Analysis: Factors still feeding Notre Dame's playoff aspirations

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In terms of raw numbers, the math Saturday night was actually on Brian Kelly’s side.

Even if the Notre Dame head football coach woke up to monsoons of cyber-bashing Sunday morning for the pair of fizzled fourth-quarter, two-point conversion attempts that cued the second guessing.

Coming into then-No. 6 Notre Dame’s water-logged 24-22 near miss at then-No. 12 Clemson, Kelly had been successful on 60 percent (6-of-10) of his teams’ two-point attempts during his six-year run at ND, including 1-of-2 this season.

That compares to the 43 percent (6-of-14) for Irish opponents over the same time frame and to the 40 percent national average (38-of-94) this season.

A better turnover margin (minus-3) and a stronger defensive start would have likely made for a much different narrative. The Irish defense, scored upon on Clemson’s first two drives and yielding 104 total yards during them, allowed just 192 total in the 14 drives that followed with six three-and-outs.

The “whys” behind Kelly’s first two-point attempt when the score was 21-9 (and was a catchable pass that wasn’t corralled) and the reason the second one with seven seconds left was a QB run (“We really had a favorable look ... It was the look that we were hoping to get. … They executed better than we did on that particular play.”) aren’t the relevant questions at this juncture anyway, much as they might be haunting for some.

It’s still about a more wide-angle look: Can a one-loss Notre Dame team still be in the playoff conversation when it matters, in December?

Here’s the math and the people that matter most in the answer:

• 1. 2014 national champion Ohio State was 20th in the AP poll at the same point in the season the Irish (4-1) find themselves in now after tumbling to 15th on Sunday.

And there are some parallels, both substantially and potentially. The Buckeyes’ early-season loss at home to Virginia Tech took place around the time OSU had to make a quarterback change due to a season-ending injury.

And Ohio State clearly evolved late in the season into a team that was superior to its early-season version. So the onus is on ND to get better.

The three key metrics, shared by most BCS and now playoff teams, where the Irish fall short are run defense (59th — and with the nation’s No. 3 rush offense coming to town Saturday, in unbeaten Navy), total defense (34th — only one national titlist in the 16 years of the BCS and one year of the college playoff has finished lower than 25th) and turnover margin (91st — self-explanatory).

There were some fluky elements to the Clemson loss (with the Irish holding a 437-296 command in total yards), and not that the Tigers wouldn’t have taken care of business in better weather conditions. But the more Clemson wins moving forward, the better it is for the Irish and the more the committee may eventually view that game as more of a draw.

Stanford’s continued rise, after its season-opening stumble at Northwestern (16-6), would give ND some much-needed octane in late November when a lot of the other playoff contenders are likely playing marquee opponents themselves.

Of course, the Irish have to take business themselves each week, but they need help.

Given the comparative scores so far of Texas, Virginia, Georgia Tech and UMass, it could be argued ND’s most impressive game to date is its loss.

• 2. Quarterback DeShone Kizer is growing into the role faster than expected.

Facing what was the nation’s No. 3 defense against the pass, Kizer actually moved up in the national pass-efficiency standings this week.

He’s No. 22, which, if sustained over the balance of the season, would be the highest end-of-the-season national standing for a Kelly-coached QB since Cincinnati senior Tony Pike finished 12th in 2009.

And Kizer’s 154.0 rating would be the highest qualifying mark for any one of his quarterbacks in the 12 seasons Kelly has been coaching at the FBS level.

For comparison’s sake, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is 27th, and former ND/current Florida State QB Everett Golson is 33rd this week.

Kizer is also averaging a respectable 3.6 yards per carry in his three starts and two relief appearances.

“I think we knew he was the guy that could handle the moment,” Kelly said Sunday. “He certainly was able to do that. I thought he showed great poise in the pocket, and I think it just added on to the fact that we've got a quarterback that can help us win a championship.”

The next step?

“He's got to be able to take some of the gifts, the easy throws that are out there for him,” Kelly said. “He has a tendency to want to hit a home run every play, and there's some easy throws out there that he can take.

“And that's just the maturation and the development of a quarterback that takes what a defense gives him.”

• 3. Max Redfield’s roller-coaster is again climbing.

The junior safety, a preseason first-team All-American in a few publications, tied his career high in tackles Saturday night against Clemson with 14, and looked feisty doing it.

“Probably played his best game since he's been here at Notre Dame,” Kelly assessed.

Redfield had 10 tackles in his previous three games this season combined, and sat out against triple-option-happy Georgia Tech on Sept. 19.

They may or may not portend a smaller role Saturday against another option team, Navy. Redfield had seven tackles against the Mids in 2014, and he seems to have moved out of the physical and mental funk that was at least in part due to playing with a cast on his right hand after breaking his thumb in the Sept. 5 opener.

“There's a standard for him now on film for how he can play this game,’' Kelly said. “And, hopefully, we can continue on this track. Now we've got the film to show it against a very good competition against very good athletes. We can show him the kind of play that he's capable of.”

• 4. The running game takes a step back.

The Irish dropped one spot to 13th nationally in rush offense after Clemson held them to a season lows of 116 yards on the ground and 3.5 yards per carry.

Clemson did what Clemson does under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, getting nine tackles for loss. The Tigers led the nation in that category in both 2013 and 2014 and find themselves third this week.

Five of the nine came on running plays, the other four on sacks. None of that was a good look for the heretofore stellar Irish offensive line.

C.J. Prosise, who came into the game as the nation’s fifth-leading rusher (now 12th), was held 100 yards below his average — 50 yards on 15 carries and a long of 10.

Some of the Clemson players, including star end Shaq Lawson, reportedly claimed they had a little help — from the Irish. Specifically, the notion was that the linemen’s hand placement and football placement were tipping running plays.

“We study all of that stuff very diligently, and there is really nothing that we can discern from what we do,” Kelly responded. “We change up our stance. We're in a two-point, we put our hand down when it's pass. We're in two-point when it's run.”

Perhaps a silver lining will come from it, and maybe one already did.

For the first time since being converted from a wide receiver into a running back, Prosise on Saturday night was a significant piece in the passing game, with four catches for 100 yards with a 56-yard TD.

• 5. Kelly not ignoring the broad view.

It’s easy to get defensive after a tough road loss, close ranks and do the us-against-the-world dance. Instead, Kelly wants his team to see the opportunities that he believes are still alive.

“I met with the captains after the game and told them what they need to do to continue to work toward their goals and what their vision is for this football team,” He said. “They can't let an opportunity like this ever slip through their hands again.

“They're going to have other opportunities like this, and they're going to happen every Saturday now, because you can't lose another game. ‘You know, you're on the clock now. Every single weekend you're playing elimination football.’

“So they know that and that's the reality of where they are right now, and they clearly understand what they need to do each and every week.”

Injury update

Kelly said Sunday it’s still too soon to know whether sophomore starting guard Quenton Nelson might be available to play this weekend against Navy.

“We've got to get the pain out of there and see how it responds,” the coach said.

Nelson suffered a sprained ankle during the Clemson loss and is wearing a protective boot, per Kelly. Classmate Alex Bars replaced Nelson in the lineup.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer's coming of age Saturday at Clemson could help the Irish eventually climb back into the national college football playoff conversation. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)