Future Strength or Trouble Spot?

O'Malley examines crucial components of the Irish offense and defense entering the season's second half, and identifies each aspect as a position of strength or one that will likely prove troublesome in Notre Dame's quest to qualify for a second straight BCS Bowl.

Six bowl teams likely await the Irish when the team returns from its mid-October bye. Accepting that Notre Dame cannot lose again if it hopes to avoid a non-BCS Bowl in the system's final season, I've taken the liberty of projecting two handfuls of the team's strengths and weaknesses, all pertaining only to the season's second half.

Offense: Future Strength or Trouble Spot?

Third-Down Passing Attack: Being forced to pass isn't a situation the Irish can likely navigate successfully over the final six contests. In rhythm, quarterback Tommy Rees can make things happen from the pocket -- even from the oft-lamented Empty Set. But certain third-down passing situations take away Rees' inherent advantage -- changing to the correct play -- and opposing defenses can choose to tee-off or play coverage pending down and distance. It won't be a death knell, but the third-down passing game for Brian Kelly's Irish has never been a strength.

Verdict for Final Six Games: Trouble Spot

Running Game in Running Situations: In other words, can Notre Dame run when the opponent -- one not named Purdue -- knows it has to? I have my doubts, especially considering three upcoming foes, USC, Stanford, and BYU have quality rush defenses. It's crucial that the Irish stay balanced, because with the threat of both run and pass, the offense usually clicks. The Irish run the ball well when playing from ahead. Can they do so in the second half, down 10, and facing a fired up foe?

Verdict for Final Six Games: Trouble Spot, especially in the red zone

Pass Protection: To date, five very good efforts and one that negatively impacted the outcome for Irish fans. Oklahoma beat Notre Dame in South Bend due in no small part to is pass rush getting to Rees. On tap are pass rushers such as USC's Morgan Breslin, Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, Stanford's Trent Murphy, et al, and BYU play-maker Kyle Van Noy. But in standard passing situations (i.e., not 3rd and 10-plus), the front wall has shown it can give Rees time to move throughout his progressions

Verdict for Final Six Games: Future Strength, to date and going forward

Ability to Keep Defenses Off-Balance: Can the Irish run with success on first down? Yes. Can they run and pass with success on 2nd-and-medium distance and third-and-short situations? Yes and yes. Can Notre Dame win throwing 35 passes or rushing 40 times? Yes. A balanced Irish offense is worth three touchdowns and a pair of field goals. It's the one dimensional version that ends up struggling to score 20.

Verdict for Final Six Games: Future Strength, after five games searching for an identity, I believe they have one.

Continued Assimilation of New Weapons: Corey Robinson and Will Fuller on the edges. Amir Carlisle and Tarean Folston in backfield relief. James Onwualu and Ben Koyack in power sets. The offensive staff has six competitors to augment the givens in T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, Troy Niklas, George Atkinson, and Cam McDaniel. From that 11-player group, Kelly, offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, and the unit's position coaches should have plenty of ammo to move the football in the season's second half.

Verdict for Final Six Games: Future Strength

Consistency from both DaVaris Daniels and George Atkinson: The latter has never been better than he was in Week Five; the former never better than Week Three. Neither has put together back-to-back standout efforts in their respective year-and-a-half as contributors. My guess one of the pair continues to show flashes throughout 2013.

Verdict for Final Six Games: Trouble Spot, though I'm less confident of this projection.

Defense: Future Strength or Trouble Spot?

Pass Rush From Front Four: Non-existent over the first five weeks and absolutely dominant in the win over Arizona State. The former was nonsensical, as the Irish have the horses, and they've apparently rounded into race shape.

Verdict for Final Six Games: Future Strength

Stopping the Run: They're ranked 30th through three games, a healthy chunk of the yards gained against Bob Diaco's front seven the ancillary result of facing mobile quarterbacks (no running back has gained more than 20 yards on a rush vs. the Irish this fall). Provided Sheldon Day returns health, I'm confident of the following:

Verdict for Final Six Games: Future Strength, and they'll need it with four top tier rushing teams on tap.

Avoiding Big Chunk Plays: Three foes failed to produce more than one (Temple, Purdue, Michigan State), while three others (Michigan, Oklahoma, and Arizona State) combined for 16 against the Irish. I think the back seven will remain susceptible, but to call it a weakness going forward would be a stretch. Then again, the three teams they stopped from gaining chunk yardage are among the worst offenses in the game.

Verdict for Final Six Games: Trouble Spot

Creating Turnovers: It was an issue in 2011 when the defense came up with just 14 (among the lowest in program history) and its an issue again this fall. Diaco's defenses took the ball from their foes in both 2010 and 2012 -- and those defenses ranked 23rd and 2nd, nationally. With a nod to the reality that the front four could wreak enough havoc to prove this projection false, I'll go with:

Verdict for Final Six Games: Trouble Spot

Short Zone Pass Defense: In reality, this should be labeled, "tackling after the catch" because Notre Dame will allow passes in front of it again in the season's second half. The tackling was unpredictable over the first six contests, porous against Temple, Michigan and Purdue; better vs. Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Arizona State. I sense a trend...

Verdict for Final Six Games: Future Strength

Getting Off the Field: The Irish nickel and dime defense has been a disappointment, at least until the trip to Cowboys Stadium. Now the group faces life without Jarrett Grace, the lone linebacker in the nickel and one of two inside in the dime. Look for Ishaq Williams to move back into more of a coverage role in his stead (it was Joe Schmidt Saturday night in Arlington) or for freshman Jaylon Smith to finally join the third-down fray.

Verdict for the FInal Six Games: Future strength (see front four improvement -- and see me for some suggested personnel changes, I might add).

Tomorrow: More categories and projections for the season's second half...

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