Analysis: Beyond the pluck of the Irish, who and what to watch in ND's second half

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) celebrates a touchdown during ND's 32-29 win over Virginia Tech, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Blacksburg, Va.

Not only did running back Kyren Williams pull rank and call an audible on a play that was designed for him to be a decoy Saturday night at Lane Stadium, he put his finger to his facemask to shush the raucous crowd after it worked.

Ten yards, three broken tackles and a trip into the end zone later.

Just as then-Irish running back Dexter Williams (no relation) did in the same venue after a 97-yard scoring sprint on a play and in a game (45-23 win) that helped define a 2018 playoff-ending season fraught with early mixed messages.

Kyren Williams, the current Notre Dame junior, also basically told Blacksburg, Va., to shut up on an earlier score Saturday night, this one an eight-yard pass play from freshman QB Tyler Buchner in ND’s 32-29 victory over Virginia Tech.

And he probably would have had the brazenness to do the same to Metallica had the vintage metal band actually ever showed up on site to play their Lane Stadium anthem — Enter Sandman — live.

“He had an edge about him today,” Kelly said postgame of the player ND offensive coordinator Tommy Rees refers to as "the heartbeat of the team."

Call it the pluck of the Irish, and it’s rubbed off on Williams’ teammates.

It’s tangibly the biggest reason why Notre Dame finds itself 5-1 at midseason and ranked 14th/13th in the AP/Coaches polls heading into a much-needed bye week instead of fending off comparisons to the 2016 rebuild.

“We’re trying to figure this thing out too as we go,” Kelly said. “That’s why I’m so proud of the guys who hung in there. I wish it wasn’t this hard, but it is right now, and we’re battling through it.”

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Statistically, though, it’s not a sustainable model for an 11-1 finish, even with a remaining schedule that includes just one team with a winning record (Virginia, 4-2), four sitting at .500 and an improving 1-4 Navy team that on Saturday buckled late in falling to 23rd-ranked SMU, 31-24.

Notably, Notre Dame is on an arc to finish with Kelly Era lows nationally in five of the nine key offensive categories (117th rushing offense out of 130, 86th total offense, 125th sacks allowed, 103rd third-down conversion rate and 100th turnovers lost).

Oddly, this 2021 team, while so-so in the other four key offensive categories, is notably better than the 2012 team that reached the national title game in all of those other four: passing offense (34th to 71st), scoring offense (53rd to 78th), team pass efficiency (63rd to 74th) and red zone offense (59th to 70th). 

The Irish resume Oct. 23 against USC (3-3) at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m.; NBC/Peacock), with Kelly holding a 13-2 record at ND coming off a scheduled bye week.

Here are who and what to watch in Notre Dame’s second half:

Quarterback-a-palooza

If freshman Tyler Buchner is going to be eased into being the quarterback of the present — whether or not there remains a tag-team role for grad senior Jack Coan — this is the stretch of the schedule to make a go of it.

The Irish face one team with a national total defense ranking better than 65th (Navy at a modest 56th) over the balance of the regular-season schedule, one with a rush defense higher than 69th (again Navy, at 46th) and no teams in the top 70 in scoring defense.

Even better news, the next five opponents rank 110th, 109th, 93rd, 99th and 112th in pass-efficiency defense. ND’s last five opponents were 10th (Toledo), 13th (Purdue), 14th (Wisconsin), second (Cincinnati) and 41st (Virginia Tech).

Kelly revealed after the Virginia Tech win on Saturday night that Buchner is no longer limited to a package of plays but now has access to the breadth of the entire playbook. That invites growing pains, but it also invites actual growth.

Meanwhile, if sophomore Drew Pyne becomes essentially a safety net, at least Kelly and Rees know they have one that can win games for them if injuries force them to change course. 

Pass rush and pressure

Vyper end Isaiah Foskey stands tied for eighth nationally in sacks per game (1.0) and third in the Power 5. Assuming a 13th game in postseason, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound junior is on a trajectory that would leave him a half a sack short of Justin Tuck’s single-season school record (13.5, 2003).

USC (16th in sacks allowed) is the one remaining opponent that protects its quarterback well. North Carolina (Oct. 30 is tied with ND at 125th). Navy (Nov. 6), which doesn’t pass very much, is still near the bottom of the FBS, at 124th. No one after that is better than 78th.

ND post-bye weeks under Brian Kelly

But Foskey needs help. ND needs to find a way to turn up the heat while minimally risking big plays. If that means tweaking third-down packages, if that means getting Foskey and Jordan Botelho on the field more together, if that means tweaking the scheme for mobile QBs, the bye week is the time to do that kind of self-scouting and tinkering.

The Irish defensively are impressive when it comes to turnovers gained (sixth nationally), pass efficiency defense (22nd) and third-down defense (25th). Rush defense (44th) and total defense (57th) is where there’s potential for significant improvement.

Especially if the Irish are committed to more Buchner at QB, the defense can get better faster than the offense, and needs to.

The formula works at Iowa, but the Hawkeyes' defense is elite across the board. Its offense? Only 10 teams in the FBS have a worse total offense ranking than does the No. 2 team in the nation in both major polls.

Joe Alt and Andrew Kristofic

Was Saturday’s offensive line performance an outlier or the start of a positive trend for the beleaguered Irish offensive line?

With the freshman Alt becoming the fourth player this season to start at left tackle for the Irish and with Kristofic’s timeshare with Zeke Correll at left guard gradually increasing in Kristofic’s favor, Notre Dame gave up just two negative plays Saturday night at Virginia Tech and none after two first-quarter sacks of Jack Coan.

The Irish have been yielding more than nine tackles for loss/sacks a game on average, and the Hokies remain the team with the best pass rush on the Irish schedule (20th in sacks). In fact, none of the remaining six opponents rank better than 72nd.

“Alt helps us a lot. He makes a big difference,” Kelly said. “Kristofic played virtually the whole game. That size in there — look, I love the two kids that were in there (Correll and Michael Carmody), but they were 285 (pounds) and 286 on the left side. 

“We got bigger. Alt’s 306 and Kristofic’s 305. We're bigger, more physical. And that’s where we go.”    

The late bloomer

Freshman running back Logan Diggs’ impressive college debut Saturday night serves as a reminder that sometimes a second-half-of-the-season surprise is only a playing opportunity away.

Some candidates to surge after the bye include — but aren’t limited to — freshman receivers Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie, freshman linebacker Prince Kollie, sophomore rover Xavier Watts, freshman safety Justin Walters, freshman tight end Mitchell Evans and sophomore tight end Kevin Bauman when he returns from injury likely later this month.

“If we want to win the rest of the games that we play, they’ve got to get in this game,” Kelly said Saturday of playing so many freshmen at Virginia Tech. “They’ve got to feel it. They've got to be part of it. And then they’ve got to continue.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI