Why the Irish are 4-0

Notre Dame's veteran head coach has three indicators of team success. We offer a handful more for 2014 and project the likelihood of each going forward through the season's final two months.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered earlier this season his staff's chief indicators of success, each of which has been readily apparent this fall as the team cruised to 4-0. They are as follows:

1.) When the offense crosses the 40-yard line, it has to score points. Kelly's Irish have produced points on 23 of their 26 possessions that breeched the opponent's 40-yard line. The three exceptions were turnovers against Syracuse.

2.) Win the turnover battle: Against Rice, Michigan, Purdue, and Syracuse, respectively, the Irish were 2-0, 4-0, 3-0, and 1-5, in terms of turnovers created and lost.

The Orange represent an epic outlier that might not be repeated. According to ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel, over the last two seasons when facing a power five conference foe, teams that finished minus-4 in the turnover battle won just once in 28 occasions -- the Irish were the one.

3.) Win the battle of field position: Hidden yards often make the difference and Notre Dame has fared well throughout 2014. The Irish won the average starting field position battle in three of four matchups to date (Purdue the exception) with a whopping 15-yard advantage -- the 37-yard line vs. the 22-yard line -- over Michigan.

-- A fourth, we'll call it the Irisheyes.com indicator, is total rush attempts. Kelly's Irish have rushed in excess of 30 times in all four games this season. They did so in nine games last season, winning each, and are on a 24-game winning streak when rushing the football MORE THAN 30 times. 38-4 overall. They're conversely 3-11 when they rush 30 or fewer.

Apparently Woody Hayes was right…

That's a review by the numbers. Below is a look at what our eyes tell us about the 2014 Irish in comparison to last fall.

Tackling is Top Notch

Notre Dame opponents have executed 267 offensive snaps this season. The Irish have missed a tackle (or two) on just 21 of them. Chief among the culprits is, surprisingly, Joe Schmidt, who missed three vs. Rice but just two since. (As a no-doubt top three defensive performer for Brian VanGorder's unit, that's a good sign.)

As a unit, the defense hasn't missed often when presented the opportunity for a tackle-for-loss, sack, or crucial stop near the sticks. It's fared equally well when making initial contact at scrimmage in short-yardage situations.

And most important, it's true and consistent across the board. The linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties have not distinguished themselves for poor tackling contests as did each position group intermittently last fall. They fly to the ball and finish the drill.

Concern Going Forward: After just five snaps that included misses against Rice and three against Michigan, VanGorder's defense missed tackles on 7 snaps vs. Purdue and 6 snaps vs. Syracuse.

Deep Ball Does It

Touchdown connections of 75, 72, and 53 yards over the first three games aren't out of the ordinary for a quality collegiate offense. But the length of the passes unleashed has been, with quarterback Everett Golson hitting defenses deep with throws that have traveled 58 yards (TD), 57 yards (dropped TD), 45 yards across two hashes (dropped pass), 63 yards (TD), and 60 yards (TD) in the air.

Golson's arm is second-to-none in the college game, and in Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, and Chris Brown (the latter still waiting for a deep ball) he has the targets that can get downfield to showcase it.

With the field stretched vertically, Kelly's modern horizontal passing game has room to thrive. In theory, so would the running game.

Concern Going Forward: Stanford has not allowed a pass of consequence against the Kelly-era Irish in excess of 25 yards. (Theo Riddick caught a 45-yard catch-and-run swing pass with the Irish trailing 28-7 in the final minutes of a 2011 loss.)

Youthful Exuberance

A handful of descriptors come immediately to mind regarding the 2014 Irish defense:

-- They're both aggressive and excitable
-- They're fast -- and they play that way
-- They don't stay blocked

As the late, great Bill Walsh once mused in a conversation about defensive speed or the lack thereof:

"If you have too many players that are described as 'hustlers' you'll just have a lot of guys hustling downfield trying to chase faster opponents into the end zone."

Faster is better -- and it always has been.

Notre Dame's defense is full of confident athletes, veteran and rookie alike, that fit the roles they've been given. Those that might not, play at full speed anyway.

The 2014 Irish are unlikely to go down as one of the best defenses in Notre Dame history, not after two more months of attrition (and better opponents) strike. But it might rank among the most enjoyable to watch grow.

Concern Going Forward: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will seem like Peyton Manning after the sub par collection of pocket passers the Irish defense will have faced prior to him.

All For One

Two upperclassmen entered 2014 training camp with NFL Dreams following the season.

Both are suspended and have yet to play a down.

Notre Dame's not a better team sans DaVaris Daniels and Keivarae Russell, but Brian Kelly doubtless runs a tighter ship this season than he did with the returning fat cats of 2013 -- a group fresh off being feted by the national media and everyone else following a surprising run to the BCS Championship game.

The 2014 Irish defense lost three defensive line starters to the NFL Draft. It has, to date, given up fewer rushing yards, yards-per-carry, and rushing touchdowns, while also registering more sacks through four games without them.

Likewise, Notre Dame's offense doesn't have a go-to wide receiver as it did in T.J. Jones last season, or a de facto No. 2 like Daniels. It has a handful of contributors, each fully vested in improvement. Each fully aware they'll be passed over if stagnation occurs.

Does Kelly work best with a youth-filled group augmented by seniors that will only earn NFL paychecks if they continue to (dramatically) improve? Perhaps. Most college coaches do (Lou Holtz did), as it's easier to mold a group of athletes in your image when they don't have a preconceived notion of what it should look like.

"Those seniors, they're getting help.  With such a small class, they're looking for some help," Kelly said. "They want this to be the great year they want. They want to win a championship. Cam McDaniel wants to win the national championship.  So he's counting on these young guys. They're stepping up for him."

Together is the only way it can be done.

Concern Going Forward: None until 2015, when a similar scenario could strike a suddenly experienced Irish squad, one that will be highly ranked in the pre-seaon and one with more than the next practice session in its purview.

The Opponents To Date: Eh...

That changes this week, and more often than not, thereafter…

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories