Analysis: Notre Dame has history on its side with latest wave of adversity

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The latest injury report to land on Brian Kelly’s desk, Sunday, would suggest luck isn’t on the Notre Dame head football coach’s side.

But history certainly is.

The two best teams of the nine-year Kelly Era, the 2012 squad that played for the national title and the 10-win 2015 team, overcame waves of adversity, including injuries.

The current squad (5-0), with similarly lofty aspirations, heads to 24th-ranked Virginia Tech (3-1) as the nation’s No. 6 team in the latest AP poll for a Saturday night showdown (8 EDT; ABC-TV), and will find out a lot about its mettle this week.

Kelly on Sunday announced two serious injuries to two of his captains and two of his most indispensable players as well.

At least the one suffered by Notre Dame grad senior Drue Tranquil Saturday night against Stanford — a fractured hand — won’t push him to the sidelines, for now.

Offensive guard Alex Bars doesn’t appear to be so fortunate. The grad senior, and arguably ND’s best offensive lineman, suffered a knee injury in the third quarter of ND’s 38-17 conquest of Stanford at Notre Dame Stadium.

Although testing as of Sunday afternoon was not conclusive, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the team doctors feared the worst with possible damage to the ACL and MCL in Bars’ left knee. Kelly expects the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Bars to be lost long term, if not for the season.

“Devastating for us,” Kelly said Sunday, “because we’re losing a captain, and we’re losing somebody that is respected and revered by so many in the program. and it’s not just editorial on my part.

“This is more I just feel so bad for the kid, because he comes back as a graduate student and then you lose him. We’ve got other players that will go in and play, and play at a high level. But to lose him in his senior year is really hard on us.”

Senior Trevor Ruhland (6-4, 295), who came in for Bars on Saturday night, will get a look as a long-term solution at left guard. So will sophomore Aaron Banks (6-6, 319), who had been backing up at right tackle.

“We don’t have to alter our game plan or calls when Trevor’s in,” Kelly said. “He’s very reliable. He doesn’t have the size, necessarily, as Alex does, but he brings some other strengths to the position.

“But you’re going to see Banks in there as well. We’re going to give him an opportunity. He’s been playing really well.”

Ruhland made his first career start in a 56-27 Irish win at Wake Forest on Sept. 22, taking over at right guard with junior Tommy Kraemer battling an ankle injury. Kraemer returned to start at right guard against Stanford on Saturday night.

Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled to find rhythm and chemistry in its first two games, then morphed into a team strength.

After allowing six sacks over its first two games, it’s yielded two over the past three. and after laboring to put together 132-yard and 117-yard rushing efforts against Michigan and Ball State, respectively, the line has powered the way for 245, 241 and 272 rushing yards in the three games since.

Virginia Tech, meanwhile, may have fallen to a bad Old Dominion team on the road Sept. 22 (49-35), but the Hokies will test both the overall progress of the line and its patchwork at left guard perhaps more than any team remaining on the Irish schedule.

Tech ranks fourth nationally in run defense (though has struggled against the pass — at 83rd), which is the best among the 12 Irish opponents, including Michigan (7th). and only Syracuse, at 11th, is higher on the national sacks rankings of remaining opponents, at 19th.

As for Tranquill, Kelly said the injured hand will be placed in cast on Tuesday. The fractured metacarpal won’t need surgery “at this time.”

Tranquill is ND’s second-leading tackler, with 35, at a position where experienced depth is practically non-existent. He has four tackles for loss, including a sack, two pass breakups and a QB hurry.

The Irish have already lost two key defensive players to season-ending injuries — nickel/cornerback Shaun Crawford and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

Yet when Notre Dame met Stanford in the 2015 regular-season finale, the Irish were without 10 players who started at least one game during the season or were projected starters lost in the preseason. and in 2012 the Irish lost seven players in their two-deeps, to long-term injuries, as well as a handful of defections, including freshman All-America defensive end Aaron Lynch.

Sizing up the RB depth chart

Every bit as significant as Dexter Williams’ 45-yard TD run the first time the senior touched the ball this season, in a bigger-picture sense, was the first time that 5-foot-11, 215-pounder had to pick up a blitzing linebacker.

That opportunity came late in the first quarter of Saturday night’s 38-17 win over Stanford, less than four minutes after Williams put the first points of the game on the board.

It was hardly textbook, but Williams did keep 6-3, 234-pound Stanford fifth-year senior Bobby Okereke from getting to Irish QB Ian Book on a six-yard scoring strike to tight end Nic Weishar.

Williams ended up on his backside, but the point is Book didn’t. and the reverse scenario was one of the aspects of Williams’ game that had limited his opportunities in the past.

His 21 carries Saturday night, 13 more than he had ever had previously in a game, was a reflection of the coaches’ trust in his overall skill set in his first game back from a university-imposed, four-game suspension.

“I don’t think that we envisioned 21 carries, that the workload would be at that level, but he earned the 21 carries,” Kelly said. “So all the credit to him, because he was vigilant in his workouts and in his preparation, conditioning-wise, did all the extra things to put himself in game-ready position.”

The career-high 21 carries came with a career-high 161 rushing yards.

It may very well have earned him a start Saturday night at Virginia Tech. It would be the first of his career.

The rest of the running back depth chart is blurry.

Jafar Armstrong, the team’s second-leading rusher, is out for the showdown in Blacksburg, Va., and likely until an Oct. 28 matchup with Navy in San Diego, per Kelly.

And while Kelly termed the ankle injury sustained by leading rusher Tony Jones Jr. as not serious, it’s worth keeping an eye on, given Jones’ history with ankle injuries that limited him last season.

“We’ll probably have to be careful with him during the week, but we expect him to play with Dexter,” Kelly said.

But who else?

Sophomore Avery Davis has positioned himself well, but two fourth-quarter fumbles — a couple of plays apart — are worrisome. A Notre Dame running back hasn’t lost a fumble since Nov. 21, 2015 against Boston College at Fenway Park.

Irish tight end Alizé Mack recovered one of the Davis’ fumbles. The other was nullified by a Stanford facemask penalty.

Davis finished 14 yards on four carries and has 55 on 17 for the season. Freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister are also options.

Smith finished out the game at running back after the Davis miscues, and had 12 yards on four carries in his second college game. Flemister has played in just one game to this point, and only as a kickoff return man.

By the numbers

• Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery is the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week for his four-sack performance against Stanford that included six tackles overall, a forced fumble and two QB hurries.

His seven sacks for the season are already the most by an Irish interior defensive lineman since Derek Landri amassed seven for the entirety of the 2006 season. It also has Tillery sitting in a tie for second nationally in sacks per game.

• Virginia Tech’s Ryan Willis, at 17th nationally in passing efficiency, is yet another statistically impressive quarterback ready to challenge a Notre Dame defense that ranks 12th nationally in pass-efficiency defense.

Should that ranking hold up or improve over the balance of the season, it would exceed the No. 16 standing the vaunted 2012 Irish defense put up.

Willis, a high school teammate of ND’s Jafar Armstrong, on Sept. 22 replaced the injured Josh Jackson, who stands 15th in pass-efficiency. After the matchup with the Hokies, the Irish don’t play another team with a team pass-efficiency rating in the top 60 for the rest of the regular season.

• Speaking of QB stats, Ian Book is five attempts short of being included in these week’s national stats. But his 181.21 efficiency rating would be good enough for seventh, and his .743 completion rate would rank him third.

“You’re asking for him to be effective, efficient, to get the ball out, to make good decisions,” Kelly said. “But he’s creating an energy with the group, because they know they’re going to get the ball. They know they’re going to have a chance to run after the catch. They know they’re going to be able to do these things.

“So there is a heightened excitement and responsibility now that each of the playmakers feel, because they know they’re going to get a chance to touch the ball and make plays.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, and team trainers help offensive guard Alex Bars (71) to his feet following a knee injury that Bars suffered during ND’s 38-17 romp over Stanford, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Who: No. 6 Notre Dame (5-0) vs. No. 24 Virginia Tech (3-1)

When: Saturday at 8 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Lane Stadium; Blacksburg, Va.

TV: ABC

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

Line: Notre Dame by 4 1/2