Analysis: Breaking down Notre Dame at midseason

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — In peeling back the curtain on what made his 23-yard fumble return for a touchdown Saturday night against No. 1 Clemson not only possible but seemingly inevitable, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah explained a heck of a lot more.

That it’s not just freakish physicality that allows a 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker to hit like someone carrying 30 more pounds on their frame. That the Notre Dame senior’s instincts and diagnostic skills may be more impressive than his 40 time.

That his attention to detail in film study pulls all those pieces together.

It’s little wonder that in the Tribune’s breakdown of Irish football at midseason that the first player Notre Dame recruited to specifically play its new rover position in 2017 would be the 2020 midseason MVP.

First, a disclaimer: My math is challenged, but not to the extent I don’t realize that seven is not half the season — unless, of course, second-ranked Notre Dame (7-0, 6-0 ACC) ends up in the College Football Playoff and wins a semifinal game to get to game No. 14 in the national championship.

My thinking was I needed to see the Irish play in a game where the glare of the spotlight was acute and relentless before I could concoct the superlatives of the season to date and the challenges that lie ahead, starting with Saturday’s road test at Boston College (3:30 p.m.; ABC-TV).

Here’s the other thing: 2020, by its very nature, is weird. So deal with it.

So here — in addition to the midseason MVP — are five other VPs, the biggest surprises and top stats, newcomers, assistant coaches and improvements the Irish need to make to stay on a playoff trajectory.

Midseason MVP

Owusu-Koramoah’s season numbers don’t do him justice, even if they are impressive — 35 tackles, a team-leading 8.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception while covering a slot receiver, two forced fumbles and that aforementioned fumble return that tells his story better.

He lines up for the play looking like he’ll cover Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers. The ball is snapped at the Tigers’ 29-yard-line and Owusu-Koramoah comes off his coverage and makes a direct line toward the Clemson backfield.

By the time quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei pitches the ball to running back Travis Etienne, Owusu-Koramoah is already at the 25, three yards away from Etienne at the 22.

“It was a play that I had seen many times on film,” he said. “Shaun Crawford also alerted me as well. We were talking to each other. We knew the play was coming, so I just wanted to go ahead and make a big hit. But the ball popped out, so I grabbed it.”

At a minimum, it would have been an eight-yard rushing loss. The ball, though, bounced off Etienne’s hands, Owusu-Koramoah caught it in stride and raced 23 yards to the end zone for one of many signature plays in the 47-40 Irish double-overtime win.

Among the others involving Owusu-Koramoah was a forced fumble on Clemson’s next possession, and combining on a sack with Ade Ogundeji on Clemson’s first play of the second overtime.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, meanwhile, was obsessed with the little picture Monday, but was at times tested by the media’s persistence in pushing him to lend his perspective to the bigger one.

Little meaning immediate, not insignificant.

In fact, the Notre Dame head coach mentioned BC (Boston College) Saturday night in his postgame postmortem more often than the name of the team his Irish had just toppled from the No. 1 spot in both major college football polls, Clemson.

Perhaps Kelly’s most intriguing response to those pushing for a big-picture perspective was his breakdown of the current Irish team, poised to deliver victory No. 100 to the 11th-year coach, versus the 2012 team that he coaxed into the BCS National Championship Game.

The offensive superiority of the current squad is obvious. The defense comparison, loaded with a Heisman Trophy runner-up at middle linebacker (Manti Te’o) and the best pass rusher of the Kelly Era (Stephon Tuitt) in 2012, was not such a conspicuous choice.

Except to Kelly.

“Physically stronger, faster, just across the board defensively,” he said of his current defensive unit. “We had individual players in ‘12 that were certainly as good as any player on this team, but overall on all three levels it’s a more physical, faster football team.”

The rest of the super six

2. Sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton

3. Sophomore running back Kyren Williams

4. Grad senior offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg

5. Freshman tight end Michael Mayer

6. Grad senior quarterback Ian Book.

That the 2018 team MVP from a playoff season sits sixth on this list is not a slight to him but a nod to how far the other five have come.

Mayer is the team’s leading receiver (20 catches, 235 yards, 2 TDs). Eichenberg is the left tackle on what might be the best offensive line in the country. Hamilton missed an entire game and a big chunk of another and still leads the Irish in tackles (36). More importantly, he makes everyone around him better.

The most interesting parts about Williams’ ascent (767 rushing yards, 10 TDs; 13 catches for 178 yards) have little to do with the fact he’s on a path to have the fourth most-prolific rushing season in Notre Dame history (1,374 yards in 13 games), with a shot at the top spot (Autry Denson at 1,437), considering he isn’t projected to face a top 50 rushing defense nationally until the ACC Championship Game.

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) celebrates with offensive lineman Robert Hainsey (72) after a touchdown in the first overtime of a win against Clemson, Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Kelly touched on Williams’ prowess in blitz pickup during his Zoom with the media on Monday. Equally impressive, but not as celebrated yet, is his resilience.

Only twice during the Kelly Era has a running back amassed more than 200 carries in a season — Josh Adams in 2017 (206) and Cierre Wood in 2011 (217). Williams is on pace for 237.

Last year Tony Jones Jr. was the leader in carries with 144.

Top newcomers

1. Mayer

2. Cornerback Nick McCloud

3. Cornerback Clarence Lewis

Freshman running back Chris Tyree (260 rushing yards on 42 carries and 21.5 average on kickoff returns) could certainly end up on this list at season’s end.

For now, a grad transfer cornerback and a three-star, late-arriving freshman cornerback join tight end Mayer.

Both had difficult assignments Saturday night against Clemson. With defensive coordinator Clark Lea tilting his defense to smother the ACC’s all-time leading rusher in Etienne, McCloud and Lewis at times didn’t have much help.

Lewis, didn’t start the game, but took over for junior TaRiq Bracy at the field corner and ended up playing 70 snaps to Bracy’s eight.

“Clark and (cornerbacks coach) Mike (Mickens) felt like Clarence was the best call for us,” Kelly said. “We’re going to do what we think is best for Notre Dame’s defense, so we went with Clarence.

“But that is a competitive situation. TaRiq could be the starter this weekend. We’ll see how it plays out during the week.”

Biggest surprises

We’re over Williams being a surprise, so the recalibrated pick is a tie between two veteran wide receivers, Javon McKinley (19 receptions, 366 yards) and Avery Davis (16 receptions, 207 yards, 2 TDs), each of whom had the most impactful games of their careers against Clemson.

For the season, they’re Nos. 2 and 3, in receptions behind only Mayer.

With Kevin Austin Jr. out for the season and Braden Lenzy maybe back this weekend (but more likely Nov. 27 at North Carolina), McKinley and Davis flashed when Kelly needed them the most.

Defensively Lewis is hard to beat in the surprise category, but special mention should go to former cornerback Shaun Crawford and his wildly successful transition to playing strong safety this season.

Assistant of midseason

Lea and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees are two of many in the conversation. What about offensive line coach Jeff Quinn? The list of worthy candidates goes on and on.

But this award is shared by the two position coaches who turned the biggest spring question marks into two in-season exclamation points — running backs and cornerbacks.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor started by turning the depth chart upside down and believing in young Williams and Tyree. Mickens, coming in from Cincinnati, performed the same magic he did as a player and coach with the Bearcats, and that’s getting young, inexperienced players to perform at a high level with minimal growing pains.

Stat of the midseason

There’s two that are kind of sneaky important. The first is time of possession. The Irish are 14th out of 123 nationally (34:02), but eighth among FBS teams that have played more than one game.

This is in direct philosophical conflict to who Kelly was walking in the door. But the Irish offense is now built to play fast tempo OR play ball control. And that choice has allowed them to limit explosive offense’s plays by playing keepaway when called for and to bleed the clock in the fourth quarter with the running game to finish off opponents.

The second stat is run defense, which keeps ND’s opponents from flipping the script and using ND’s offensive control tactics against the Irish.

It’s been a missing piece for every Irish team except 2012,when they finished 11th nationally in rush defense. They were 60th last season, recovering from a very slow start. They’re fifth this week (85.1 yards per game) heading to BC this weekend after limiting Clemson to 34 yards on 33 carries.

Challenges of the midseason

Offensively, Notre Dame needs to produce the volume and impact of explosive plays, particularly in the passing game, that it did against Clemson and on a consistent basis.

In its 30-3 CFP semifinal loss to the Tigers in 2018, the Irish had three plays of 15 yards or more, with a long of 23. Saturday night, Notre Dame had nine such plays with two going for more than 50 yards.

On defense, the Irish pass rush must become more relentless and consistent. Notre Dame is a respectable 36th nationally at 2.71 sacks per game and likely to pad those numbers against its next four opponents, none of which ranks higher than 88th in sacks allowed.

But if the Irish want to play for a national title, they’ll have to get those QB hurries, rushed throws and sacks against much more talented and cohesive offensive lines.

Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) and safety Shaun Crawford (20) celebrate after a third-quarter stop in ND’s upset of No. 1 Clemson, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.