Analysis: Taking stock of Notre Dame football at midseason

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the comprehensive stream of philosophical and tactical reboots Brian Kelly made this past offseason, one aspect that didn’t need to be touched up was the structuring of his bye weeks.

The eighth-year Notre Dame head football coach heads into the Oct. 21 post-bye-week showdown with No. 13 USC (5-1) at Notre Dame Stadium with a 19-2 mark in his career following a regular-season open date and 8-1 in his time at ND.

That includes a 30-27 upending of Miami (Fla.) during last season’s 4-8 Irish meltdown.

His only loss post-bye while with the Irish was to USC, 31-17, in 2011. But Kelly also has a win over the Trojans in those circumstances, 14-10, in 2013.

Two of the eight wins have been over ranked opponents — 24-20 at 21st-ranked Temple in 2015, and 28-3 at home over No. 15 Utah in 2010 in current Irish QBs coach Tommy Rees’ first collegiate start in his playing days.

The upcoming agenda for the 16th-ranked Irish (5-1), up five spots in the newest AP poll after a 33-10 romp Saturday at North Carolina, calls for days off for players Sunday, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and next Sunday, with lifting/meetings Monday, and actual practices Wednesday and Thursday.

That pairs with the academic demands of midterm exams this week, then no classes next week during fall break, in the days leading up to the USC game.

A handful of assistant coaches hit the road for recruiting on Tuesday. The rest will join the exodus on Thursday.

Kelly said Sunday that tactically the emphasis will be on honing the Irish passing game that sits 114th nationally (out of 129) in terms of production and 115th in terms of efficiency; working on short- and medium-range coverage in pass defense; focusing on USC’s offense and getting a first taste of Navy’s triple-option offense; and getting rest and rehab for a banged-up running back corps.

“We’ve got to coach better and our players have got to play better in the second half, because five of the six next opponents are ranked currently,” Kelly said Sunday.

“I’m pleased with where we are, but this is not where we want to be as a destination. We came into this season wanting to play for a championship, and winning championships is our mission.”

The following is how Notre Dame sizes up at midseason in key areas regarding that mission:

• No quarterback quandary: The fact that sophomore quarterback Ian Book could come in, make a start on the road against a Power 5 opponent and be a good enough game manager for his team to win by 23 should be looked upon as a rallying point and not kindling for controversy.

That’s certainly how Kelly sees it, and with good reason.

“Brandon’s our starter. Ian did a great job coming in,” said Kelly, who said he expects Wimbush to practice fully with no restrictions on Wednesday after missing the North Carolina game with a grade one foot strain.

Chances are, you’re going to need your backup to be good. Just ask Florida State, which is sitting at 1-3 with Deondre Francois lost in the season opener with Alabama, and looking at the prospect of six losses in a season when it was preseason top 3 in the polls.

The remaining Seminoles schedule includes a home date with Louisville, and road trips to Clemson and Florida.

Kelly’s own history also shows the importance of a good Plan B.

Other than DeShone Kizer’s largely unchallenged run as the starter in 2016 (and yes there was the time share vs. Texas and a mini-demotion vs. Stanford), Kent Smith in 2005 at Central Michigan is the last Kelly-coached No. 1 QB to make it through an entire season without missing an important stretch of a game — or games — because of injury or demotion.

Wimbush was 8 when that happened.

As far as Book and Wimbush by the numbers, Book’s 17-of-31 for 146 yards and one TD with two interceptions translates to a 92.1 pass-efficiency mark — against what was the worst pass defense on ND’s 12-game schedule (106th at the time, now 90th).

Book acquitted himself in the running game, with 45 yards on 12 carries (3.8 average).

But Wimbush’s admittedly modest 114.0 rating has come against pass-efficiency defenses ranked Nos. 2, 6, 11, 41 and 75. And his best game (159.2) rating came against Michigan State’s No. 2 pass defense and the nation’s No. 4 team in total defense.

Running the ball, Wimbush’s 5.91 average per carry is sixth nationally among quarterbacks. His eight rushing TDs rank 12th nationally regardless of position — and that’s with missing a game.

And if modest starts were reason to move on, imagine how ND’s own QB history would shift. Although they were freshmen, two of ND’s most successful quarterbacks statistically, Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, stood at 93.5 and 103.9, respectively in passing-efficiency after their first seasons as starters.

• Running deep: Kelly’s hope and expectation after the bye week is that he’ll have all five of his running back options healthy and ready for the final six games of the regular season.

That fourth-stringer Deon McIntosh is Notre Dame’s third-leading rusher at midseason (230 yards on 40 carries) and has more carries over the past three games combined (36) than starter Josh Adams (30) over the same stretch speaks to both the sophomore’s readiness and the running back group’s injury woes.

Adams, fellow junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones Jr., have all dealt with ankle problems, with Williams’ being the most debilitating. Kelly has pulled Adams early in all three of ND’s recent games with the hope of getting him to the bye week and getting him a second wind.

“We were protecting him all week as well in terms of his (practice reps),” Kelly said of Adams, who still ranks ninth nationally in rushing yards per game (129.3) and is second to Stanford’s Bryce Love in yards per carry (9.02), despite limited opportunities.

“And really just trying to get maximum performance on Saturday and then try to fill in with the other backs. Certainly with Dexter not being able to go at 100 percent and Tony not being able to go at 100 percent, that’s what caused us to activate (freshman) C.J. (Holmes), because we didn’t want to put a big load on Josh in this (North Carolina) game.”

Even with all the limitations, Notre Dame hits midseason as the nation’s No. 6 rushing team in yards per game (308.0) — up from 80th last season — and second in yards per carry (6.9).

Notre Dame has rushed for 1,848 yards in six games. The Irish amassed 1,960 in 12 games last season. Along the way Adams has moved up to No. 7 on the ND career rushing list, with 2,554 yards. Jerome Heavens is next up at No. 6 (2,682).

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior is on pace to break George Gipp’s 97-year-old school record for single-season yards per carry (9.02 to 8.1) and has passed everyone on the career yards-per-carry list (at 7.0) except Reggie Brooks (7.6).

“I’ve always said the Heisman’s not given out in September or October,” Kelly said of Adams’ relatively tepid national recognition to date. “Championships are not won there (either) — you can lose them.

“But certainly the teams that are competing in November are the ones that are going to get all the individual accolades as well. With consistency in performance in the back half (of the schedule), I think he’ll get all the recognition he deserves.”

Adams’ history against USC is a one-carry cameo for 26 yards as C.J. Prosise’s backup in a 41-31 Irish win in 2015, and 180 yards on 17 carries in a 45-27 loss last November.

As far as what kind of run defenses Adams and the Irish will see in the second half, beyond N.C. State (8th), the best run defense the Irish offense will have to deal with … is their own (48th) in practice each day.

Wake Forest is 54th, USC 55th, Miami (Fla.) 62nd, Navy 81st and Stanford 90th.

• Defensive evolution: You could argue that the hiring of first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko was the most critical of all Brian Kelly’s offseason changes, both short-term and long-term, but being able to hang on to longtime assistant Mike Elston and returning him back to coaching the defensive line was a tandem move that made Elko’s addition even more seismic.

How does that translate six games in? There are four teams in the 129-team FBS that have held all six of their opponents to 20 points or fewer: Georgia, Penn State, Washington and Notre Dame. Among teams that have played five games or fewer, add Michigan to that list.

In terms of ND’s own history, this Irish team is the first to do that since 2012. Prior to that, it was 1982.

The most glowing defensive stats in the national rankings are a No. 15 standing in scoring defense, a No. 7 ranking in turnovers gained (14 and matching its entire total from 2016), being tied for first in fewest rushing TDs (1), and No. 1 nationally in rushing TD differential (+22, at 23-to-1).

But the six remaining opponents offer either better balance offensively, bigger offensive stars, more offensive octane or combinations of all three.

The next step is more consistency from the safety corps and the continued progress from burgeoning sophomore defensive line standouts Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem.

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Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly waits inside the tunnel with his team before the Notre Dame-North Carolina football game Saturday at Chapel Hill, N.C. The Irish face five ranked teams in the season's second half. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)