Analysis: Breaking down Notre Dame's post-bye week long and winding road

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

A little over a week from now — Oct. 30 to be exact — the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season get unveiled, and a bunch of hackneyed descriptors get dusted off and shoved down our throats.

Thirteenth data point. Game Control. Eye Test.

But don’t forget the undermentioned math test.

Teams that reach the college football playoffs, win playoff games and national titles tend to excel in these five metrics: rush offense, pass efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin. Especially total defense.

Here’s what fourth-ranked Notre Dame (7-0) looks like in its bye-week snapshot in those five categories, respectively: 60-43-35-34-39.

The Irish are trending positively in three of them, particularly pass efficiency, in which usurping starter Ian Book is 12th individually.

The other teams in the top four of this week’s AP poll have work to do as well:

• 1. Alabama is 29-1-33-16-4

• 2. Ohio State is 53-3-54-58-13

• 3. Clemson is 4-24-14-3-77

For context, national champion Alabama, crowned in January, looked like this numerically: 13-10-1-1-5. and the 2012 Irish team that lost 42-14 in the BCS National Championship Game to Alabama looked like this: 38-74-11-7-17.

To this day, that’s the worst pass-efficiency ranking (74) of the 40 teams to reach the title game in the BCS/Playoff Era — and worst by 31 spots.

Notre Dame’s biggest challenge over its final five games remains overcoming the loss of its best offensive player, guard Alex Bars (torn knee ligaments), and improving each week on the offensive line. That will show up most overtly in ND’s rushing offense ranking among the five power metrics.

The second-biggest challenge is avoiding a November fade across the board, with a schedule that will certainly test it. The Irish have 5,076 miles to traverse over their final five games — one way. That's more than 10,000 round trip. Only three other teams in the AP top 10 have more than 2,000 round-trip miles to log over the balance of their respective regular seasons (not including a potential dreaded 13th data point).

Oklahoma is next behind the Irish, at 3,326 miles. Alabama has the fewest, at 1,318.

Here’s a snapshot of Notre Dame’s five remaining opponents, beyond the eye test. The key metric numbers are that particular team’s national ranking among the 129 FBS teams in rushing offense, pass efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin, respectively.

NAVY (2-4)

Particulars: Oct. 27 at San Diego; 8 p.m. EDT kickoff.

Key Metrics: 3-125-76-74-13.

One Shining Moment: Beat Memphis, 22-21.

Warts: Yielded 59 points to Hawaii in a 59-41 season-opening loss. On a three-game losing streak. Demoted starting QB Malcolm Perry and moved him back to slotback.

Strengths: No. 3 rushing offense, No. 1 red zone offense, No. 13 turnover margin.

Weaknesses: Normally, Navy doesn’t pass much, but usually it does it well. Not this season (125th). The Mids are an uncharacteristically weak 82nd in third-down conversion rate. Also defense across the board, especially against the pass.

Matching Up: This is a Navy team that needs to play with the lead, limit possessions and win the turnover battle. Notre Dame’s pass offense should overwhelm the Mids. The ND rush defense must be on point schematically.

Intangibles: The Irish have an extra few days to prepare due to the bye week, and Brian Kelly is 20-2 in his career in games immediately following the bye week, 9-1 while at Notre Dame.

NORTHWESTERN (3-3)

Particulars: Nov. 3 at Evanston, Ill.: Kickoff TBA.

Key Metrics: 128-99-59-84-77.

One Shining Moment: Beat Michigan State on the road, 29-19, a week after throwing a scare into Michigan (a 20-17 loss).

Warts: Lost to Akron at home, 39-34.

Strengths: No. 10 in passing yards per game and No. 1 in both fewest penalties per game and fewest penalty yards per game.

Weaknesses: Extremely imbalanced offense. Offensive line issues. Doesn’t generate much pressure on opposing QBs.

Matching Up: Northwestern, leading the Big Ten West at 3-1, has transcended some of its flaws because of quarterback Clayton Thorson, as he distances himself from offseason ACL surgery and the ensuing rehab. The Irish defense, though, tends to feast on one-dimensional offenses, and its pass-efficiency defense is elite.

Intangibles: Beware the post-triple-option hangover. Brian Kelly is 5-6 in such games at ND, and three of the five wins have been narrow escapes.

FLORIDA STATE (3-3)

Particulars: Nov. 10 at Notre Dame Stadium; 7:30 p.m. EST kickoff.

Key Metrics: 125-71-8-60-116.

One Shining Moment: The Seminoles’ best game is a loss, 28-27 to Miami after holding a 20-point lead midway through the second half.

Warts: Lost at Syracuse, 30-7. Had to rally late in the fourth quarter to beat FCS Samford, 36-26

Strengths: The Florida State defense has been put in awful positions by its offense, yet still excels against the run (eighth nationally), in sacks (13th), and in the red zone (19th).

Weaknesses: Heavily penalized team that beats itself with yellow flags and turnovers. The offensive line play has been miserable. Terrible on third down (128th) and not too good on first or second, either.

Matching Up: Florida State has a pretty good defensive front, which could give the Irish offensive line some problems. The Seminole offense, however, matches up very poorly with the Irish defense.

Intangibles: It’s Senior Day for the Irish, which hasn’t necessarily translated into lots of big victories in the Kelly Era. The weather could be an ally, though, for the Irish, provided there isn’t a weird warming trend.

SYRACUSE (4-2)

Particulars: Nov. 17 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx; 2:30 p.m. EST kickoff.

Key Metrics: 25-80-91-82-7.

One Shining Moment: Almost took down Clemson on the road before falling, 27-23.

Warts: Lost to Pittsburgh, 44-37, in OT

Strengths: Really good special teams team — third in kickoff coverage, second in punt coverage, seventh in net punting, 14th in punt returns. Has gone from 122nd to seventh in turnover margin since last season. Top 10 nationally in sacks (seventh) and third-down defense (third).

Weaknesses: Run defense (91st) and passing efficiency on offense (80th) have held the Orange back from even more of a transformative season.

Matching Up: Syracuse leads the nation in offensive plays per game (85.6), so tempo will test ND’s defensive depth and third-down defense (85th).

Intangibles: Notre Dame willingly gave up a home game to reintroduce the Shamrock Series concept after a year hiatus. They also gave up a predictable playing surface, as Yankee Stadium’s natural grass in November and December has been problematic when it comes to footing.

USC (4-2)

Particulars: Nov. 24 at Los Angeles; Kickoff TBA.

Key Metrics: 103-87-72-67-115.

One Shining Moment: Actually there have been two — beating Colorado, 31-20, and beating Washington State, 39-36.

Warts: Lost to Texas, 37-14 and Stanford, 17-3.

Strengths: The biggest strength beyond a No. 11 ranking in kickoff returns is that the improved play of freshman quarterback JT Daniels is helping the Trojans step out of some early negative statistical patterns.

Weaknesses: Defense doesn’t generate much pass rush or turnovers. The running game (103rd) and sacks allowed (91st) are a concern, as is its run defense (72nd).

Matching Up: This is the team that may look significantly different when these two teams play. However, the Trojans don’t have a dominating front seven, and a season-ending injury to outside linebacker Porter Justin hurts a chance for a revival. That all takes some stress off Notre Dame’s offensive line in this matchup. Overall, the Irish are better balanced both offensively and defensively.

Intangibles: This will be the fourth game away from Notre Dame Stadium in a five-week stretch. USC may have some serious momentum coming in, if it can get by Utah on the road this Saturday night. That would all but clinch the Pac-12 South for the Trojans, who then have Arizona State, Oregon State, Cal and UCLA just before facing the Irish.

Notre Dame players run out of the tunnel for the ND-Pittsburgh game, last Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
The Irish conclude their 2018 regular season — and more than 5,000 travel miles in the season’s final five games — against USC in Los Angeles on Nov. 24.