Analysis: Breaking down the real and surreal in No. 8 Notre Dame's disjointed 3-0 start

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — If the current Associated Press rankings hold through next weekend’s games, Brian Kelly, in his 107th game as Notre Dame’s head football coach, will get to experience something new.

Facing a top 10 team at home, Sept. 29 against No. 7 Stanford.

The Irish (3-0), still holding at No. 8 after Saturday’s 22-17 subduing of Vanderbilt, must first deal with tempo-phile Wake Forest (2-1 and averaging 93 offensive plays per game) this Saturday on the road (noon EDT; ABC-TV). The Cardinal (3-0) has its toughest challenge to date, this Saturday at No. 20 Oregon (3-0).

ND is an early 7½-point favorite heading to Winston-Salem, N.C. The host Ducks are early one-point underdogs in Eugene, Ore.

If the odds indeed play out, Stanford would be the 14th ranked team Kelly has faced at home in nine seasons. Strangely, all previous 13 have fallen between Nos. 11 and 18 in the AP poll at the time of visit, though some — such as No. 15 Georgia last season — evolved into top 10 teams at season’s end.

USC last Oct. 21, at No. 11, is the highest-ranked team to play at Notre Dame Stadium in the Kelly Era, and the 49-14 Irish romp was the start of a current three-game win streak against ranked teams at home. Kelly stands 9-4 in such games.

Yet numbers both reveal and lie this early in the season, in part because of uneven early competition across the FBS, in part because some teams haven’t turned into their November personalities yet, for better or for worse.

And speaking of November, these three Saturday scores certainly alter the perception of how ND’s November schedule — Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse and USC — might stack up: Akron 39, Northwestern 34; Syracuse 30, Florida State 7; Texas 37, USC 14.

As for Notre Dame itself, its most authentic-seeming stats to date involve junior cornerback Julian Love — leading the nation in pass breakups (8), tied for first in passes defended, combined interceptions and breakups (8), and tied for third in fumbles recovered (2).

The biggest numerically related unknown a fourth of the way into the season regarding the Irish, as they get set to face the nation’s No. 106 team in total defense, is whether their suppressed offensive numbers are something they can grow out of or an indicator that floor is eventually going to give out from under them.

Beyond the No. 56 ranking in turnovers lost, ND’s best showing in the national offensive statistics this week is 71st in sacks allowed, just over a week removed from yielding a stunning four against Ball State. The Irish are 99th in total offense, 72 spots below the Kelly Era high of last season.

“I know the focus always goes back to the quarterback,” Kelly said Sunday, “but I think this offense really begins to click when all of those pieces mature at the same time.

“They play hard. They’ve got a great attitude. They’ve just got to grow up, and that will happen as they continue to get more playing time.”

Here are the key facets and figures to keep an eye on, moving forward, that will either push the Irish toward a team that profiles as a playoff contender or will get the reps from the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, who attended Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, eager to book a return trip.

The testing of the rover and nickel positions

Senior Asmar Bilal has been solid in his three starts at the rover, with 15 tackles, including two for loss, and a couple of quarterback hurries. and freshman Houston Griffith got his first extensive action Saturday as the primary option at nickel. He finished with four tackles.

Enter Greg Dortch, a redshirt sophomore slot receiver from Wake Forest who Saturday is likely to stress the ND and its 28th-ranked pass-efficiency defense — and special teams, for that matter — like no one the Irish have seen so far this season.

The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder missed ND’s 48-37 score-athon with Wake last November with an injury, but he comes into Saturday fully healthy and ranked second nationally in receptions per game (9.3), 13th in receiving yards per game (112.0).

Though the slot receiver isn’t always picked up by the rover or nickel in ND’s defensive structure, good offensive coordinators can find a way to make those matchups happen with some regularity if they sense a vulnerability there.

If ND can hold its own in those matchups Saturday, that’s another necessary step first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea can take off his checklist in the areas of coaxing a good Irish defense toward being elite. If not, Lea will need to rethink whether freshman Shayne Simon is ready to maybe mix and match at rover.

Incidentally, Dortch is also among the national leaders in punt returns (14th at 17.0, with a nation’s leading two TDs), and kickoff returns (18th at 27.3).

A few other thoughts on Wake:

• The Demon Deacons, second only to Texas Tech (93.7) in offensive players per game, will press Lea to reveal how comfortable he is with his depth at key defensive positions, especially inside linebacker and safety. Wake ran 105 offensive plays Thursday night in a 41-34 loss to Boston College.

• Wake is the top-ranked total offense (15th) on the entire Irish schedule and the only one of the remaining nine opponents ranked among the top 30 nationally.

• Deacons freshman Sam Hartman is expected to retain his starting job at quarterback even as preseason No. 1 Kendall Hinton returns Saturday from a three-game suspension.

Wimbush and Book; Book and Wimbush

Given Brandon Wimbush’s high proficiency in the red zone last season, the occasions in which Kelly has chosen to rotate in junior Ian Book at quarterback are a bit of a head-scratcher.

It’s been mostly situations inside the opponents’ 10-yard line, though not exclusively or consistently. Saturday was the first time the Book experiment went past two snaps in a game and also the first time he advanced beyond handing off.

Books’ bottom line against Vandy was 3-for-3 passing for 13 yards and a fourth-quarter TD pass to tight end Nic Weishar; a failed two-point conversion pass and one rush for minus-three yards.

Kelly remains convinced the arrangement makes the Irish offense better. But does it make Wimbush better for the long term if he indeed is your steadfast No. 1?

“I don’t think we’re hurting the flow of the game or disrupting him in any fashion,” Kelly said Sunday. “He was in the game when we snuck it on the 6-yard-line on fourth-and-one. It’s a fluid situation. We just think we can continue to use his assets. He was in the game in most of those red-zone situations.

“We just got to get really much more efficient and effective in all areas, not just with Brandon and those scoring zones. Our receivers have to be better. As you know, we had a couple of drops there. We missed a protection. We didn’t hold our line on some of the runs, vertical runs that we had.

“There’s a lot of work to be done there and coached. We won’t upset his learning curve by the way we’re going about it right now.”

The good news? The Irish face only one pass-efficiency defense ranked in the top 45 the rest of the season. and that’s Stanford (ninth).

The last, and maybe only time, a two-QB system at ND worked for Kelly was in 2012 with starter Everett Golson and reliever Tommy Rees.

“I think he’s light-years ahead of where Everett was in 2012 in terms of what he can do running the football,” Kelly said of Wimbush, “and certainly in the passing game in terms of knowledge.”

Liam Eichenberg, left tackle

Vanderbilt doesn’t figure to be the pinnacle in terms of tough assignments for a new left tackle who steps into the lineage of three straight first-round draft picks, but Liam Eichenberg and the rest of the Irish offensive line did take a step forward against a defense equipped to continue a frustrating start to the season.

The Irish ran for a season-high 5.1 yards per carry on a rush defense that came in 18th, didn’t allow a sack to the nation’s No. 3 team nationally in that category, and was turnover-free against a defense that had forced six in two games.

“He played well,” Kelly said of the junior. “I think there’s a couple of things in pass protection that he continues to work on in terms of recognition. But his physicality was there in particular in the run game.

“His zone blocking was outstanding. He didn’t pull as much. It seemed that (Robert) Hainsey was on the front of those pulls.

“I was really pleased with him. All five guys up front, obviously it was a much better effort from all five of those guys. They were much more physical.”

Michigan still is holding up as the best defense the Irish have faced or will face this season (12th). Wake Forest is statistically the worst (106th). Stanford (23rd) and Virginia Tech (19th) follow in consecutive weeks, then no one higher than Pitt at No. 65 (Oct. 13) the rest of the season.

Dexter Williams, running back

If all goes right, Saturday will be the last of four games the senior running back will have to sit out as part of a university-imposed suspension that has never been formally announced or confirmed, but has been unofficially by multiple sources.

But just what will the Irish be getting in a player who averaged 9.2 yards a carry in 2017, and yet has never carried the ball in his career more than eight times in a game or 39 times in a season?

How quickly will he be able to shake the rust? and is his skill set any more complete, when it comes to blocking and blitz pickup, than it was throughout much of his career?

When Williams and Josh Adams came to ND in the same 2015 recruiting class, it was Williams who was largely projected as the more impactful player long term.

He’s got one more chance to change his legacy.

Vanderbilt’s Kalija Lipscomb (16) moves by Notre Dame’s Asmar Bilal (22) during the Notre Dame-Vanderbilt NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
Notre Dame junior Ian Book (12) runs in front of Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo (10) during ND’s 22-17 win, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s offensive line holds off the Vanderbilt defense as Brandon Wimbush (7) takes the snap during the Notre Dame-Vanderbilt NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

No. 8 NOTRE DAME (3-0) vs. WAKE FOREST (2-1)

Kickoff: Saturday at Noon, EDT

Where: BB&T Field; Winston-Salem, N.C.

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 7½