Sizing up Notre Dame's unorthodox 12th man and the real, bigger issues at midseason

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Had Chase McGrath’s onside kick in the closing minute of Notre Dame’s 30-27 subduing of USC Saturday night taken a less friendly bounce toward Irish tight end Brock Wright, there was a body perfectly aligned a few yards behind him.

Wearing a puffy blue winter coat.

“Oh me?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly responded Sunday when asked how he managed to be an undetected (by the Pac-12 officials anyway) 12th man on the field during the play that should have drawn a penalty flag and a chance for the Trojans to re-kick.

“I was trying to get a timeout, and I couldn’t get their attention,” he said. “So we were trying to get (deep man) Lawrence Keys to move up. Generally speaking, if you’re on the field, they’re either going to throw the flag or give you the timeout. And they didn’t do either.”

Wright fielded the ball cleanly, and the Irish (5-1) ran out the clock. Their reward of sorts was a modest one-rung bump in the latest AP poll to No. 8, a single point in front of No. 9 Florida and two poll spots ahead of the team that beat ND on Sept. 21, Georgia at No. 10.

Lololol when your coach doesn’t give a damn

— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) October 13, 2019

Even as the top-rated one-loss team, the Irish are probably the only one in the top 11 that doesn’t control its own College Football Playoff destiny, though. And technically, some teams lower than that — No. 16 Michigan (5-1) and No. 18 Baylor (6-0), for instance — conceivably could win out and not need other teams’ help to crack a CFP invite.

What Kelly does have, though, is a team that understands both its flaws and what it can become, and seems to have the cohesiveness and diligence to find out where that takes them. And that is not to be underestimated in the big picture.

“They’re not perfect,” Kelly said. “There’s plenty of imperfections, but they don’t look at it that way. They look at it as, ‘We’re going to plow through it and we’re going to keep working hard and we’re going to do it all the entire game.

“’And at the end of the day, we’ll look up, and I think it’s going to work out for us.’ ”

The Irish get to work through their second bye week of the season in the week ahead, before visiting Michigan on Oct. 26. Here are the significant themes swirling around a team that’s a collective 27-5 since Kelly remade his coaching staff and himself following the 4-8 cratering in 2016.

The semi-return of Jafar

In real-time game moments, Kelly illegally/unintentionally seemed to spend as much time on the field Saturday night as returning running back Jafar Armstrong, ND’s No. 1 running back at the start of the season.

In reality, Armstrong played a handful of series in his first game action since the first quarter of the Sept. 2 opener at Louisville, even though he touched the ball just once against USC, and it resulted in a rush for minus-four yards.

Kelly said the plan all along was to get the 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior involved in 10 to 15 plays in his comeback from abdominal surgery, but those plays were geared to use Armstrong specifically in the passing game.

And when USC tilted its defense to take away the pass and live with the consequences in the running game, it squeezed Armstrong’s opportunities.

“It was just the structure of the way USC played us more than any issues relative to his preparedness,” Kelly said.

The priority during the bye week is to continue to give Armstrong more pages of the playbook on his plate and a significantly larger work volume when the Irish venture to Ann Arbor, Mich., and face a rapidly improved Wolverine defense that now stands 14th nationally in total defense.

The potentially seismic impact that he can have on the Irish offense, with his speed and versatility, is still in play as far as Kelly is concerned.

The blessing in his absence, the coach acknowledged Sunday, is that Kelly knows so much more about what else is in his running back stable and how those pieces best fit into the Irish offense.

And so do they.

After rushing for 176 yards and 25 carries against USC, both career highs, senior Tony Jones Jr. ranks No. 34 among the nation’s leading rushers in yards per game (92.8). The stunner, for a back who doesn’t have elite speed, is that he’s ranked ninth nationally in yards per carry (7.0).

Best bye

The USC win makes Notre Dame 3-for-3 so far against the seven teams — most in the FBS this season — that have a bye before playing the Irish. Still to come are Virginia Tech (4-2), Duke (4-2), Navy (4-1) and Boston College (3-3).

The Trojans had some bye week mojo on their side, though. Clay Helton came in unbeaten following bye weeks as USC’s head coach in an admittedly small sample size (3-0 before Saturday). And USC had won its past five meetings with ND when the Trojans had an open date the week before the game.

On the flip side, Kelly heads to Michigan with an 11-1 mark following bye weeks during his time at ND. And the academic calendar syncs up perfectly with it.

The flurry of midterms for the players this year comes during the bye, and fall break falls in the week leading up to Michigan. NCAA rules allow for teams to expand beyond the 20-hour limit for team activities when school is not in session. What the Irish plan to do instead is get more work in during the day that week.

“We’ll do some self-scouting here over the next 24 hours,” Kelly said of his bye-week priorities, “and look at some things and clean those up over the next couple of days.”

One intriguing bye-week postscript: Former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush, now a backup as a grad transfer at UCF, chose to spend his bye week Saturday standing on the Irish sideline for the USC game and supporting his former teammates.

Backed into a corner?

The plan was to use senior cornerback Donte Vaughn Saturday against USC, in reserve and sprinkled in intermittently into a game plan that employed three safeties and two corners as its base defense against the receiver-rich Trojans.

Then the ND coaching staff would put the 6-foot-3, 212-pounder into the football equivalent of mothballs until 2020.

USC represented the fourth game Vaughn had played in this season, the threshold of game action in which a player can still opt to preserve a year of eligibility and redshirt. The problem? Vaughn played in a lot of high-leverage situations and played well, so much so that the coaching staff is now pondering whether that’s the best option.

Vaughn’s three tackles in the game don’t do justice to his impact Saturday or how that might translate down the road.

“It’s still being discussed here in the building, because it’s not an easy answer for us,” Kelly said of the redshirt question, “because you saw what I saw. But we want to be able to do what’s right for the program and the young man, too. I don’t have an answer for you yet.”

The Irish are expected to get starter Shawn Crawford back for the Michigan game. He suffered a dislocated elbow, with torn ligaments, Sept. 28 against Virginia.

Fun with numbers

With 21 catches for 265 yards and three TDs in his four games played this season, junior tight end Cole Kmet would be on pace to break Tyler Eifert’s single-season school records for receptions (63) and receiving yards (803) in a 13-game season.

Because Kmet missed the first two games of 2019 with a broken collarbone, he’ll play in a max of 11 games most likely. Missing those two games also keeps him out of the NCAA stats until the Irish play game 8 and he’s played the minimum 75 percent of ND’s games.

As it stands, he would lead all tight ends nationally in receptions per game (5.25) and is three yards away from leading in receiving yards per game among tight ends. He is averaging 66.25.

• The Irish loaded up their kickoff coverage team with some of its most high-profile starters, and wide receiver Chase Claypool responded with three tackles.

• Notre Dame came into the USC game averaging 62.8 offensive plays per game, lowest since 1998, with a season high of 65. The Irish ran 80 plays against USC.

• ND’s most dramatic offensive improvement over the past two games comes in the area of third-down conversions. The Irish have jumped from 114th nationally (32.0 percent) to 48th (42.3).

Ian Book’s pass-efficiency ranking nationally dipped after the USC game, falling to No. 23 from No. 16.

He’s still ahead of some pretty big names, including Georgia’s Jake Fromm (24th), Washington’s Jacob Eason (28th), Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (45th), Michigan’s Shea Patterson (69th) and former five-star prospect Hunter Johnson, who is dead last (113th) among QBs with enough games and attempts to qualify.

Johnson began his career at Clemson and is now playing for Northwestern. He took a pass on the Irish in the 2017 recruiting cycle in which the Irish signed Avery Davis as a quarterback.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly calls to the referees during the ND's 30-27 win over USC, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.