Analysis: The five key figures in Notre Dame's playoff push
SOUTH BEND — It’s that odd time of year, when the college football and figure skating worlds collide.
And the term “style points” gets mashed into just about every breakdown of College Football Playoff contenders, to the point that you’d probably be thrilled enough to perform a triple axel if only there were a little more restraint shown in that area.
Eighth-ranked Notre Dame (7-1), up one spot in the latest AP poll to No. 8, is still decidedly in that playoff mix and likely still will be Tuesday night when the College Football Playoff Selection Committee releases the first set of its own rankings.
The irony with the obsession over style points is that good coaches don’t coach with style points in mind. They tweak and manicure and refine their teams during the November stretch, and then the style points, or altered perceptions, take care of themselves.
For most of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s head coaching career, that’s been his script. He was 48-13 (.786) in November games prior to landing at ND, then won 11 of his first 12 while coaching the Irish.
In his last eight November games, though, he’s 2-6. Some of that reflects the schedule, but the truer causes for the reversal were fragile teams. Specifically, injuries made ND’s margin of error so thin late in 2013 and all November in 2014, the Irish weaknesses were exposed and exploited.
Notre Dame survived and advanced Saturday night in Philadelphia when it could have made a statement.
Its 24-20 rally on the road past previously unbeaten Temple was apparently more impressive than Stanford’s 30-28 survival on the road of Washington State, courtesy of a late 43-yard field goal attempt that fluttered wide right.
The two winners swapped places in the AP poll, and Temple fell only a couple of spots, to No. 23, following its first game ever involving two ranked teams.
But ND’s final margin was akin to a tourist visiting Philly, walking past Dallesandro’s or Pat’s or Geno’s cheesesteak joints or John’s Roast Pork and instead dining at Red Lobster. The hunger’s gone in both instances, but it’s definitely a missed opportunity.
The Irish red-zone inefficiency and two turnovers in that part of the field took away some perceptual glow Saturday night.
ND held an offense that ranked a hardly impressive 108th in total offense nationally to its lowest output of the season (295) and its third-fewest rushing yards (107) of 2015.
The 467 total yards amassed by the Irish offense was the second-most the nation’s No. 14 total defense had ceded this season. The 168 rushing yards the second most yielded by the nation’s No. 6 rushing defense.
The Irish held the time of possession edge on one of the nation’s top ball-hogging teams. The ND defense recorded two sacks against the team with the best sacks-allowed national standing (15th) of any team on the Irish schedule, and yes that includes the two triple-option opponents.
Then again, the Irish defense also gave up two fourth-down conversions during a Temple scoring drive that tied the score at 17-17 with 10:51 left in the fourth quarter.
That is not what a team building its November résumé looks like.
Here are the key figures to keep on an eye on that are indicators that the Irish are adding to both their positive perception and win total, starting with Saturday’s rare noon matinee at Pitt (6-2):
1. Todd Lyght: The first-year Irish defensive backs coach knows how to win the press conference, on those rare instances when he is actually allowed to speak, and his decorated past as an ND All-American and NFL star earned him a quicker buy-in with his position group.
But it didn’t guarantee him that a strong mix of potential and experience would easily congeal, especially when injuries took away three intriguing options in Shaun Crawford, Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian, the latter of whom is about a week away from knowing whether his foot injury will turn out to be season-ending, as the others’ were.
What Lyght was left with was more talent than enigmas, but enough of the latter to test his short coaching reservoir and patience.
The latest challenge involves shuffling more personnel to deal with the loss of the secondary’s most consistent player this season, senior safety Elijah Shumate, for the first half of the Pitt game.
Shumate, ND’s fifth-leading tackler, was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter Saturday night at Temple, which carries with it an automatic suspension for the first half of the player’s next game.
Junior Max Redfield and grad Matthias Farley have fallen into a time share at free safety, but Kelly indicated Sunday they’ll line up and play side by side in the first half Saturday to fill Shumate’s void.
The most positive recent development in the secondary has been the surge of senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell. He’s had fourth-quarter interceptions in each of ND’s last two games, helping to seal victories.
If Lyght can help advance the free safety position as convincingly as Russell’s rise has been, the ND defense has a real chance to make the kind of improvement that will take some of the burden off redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer.
2. DeShone Kizer: Saturday night he came within one yard of becoming the first Notre Dame quarterback ever to throw for 300 or more yards and rush for 100 or more yards in the same game.
And he may get more shots at doing just that, not that it’s necessarily ideal in the long term.
Notre Dame has entered a stretch in which its opponents’ defenses have the scheme, personnel or both to overload toward minimizing running back C.J. Prosise and wide receiver Will Fuller.
That means the poison they’re picking is Kizer. And so far, he’s remained poisonous.
He did slip to a still-glimmering 20th nationally in pass-efficiency (152.1) after Saturday, but he came within four yards of deleting Bill Etter’s 46-year-old school record for rushing yards by a quarterback, with 143 on 17 carries and two TDs against the Owls.
For the season, he has 318 yards on 72 carries, for a 4.4 per-carry average, and five TDs. That’s more yardage than ND’s second-leading rusher of 2014, running back Greg Bryant, amassed in an entire season (289 on 54 carries).
And more than QB Everett Golson garnered in either of his two seasons as an Irish starting QB (249 on 114 carries in 2014, 298 on 94 carries in 2012), or this year as the starter at Florida State (minus-33 yards on 43 carries in seven games).
But can Kizer endure repeated games of 17 carries? Or more?
From a passing standpoint, Kelly said a busted protection and Fuller not being aggressive enough in his route helped account for the two picks against Temple. Whether you completely buy into it, neither of Kizer’s picks appeared to be the result of a lack of poise.
He’s been a quick learner. He seems to get better at something every week. If his passing numbers hold steady or improve in the next three weeks, there will be no culture shock when the Irish perhaps make their case for a spot in the four-team playoff in a showdown at Stanford on Nov. 28
3. Alizé Jones: The vaunted freshman tight end shows up at times spectacularly, but is not yet a consistent threat (10 catches, 162 yards).
That he hasn’t evolved into as an accomplished blocker as he is a pass-catcher at this point will keep him in a fairly equitable four-man rotation of tight ends, who lack advanced development in one skill set or the other.
But he can be part of the solution when defenses focus so much on mitigating Fuller.
So far balance seems to be working. Last year Fuller had 36 more catches (76 to 40) than ND’s second-leading receiver, Corey Robinson. This season, he’s still the dominant deep threat and scorer (9 TDs), but Chris Brown with 33 catches is just four behind Fuller.
And Prosise (23), Amir Carlisle (17) and Torii Hunter Jr. (16) are becoming more viable weapons.
Fuller, though, maintained Saturday night that Jones had the best hands on the team. And from a speed standpoint, he’s a mismatch waiting to happen.
4. Rob Hunt: Who?
He’s ND’s head football athletic trainer. And the less you hear his name or Dr. Brian Ratigan’s or Dr. Chris Balint’s, among others, in November, the happier Kelly will be.
That would mean the injury deluge the Irish have had to transcend will have ceased.
Sunday, Kelly had a clean report. Two players who suffered minor injuries Saturday, Robinson and defensive lineman Sheldon Day, each went back in the game after suffering them and are expected to practice this week for availability at Pitt.
5. The Temple Owls: Even though the Sagarin computer doesn’t think so, the selection committee may view a road win at Temple as ND’s best victory to date.
For the record, Sagarin rates Temple as the nation’s 40th best team, just behind No. 39 Pitt and a 3-6 Georgia Tech team (No. 38), and way behind USC (No. 7, one spot ahead of the Irish).
But for the Temple verdict to hold its value, the Owls need to get back to their winning ways, and at least be extremely competitive with No. 15 Memphis, Nov. 21 in Philly.
Kelly addressed Saturday night a sideline dust-up with assistant strength coach David Grimes during the Temple game and was confronted with the subject again on Sunday.
Kelly said Saturday that he was concerned Grimes was complaining about the officiating so aggressively that Kelly felt it necessary to “back him up out of the way to make sure we didn't get a 15-yard penalty."
On Sunday, when told Kelly had been criticized by ESPN commentator Mark May, among others, that the head coach might owe Grimes an apology, Kelly responded, “They don't know what happened.
“It's typical of those that are just looking at the video without having any of the information. You know, only those that are clearly near the situation that have all the information can make those judgments. It's an internal matter, and we're handling it internally.”
WHEN: Saturday at noon (EST)
WHERE: Heinz Field; Pittsburgh
RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
LINE: Notre Dame by 8 1/2