Analysis: Diving into Notre Dame's mysteries for postseason possibilities and at running back

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly will leave the math for another day, perhaps deferring to as late as next spring.

Theoretically, the Notre Dame head football coach will open next season with seven options at running back — the five who currently make up a rotation (without any of them having expiring eligibility after this season), versatile redshirting freshman Kyren Williams, and a jolt of pure speed — recruit Chris Tyree — arriving in June.

“I think in the future it will kind of work itself out,” Kelly said Sunday, a day after his now-15th-ranked Irish (8-2) bewildered a CFP 23rd-ranked Navy team, 52-20, at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I’m not really concerned about the future as much as getting the most out of the group right now. And I’m really happy with what they’re giving us.”

Where that group is headed, Saturday on Senior Day against Boston College (5-5) or next August in Dublin, Ireland, when ND and Navy meet for the 94th time, is one of a handful of unsolved mysteries that not even a three-game winning streak can unlock.

Here’s a thorough — but not an unnecessarily deep — dive into the two most pressing: the running back corps and ND’s bowl prospects.

Running backs

That backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec, original fifth-string running back C’Bo Flemister and intermittently injured backup wide receiver Braden Lenzy each have amassed more rushing yards than Jafar Armstrong has 10 games into the season is beyond stunning.

Armstrong began the season as ND’s No. 1 running back, with the thought of 1,000 yards in total offense — if not rushing yards — a reachable goal for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior converted wide receiver.

Kelly’s admission Sunday that Armstrong’s return Oct. 12 from a Sept. 2 abdominal injury, sidelining him four-plus games, doesn’t mean he’s operating at anywhere close to maximum efficiency still, as his 2.0 yards-per carry average and season-long run of 11 yards suggest.

“I think it’s been a process for him,” Kelly said of Armstrong, his seventh-leading rusher (70 yards on 35 carries). “I think it’s take time to develop the core strength back. He had a pretty significant injury. For him to get back on the field the way he did is a great testament to him. But that doesn’t mean you’re back to the level of playing the game before the injury.

“So I think each week has been an opportunity for him to get back to the elusive quickness and power. He’s given us what he’s got right now. I think there’s more. I think as he continues to play, I think you’ll see more of what we saw before he got injured.”

Senior Tony Jones Jr., with a fifth-year-option, has emerged as ND’s leading rusher (611 yards on 104 carries, 5.9 avg., 5 TDs), with quarterback Ian Book No. 2 (421 yards on 85 carries, 5.0 avg., 4 TDs), and no one else with more than 150 yards for the season.

“I’m really pleased,” Kelly said of the current running back group, all former three-star prospects and two of them arriving originally projected to play other positions. “I know everybody’s looking for that 1,000-yard back, but we’re going to be more of a committee.

“The one thing about them is they do the dirty jobs. They’re going to pick up a blitzing ’backer. They’re going to run interference on blocking areas. They do a lot of different jobs that some backs won’t do. So we’re going to get the most out of those group, and so far it’s been pretty good.”

Boston College and ND’s Nov. 30 opponent, Stanford, rank 91st and 56th, respectively, in rush defense among the 130 FBS teams this week, and 128th and 94th in total defense.

But if the Irish aspire to be get to the College Football Playoff in 2020 — and perhaps win a game or two there — the status quo won’t be good enough. In ND’s two losses this season, to Georgia and Michigan, the Irish didn’t reach 50 rushing yards in either game and averaged 3.3 yards per carry on 14 rushes against the Bulldogs and 1.5 per carry in 31 rushes at Michigan.

In fact, of the five top 30 rush defenses the Irish have faced this season (Georgia, Michigan, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Navy), Notre Dame topped out at 157 yards against Virginia, with the next-highest total (106) coming against Virginia Tech.

So is a healthy Armstrong the answer? Tyree breaking through as a freshman? Jones taking another step in his evolution? Some kind of all-encompassing combination, as Kelly suggested?

Stay tuned.

Postseason possibilities

If the CFP rankings Tuesday night mimic the AP and coaches polls Sunday, ND’s climb from the No. 15 spot into a position to grab a Cotton Bowl berth (Dec. 28 in Arlington, Texas) might be too steep.

The past two Saturdays the Irish recorded their largest margin of victory on the road since 2013 (38-7 at Duke) and beat a ranked team by 32 points Saturday, and yet are sitting right where they were after edging Virginia Tech, 21-20, roughly two weeks ago. At No. 15.

There’s not a specific requisite ranking the Irish have to achieve in order to be included in the New Year’s Six, but it’s safe to say it will have to be at least No. 10. That’s because at least two of the 12 New Year’s Six berths will be filled by teams outside the top 10 — The Group of Five’s spot in the Cotton Bowl and the ACC’s spot in the Orange.

If the season ended today, that would be No. 17 Cincinnati and No. 25 Virginia Tech. The team grabbing the berth opposite Cincinnati would be No. 7 Utah, so that bar could actually be higher than 10th for ND.

Based on Sunday’s AP rankings — and these spots are sure to change — No. 1 LSU would play No. 4 Georgia in one CFP semifinal, with No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Clemson meeting in the other. The Sugar Bowl would pit No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 8 Oklahoma, and the Rose No. 6 Oregon vs. No. 9 Penn State.

Virginia Tech’s Orange Bowl opponent would be No. 10 Florida.

There’s a conditional Citrus Bowl possibility for Notre Dame (Jan. 1 in Orlando), but it’s highly unlikely that all the scenarios necessary to satisfy those conditions would come to pass in the next three weeks.

It’s also highly unlikely the Irish would end up anywhere but the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28 in Orlando) whether they won none, one or both of their final two regular-season games.

Their opponent would be from the Big 12 Conference. If there season ended today, there would not be a Big 12 representative in the CFP. So Oklahoma, would head to the Sugar Bowl, and the Alamo Bowl would get the next pick, presumably No. 13 Baylor.

The Camping World Bowl gets the next choice from the Big 12 pool. Currently Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Texas share third place in the conference standings.

Injury update

Kelly said Sunday the only injury suffered by an Irish player Saturday that would definitely keep him out of action this coming Saturday against Boston College was the dislocated kneecap sustained by backup linebacker Shayne Simon.

An MRI later on Sunday, after Kelly met with the media, would tell the coach what kind of structural damage came with the dislocation and if the injury would extend past a one-game absence.

Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong, here in action Saturday against Navy, continues to struggle to find his rhythm since returning from an abdominal injury last month.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly won’t likely need his puffy blue coat no matter where the Irish are headed this postseason.

WHO: AP No. 15 Notre Dame (8-2) vs. Boston College (5-5)

WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium


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

LINE: Notre Dame by 20 1/2