Notre Dame has held six of its eight opponents far below their normal rushing average (Air Force and USC the exceptions); in four cases by more than 100 yards under the team's usual production.
The offensive side of the football has been just as intermittently dominant: just five sacks allowed, none in more than four games and a program record-setting 5.7 yards per carry as a team.
But then, as Kelly noted, the great equalizer enters the equation:
"I think it's pretty clear, the consistency week in and week out and taking care of the football and eliminating some of those sloppy mistakes. I think that's -- if you look at some of the mistakes that we've made, you know, they're all correctable through better coaching, better playing, and I think that's where we know that we can clean those areas up moving forward."
"Correctable" is the key word to ponder. Because after eight weeks, are these mistakes correctable?
Notre Dame has played turnover-free football just twice (Purdue and Air Force). At this point, it's not happenstance or a trend, just like Notre Dame stopping the run and running the football is the norm, not the exception.
The Irish are error-prone, with 20 turnovers, 17 of which have occurred despite no defensive contact, and the only way they should lose any of their next three outings – or more pertinent, Saturday – is if they continue to be "who they are," that is: a potent, stout, sloppy football team.
Consider a total of two turnovers over three games leading up to the season-finale at Stanford a reasonable goal for the favored Irish.
Quick out the gateKelly's Irish have enjoyed leads in six of eight contests, losing twice when the other team scored first (USF and USC). Notre Dame enjoys a 153 to 82 scoring edge in the first half of games this season.
It'll be strength vs. strength in Winston-Salem, Saturday.
"They get off really good. They play with a lot of emotion," Kelly said of his weekend hosts. "They're a group that knows they have to do that. We'll have to play our game, but we know from watching film and seeing how the numbers look, that's a group that wants to get going quickly. So we're well aware that we can't be falling asleep and letting them get up on us."
Notre Dame has trailed twice at halftime this season and five times during the Kelly era. They're 0-5 in those contests.
The Irish have famously "blown" just one game this season, losing a 24-7 lead at Michigan. Wake Forest, conversely, has been outscored 93-37 over eight fourth quarters and overtime.
Schedule adjustments and a pair of playmakersThe recent (read: annoying) game announcer catch-phrase, "Stay on schedule" has been a major topic of conversation for Notre Dame's defense in its last three games. Getting Air Force and Navy "off schedule" that is, in disadvantageous down and distance situations, was key to the pair of blowout wins.
Conversely, USC rarely faced a third an unmanageable situation, facing seven third-down situations en route to a 17-0 advantage. In five of those, the Trojans needed two yards or less to move the chains. They predictably converted in four of those five short-yardage situations (and kept the ball on two of the remaining three occasions due to Irish personal foul penalties).
Saturday, an explosive, but inconsistent Wake Forest passing attack will need favorable third-down conditions to take advantage of Notre Dame's defensive weakness: pass coverage from its linebackers.
"Clearly, the game is a down-and-distance game with Wake Forest," Kelly said. "You get in good down-and-distance situations and you can throw a lot of DBs on the field. If not, if down-and-distance is in their favor, you stress those linebackers.
"So it's one of those deals where we've got to do a really good job on first down and keep it so they know and we know who's going to be on the field because they've got a comprehensive passing game and as I said on Monday, very skilled on the back end. Their receivers and running backs are very good players."
The Demon Deacons top dog is Chris Givens, one of the nation's most productive receivers (52 catches, 928 yards, and eight touchdowns – the latter two numbers better than Michael Floyd's). Wake Forest has their own still-developing true sophomore under center in QB Tanner Price (14 TD and 6 INT, just over 61 percent as a passer).
While opposing coaches speak in politically correct terms regarding Wake's offensive personnel, the short of it is: if ND can slow Givens, the rest of the Demon Deacons won't overcome a solid Irish defense.
More problematic for Kelly's Irish is the presence of undersized nose guard Nikita Whitlock, who, at 5'11" 260 pounds, has already recorded 12.5 tackles for loss this season and 23 in his 20-game career. "He's not going to stay blocked; he can't, at his size, he's not going to lockout and throw linemen around," Kelly said of the unconventional nose guard. "He's just always moving; he's always on an edge. They do a lot of things that we don't do in our 3-4 relative to pressures. So there are a lot of pressures where he's not staying on that nose. He's moving a gap. They do a great job of utilizing his strengths within their 3-4 defense."
Should the Irish fail to establish a running game as they did vs. USC – the only contest during which Notre Dame both struggled to, and refused to run the football (14 carries vs. 38 passes), Whitlock will add to his TFL total. But players that rely on movement vs. a quintet of quality, in-space blockers such as those along the Irish front five will run into trouble when Kelly's offense holds the cards.
If Notre Dame can stay "on schedule": 2nd and 4, 3rd and 2, etc., the Irish offense will top 30 points for the sixth time this season.
11 and counting?A Brian Kelly-coached football team hasn't lost in November since 2007, a winning streak of 11 straight. Throw in December contests (including bowl games) and dating back to his final season at Central Michigan in 2006, Kelly's teams have won 23 of their last 26 late-season contests.
To put that success in perspective, it took Notre Dame the entire decade (plus) prior to his arrival to win 22 post-Halloween contests. (Notre Dame finished 22-27 after October from 1999-2009, a span of 11 seasons.)
Kelly couldn't – actually, he chose not to – explain his November success when pressed at a recent news conference.
That's doubtless fine to the Irish fans, none of which will care why as long as it continues through the forthcoming holiday season.