Analysis: Doing the math on Notre Dame's trajectory as a possible playoff team
SOUTH BEND — Five games into what still looks on tape to be an All-American-type season, Notre Dame senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been credited with a total of 21 tackles.
The same number former Irish All-America middle linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o amassed in a single game in 2012, against Stanford.
Owusu-Koramoah’s total is one off the current team lead (safety Kyle Hamilton has 22) on a defense ranked this week in the top 15 nationally in almost every significant category and top 10 in most of those.
Te’o’s total, on a team that put up historical numbers until it hit offensive buzzsaw Alabama in the national title game, was five off the single-game school record shared by Bob Crable and Bob Golic.
There’s two maxims to take away here:
• Linebacker play has evolved considerably in the past eight years to keep up with offenses that force defenses to play in space.
• Numbers with context can tell a story, and numbers without it are math homework.
No. 4 Notre Dame’s homework this weekend is to secure its 30th successive victory against an unranked opponent — Georgia Tech (2-4, 2-3 ACC), Saturday in Atlanta — before No. 1 Clemson (6-0, 5-0 ACC) rolls into town for a Nov. 7 showdown with the Irish (5-0, 4-0).
The big-picture context where Owusu-Koramoah is concerned is what elite linebacker play looks like in 2020. The most tangible example of that this past Saturday in a 45-3 squashing of host Pitt was his interception in which he was covering a slot receiver.
In 2012, a slot receiver matched up on any of Notre Dame’s linebackers would be called a touchdown.
The only other numbers to show up Saturday on the stat sheet for the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder was a solo tackle and a quarterback hurry. The numbers that didn’t show up in his stat column were incomplete passes or passes never even attempted because of his stingy coverage.
Here’s the bottom line: The numbers that matter are starting to align with Notre Dame having the traits to be a playoff team this season.
In the five key metrics of rush offense, rush defense, pass efficiency, total defense and turnover margin, in which championship teams tend to excel, the two teams in the current top AP top 10 that both check the most boxes and are the most balanced are Clemson and Notre Dame.
And when you compare the current ND squad’s numbers to the 2012 and 2018 Irish teams that were in the national title picture into their respective postseasons, the 2020 ND team is on a better trajectory.
There are some caveats, including the fact only 101 of the 127 teams expected to be playing FBS football this fall have started their seasons — because of COVID-19 logistics and concerns — and 24 of those skew the national stats further by having played only one game.
The biggest caveat, though, is how well Notre Dame’s numbers will stand up when the Irish play considerably better competition, particularly on the offensive side, in November.
Here are the total offense rankings of the five teams that ND has played: Louisville 43rd, Florida State 53rd, Duke 54th, Pitt 76th, USF 82nd.
And here are the total offense rankings ahead: North Carolina eighth, Clemson 10th, Wake Forest 38th, Georgia Tech 58th, Boston College 67th, Syracuse 91st.
Against Pitt, Notre Dame’s defense held the Panthers to the eighth-fewest rushing yards (40) and fewest total yards in a game (162) in the 11-year Brian Kelly Era. That gives current defensive coordinator Clark Lea nine of the top 15 performances in the Kelly Era under his watch.
Individually, however, there weren’t big numbers.
Only safety Shaun Crawford had more than four tackles (6). And none of the nine linebackers who saw action for the Irish had more than two.
But here’s the needed context: Because of three Pitt turnovers, because ND hogged the ball on offense and because the Irish defense held the Panthers to 1-of-13 on third down after they converted their first two, Pitt ran only 53 plays.
That’s 18 below the national average in a game.
Twenty-one of those 53 plays were incomplete or intercepted passes. That left only 32 plays on which to make tackles — 13 pass completions and 20 runs that included three sacks.
Notre Dame’s No. 88 ranking nationally in plays per game run against its defense (61.0) is in part a function of the Irish becoming one of the top time-of-possession teams in the nation. The Irish checked in this week at No. 7 (34:11).
Last year the Irish were 96th. Its 2018 playoff team was 86th, and ND was 110th in 2017. In Kelly’s final season at Cincinnati (2009), the Bearcats were 120th out of 120. His first Irish team was 105th out of 120.
Only once during his time at ND did the Irish rank higher in TOP than 59th. The 2012 Irish were 22nd.
Playing uptempo on offense was part of those formulas. The current squad is right at the national average with 71 offensive plays per game.
“We have a list of what we call snake plays or tempo plays,” Kelly said. “We had 24 of them last year. We pared that down considerably, because we’re really going to be focusing a lot more on multiple formations.
“And when you get into multiple formations and motion, it’s hard to play fast, quite frankly. So in playing fast, you’ve got to be in a much more static alignment, lining up and playing fast.
“We’re moving our tight ends around. We want to get into leverage positions with our tight ends. So when we made the decision we were going to be utilizing multiple tight ends within our formation, it’s important that you leverage the defense with those tight ends.”
The area where Notre Dame made its most significant growth as a team this past Saturday at Pitt was in its passing game, that included a tight end — freshman Michael Mayer — being the leading receiver on the day (5 receptions, 73 yards, 1 TD). And the passing game remains the phase that needs to make the biggest strides before Clemson.
Georgia Tech is 77th nationally in pass-efficiency defense. Clemson is eighth. Notre Dame, top six each of the past two seasons, is seventh.
Notre Dame last Thursday lost dynamic threat Kevin Austin for the rest of the season. The junior managed just 25 snaps and one catch between coming back from a broken left foot and a recurrence of the same injury.
Kelly said Monday he’ll likely hold out his fastest receiver, Braden Lenzy, this week to give his chronic hamstring injury time to heal. But he’s confident a healthy grad transfer Ben Skowronek, for one, will continue to have greater and greater impact.
Skowronek was on the receiving end of two long catch-and-dashes to the end zone from QB Ian Book, 34 and 73 yards, Saturday against Pitt.
“I believed in this group that when we got continuity within the offensive structure, in particular the passing game, it would look better and it would get better,” Kelly said.
“And Ian would feel a lot more confident in getting the ball out on time. Some of that timing element of it. When people are commenting about the ball not coming out on time, it’s working with those guys so you can throw it before they get out of their break and do those kinds of things.
“We’re getting there and we’re getting better. We have another level that we need to get to and we hope to get to that in practice. So when we get to Georgia Tech this weekend, we see another level that we get to.”
No. 4 NOTRE DAME (5-0) vs. GEORGIA TECH (2-4)
Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium; Atlanta
Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 20