Analysis: Changing the Notre Dame football narrative at midseason

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most pleasantly shocking aftermath of Notre Dame’s 41-24 suppressing of Navy was how abridged and mundane the Irish injury report was.

For a change.

Nose guard Jerry Tillery suffered an elbow sprain and bone bruise, per ND head coach Brian Kelly, will be fitted for a brace and will be expected to be good to practice Tuesday. (No word if it will affect his heretofore starring role in the Showtime series.)

That’s pretty much it.

The rest of Sunday’s terse rundown was actually about getting a player back — starting left guard Quenton Nelson (ankle), who missed Saturday’s game.

The real bombshell regarding absentees came from 14th-ranked Notre Dame’s upcoming opponent Saturday night, archrival and suddenly unranked USC (3-2).

The Trojans lost at home to 17-point underdog Washington on Thursday night, then lost head coach Steve Sarkisian indefinitely on Sunday afternoon.

USC athletic director Pat Haden said Sunday that the second-year Trojans head coach was asked to take an indefinite leave of absence and that offensive coordinator Clay Helton will be the team’s interim head coach moving forward.

According to multiple reports, Sarkisian showed up drunk to a special teams meeting Sunday morning, just one of a multiple of scathing details continuing to emerge.

Later on Sunday, the school had more bad news to announce. Starting center Max Tuerk is out for the season with a knee injury, suffered in USC's loss to Washington. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound senior was an All-Pac-12 selection in 2014 and is considered by Bleacher Report analyst Matt Miller to be the top center prospect in the 2016 NFL Draft, just ahead of ND's Nick Martin.

As to ND’s own relatively uneventful Sunday, a large dose of credit has to go to the extreme makeover Irish head coach Brian Kelly orchestrated this offseason in how he and his team approach practicing for and playing triple-option teams, such as Navy and Georgia Tech, and their sometimes-debilitating cut blocks.

Last season against the Mids, linebacker Joe Schmidt’s MVP season came to an end with a lower-leg injury. In that same 49-39 Irish survival Nov. 1 at Landover, Md., linebacker James Onwualu suffered a concussion and nose guard Jarron Jones an ankle injury.

In 2013 after playing Air Force and Navy in back-to-back games, Kelly said leg injuries sustained by defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke as well as outside linebacker Ishaq Williams were directly related to the rarely used blocking techniques employed by those teams, which take out would-be tacklers legs.

That’s not to mention outside linebacker Ben Councell suffering a season-ending knee injury against the Mids in 2013 and standout nose guard Louis Nix’s reluctance to test a gimpy knee against either team.

“It’s unfortunate,” Kelly said then of the cut block-injury connection. “It’s the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is.”

Kelly this offseason concocted a system to give the Irish a better chance of winning the games against the triple-options teams. That included giving it year-round attention of sorts rather than letting it be a one- or two-week changeup.

Former assistant coach Bob Elliott, now in an off-field analyst role for the Irish, took the lead on researching trends and assembling a scout squad of option-savvy players (the self-dubbed SWAG team), led by walk-on freshman QB Robert Regan.

The bottom line was two wins over triple-option teams with fairly dominant defensive stretches from the Irish, pocked by a couple of ugly hiccups in each game. The unexpected benefit was ND’s increased exposure to the option mitigated the typical culture shock dealing with the cut blocks, which appeared to lend itself to the more benevolent injury reports.

Only ND safety Drue Tranquill suffered a serious injury in either triple-option game (a torn ACL Sept. 19 vs. Georgia Tech), but that freak injury was actually the result of the sophomore jumping up to celebrate a pass breakup.

“We actually were cutting all week against Georgia Tech, and we were cutting all week this week and preparing our players for it,” Kelly said.

And so Notre Dame reaches midseason looking for a new narrative after a mid-August to mid-September drone of, “Next man in.”

With a stabilized roster, three one-loss teams ahead of it in the latest AP poll (Alabama, Ole Miss, Michigan) and a big ball of uncertainty rolling their way Saturday night, the new catchphrase for the Irish (5-1) in the second half of the season has to start with improvement.

Going 11-1 in and of itself isn’t enough to get into playoff consideration. Being an evolved version of the current snapshot just might, given how chaotic the top of the polls have been to this point and how many games against each other the teams ND is chasing still have to play.

Through Kelly’s eyes, this is what that growth potential might look like:

“I still think consistency in the back end of our defense,” he said. “I think that's the biggest thing. It's kind of difficult. We played two option teams over the last four weeks. It makes it hard to continue to evolve defensively.

“I think that's probably the area that we want to see continued growth is the back end of our defense, and offensively continue the balance and development of our quarterback.”

The quarterback, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer, continues to climb the national pass-efficiency ratings. He’s 19th this week (154.6 ratings points). He’s also 16th in yards per pass attempt (8.86) and 23rd in completion percentage (.659).

But after facing the nation’s No. 64 defense Saturday night, in USC, the Irish face five top 30 defenses in a row to end the season: 29-7-15-1-28 in order. They saw one top 50 defense (Clemson 25th) in the first half of the season.

Perhaps one of the more intriguing questions at the halfway point is: Who is ND’s first-half MVP. And you could make a case for Kizer — and running back C.J. Prosise and wide receiver Will Fuller and linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day.

As far as unsung heroes, defensive end Isaac Rochell, strong safety Elijah Shumate and punter/kickoff man Tyler Newsome would be in that conversation.

The more relevant questions, though, have to do with ND’s road ahead, starting with Saturday night’s matchup.

How good is USC at this juncture?

Computers don’t factor in data such as interim coaches and potentially divided and/or confused locker rooms. Even so, that the Sagarin computer considers USC as ND’s best remaining opponent is a bit of a shock.

What was once part of the BCS formula rates the Trojans sixth, six spots ahead of ND. For context’s sake, Sagarin has once-beaten Alabama as the nation’s No. 1 team and polls’ favorite, Ohio State, 14th, and Michigan State 39th.

Here’s what the rest of the ND opponents look like in the computer ratings: 5. Clemson, 7. Stanford, 32. Georgia Tech, 41. Pitt, 43. Temple, 45. Navy, 58. Texas, 67. Boston College, 80. Virginia, 82. Wake Forest and 129. UMass.

In reality, the human element is huge in this ND-USC game. The Irish are three-point favorites, but sometimes crisis galvanizes and inspires a team. And USC is still extremely talented, particularly where Notre Dame is untested.

The Trojans bring the 17th-most prolific and fourth-most efficient passing attack to South Bend to take on an Irish pass defense ranked a respectable 32nd but having faced only one team with a passing offense rating higher than 46th (UMass at No. 9) and only one in the top 35 in pass efficiency (Clemson 25th).

Where USC struggles is protecting the passer (93rd in sacks allowed), third-down efficiency (103rd), run defense (63rd) and its return games.

Only time will tell whether it struggles with new leadership.

Is it possible that ND at season’s end won’t have beaten a ranked team?

If Stanford regresses, it’s possible.

The Cardinal are the only remaining opponent in the top 25 (15th). Fifth-ranked Clemson, which ND lost to (24-22) on Oct. 3, is the only previous opponent currently in the Top 25.

A couple of possibilities to join them eventually are Temple and Pitt. The Owls, whom the Irish face on the road on Halloween, are 5-0 for the first time since 1974, with winnable games with UCF (0-6) and East Carolina (3-3) between now and when they face ND.

Temple was the highest vote-getter this week among teams just outside the AP Top 25.

The lone loss so far for Pitt (4-1) came against No. 17 Iowa (27-24). The Panthers face Georgia Tech (2-4) and Syracuse (3-2), then North Carolina (4-1) at home before hosting the Irish on Nov. 7.

ND’s best-case scenario to ascend into playoff contention would have Stanford winning the Pac-12. The Irish play the Cardinal on the road in ND’s regular-season finale on Nov. 28.

What’s the most urgent area of improvement for Notre Dame?

Pass rush, and that’s largely because of who is next on the schedule (USC) and because the best way to diminish USC senior quarterback Cody Kessler and his fleet of speedy receivers around him is to attack those who protect him.

That was Washington’s blueprint in its 17-12 uprising Thursday night. The Huskies sacked Kessler five times, coaxed two interceptions and held USC to a 1-of-13 on third down.

ND stands an underwhelming 85th nationally in sacks, with no Irish player having more than two. Kelly was confident coming into the season that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder could use scheme to compensate for what ND lacked in natural pass rushers.

What he didn’t count on was a sluggish first half of the season from his secondary. A more consistent defensive backfield would give VanGorder the confidence to be more aggressive pushing buttons up front.

There’s too much talent for the growing pains dance to go on any longer. And frankly, the Irish can’t afford it.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame safety Elijah Shumate (22), here after making an interception Saturday against Navy,  has been the most consistent member of an Irish secondary that needs that quality in abundance in the season's second half. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 3