4-0: Now What?

Brian Kelly's ninth-ranked Irish made it through what has traditionally been the most trying part of their schedule unscathed. Now comes the hard part.

September swoons have been omnipresent in South Bend, but after nine straight seasons (and 25 out of the last 30) with at least one blemish among a season's opening four contests, Kelly's third-edition Irish have emerged as contenders one third of the way through the 2012 season.

A 4-0 start included a bonus package: a bye week for the team and staff to regroup, for the national media to take notice, and for the program's fan base, an opportunity to savor a season start reminiscent of the late 80s, when three consecutive Irish squads raced to 4-0.

For the team itself, preparations for Miami began in earnest. For the fan base, there's a touch more time to savor the spoils of victory…and to offer a few sneak previews entering October's slate.

Offense

Forget passing game vs. rushing attack. Such designations are for film reviews, post-game discussion, and game week chatter. Notre Dame's offense has seen the best of both worlds over the first four games, exploding for 50 points at the outset and being held to a solo touchdown and 13 points of late.

The rushing attack has produced roughly 50 fewer yards on 21 fewer carries than did last year's group. Part of the drop-off is due to a dearth of long runs since the 2012 opener vs. Navy; that could self-correct this week vs. Miami's 112th-ranked rush defense, but thereafter are games vs. the No. 3 (Stanford) and No. 2 (BYU) rush defenses. If Notre Dame doesn't move the ball easily vs. Miami, be it on the ground or through the air due to the threat of the run, it's undefeated status will be put in jeopardy in the coming weeks.

The Irish passing game is as healthy as it was last year, which is to say it will be great vs. poor defenses, fine vs. average defense, and struggle vs. solid defenses, that is unless redshirt-freshman Everett Golson progresses appreciably over the next three weeks.

Both Stanford and BYU have Top 20 pass defenses. Miami's is currently ranked 100th. If Notre Dame can't put four touchdowns up vs. the Hurricanes in Chicago its unlikely they'll top two in the pair of home games vs. the Cardinal and Cougars that follow.

Offensive Stat to Note: Notre Dame is 10-0 under Kelly when attempting fewer than 30 passes; 10-10 when throwing 30 or more.

Offensive Stat to Note, Part II: After beginning the season converting 18 of 29 third-down situations (18 of 26 with the first unit), Notre Dame's offense has moved the chains in just four of its last 23 third-down opportunities.

Defense

No rushing touchdowns allowed -- the only defense in the nation that can make such a claim. Three touchdowns allowed through four games, tied with TCU for the best mark in the nation. No scores allowed, period, in the first quarter of any game this season.

And the Irish are the nation's only team not to trail in a contest. (The first time since 1989 a Notre Dame team has not trailed in any of the first four games to open a season. That Irish team was in the midst of a 23-game winning streak.)

In addition:

  • Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit hasn't allowed a touchdown in eight quarters…

  • In 10 red zone opportunities, opposing defenses have managed just two touchdowns vs. the Irish

  • Notre Dame's 36 points allowed through the first four games are the fewest by an Irish defense through four opening games since the 1975 Irish defense yielded just 20 points.

  • The Irish rank 9th in sacks per game, with only cornerback KeiVarae Russell's half-sack (shared with Louis Nix) the result of a blitz call. In other words, Notre Dame is getting pressure from its front four -- blitzes have been intermixed to pressure the opposing triggerman into quick throws, and in three separate cases, turnovers.

  • Notre Dame's +9 Turnover Ratio ranks third nationally. At this point last season, Notre Dame ranked 120th out of 121 FBS teams.

Now the (potential) bad news: Miami's offense is the polar opposite of Michigan State's. Its not similar to Michigan's. It's nothing like Navy's. For reference sake, Miami is Purdue with more speed in the backfield.

Hurricanes freshman running back Duke Johnson ranks fifth nationally in all-purpose yards per game (184) while downfield passer Stephen Morris is 13th in total offense, accounting for 333 yards per contest.

Miami's offense in no way resembles the recent pair of Big 10 foes the Irish shut down in wins No. 3 and 4. Its also relevant that Boston College (74), Georgia Tech (67) and NC State (44) aren't in Notre Dame's class, defensively, and its against those ACC foes that Miami has earned 127 of its 140 points through four BCS matchups (Miami also hammered Bethune Cookman 38-10, though I think Notre Dame could have likely handled IUSB or Bethel College in Mishawaka, similarly).

Defensive Stat of Note: Notre Dame's defense has yielded just 8 rushing scores in its last 22 outings dating back to Game Nine of 2010 (Kelly's first season). No FBS program can match that success.

Defensive Stat of Note: Notre Dame's purported weakness -- its pass defense -- ranks ninth nationally in the category that matters (pass efficiency defense). That number will be tested Saturday night vs. the most prolific pass offense its faced to date.

Special Teams

Notre Dame's greatest special team's strength, its kick return unit, has been predictably hamstrung by new rules allowing teams to kick from the 35 rather than the 30-yard line. Explosive return man George Atkinson III is not among the nation's top 100 return men, failing to qualify with just three opportunities.

The Irish have returned just five kicks overall, averaging 21.2 yards per attempt. Conversely, its foes have had a chance to return a whopping 13, returning them for an average of 26.3 yards. Kickoff specialist Kyle Brindza would do well to follow his peers' lead and focus on booting the ball out of the end zone for the remainder of the season rather than attempt a goal line "sky" kick or angled offering.

On the horizon is Miami return man Duke Johnson. The true freshman has produced 319 return yards on 8 kick-off opportunities vs. FBS foes while adding a 95-yard score vs. Bethune Cookman. Stanford's Ty Montgomery (155 yards on five returns over his last two outings against USC and Washington) comes to South Bend the following week.

Notre Dame's punt return situation is notable in that unlike last year, returns are actually attempted, though at just 4.0 yards per return (7 attempts), speedy freshman Davonte' Neal has yet to bolster the unit more than season's past. Perimeter blocking remains a road block to any return of impact.

Irish punter Ben Turk has allowed foes just two return opportunities this season and a total of 12 yards -- it goes both ways as most teams continue to struggle blocking the spread formations employed by modern college punt squads.

(Missouri sophomore Marcus Murphy has 9 punt return opportunities for 101 yards and a touchdown vs. the four FBS foes the Tigers have faced, so sporadic success exists at a major conference level.)

After two early kicking snafus (a missed PAT from Nick Tausch and a shank on his first career attempt by Kyle Brindza) the Irish field goal unit has been outstanding, hitting six straight field goals including a game-winner vs. Purdue, with a 47-yard boot intermixed.

Specialty Stat to Note: Senior punter Ben Turk has dropped 7 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line this season without suffering a touchback. Turk hit 18 punts inside the 20 last season with four touchbacks, far below the 8-1 ratio expected by the staff for its punters.

Coaching

Suspensions to three upperclassmen starters/regulars. Two quarterback changes in vastly different game situations. Disparate game plans over a four-week span.

To date, head coach Brian Kelly has pushed all the right buttons. Asked for a coaching grade through two games I offered an "A+" because the Irish were 2-0. There's no doubt the grade remains through four. If you're a pessimist, or maybe just a realist, its bound to go down, as the Irish offense is playing with fire under center, relying on a quarterback that committed 19 turnovers last season to be its steadying influence and bordering on a yo-yo scenario with its first-year starter when trouble presents.

Everett Golson and/or Tommy Rees should be able to beat Miami's defense. The games that follow will test both, as well as the staff's heretofore impressive usage of a position not normally akin to situational substitutions.

Defensively, Notre Dame is easily among the nation's five best-coached units. While Zeke Motta (defensive backs) and Manti Te'o (front seven) deserve ample credit for their leadership, especially Motta who's surrounded by rookies, its Bob Diaco whose vision for a no-crease defense has come to fruition through four games.

Ultimately, a 4-0 start is a feather in Kelly's cap (he'd be "to blame" if the Irish were instead 2-2, no?). The Irish haven't beaten anyone great, but there are few teams nationally who've been challenged by three straight major conference bowl teams through four weeks.

The first four have been impressive though not unforeseen: No's 5, 6, 7 would put the program squarely in the national title hunt.


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