Analysis: Brian Kelly was never looking for a rerun of 2012, but something more complete

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the days that followed Notre Dame’s apocalyptic end to an otherwise regenerating 2012 football season, coach Brian Kelly went soul searching.

That included a flirtation with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, followed by a few days completely off the grid — both scenarios he has since vowed never to repeat.

Equally adamant was Kelly about not repeating the blueprint of a 2012 squad that, in November of that year, took the Irish to the top spot in the polls for the first time in roughly two decades.

Elite defense was the keeper, and something the 2018 squad has the potential to be, but Kelly wanted a team that was more complete overall than the one that got waxed 42-14 by No. 2 Alabama in the title game. So the 2012 comparisons Kelly is suddenly being prodded about aren’t necessarily embraced — or entirely accurate, for that matter.

“That was a very professional, older, veteran group,” Kelly said of the 2012 squad on Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his now fifth-ranked Irish rocked Lane Stadium and then-No. 24 Virginia Tech, 45-23, in the most lopsided Irish road win over a ranked team in 52 years.

“Not that this is a non-veteran group, but you know, we signed 27 players in our last class; 15 of them were on this trip. So this is a younger group that is a little bit looser in that sense, but very focused when it comes to doing their job.

“As long as they do their job, I have no problem with having to listen to music that I’m not very familiar with and routines that are a little bit different. I can adapt and manage to that. It’s certainly a group that when it’s time to lock in and focus, they do a very good job.”

And it’s a group that on Saturday at home against Pitt (3-3) has a chance to be just the 11th Irish team to start 7-0 since platoon football became a thing and Ara Parseghian came to South Bend to coach, both in 1964. The 2012 Kelly-coached team was the most recent to do so.

The worst any of the previous 10 did was a No. 17 ranking in the final AP poll. That was coach Tyrone Willingham’s 2002 team (10-3). All but Dan Devine’s 1980 team (No. 9, 9-2-1) among the other nine finished in the top 4. Three of them (1966, 1973 and 1988) won national titles.

For the 2018 Irish to even position themselves for that, it’s a team that can’t fall in love with its current statistical snapshot or bottom lines.

Truly great teams continue to improve. Before addressing the areas most in need of that and the challenge that come with those, here are a few superlatives and footnotes from the second-half pull-away from the Hokies, and its aftermath.

● Notre Dame’s 45 points Saturday night against the Hokies were the most allowed by Virginia Tech in regulation at Lane Stadium since a 49-12 loss to Houston on Sept. 28, 1974. That was 22 years before Bud Foster ascended to the defensive coordinator’s position at Tech and seven years before Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield formed thrash metal band Metallica of “Enter Sandman” repute.

• Irish running back Dexter Williams’ 97-yard bolt early in the third quarter is now the longest in Lane Stadium history. Equally significant were the other 16 carries he logged, after amassing 21 in his season debut Sept. 29 against Stanford.

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound senior had never carried the ball more than eight times in a game coming into this season. and his highest volume of carries in an entire season had been 39.

He has 38 in the two games this season coming off a four-game suspension to start the year, and has already ascended to be Notre Dame’s leading rusher on the season, with 339 yards.

Williams does not have enough games to qualify for the national NCAA stats and won’t until after the regular-season finale at USC (and only then if he doesn’t miss another game). But his 169.5 average would place him second in rushing yards per game, behind only Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (169.8).

And his 8.9 yards-per-carry average would place Williams third, behind only Memphis’ Darrell Henderson (11.8) and Clemson’s Travis Etienne (9.2).

• Senior Justin Yoon became Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer on Saturday night, with six extra points and a 31-yard field goal against Virginia Tech. That gives him 322 career points, two more than former All-America running back Allen Pinkett, who had held the record since 1985.

Yoon remains ND’s most accurate kicker all time when it comes to field goals (49-of-62, 79 percent). Interestingly, 11 of his 13 misses have occurred no later than Oct. 1 in a given season. He is 7-of-10 this season, with three September misses.

• Quarterback Ian Book finally has enough pass attempts to qualify for the NCAA stats (minimum 15 per game). The junior debuts at No. 13 nationally in pass efficiency (170.7) and No. 3 in completion rate (73.3).

He will not face a team ranked that’s currently ranked in the top 60 in total defense the rest of the season, just one in the top 50 in pass-efficiency defense (Syracuse at 37), and one in the top 35 in rushing defense (Florida State ninth).

But that means not getting lulled into plateauing offensively. Of the four teams ahead of Notre Dame in the AP poll only Ohio State (56th) doesn’t have a top 25 defense. Clemson is third, Georgia seventh and Alabama 25th. All four are ranked in the top 25 in total offense.

From an offensive standpoint, Syracuse at 34th is the only remaining ND opponent ranked in the top 80 in total offense. So again, the challenge is to improve without necessarily being pushed by an elite unit to do so, because the postseason will be different.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s own best statistical rankings come in pass-efficiency defense (15th), turnover margin (18th) and scoring defense (27th). Impressive Saturday night was the Irish defensive coaxing two turnovers from a team that led the nation in fewest giveaways coming in.

ND’s most troubling stat is third-down defense — 87th, which is a bit surprising given how strong the pass rush has been this season.

Its most troubling non-statistical development is attrition. Yet ND handled it well — again — on Saturday night, without Daelin Hayes at defensive end, and the entire second half without defensive end Julian Okwara, who was ejected for targeting.

Junior Jamir Jones and freshman Justin Ademilola, the latter in only his second collegiate game, came in to combine for five tackles.

“They were solid in their performance,” Kelly said. “I’ve watched the tape twice, once myself and once with (defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea). They were really good in doing their jobs.

“We’d like to see a little bit more from them in certain situations, but I think in their first time out there in significant roles, we’re really pleased with their discipline and the way they played.”

The question is will they continue to be pressed into significant roles? The Irish will get Okwara back. Had his ejection happened in the second half, he would have had to sit out the first half of the Pitt game.

The timetable on Hayes’ return is much less certain. The 6-4, 265-pound junior suffered a stinger (brachial plexus injury) last week and didn’t travel with the team to Virginia Tech.

Kelly said Hayes was scheduled for an MRI on Sunday.

“We’re very cautious and careful in making sure that we get consultations and make sure that everything is clearly presented,” Kelly said. “But this is just a matter of calming down this injury to the point where we can get him back out on the field.

“They usually calm down in 24 to 36 hours. If they don’t, then the window opens up to six weeks. So once he’s asymptomatic, then he’ll be cleared to play. Then we’ll go from there. It’s really just day-to-day right now.”

Hayes has 13 tackles through five games, with 2½ for loss, a pass breakup and four quarterback hurries.

“That’s what we talk about with next man in,” Kelly said. “It’s not just the next guy coming and playing. He’s got to play well.”

That part of the Kelly blueprint never changes.

Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara (42) brings down Virginia Tech’s Ryan Willis (5) during the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech NCAA college football game on Saturday, October 6, 2018, in Blacksburg, Va.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly walks with Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick following a 45-23 win over Virginia Tech Saturdaynight in Blacksburg, Va., Oct. 6. Swarbrick admits that it was that win that made him believe the Irish could go undefeated.

Who: No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) vs. Pittsburgh (3-3)

When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

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

Line: Notre Dame by 20 1/2