Analysis: Unraveling a common thread with Notre Dame's 2012 football team

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Statistically, there’s more disparity than similarity. Schematically, the resemblance is a bit sketchy as well.

But the soul of what drove a 2012 Notre Dame football team — that was supposed to be a year away — to the national title game and what inspires its 2017 counterpart — that suddenly has justifiable playoff dreams after its 49-14 demotion of USC Saturday night — has some striking parallels.

It starts with the locker room vibe.

“Well, that was a football team (2012) that had some real veteran performers and leaders in that group, very similar to this group,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said on Sunday, a day in which his Irish (6-1) jumped four spots in the AP poll to a No. 9 ranking.

“It wasn't necessarily across the board in the sense that this group has a younger feel to it. There's a lot more younger players than the 2012 team. But there's some dominant personalities on both teams.

“You know, you've got a (Manti) Te'o (in 2012) and you've got a (Mike) McGlinchey (in 2017). But this team, I think, had to come together with a more common purpose than maybe the '12 team in a sense, because we have a lot of younger football players impacting what we're doing.”

One thing the 2017 group has accomplished that no Irish team, including the 2012 incarnation, has done in the past 50 years is string together five wins by 20 points or more. The last ND squad to do that was Ara Parseghian’s 1966 national championship team with seven such consecutive wins leading into its famous 10-10 tie with Michigan State.

All of which begs the question, could 2018 be even more promising?

The Irish have just seven players with expiring eligibility. But offensive guard Quenton Nelson is a sure thing to enter the 2018 NFL Draft, and running back Josh Adams and others could follow.

Team chemistry is even more difficult to both predict and replicate. The 2013 team unexpectedly lost starting quarterback Everett Golson to academic misconduct. Defensive line standouts Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt didn’t come close to playing up to 2012 levels.

The 2012 team had to overcome way more adversity collectively than its year-after counterparts, but it had the right leaders to pick up the pieces. Many of them, such as Kapron Lewis-Moore, weren’t around in 2013.

One thing Kelly has done with the 2017 team that he didn’t do in 2012 is consciously put young players on a leadership track to develop a continuity.

In each of the Irish locker room’s sectors, he has designated a block captain, a younger player who is being groomed for a role.

“So if all your alpha males leave at once,” Kelly said, “you’re not caught without the next wave of leadership.”

Crunching the numbers

Most of Notre Dame’s superlatives in the national statistics this week — and every week — have to do with junior running back Josh Adams and an Irish running game that actually slipped a spot to sixth despite trampling USC for 377 yards Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

A noteworthy exception: Senior captain and former safety Drue Tranquill continues to thrive in his new role as the multi-faceted rover position.

Most notably, he’s tied for second nationally in fumbles recovered after collecting his third of the season Saturday night on a muffed punt by USC’s Jack Jones.

And that helps feed into Notre Dame’s overall ranking of No. 4 in turnover margin, a key metric that shows up consistently as a strength among national champions in the BCS/Playoff Era. Of the 19 titlists in that time frame, only last year’s champ, Clemson (71st), ranked lower than No. 39. Eight of them ranked in the top 10.

In the Brian Kelly Era, the best ranking coming into this season was the 2012 team’s No. 27 standing. Other than that, the Irish haven’t finished in the top 50. Last year, they were 93rd.

Tranquill, meanwhile, ranks third on the team in tackles (41) and leads the team in tackles for loss with 5½.

As for Adams, he moved up a spot to sixth nationally in rushing yards per game (138.1), despite having been on the bench for nine of the 28 quarters the Irish have played this season.

He is second in yards per carry (9.21) to Stanford’s Bryce Love (10.27). The two go head to head Nov. 25 in Palo Alto, Calif.

Cold reality

No. 14 N.C. State (6-1) appears set to get some weather-related culture shock this Saturday, when high temps for its matchup with the Irish at Notre Dame Stadium are predicted in the low 40s with a low later that night of 34.

Payback for last year’s hurricane in Raleigh?

The Wolfpack bring some culture shock of their own — statistical culture shock. Unlike the ND-USC game in which the two teams picked at each other’s weaknesses with supposed respective strengths, ND-N.C. State aligns strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness for the most part.

N.C. State’s run defense is sixth nationally, and will be the third top 10 run defense the Irish and their sixth-ranked rushing offense have seen this season. Georgia (third) held the Irish to 55 yards on 37 carries. ND was much more successful a couple of weeks later against Michigan State (eighth), with 182 yards on 40 carries.

Adams carried the ball only nine times in that game for 56 yards against the Spartans and sat out the second half as a precautionary measure with a stiff ankle. Dexter Williams also left the game early with a more serious ankle injury.

But ND may finally be back to full strength at running back for the first time since mid-September.

Kelly said Sunday that he had been holding Williams out until he was 100 percent healthy, and that finally appears to be this week.

Williams (20 carries, 215 yards, 4 TDs) had played in one too many games this season to be considered for a medical redshirt per NCAA rules and Kelly said that seeking an exception to do so wouldn’t have been a consideration anyway.

“We've got a lot of big football games. We're going to need Dexter,” Kelly said. “So expect to see him play a big role in what we do down the stretch here.”

Another running back wrinkle moving forward appears to be some two-back sets like the ones the Irish employed occasionally against USC, with Adams and Tony Jones Jr. playing together.

“It's something we've wanted to do, quite frankly, for the last four or five weeks,” Kelly said, “but we haven't been healthy. Tony provides us another dimension, especially as a blocker and as a pass-catcher. He's a big kid. He's physical. And Josh, obviously, is a big physical kid, too.

“We just think with two guys that are closing in on 220 pounds in that split set, it's a pretty imposing backfield and gives us another wrinkle within our offense.

“But as you know, Tony has not been healthy. We feel like he's back at that level where we can feature that formation. So expect to see more of it.”

On the flip side, Notre Dame’s evolving passing game (116th in passing offense, 111th in pass efficiency) meets the second-worst pass defense (67th) it has seen since the season opener, and with only Navy ranking lower (114th) among remaining opponents.

Another intriguing strength-vs.-strength matchup Saturday revolves around turnovers. The Irish are eighth in the country with 17 turnovers gained. N.C. State has the fewest turnovers lost in the FBS with three.

And the two Irish opponents that follow the Wolfpack on the schedule, Wake Forest and Miami (Fla.), are tied for second with four lost turnovers each.

The Wolfpack’s offensive line will provide a stiff test for ND’s burgeoning pass rush. The Irish are up to 32 nationally in sacks after registering five against USC on Saturday night. N.C. State is 14th in sacks allowed.

Squibs

• Kelly said Sunday senior linebacker Greer Martini (knee) has been cleared to practice on Tuesday after missing the USC game.

In his absence, his time-share mate at buck linebacker, Te'von Coney, had a game-high 11 tackles against USC and took over the team lead for the season, with 53.

“It was his best performance at Notre Dame,” Kelly said of the junior, who added a strip/sack/fumble recovery.

• Wide receiver Cam Smith missed Saturday’s win over the Trojans with a hamstring pull but is expected back for N.C. State.

• Junior kicker Justin Yoon, all 5-foot-10, 192 pounds of him, has managed to amass four tackles this season. That’s both a reflection of his toughness as well as ND’s No. 115 national ranking in kickoff coverage.

• If you are a stat nut and scanned the boxscore from Miami's (Fla.) 27-19 win over Syracuse on Saturday, you’ll notice someone named Devin Butler threw a pass for minus-2 yards, ran the ball once for eight yards and caught three passes for 39 yards for the losing Orange.

It wasn’t former Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler, though. It was a sophomore wide receiver.

Syracuse has two Devin Butlers on the roster, and the grad transfer from ND, did play in the game and made three tackles on defense.

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) celebrates his third fumble recovery of the season Saturday during ND's 49-14 demolition of USC at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)