Hansen: Notre Dame football November story lines to remember
SOUTH BEND — Coach Brian Kelly’s assertion all along was that his 2021 Notre Dame football team had a chance to be playing its best football in November.
History is on his side. At least recent history.
In 2016, the Irish went 1-3 in November during a 4-8 outlier of a season that led to Brian Kelly 2.0, and seismic philosophical and coaching personnel changes around him.
The Irish lost to Navy that November and an unranked Virginia Tech team, and got rocked by USC days after the NCAA ordered the Irish to vacate victories from 2012 and 2013 and, for some reason, its title game loss to Alabama as well.
Notre Dame hasn’t lost to annual rivals Navy or USC since, and has amassed 38 straight wins in games when it faced an unranked team since the Hokies spoiled Senior Day 2016, 34-31.
As for November, Notre Dame is 15-1 in that month since Kelly’s coaching makeover, the lone loss the still-enigmatic 41-8 cratering at Miami in 2017, a setback that’s been followed by 22 successive regular-season wins against ACC teams.
The eighth-ranked Irish (7-1) — up three spots in both major polls Sunday — have two more ACC games left (Virginia and Georgia Tech) among their four remaining regular-season games. First off is Navy on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m. EDT; NBC/Peacock).
The Mids are 2-6, with three losses to ranked teams (Cincinnati, Houston, SMU) all coming by eight points or fewer. They beat Tulsa, 20-17, on Friday night without completing a single pass and attempting only three.
Here are some significant post-Halloween story lines involving the Irish for Saturday's game and beyond:
Freeman vs. the triple-option
Irish first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s first attempt as a defensive coordinator at taming a triple-option offense came in his first of four seasons running Cincinnati’s defense.
The Bearcats’ D didn’t even qualify as a speed bump in a 42-32 loss to American Athletic Conference foe Navy in 2017.
The Mids rolled up 622 yards in total offense — 569 of those on the ground on 72 carries, the most ever rushing yards surrendered in a game by UC — and converted six of eight third downs.
A year later, the Bearcats smothered Navy, 42-0. The Mids rushed for 124 yards on 52 carries (2.4 avg.), gained a mere 171 yards in total offense and went 3-of-13 on third down and 0-of-3 on fourth.
That came a week after the Irish beat the Mids, 44-22, in San Diego. UC tweaked its defensive scheme from 2017, adding a fourth linebacker in the box.
UC and Navy didn’t play in either 2019 or 2020, but the Bearcats did face an Army team last season that finished the season 9-3 and came into the game with UC ranked 22nd in the AP poll.
In a 24-10 Bearcat victory, Freeman’s defense didn’t give up an offensive touchdown, yielded just 276 total yards — 182 of those rushing yards on 43 carries. Army was 3-of-13 on third down and 0-of-2 on fourth down.
The game was a late addition to the pandemic-altered schedule. UC was originally scheduled to play Nebraska that weekend.
As far as ND’s first game vs. a triple-option team since 2019, it would make sense to hold out injured All-America safety Kyle Hamilton, even if he is cleared from a knee injury suffered early in ND’s 31-16 win over USC on Oct. 23.
Navy’s practice of legal cut blocks has produced its share of leg injuries for Notre Dame players over the years.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s triple-option buster on the roster has been grad senior Drew White. In the 2018 game in San Diego, he changed the trajectory of his career by coming on in relief for injured star linebacker Drue Tranquill and making six tackles.
In ND’s 52-20 rout in 2019, White had a team-high 10 tackles.
Decision day for Bowen
After amassing four verbal commitments from linebackers in the 2022 class that recruiting analyst that Tom Lemming deems ND’s best linebacker haul in decades, the Irish look to layer more star power in the position group from the 2023 class on top of it.
That could start as soon as Wednesday night, when consensus five-star linebacker Drayk Bowen is set to announce his college choice (9 p.m. EDT) from among finalists Clemson, Auburn and Notre Dame.
Irish baseball coach Link Jarrett won’t be just a passive observer. The 6-2, 215-pound junior at Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind., is also an elite third base/shortstop prospect and plans to try to play both baseball and football in college.
From a football standpoint, Bowen is ranked as the No. 2 outside linebacker prospect in his class and the No. 22 prospect nationally regardless of position. 247Sports rates him No. 48 overall and the No. 4 linebacker in the 2023 cycle.
Should Bowen pick Notre Dame, which most recruiting analysts are predicting, it would give the Irish six prospects in that class, all of whom are rated a four-star or better and all of whom are ranked in the top 200 in the class by Rivals, 247Sports or both.
In Kelly’s 12 seasons as Notre Dame’s head football coach, he’s had a modest 10 true freshmen catch at least two passes in a season.
Two of the 10 are on this year’s roster, and one of them — Lorenzo Styles — has been Notre Dame’s leader in receiving yards each of the past two games without starting either.
In just those two games combined, against USC and North Carolina, Styles accumulated six catches for 131 yards, with 107 of those yards coming after the catch.
“From the time he’s got here, he’s worked extremely hard,” offered Irish quarterback Jack Coan, a Wisconsin transfer. “We came in at the same time, midyear, and we threw so much right away during that winter and into the summer.
“He’s just a guy I know I can trust because of all of those extra reps. He’s going to continue to put his head down and work, and he’s a special player.”
How special? Combined with two catches earlier in the season, Styles’ eight receptions (for 147 yards) are the fourth-most by a freshman wide receiver in the Kelly Era, trailing only Kevin Stepherson (25 for 462 yards, 5 TDs in 2016), TJ Jones (23/306/3 in 2010) and Corey Robinson (9/157/1 in 2013).
The other six with two or more freshman-year receptions are Will Fuller (6/160/1 in 2013). Chase Claypool (5/81/0 in 2016), Kevin Austin Jr. (5/30/0 in 2018), Chris Brown (2/56/0 in 2012), James Onwualu — yes, the one who went on to be a starting linebacker — (2/34/0 in 2013), and current Irish freshman Deion Colzie (2/20/0).
“He's going to continue to impact,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Styles. “He's got a great demeanor. His work ethic is outstanding during the week.
“His volume is amazing. We can throw a lot of volume on him. And he's explosive. You can see him right when he touches the ball, he's explosive.”
And if you’re looking for how the Irish might be better in November than in their first eight games, Styles is a part of that equation.
Behind the numbers
After laboring out of the national spotlight for the first half of the season behind an offensive line that needed time to grow, Notre Dame junior running back Kyren Williams is climbing into the national statistical rankings.
After his career-high 199-yard rushing performance Saturday night against North Carolina, Williams is 33rd nationally in rushing yards per game (88.4) and 22nd in all-purpose yardage (133.3) after amassing 261 against the Tar Heels.
Suddenly, a second straight 1,000-yard rushing season seems like a probability.
• Using the proposed 12-team playoff model, that’s still very much up for debate, Notre Dame would be the No. 8 seed this week, hosting No. 9 Michigan in the first round (based on the AP rankings).
The winner would get No. 1 Georgia in the quarterfinals, and the Michigan State/Alabama/Auburn survivor in the semis if they could pull off a monumental upset in the quarters.
The first set of CFP rankings. incidentally, will be revealed at 7 p.m., Tuesday on ESPN.
• Notre Dame had just six yards worth of negative offensive plays Saturday night, including a season-low one yard in sack yardage.
It’s just one of the ways quarterback Jack Coan is thriving since Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees put him in a faster-paced offense.
Which begs the question: What took so long?
“We were dumb,” Kelly said. “I mean, we were trying to figure out what he could do. And we were using a lot of the skills that he had. But we have found, obviously, a niche where he feels really comfortable.
“He's never played in this type of offense. So this is new for him. So he's got a shiny new toy that he really likes. We've worked hard with his footwork. His footwork has been so much better. … He's seeing that he can really ascend in the offense right now.”
HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. NAVY
Who: No. 8 Notre Dame (7-1) vs. Navy (2-6)
Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 21
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI