Brian Kelly won’t be joining us for his weekly Tuesday press conference, with the Irish having a week off before playing USC next weekend under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium. Kelly has talked a little bit about what the Irish coaching staff does with its in-season off weeks: player development for younger inexperienced players, rest and recovery for its front-line contributors, and a full self-assessment and scout for the coaching staff. We’ll be doing something similar here, looking over each position group to take stock of where this team is at the halfway mark.
First off, let’s look at some big picture things, comparing them to last season. With the bye week falling after four games last season, we’ve got a more complete picture today than we did after the Irish survived a 13-6 defensive slugfest to beat Michigan. But let’s try our best to compare apples to apples, and look at where this team is at the same point in each season.
Kelly has talked about the margin for error being razor thin, just as it was last season. Last season, the Irish had its defense to fall back on, giving Everett Golson a learning curve with a little bit of cushion. The defense carried the day for the Irish, holding opponents to just 52 points in the first six games of the season.
Like this season, the Irish faced three ranked opponents -- No. 10 Michigan State, No. 18 Michigan, and No. 17 Stanford. Notre Dame won all three games, with only the victory over the Spartans being comfortable. This year, the Irish also squared off with three ranked teams, losing by two scores to both No. 17 Michigan and No. 14 Oklahoma, but beating No. 22 Arizona State.
Like last season, the second half of the schedule looks more favorable to the Irish. Notre Dame played one team ranked in the top ten last year during the home stretch, defeating No. 8 Oklahoma. This year, they’ve currently got only one ranked team on the slate, the season finale against No. 5 Stanford.
Outside of the 50-point outburst against Navy to open the season, the Irish looked average at best for much of the first half of last season. The 41-point outburst against Miami stands out, but it’s interesting that Golson only threw for 186 yards on 22 attempts against the Hurricanes, as the Irish racked up all of their points in the ground game, where they exploded for 376 yards.
That ground game seemed to come out of nowhere, considering the Irish ran for just 52 yards against Purdue, 122 yards against Michigan State, and 94 yards against the Wolverines. As impressive as the outburst was against the Hurricanes, perhaps even more impressive was the ground game the Irish established against Stanford, willing their way to a hard-earned 150 yards on 3.4 yards a carry.
Throwing the ball, Golson’s mark at the halfway point of the season was okay. He had thrown for just four touchdowns and three interceptions through six games, surprising when you look back at a 12-0 season with a filter of success. Even scarier, looking at Golson’s QBR, as equated by ESPN’s rankings, and he played some downright terrible games, with a 1.6 against Michigan a fairly large multiplier worst than Tommy Rees’ game against Oklahoma (a 10.3 QBR).
This season’s offense hasn’t found its rhythm running the ball yet, but they aren’t that far off of last year’s pace, especially when you consider this team will likely put up big numbers against subpar defensive teams like Air Force and Navy as well. The Irish are averaging just 136 yards per game on the ground, still only good for 91st in the country. Through the air they’re doing much better, but still a middle of the road 56th.
This isn’t much of a contest. Last season the Irish were giving up less than 10 points a game at this point, earning victories against Michigan State, Michigan and Stanford almost solely on the back of the defense. This season, the defense hasn’t played much better than mediocre in the team’s two losses, with the effort against Arizona State their best to date.
Last year’s early output was paced by Manti Te’o and a Stephon Tuitt. We all know Te’o’s heroics by now, but Tuitt came out of nowhere and had 6.5 sacks in the first six games of last season. The Irish just got to that number on the season on Saturday, thanks to the efforts of Prince Shembo and Tuitt.
Across the board the numbers aren’t all that close. This year’s defense is less stingy against the run. It’s giving up bigger plays against the pass. They aren’t taking the ball away as much, nor are they doing as well in the red zone.
Of course, that’s not always a fair standard to hold teams to, especially when last year’s defense put together a historic performance. But one look at the box score against Michigan and Oklahoma and see you the very different performances by these groups.