Analysis: How and who coaxed Notre Dame into the thick of the CFP conversation
SOUTH BEND — Roughly four hours after Notre Dame aced the eye test Saturday and about halfway into Utah’s 31-point defrocking of CFP No. 3 Oregon, Mike McGlinchey — like so many others — was already doing the math.
The convalescing San Francisco 49ers fourth-year veteran wasn’t referring to the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, which actually was somewhat of a touchstone when it happened 11 seasons ago at the end of head coach Brian Kelly’s turbulent first year at ND.
He was tweeting about the possibility of a third College Football Playoff berth in four years.
Which McGlinchey and his 2017 Irish teammates made possible by making sure a turnaround season in 2017 became a program-transformational one. McGlinchey, incidentally, takes Irish fans behind the scenes of the dynamics that followed a 4-8 season in 2016 in an upcoming Pod of Gold Podcast later this week.
► Transfer Portal:Former Notre Dame wide receiver Keys ready to catch on at Tulane
Just six players remain who were a part of the 2017 evolution, and all were freshmen at the time. Only right tackle Josh Lugg among them was ranked higher than a three-star prospect coming out of high school.
The others are defensive linemen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, injured wide receiver Avery Davis (originally a QB), linebacker Drew White and kicker Jonathan Doerer.
McGlinchey is hoping his torn quadriceps muscle won’t keep him from watching them in person Saturday night (8 EST; FOX) when AP/Coaches Poll No. 5 Notre Dame (10-1) visits the Bay area to close out its regular season against Stanford (3-8).
The Cardinal is coming off a 41-11 home loss to arch-rival Cal in which Stanford’s defense coughed up 639 total yards, including 355 rushing — to the nation’s No. 59 team in total offense.
Notre Dame taking care of business and looking good doing it against a 17-point underdog on the road is the most necessary element this week to keep the Irish in the playoff conversation, now that they’ve finally fully joined it.
We’ll break down the ifs, ands and buts of what must happen around the Irish Tuesday night, when the College Football Playoff selection committee reveals its latest set of rankings (7 EST; ESPN).
For now, here’s a dive into some of the numbers and personalities that have coaxed Notre Dame into this position in 2021:
The junior running back's numbers alone are enough to warrant team MVP consideration. Among them:
• Williams stands 72 yards away from a second consecutive season of rushing for 1,000 yards or more. He recently passed the 2,000-yard plateau in career rushing yards.
• He’s brought juice to the return game. Williams is one punt return short of qualifying for the national statistics (1.2 per game minimum). Otherwise, he’d be sixth (11.6 average) at what was once considered by some as Fair Catch U.
• He’s 20th nationally in all-purpose yardage (131.5 average) and tied for 15th in total TDs with 15.
He is ND’s second-leading receiver with 40 catches (for 339 yards), which is the fourth-most ever at Notre Dame in a season by a running back.
Yet it’s what Williams does to his teammates’ numbers that really sets him apart. Here’s what freshman running back Logan Diggs had to say Saturday after scoring his third and fourth TD of the season.
“I would say my attention to detail on things and definitely my mindset,” Diggs said of how Williams influences his game. “The way that Kyren approaches the game is just different from anyone or anything I’ve ever seen.
“His mindset is very strong. He’s very confident. That rubs off on me and it rubs off on our whole (running backs) room.”
Diggs said the Irish coaches intentionally paired the two up at the beginning of fall camp, in the weight room, in drills, in every possible situation.
“We all have that mentality that the first man’s not going to tackle us,” Diggs said of the ND backs. “And we all have that mentality that we’re going to be the best on the field when we’re on the field and make the most of our opportunities.”
In a 44-34 survival of North Carolina on Oct, 30, the Irish defense yielded the fifth-most yardage total (564) of the Brian Kelly Era and looked bad doing so, in what was the first full game of four so far without injured All-American safety Kyle Hamilton.
The next morning first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and the Irish woke up as the No. 76 team in total defense and No. 58 in scoring defense. In the three games since, those rankings have surged to 51st and 12th, respectively, and the Irish haven’t allowed a TD in any of those games (Navy, Virginia, Georgia Tech).
“I’m not surprised,” Irish junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said of the turnaround. “You probably hear from coach Kelly about following the ‘traits’ all the time. That stuff is real. That’s what coach Freeman’s doing.”
Hamilton’s investment of being around the team at all the practices and workouts as well as giving the Irish another defensive coach have undoubtedly helped as even the pass-efficiency defense ranking has improved significantly in that same stretch, from No. 31 after North Carolina to No. 14 heading into the Stanford game.
Pass rush has played a big part in that number, too. The Irish recorded a season-high seven sacks against Virginia on Nov. 13, then followed up with six more and nine QB hurries Saturday against Georgia Tech.
Foskey has 10 sacks himself, good for a tie for 10th nationally, and five forced fumbles, good for a tie for second after adding two of those Saturday. As a team, the Irish have risen from 31st in sacks on Halloween to fourth on Sunday.
With 38 this season, Notre Dame is four away from breaking the 25-year-old school record of 41.5.
“No one who gets a sack gets it on their own,” said Irish junior nose guard Howard Cross III. “Somebody makes a pick or hits somebody to get them free. Everybody is working together as one unit to get production.”
After Notre Dame lost to Cincinnati, 27-13, on Oct. 2, Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan’s days as ND’s No. 1 option at quarterback felt like they were dwindling, if not over.
He was 64th nationally in passing efficiency (138.1) at the time and looked miscast with a lack of mobility behind a then-leaky offensive line.
But a brilliant fourth quarter at Virginia Tech on Oct. 9 followed by some bye-week tweaks in the offense helped both Coan and the O-line progress. After an ND best 227.7 efficiency mark Saturday against Georgia Tech, Coan has climbed to No. 37 in the national efficiency rankings (152.4).
That also puts him second in career pass efficiency (152.4) at ND to Kevin McDougal (156.7), using only his Irish stats. And that’s the calculation Notre Dame will use for its record books.
Even adding in his Wisconsin stats, Coan would still be among the Irish career leaders (147.71). In that context, he hopped over Jarious Jackson and Ian Book on Saturday, and would rank third behind McDougal and DeShone Kizer (147.7).
What’s impressed his teammates the most, though, is the poise and toughness he showed to get to this moment, including embracing freshman Tyler Buchner as a tag-team partner in a QB timeshare that works.
“He has such an emotional mastery to him,” sophomore tight end Michael Mayer said of Coan. “He can make a mistake, and it doesn’t faze the man at all. I think that’s one of the greatest things about Jack.”
With three catches for 89 yards and a TD on Saturday, Mayer passed 1977 Heisman Trophy finalist Ken MacAfee for second place on ND’s single-season reception list for tight ends.
With 55 this season for Mayer, Tyler Eifert’s school record (63, 2013) is within reach with at least two games to go. With five TD receptions, he's within one of tying the school record for most in a season by a tight end.
But also impactful is Mayer taking ownership of helping the handful of freshmen on offense who have earned increasingly meaningful roles as the season has progressed.
“Pretty much every one of the freshmen on the offense I’ve tried to take under my wing and answer questions,” he said. “Everyone who has come in here has worked their tail off, and I’m proud of them.”
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EansenNDI
HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. STANFORD
Who: AP No. 5 Notre Dame (10-1) vs. Stanford (3-8)
Kickoff: Saturday at 8 p.m. EST
Where: Stanford Stadium; Palo Alto, Calif.
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 17