that he's a natural runner. And if he wasn't, I don't think that he could have been ascending in the manner that he is.”
Overall the Irish ranked 12th nationally in rushing offense. The Irish have never finished higher than 38th in that category under Kelly and three times finished below No. 60.
The last time an ND team finished 12th or better in rushing offense was Lou Holtz’s final season as head coach (1996), when the Irish ended up at No. 8.
Misery loves company?
Clemson hasn’t had the run of season-ending injuries that Notre Dame has, but the Tigers have had plenty of unexpected roster deletions and amendments.
Here are those affecting potential starters, starting chronologically since May.
• Defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko was dismissed after being charged with one count of financial transaction fraud.
• Kicker Ammon Lakip was suspended after being arrested in early June and charged with cocaine possession and driving under the influence. He was reinstated for the Notre Dame game, but Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Greg Huegel will remain Clemson's starter.
• Starting left tackle Isaiah Battle announced in late June that he was entering the NFL Supplemental Draft and was selected in the fifth round by the St. Louis Rams. He was cut when the team trimmed its roster to 53 in early September, but was subsequently signed to the team’s practice squad.
• Junior defensive back Korrin Wiggins suffered an ACL tear in August and was lost for the season. He was one of only four returning players on the defensive side of the ball who started at least six games for the Tigers in 2014.
• Linebacker Korrie Rogers quit the team on the second day of training camp, saying he didn’t want to play football anymore.
• Senior defensive tackle D.J. Reader in late August took an indefinite leave of absence from football for personal reasons.
• Standout wide receiver Mike Williams is out indefinitely after suffering a neck fracture Sept. 5 in Clemson’s season-opening win over Wofford. Williams, a projected future first-round draft choice, suffered the injury when he collided with a padded goalpost in the end zone.
GameDay by the numbers
Saturday will be the 26th time a Notre Dame game is part of the ESPN College GameDay experience and 17th time they appear as the true road team.
The last time GameDay was on the same campus as an Irish game was Oct. 18, 2014 at Florida State. GameDay has come to the Notre Dame campus only twice in the last decade — in 2012 for Stanford and in 2005 for USC.
The Irish are 7-9 on the road when GameDay is present. Lee Corso, in his headgear-inspired picks, is 2-4 all-time when picking the Irish, 9-5 when picking against them.
No. 6 NOTRE DAME (4-0) vs. No. 12 CLEMSON (3-0)
WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m. (EDT)
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
LINE: Pick 'em.