Oct. 8, 2017
By John Heisler
It’s midseason for the Notre Dame football program, with the Irish standing 5-1 and as of today ranked 16th (Associated Press) and 19th (coaches). Brian Kelly’s squad so far has played two currently-ranked teams — a fourth-ranked Georgia team that beat the Irish by a single point (the Bulldogs currently stand 6-0) and a 21st-rated Michigan State team (the Spartans are 4-1 with their only loss to the Irish) that Notre Dame beat 38-18 on the road.
The Irish have an open date this week, then next week there are no classes due to Notre Dame’s fall break during preparation for their next game Oct. 21 versus USC. The Irish play their next three games at home and four of their next five at Notre Dame Stadium.
Here are some takeaways from the first half:
- The Irish are playing better. Numbers alone say Kelly’s squad has improved, starting with the fact by the first weekend in October the Irish already have one more victory than in all of 2016. Check out where Notre Dame has improved:
Total offense — The Irish are at 471.2 yards per game compared to 417.6 in all of 2016.
Rushing — The Irish average 308 yards per game, almost 145 more than a year ago.
Scoring — The Irish are at 40.0 compared to 30.9 in 2016.
Rushing defense — The Irish are at 134.5 compared to 182.4 in 2016.
Scoring defense — The Irish are at 16.8 compared to 27.8.
- Notre Dame keeps down the TDs. Statistics say all kinds of things, but after six games Notre Dame has allowed only a single rushing touchdown to its opponents. And that’s after allowing 23 in all of 2016. The only other team in the country that can say that (allowing just one so far) is Miami (Florida). It’s also interesting that the teams that have allowed the fewest overall TDs (six each) so far in 2017 are both on the Irish slate this season — and they are Georgia and Miami (Florida).
- The Irish have been very good in the red zone. After going perfect by scoring on all of its first 24 trips to the red zone, Notre Dame finally misfired in that category when Ian Book threw a second-half interception at North Carolina. Then the Irish were credited with a second miss at the end of the Carolina game when they took a kneel-down to end the contest in the shadow of the Tar Heel goal.
- Takeaways on the plus side. Notre Dame a year ago managed only 14 takeaways all season. This time in 2017 the Irish have that exact number after six games. Kelly’s squad currently is 13th nationally in turnover margin (plus-1.17) — and that has suggested Notre Dame is tough to beat when it does not turn the ball over. “We’ve been starving in that area for a few years, and to see our defense really transform itself from a group that really never came up with those plays to one that is thriving in that regard — I think that’s probably the biggest transformation,” says Kelly.
- The Irish have kept their heads on straight. Says Kelly, “This has really been about developing the mindset of our football team, which I didn’t develop very well last year and so I’m pleased with that. We’ve got to coach better and our players have got to play better in the second half because five of the next six opponents are ranked currently. So we’re pleased with where we are at the halfway point, but this is not where we want to be as a destination. We came into this season wanting to play for a championship–and winning championships is our mission. I think we try to keep the players really grounded on their preparation from week to week, and I think that that’s what really has gotten us to the point we’re at right now. It’s their mindset of high-performance Saturdays, one at a time. I think they have done a really good job of making sure they are not listening to the noise and really just paying attention to detail every single day. That’s a hard thing to do for 18- to 21-year-olds on a day-to-day basis, and they are doing a great job.”
Meanwhile the road ahead certainly is interesting if not treacherous. Five of Notre Dame’s final six opponents are ranked in today’s AP poll — Miami (11th at 4-0), USC, (13th at 5-1), North Carolina State (20th at 5-1, Stanford (23rd at 4-2) and Navy (25th at 5-0).
Notre Dame’s overall 2017 schedule ranks fourth in degree of difficulty according to the NCAA — and the remaining slate for the Irish ranks second toughest at .800 (remaining opponents are a combined 24-6), behind only Georgia Tech at .818.