Analysis: Celebrating Notre Dame football's shakeup, while tracking its next steps

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —Forget Brian Kelly wiggling and contorting his body in Notre Dame’s postgame celebration late Saturday night in a manner that somewhat resembled dancing.

The magic moment in the visitors’ locker room at Spartan Stadium occurred when Notre Dame’s 6-foot-5, 330-pound garage door with arms, senior offensive guard Quenton Nelson, grabbed the Irish head football coach from behind and shook him gleefully like a rag doll.

Just as the ND’s 38-18 mauling of host Michigan State sort of shook up how the outside world looks at Kelly’s reimagined Irish program.

Four key statistics have helped define the new-look Irish (3-1), back in the AP Top 25 this week at No. 22 but just out of the Amway coaches poll. Florida State (0-2), which fell out of the AP poll for the first time in nearly six years, edged ND out by four points (104-100) for the final spot in the coaches poll.

• The Irish cashed in their 3-0 turnover differential Saturday night for a 21-0 command in points off turnovers. Four games into the season, the points-off-turnover advantage for ND is a staggering 56-3.

In 2016, it was a 124-166 shortfall. In 2015, a 68-75 deficit, and in 2014, a 114-233 crater.

A big part of the surge this season is the increase in turnovers gained — from 14 all of last season for a 104 national ranking, to nine, a third of the way through this season for a No. 13 standing in the FBS.

• ND’s pumped-up optics from the offseason strength-and-conditioning makeover are indeed translating to the field so far. One of the most noticeable areas is in the running game, specifically rushing touchdowns.

The Irish have 16 themselves, fourth in the 129-team FBS, and have yielded one. The latter number is tied for second in the FBS, behind only Virginia Tech, with zero given up.

Last year ND had 18 and gave up 23. But in 2012, the season in which the Irish played for the national title under Kelly, ND fashioned a 23-4 command.

“The way we've prepared this football team since January, it is focused on that fundamental principle of physicality,” Kelly said during his weekly Sunday wrap-up. “So this has been intentional from January in terms of what I wanted this to look like.”

All four running backs have at least one, with fourth-stringer, redshirt freshman Deon McIntosh getting his first Saturday night, against the Spartans. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s seven, ranks third in the FBS.

• Notre Dame remains tied atop the FBS rankings in red-zone offense at 100 percent (19-of-19) after a 4-for-4 effort vs. the Spartans. Florida State topped the nation last year at 97 percent.

In 2016, the Irish ranked 72nd in that stat category at 83 percent and finished each of the five seasons prior to that at No. 70 or lower nationally. The most impressive part of that 19-of-19 is that 17 of the 19 are touchdowns (.894).

• Special teams have gone from disastrous in 2016 to ordinary in 2017, for the most part under new/old coordinator Brian Polian, but that is progress.

One standout area is net punting, where the Irish ranked 23rd (41.9). Net punting is all about field position, and it subtracts return yardage and touchbacks from the raw punting numbers to give a truer indication of how much that game phase actually affects field position.

The Irish were 106th in that category in 2016 (35.2).

As Notre Dame moves into the middle third of its season, though, it must continue to evolve on both sides of the ball.

The Irish return home for the first time in three weeks, on Saturday (5 p.m. EDT, NBCSN), with a date with 2-2 Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks are coached by former Irish assistant Chuck Martin.

The next step offensively, is to build on the gains in the passing game Saturday night that can further balance the offense and make a more difficult game-planning process for opposing defensive coordinators.

The Chase Claypool-Cam Smith-Equanimeous St. Brown starting combination at wide receiver, employed for the first time this season on Saturday night, gives the Irish offense the best of both worlds.

There’s seemingly enough speed at the two positions opposite St. Brown to make teams pay for doubling him in the short side of the field. You also put three outstanding blockers on the field to aid the run game.

If/when sophomore field-stretcher Kevin Stepherson does re-emerge as a receiving option — and that is looking more likely by the day — he could rotate in at either Claypool’s outside spot or in the slot, but it may take some time, given his dearth of meaningful reps with Wimbush, to truly impact the passing game.

Wimbush’s 14-of-20 Saturday night for 173 yards and a touchdown against the Spartans translated to a career-high 159.2 pass-efficiency rating, more than double what it was against Boston College the previous week.

“I just knew being with him over the last two years that he would be in the kind of rhythm necessary,” Kelly said of the marked improvement. “Made a couple of tweaks to his motion, He was getting under the ball a little bit too much.

“I’ve seen him throw the ball with great effectiveness and knew it was going to come.”

Added Wimbush, “Sometimes, as a quarterback, you can get away from what you were taught. You’re so focused on other things, you forget easy mechanics and fundamentals in a game. I think I got back to that this week, and it proved to be big.”

Defensively, ND’s national rankings continue to be skewed by the high number of plays the Irish defense is on the field. Saturday night, it was 85 plays, right at the season average, which is third-highest in the FBS.

It’s also the equivalent of playing almost a full quarter of football more than the Irish were playing last year, based on plays.

The Irish still rank a more-than-respectable 29th in scoring defense, the best mark since former coordinator Bob Diaco left after the 2013 season to be a head coach.

But sophomore Brian Lewerke threw for 340 yards on the Irish Saturday night, and at times shockingly easily. That got Kelly’s attention, as it should.

“It was the first time we really faced a team that threw the ball quite a bit — 51 passing attempts,” Kelly said. “We have to play with a little bit more of a sense of urgency in terms of down and distance, recognizing game situations. So there's some improvement there for us.”

So is there in the run defense game, where the Irish ranked 73rd. They’ve faced two top 30 rush offenses in Georgia and Michigan State, but the best three may be the last three on the schedule — Miami (Fla.) — currently 11th, Navy (2nd) and Stanford 16th.

Each of those teams has one of the nation’s four leading rushers on its team: 1. Stanford running back Bryce Love (196.8 per game), 3. Miami running back Mark Walton (176.0) and 4. Navy quarterback Zach Abey 157.0.

Significant progress in those areas could mean more celebrations ahead, with or without the Quenton Nelson coach-shaking aspect.

“Quenton Nelson is a pretty strong guy, but I've been working out,” Kelly said with a chuckle. “I'm in pretty good shape, too, so no injuries to report.

“I love my guys,” Kelly continued. “I love being around them. They're fun. They do the right things. We don't have a lot of guys on lists.

“They pay attention to all the things. So when you have those opportunities to enjoy it … even though I might not look it or act it at times, you're with young guys all the time, and it's important that you get to share that with them.”

Adams, Jones updates

Notre Dame’s leading rusher, junior Josh Adams, ended up leading a very balanced Irish rushing attack on Saturday night (56 yards), but he only carried the ball nine times in part because of some ankle stiffness that came on late in the first half.

“At halftime, we got a precautionary X-ray, which came clean,” Kelly said. “And at that point, we had already started the third quarter. At that point, we weren't going to get him back in the game unless we felt it was absolutely necessary.”

Sophomore running back Tony Jones Jr. traveled to East Lansing but missed the game because of an ankle injury he sustained Sept. 16 against Boston College. Kelly said Jones is expected to be available for Saturday’s home matchup with Miami.

Notre Dame’ linebacker Greer Martini (48) celebrates forcing a fumble during ND's 38-18 victory over Michigan State, Saturday at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)