Analysis: The eye test, and who to keep an eye on, during Notre Dame's stretch run

Eric Hansen
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly embraced the future when it came to ambiance Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

Well, as much as his comfort zone would let him.

After the Band of the Fighting Irish played its traditional, end-of-the-third-quarter staple — the 1812 Overture — the stadium lights went out, with a short light show and piped-in, modern musical accompaniment to follow.

Fans’ cell phone flashlights became part of the show.

“I like the fact that the lights came back on after they went off,” the 12th-year Irish head coach offered later on Saturday night after his Notre Dame football team had finished off visiting USC, 31-16. “That's kind of all I would say about that.”

Kelly’s primary focus, justifiably, was the product on the field that both preceded and followed the reimagined interlude.

Both statistically and aesthetically the Irish, in extending their winning streak over USC to four games, looked more like a team with the potential to evolve into a New Year’s Six invitee than one that had actually arrived. Which is progress.

For most of this season’s 6-1 journey, Notre Dame had the appearance of a team living on guts, guile and turnover margin — a seemingly unsustainable winning combination even against a schedule that softened from preseason expectations.

Now ranked No. 11 in the AP and Coaches polls heading into Saturday night’s clash with preseason top 10 team North Carolina (4-3), the Irish would actually be in the 12-team College Football Playoff field …

IF ...

• The season ended today.

• The 12-team playoff already existed and used the rules that the CFP working group has proposed (six highest-ranked conference champs and six at-larges, with the four highest-ranked league titlists earning first-round byes).

• The College Football Playoff selection committee viewed Notre Dame similarly to how the AP voters and coaches do.

The first two are a non-reality, and No. 3 is unlikely but possible.

We’ll find out for sure three days after the North Carolina game, on Nov. 2, when ESPN reveals the first set of CFP rankings this season at 7 EDT that night.

Former Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool high-fives quarterback Jack Coan (17) after a touchdown during ND's 31-16 victory over USC, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium.

For the record, in ND’s surreality of a 12-team playoff this season, the Irish would have moved into the playoff field this week as the No. 11 seed (based on the AP rankings) with a first-round road date against No. 6 seed Michigan. The winner would then get No. 3 Oklahoma in the neutral-site quarterfinals, and Cincinnati/Oregon/Ole Miss in the semis.

ND’s real postseason destination hinges heavily on the eye test if it is to avoid the ACC’s Tier One menu of eight bowls — with the Cheez-It, Tony the Tiger, Sun and Duke’s Mayo bowls among the more palatable destinations/selections.

An 11-1 bottom line heading into Selection Sunday in December would be enough to coax an invite to either the Peach or Fiesta bowls in the New Year’s Six lineup. An 11-1 mark with an upgraded statistical profile and acing the eye test could get the Irish into the periphery of the actual four-team playoff debate.

The Irish would need lots of help — the Big Ten contenders cannibalizing themselves and Oregon falling off the edge it’s been living on, among the scenarios. And they’d need to help themselves.

Perhaps the uptempo kick the offense got Saturday night will produce consistent and lasting improvement in the running game and in the pass-efficiency numbers.

The defense could use a similar revelation, though it’s much closer to playoff caliber than the offense has been, with turnovers forced (5th nationally) and pass efficiency defense (21st) its strengths.

But that was with All-America safety Kyle Hamilton playing more snaps than any other Irish defender in the first six games of the season. He left the USC game roughly 13 minutes in with what Kelly described as a pinched fat pad in his right knee.

The initial prognosis was vague but good. But how good? Kelly will get peppered for an update at his Monday noon press conference.

In the meantime, here are five players to watch as the Irish make their postseason push:

Isaiah Foskey, defensive end

With two sacks Saturday night against USC, the 6-5, 260-pound junior has eight for the season and ranks third nationally in sacks per game (1.14) and No. 1 in the Power 5. He is also now on pace to break Justin Tuck's single-season school record (13.5).

He’s also tied for seventh nationally in forced fumbles with three in seven games (0.43). 

Notre Dame Sacks records

With two prolific offenses coming up in the next four games (North Carolina 15th in total offense and Virginia fourth), the biggest vulnerabilities of those two relate to their opponents’ ability to pressure their QBs.

North Carolina is 127th out of 130 in the FBS in sacks allowed and tied for 70th in turnovers lost. Virginia is 109th in sacks allowed and tied for 70th in turnovers lost.

Foskey needs a sidekick, though. He alone accounts for 60% of the team’s sack yardage and 42% of the teams sacks.

Best bets to emerge in that role are end Myron Tagovaloa-Amosa (2 sacks and a team-high 7 QB hurries, the Ademilola twins (Jayson 2.5 sacks, 3 QBHs; Justin 2 sacks, 4 QBHs) and Jordan Botelho (2 hurries) if he can find traction for more playing time.

Notre Dame’s TaRiq Bracy (28), back left, and Isaiah Foskey (7), back right, work to sack USC’s quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) on a play that ended in a Notre Dame fumble recovery during the Notre Dame’s 31-16 win over USC in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

DJ Brown, safety

Despite playing less than a fourth of the snaps of Hamilton in the first half of the season and roughly a third of starting strong safety Houston Griffith, Brown grades out consistently well by Pro Football Focus’ scouting service.

The 6-foot, 200-pound senior racked up a career-high seven tackles Saturday night in relief of Hamilton and helped keep USC star Drake London’s 15 catches for 171 yards as benign as 15 catches for 171 yards can be. 

The good news? London was and remains the nation’s No. 2-leading receiver. The bad news? The nation’s No. 3 receiver — North Carolina sophomore Josh Downs —  is coming to Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night.

Lorenzo Styles Jr., wide receiver

Last week Hamilton and wide receiver Avery Davis talked with the media about how impressed they’ve been lately with freshman Styles in practice. Saturday night, the college football world got a sampling of what that might look like in a game.

He had three catches for 57 yards against USC, with 43 of those yards coming after the catch. He also got his feet wet in the return game, with kickoff return man Chris Tyree out with turf toe.

Fellow freshman Deion Colzie (1 catch for 13 yards) also looks like an option to deepen the wide receiver rotation for the stretch run.

Josh Lugg, offensive tackle

In the five games before freshman Joe Alt and junior Andrew Kristofic became regulars on the left side of the offensive line, Irish opponents were averaging 8.4 negative-yardage plays per game including 4.6 sacks per game. In the last two games, the ND offensive line has yielded 1.5 sacks per game and zero negative rushing plays beyond that.

And the only two times ND has rushed for four yards per carry or better have been the last two games.

For the evolution to continue, grad senior right tackle Lugg needs to play the best football of his career. And so does 2020 Marshall All-American Cain Madden, ND’s right guard.

The Irish won’t face a top 75 team in sacks the rest of the way and just one team ranked higher than 80th in rushing defense (Navy, 42nd).

Jack Coan, quarterback

The quarterback Wisconsin opted to prioritize for its future over Coan after the 2020 season, Graham Mertz, rates 106th out of 109 qualifiers in the individual national pass-efficiency rankings to date in 2021.

Coan’s standing of 44 spots higher may qualify as vindication, but he and the Irish are focused on maximizing his potential in an ND uniform and may have unlocked that formula Saturday night with the uptempo approach.

Now it’s about building on Saturday night’s performance rather than simply repeating it, and continuing to mix in stretches of freshman Tyler Buchner out of matchup strengths, not desperation.   

“I like guys that have accuracy in throwing the football and see the field,” Kelly said. “And (Coan) has got accuracy and he can see the field. So it was just trying to kind of find what was his niche.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. NORTH CAROLINA 

Who: No. 11 Notre Dame (6-1) vs. North Carolina (4-3) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC/Peacock 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 3 1/2