Notebook: Can the Notre Dame defense survive life in the fast lane?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They’re just numbers on a piece of paper, for now.

Potentially scary numbers perhaps, though Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly seems to be content he’s got a couple of trump cards to throw at the issue — depth and a reconstituted strength-and-conditioning program. For now.

Yet when the Irish (2-1) take the field at Spartan Stadium Saturday night against Michigan State (2-0), they’ll not only be one of the teams that nationally has most dramatically increased its number of offensive plays per game over last season, their numbers of defensive plays has skyrocketed as well.

Big time.

The start time for the 79th rendition of the rivalry and the first stage in East Lansing, Mich., since 2012, is 8 p.m. EDT. FOX has that telecast.

Only three teams in the FBS (131 teams) are averaging more defensive plays than ND’s 85 — Indiana (88.5), Memphis (88.5) and San Jose State (85.8). The Irish ranked 75th last season at 70.2 defensive plays per game.

On the offensive side, ND is 20th (78.0) compared to 86th last season (68.8).

“We’ve looked at everything — differentials,” Kelly said Thursday night after practice. “And what we’ve come up with really after three games is that it’s kind of early, but we’ve got a sense of what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we’re just going to play to those and kind of let the numbers say what they say right now.

“We usually use the bye week as a full analysis of kind of where we are and any kind of adjustments that we need to make.”

The bye week doesn’t arrive until after the Irish play their sixth game on Oct. 7. But here’s what history says about teams and the number of plays they expose their defenses to: Playoff teams tend to have low numbers in that category, very low, and with few exceptions.

Of last year’s four playoff teams, Washington at 86th had the highest ranking in defensive plays per game (68.8). And of the three national champs in the Playoff Era — Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson — the highest ranked among those teams were the 2014 Buckeyes at 95th.

Less consequential, those 15 extra defensive plays per game skew ND’s statistical defensive progress. The Irish rank 78th nationally in run defense and 56th in total defense heading into the MSU game, yet their yards per carry given up (4.1 in 2016 to 3.7 this season) and yards per play yielded (5.4 to 4.6) are notably improved.

ND’s defensive exposure doesn’t figure to dramatically dip anytime soon without a philosophical shift. Each of the next six opponents on the ND schedule is averaging at least three offensive plays over the national average, with the Spartans ranking 32nd in offensive plays per game (76.0).

The unseasonable heat Saturday night in East Lansing adds another layer. The forecasted high is 90 degrees, with temperatures still expected to be in the 80s at kickoff. At least the Irish have been practicing in those kind of conditions this week.

Unredshirting the six defensive freshmen who haven’t seen action this season isn’t in the cards, either, in terms of adding more depth, per Kelly. Those six are defensive ends Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister, linebackers David Adams and Drew White, rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive tackle/nose guard Darnell Ewell.

“I think they’re all going to be very talented players for us,” Kelly said, “but I think without having the chance to really develop a lot of the teaching, you would have to be a specialist in some fashion or somebody we’d have to delve into that positon because of a just a glaring weakness.

“And we don’t have that. So I would say unless something drastically changes, you won’t see any of those guys on the field this year.”

Stepherson update

For the first time since last November, it appears sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson is taking meaningful practice reps.

“For about the last week or so,” Kelly qualified of 6-foot-1, 185-pounder from Jacksonville, Fla., who has yet to see any game action this season.

Stepherson led the team in yards per catch in 2016 (18.5) and was ND’s third-leading receiver behind returnee Equanimeous St. Brown and graduate and minor-league baseball rookie Torii Hunter Jr. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five TDs.

But he was an afterthought in the spring and a mystery non-factor in training camp. But that could change soon.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for.

“We’ll see how that goes. He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

Personnel matters

Notre Dame’s 117th ranking nationally in punt returns, at 0.25 yards per return, has prompted Kelly to rethink some personnel on the return team, but not the returner himself — junior Chris Finke.

“I’m really happy with Chris, with one caveat,” Kelly said. “We’ve been in a number of fourth-down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch, and he hasn’t fair-caught it. We have to be better there. He has to fair-catch those balls.

“We have to do a better job. One of our gunners has got to do a better job on hold-up. We thought we had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. If there’s a change, it’ll be to one of the gunners.”

• Sophomore reserve running back Tony Jones Jr. (ankle) will be a game-time decision, per Kelly.

Broncos saddle up in 2020

The Detroit Free Press is reporting that Western Michigan will play the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in 2020 — Sept. 19 to be precise — in a matchup that will net the Broncos’ athletic program $1.175 million.

Purdue had originally been penciled in for that spot. Instead ND’s hiatus with the Boilermakers will end in 2021, with a game at Notre Dame Stadium. The two teams last met in the 2014 Shamrock Series game at Indianapolis.

Notre Dame is counting on its quality depth, including linebacker Te'von Coney (4), to deal with an uptrick in plays its defense is being exposed to this season. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)