Analysis: Counting the little things that add up to seismic changes for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The presence of people with awkwardly colored blazers in your press box in late September is actually a sign of success.

Though not necessarily of good taste.

The burnt-Orangeish-clad Orange Bowl reps who attended Notre Dame’s 52-17 mashing of Miami (Ohio) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, in fact, lingered and took in Irish coach Brian Kelly’s postmortem as well.

The Cotton Bowl and Florida Citrus Sports (repping the Citrus Bowl and Camping World Bowl) also popped in to check out the 4-1 Irish, up one spot in Sunday’s Associated Press Top 25 into a tie for 21st with Florida.

Next up for Notre Dame is a Saturday road test at scuffling North Carolina (1-4). Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. EDT and ABC-TV has the national telecast.

What probably wasn’t obvious from the bowl reps’ ninth-floor perch are the seemingly little things — but in reality, quite seismic — that have people now wondering about hot spots more than hot seats, and even occasionally mumbling the “P” word — playoff.

It’s still too early to go down the postseason road, but here are four behind-the-scenes elements that strongly contributed to the 4-1 start and are helping to begin to shape the postseason destiny for the Irish:

• Looking in the mirror: In football circles, it’s called self-scouting. It’s the practice of assessing your own strengths and weakness, and it’s something Kelly typically delved into maybe two or three times a season previously.

He’s doing it weekly now. Offensive analyst Jeff Quinn, a former head coach at Buffalo and a longtime Kelly assistant before that, is the point man.

“Does an incredible job of really diving deep into all of our formations and plays, and right and left, and tendencies,” Kelly said Sunday. “It's just been a thorough report that's allowed us to really be very intentional in terms of play calls and setting things up. It's helped us quite a bit this year so far.”

• Transformative players: Moving Jerry Tillery back to nose guard, committing Jay Hayes to the edge, doing the same to Jonathan Bonner on the defensive line’s interior, auditioning spare cornerback Nick Coleman at free safety are all scheme/position tweaks that have coaxed the Irish to a No. 22 scoring defense ranking nationally heading to North Carolina on Saturday.

The Irish were on a school-record 101st trajectory when defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired Sept. 25, 2016. They finished the 2016 season 62nd.

The most impacting such move, though, involved senior Drue Tranquill — a former strong safety, now at rover.

Tranquill may actually fall short of his tackle total from 2016 (79), but the ones he’s making now are so much more momentous (27 total through five games). Too often those in 2016 were tackles made at the end of a big offensive play, in which Tranquill was isolated in a mismatch.

The rover, which is more versatile and plays much closer to the line of scrimmage, much better fits his skill set. He leads ND in tackles for loss (4.5) and fills out the stat sheet with at least one sack, pass breakup, interception, quarterback hurry and fumble recovery.

“Where he goes from here, he's a leader on our football team,” Kelly said. “I think it's just continued leading, and quite frankly he's still developing even at that rover position. It's a new position for him. So just more knowledge of the position each and every week.”

The growth could potentially impact Notre Dame’s pass defense, which needs a boost. The Irish rank 46th in pass-efficiency defense. And that’s not having faced a passing offense ranked higher than 60th to date and only one team higher than 60th in passing-efficiency (Georgia 45th).

But following more of the same from North Carolina (53rd pass offense, 82nd pass efficiency) on Saturday, the Irish will have to handle five straight opponents with pass-efficiency marks in the top 40 (No. 29 USC, No. 35 N.C. State, No. 25 Wake Forest, No. 15 Miami of Fla., and yes, No. 7 Navy).

• Team fusion: Perhaps the best statistical illustration of Notre Dame’s complementary offensive and defensive parts is the Irish 70-3 season advantage in points off turnovers, but it goes much deeper than numbers.

“I don't think you can look at this team and say, ‘Well, it's a dominating defense or God, it's a dominating offense or it's the special teams,’ ” Kelly said. “We don't hurt each other. I mean, we complement each other.

“Our defense takes it away, we go and score. Our offense doesn't put our defense in a bad position. We take care of the football. It's just a good group, and it's working well together. We'll need to continue to do that if we want to continue to win.”

Linebacker Greer Martini said that’s it’s all by design and it started in the offseason.

“It used to be so divided, like there’s defensive and offensive guys lifting maybe at separate times,” he said. “I think just by bringing us all together, it created like a tight-knit team. And when the offense is doing well, the defense is doing well. And that’s awesome to see.”

Kelly even reorganized the locker room, at the suggestion and with the assistance of walk-on offensive lineman Sam Bush, breaking up the blocs of position groupings.

“So creating the atmosphere of a cohesive group and team starts in the locker room and then it works its way into how (strength and conditioning) coach (Matt) Balis each day changes the workout groups.

“They get excited about somebody different each day. Those are the underpinnings of how you develop the camaraderie and guys caring about, pulling for each side. And we're starting to see that obviously as this football team comes together.

“You still have to execute. You've got to be able to, in practice, work on taking the football away, and be very good in the red zone. That's the execution end of things. But there's no question that there is a tighter group here because of the things that we did in the offseason.”

• Getting physical: In Kelly’s first seven seasons as Notre Dame’s head coach, the Irish cracked the 300-yard mark in rushing a grand total of twice, once each during their two best seasons — in 2015 vs. UMass (457) and in 2012 vs. Miami of Fla. (376).

Five games into 2017, they’re averaging more than 300 yards per game (301.4, good for seventh nationally in rushing offense). The Irish were 80th in 2016 (163.3).

On Saturday, the Irish amassed 333 against the RedHawks, despite getting only eight carries from leading rusher Josh Adams (seventh nationally at 131.6 yards per game) and none from No. 2 running back Dexter Williams.

Not only is Notre Dame prolific in the run game thus far, the Irish are even more efficient. Only Stanford (8.42) and Miami of Fla. (7.47) are averaging more yards per carry than ND’s (7.14)

“We've got really good players that we want to feature, and a commitment that I made to change the focus of the offense toward a much more physical approach to running the football,” Kelly said of the shift.

Another area where that shows up is red-zone offense. The Irish are one of 12 FBS teams that have cashed in every one of their red-zone opportunities.

None of the other 11 have more than ND’s 22 red zone scores or have a higher percentage of TDs in the red zone (91 percent). Fifteen of ND’s 20 red-zone touchdowns have been runs. In 12 games last season, the Irish managed 14 red-zone rushing TDs.

“You know,” Kelly said, “maybe I just woke up one morning, hit my head and came to my senses and said, ‘Let's go to our strengths and run the football.’ ”

Fun with numbers

• The Sagarin computer has Notre Dame 10th in its rankings this week. Here’s how the Irish opponents rank: 6. Georgia, 14. USC, 16. Miami (Fla.), 18. Stanford, 27. Michigan State, 29. N.C. State, 36. Wake Forest, 50. Navy, 64. North Carolina, 81. Boston College, 93. Temple, 106. Miami (Ohio).

• According to Kelly, since the targeting rule added the prospect of ejection with the 15-yard penalty in 2013, Notre Dame players have been flagged for targeting seven times, Irish opponents once.

Kelly argued Saturday with the officials that a hit on running back Tony Jones Jr., in which the paint chips flaked off his helmet, should have been deemed targeting against Miami (Ohio).

“I really can't comment on it, because I know I'll say something that gets me in trouble,” Kelly said.

• In Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s first five collegiate starts, he has faced four top 40 pass-efficiency defenses, including three ranked in the top 7. On Saturday at North Carolina, he’ll get the lowest-ranked one on the Irish schedule — 106th.

• After yielding 182 rushing yards on 32 carries on Sept. 23 in a 38-18 loss to the Irish, Michigan State smothered Iowa Saturday to the tune of 19 rushing yards in 25 attempts in a 17-10 Spartan victory.

Notre Dame offensive tackle Tommy Kraemer (left) is part of a more physical approach on offense that has ND No. 7 in the nation in rushing and No. 1 in red-zone offense. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)