Notre Dame Mid-season report card

Three areas of Notre Dame’s game have been even better than anticipated in the pre-season: the ground game, the passing game with a young QB, and special teams.

Through seven games and 42 letter grades for rushing offense and defense, passing offense and defense, special teams and coaching, the Notre Dame report card would make most moms and dads pretty proud, particularly when you’re competing with the nation’s best for a spot in the four-team playoff.

Of those 42 letter grades, all but nine have been in the A-to-B category. The rushing effort against Clemson, the rush defense vs. Clemson/Navy in the first half, the pass defense against Virginia (which started a trick play trend against the Irish), one poor special teams performance (Clemson), and the shaky first-half trips on the road to Virginia and Clemson have been the only real bobbles along the way.

Overall, the grades for a 6-1 team that ranks 18th in the country in scoring offense and 41st in scoring defense are commensurate to the performance through seven games.

The Irish rushing attack has lived up to and even beyond the promise anticipated, despite the loss of veteran running back Tarean Folston to injury. C.J. Prosise has been nothing short of spectacular (except on short-yardage runs) while DeShone Kizer, replacing the injured Malik Zaire, has been largely successful in his debut season.

Wideout Will Fuller has picked up where he left off in 2014 while Chris Brown has become a complement to Fuller with Prosise proving to be a weapon in the passing game as well.

Defensively, trick/big plays have been the greatest source of frustration, although the run defense was predominately stellar against the two triple-option teams within the first six games. The Irish aren’t a turnover-based defense, although five of the nine forced have come in the last two games.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the first seven games has been the special teams, which significantly influenced the victory over USC while first-time performers Tyler Newsome and Justin Yoon have punted and kicked with great success. Turnovers created in the kicking game each of the past two weeks were significant.

RUSHING OFFENSE

Weekly grades: A- (Texas), A- (Virginia), B- (Georgia Tech), A+ (UMass), D (Clemson), B- (Navy), A- (USC)
Average grade: B+
Adjusted grade: A-
Recap: With Notre Dame’s improved ground game comes greater expectations on a weekly basis. Thus, there’s an adjustment in the rushing offense grade with Notre Dame ranking 14th nationally at 234.5 yards per game with an impressive 5.95 yards per carry and 19 rushing touchdowns.

C.J. Prosise has lived up to and far exceeded expectations for never having played the running back position. Behind a powerful offensive line – probably the best since the Lou Holtz days – Prosise has set himself up for a record-breaking season at Notre Dame. He’s rushed for 922 yards on 129 carries (7.1-yard average) with 11 rushing scores and 131.7 yards rushing per game.

DeShone Kizer, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound red-shirt freshman quarterback, has become an effective short-yardage runner (the two-point conversion run late in the game against Clemson notwithstanding). The Irish have rushed for more than 200 yards in five of seven games. The 19 rushing touchdowns are just five less than the 2014 total over 13 games. Notre Dame is averaging 1.6 yards more per carry than a year ago, and that’s with an unusually high number of stuffs (two yards or less).

While Prosise has had 38 plays of 10 yards or more, 32.5 percent of his carries (not including short-yardage runs to gain a first down) have been stuffs. Between Prosise and freshman running back Josh Adams, more than 30 percent of their totes have been stuffs. Through seven games, an Irish running back has lost just one fumble (Prosise vs. Clemson).

All but the rushing grade against Clemson has been a B- or higher. When the Irish needed the offensive line/ground game to come through against USC, back-to-back, run-based 90-yard drives did the trick.

Considering the inconsistency of the ground game through the first five seasons of the Brian Kelly regime, it’s been a spectacular start to the 2015 season on the ground.

PASSING OFFENSE

Weekly grades: A+ (Texas), B- (Virginia), B+ (Georgia Tech), A- (UMass), B (Clemson), B+ (Navy), B+ (USC)
Average grade: B+
Adjusted grade: B+
Recap: While there’s the perception that DeShone Kizer has been carefully weaned in the passing game during his first five career starts – certainly at times, that’s been true – it’s not like Brian Kelly hasn’t trusted the red-shirt sophomore to throw the football down the field, although having Will Fuller as a capable and willing target assists in the desire to be a bit more bold.

Kelly and his offensive staff certainly have used the rushing attack/offensive line to relieve some of the burden on the young signalcaller. In his five starts, he’s thrown the football an average of 28 times per game, including just 24 against USC and 22 versus Georgia Tech.

Kizer is completing 65.4 percent of his throws while averaging 13.7 yards per completion and 8.96 yards per attempt. Those are very good-to-great numbers. He fumbled twice in the rain at Clemson, but the Irish recovered both, which is a significant upgrade from Everett Golson in ’14. His 10-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio is spectacular for a red-shirt freshman as a first-time starter. In that regard, Malik Zaire was even better in his six quarters-plus of football with four touchdown passes and no interceptions on 40 attempts.

The 15 sacks allowed by the Irish is a bit high with four of them coming against USC. That stat doesn’t do justice to the job the offensive line has done protecting the quarterbacks.

Will Fuller (32 receptions, 702 yards, 21.9 avg., 8 TDs) isn’t catching as many balls as last year, but he’s been even more productive when he does get his hands on the football. The Irish can score from any part of the field with Fuller. Chris Brown has stepped up as a chain-moving, third-down receiver, although Fuller has scored 57.1 percent of Notre Dame’s touchdowns through the air.

To rank 32nd in the country in passing yards per game (264.3) with a low turnover rate is quite an accomplishment with a red-shirt sophomore and a red-shirt freshman at quarterback.

RUSHING DEFENSE

Weekly grades: A (Texas), A- (Virginia), A (Georgia Tech), B- (UMass), C- (Clemson), C+ (Navy), B- (USC)
Average grade: B
Adjusted grade: B
Recap: The Irish opened the 2015 season in spectacular fashion against the run, holding Texas to 60 yards on 29 carries, Virginia to 127 on 30 carries (including just 67 on 28 of those attempts), and a potentially deadly Georgia Tech triple-option to just 216 yards on 46 carries.

It’s slipped a bit since then with UMass breaking off an 83-yard run, Clemson making inroads with a running back (Wayne Gallman 98 yards) and a quarterback (Deshaun Watson 93 yards), a backup Navy fullback (Quentin Ezell) doing second-quarter damage, and a big run by USC freshman running back (Ronald Jones III had a 65-yard run).

In each instance, however, Notre Dame’s rush defense responded in the second half. After Marquis Young’s 83-yard run, the Irish held UMass to 65 yards on 28 carries. Notre Dame held Clemson to just three points over the final 30:46. Navy’s second-half ground game (21 carries, 98 yards) was negated when the Irish beefed up their defense to stop the fullback run. USC was largely ineffective on the ground (29 carries, 85 yards) beyond Jones’ burst.

Notre Dame’s No. 80 national rank against the run (175.8 yards per game) is an inaccurate barometer with two of the seven opponents running triple-option, although the 4.8 yards per rush on the season is a very ugly number against any kind of attack.

Thanks largely to Sheldon Day’s penetration skills, the Irish are averaging 6.5 tackles for loss through seven games, which is one more per game than they averaged a year ago. Day and Isaac Rochell are holding the point of attack. The numbers would be even better all around had Notre Dame not lost Jarron Jones for the season.

PASSING DEFENSE

Weekly grades: A (Texas), D+ (Virginia), A- (Georgia Tech), B- (UMass), A (Clemson), A+ (Navy), C- (USC)
Average grade: B
Adjusted grade: C+
Recap: Trick plays, big plays; big plays, trick plays. Whether you want to use the modern-day term (a lack of eye discipline) or the old phraseology (busts), Notre Dame’s opponents have picked up on what Virginia was able to accomplish with quarterback Matt Johns and wideout Canaan Severin and exploited the Notre Dame secondary’s penchant for losing a grip on the passing game.

Virginia, UMass and USC tricked the Irish into big plays by drawing the aggressive Irish secondary up to support the run, and then gashing the defense through the air. The weekly Average grade is higher than the Adjusted grade due also to the fact that Texas, Georgia Tech and Navy offer very little in the passing game. (Note: Notre Dame contained Clemson’s passing game much better than the Tigers’ other opponents.)

Notre Dame’s five interceptions on 207 attempts looks much better after the last two games. The Irish had just two interceptions in the first five games and then three in the last two. Again, facing predominately mediocre passing attacks – and some that rarely pass at all – skews interception totals. Nabbing two against USC’s Cody Kessler is an accomplishment.

As is generally the case, Notre Dame offers little consistency with its pass rush (12 sacks), which puts additional pressure on the back end of the defense.

Cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke have combined for a modest six passes broken up and nine defensed. Safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield now both have an interception, one each the last two weeks, but neither are take-the-ball-away-through-the-air safeties.

The back end of the Irish defense remains the greatest concern heading into the second half of the 2015 season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Weekly grades: C- (Texas), A (Virginia), B (Georgia Tech), A (UMass), D+ (Clemson), A- (Navy), A (USC)
Average grade: B
Adjusted grade: B+
Recap: Often the most inconsistently-graded aspect of the game, due largely to the multiple categories within the all-encompassing phrase “special teams,” the Irish have played winning special teams football in six out of seven games.

The one exception was the Clemson game in which a pair of unsuccessful two-point conversions and a fumbled kick return ultimately led to Notre Dame’s only loss of the season. Since those miscues led directly to a loss, we can’t elevate this up to the A classification.

But give Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Scott Booker credit for using the special teams effectively while taking advantage of some young talent such as freshman kicker Justin Yoon, red-shirt freshman punter/kickoff man Tyler Newsome, and freshman return man C.J. Sanders.

After a shaky start, Yoon has connected on six straight field goals, including a 52-yarder at the end of the first half against Navy as well as a 46-yarder in a driving rainstorm at Clemson.

Newsome has been a momentum-changer for the Irish as a long-distance punter, an inside-the-20 punter and an out-of-the-end-zone kickoff man. His ability to flip the field and come up with clutch kicks when the Irish need them the most have been noteworthy, particularly with the execution of a directional kicking game against USC.

Sanders had the critical lost fumble against Clemson to start the second half, and he’s had some shaky moments catching punts. But he’s also sparked the Irish return games, particularly against UMass when he returned a punt 50 yards for a score. He’s unseated Amir Carlisle as Notre Dame’s kick returner, giving the Irish the threat of a big play on any opposing kickoff/punt.

In addition, there was the fake field goal for a touchdown against Virginia, Romeo Okwara’s blocked extra point against UMass, the Greer Martini/Jarrett Grace collaboration on a fake punt by UMass, Nyles Morgan’s fumble caused on the second-half kickoff against Navy, and the spectacularly-executed blocked punt against USC.

If there’s any grade that could be bumped up, it would be the special teams grade from B+ to A-. Exclude the Clemson game and it’s a hands-down A.

COACHING

Weekly grades: A (Texas), C- (Virginia), A+ (Georgia Tech), B (UMass), D (Clemson), B+ (Navy), B+ (USC)
Average grade: B
Adjusted grade: B
Recap: In 14 of Brian Kelly’s 21 losses as the Notre Dame head coach, the Irish have fallen behind by double digits in the first half, including at Clemson this year, at USC and Arizona State last season, and at Stanford, Oklahoma, at Purdue and at Michigan in 2013.

A pattern of slow starts generally is pinned on the coaching staff.

It’s impossible to overlook the scoring of points in bunches by the Irish opposition this year, which has happened in each of the last six games. That’s an unfortunate carryover from the last eight games of the 2014 season.

And yet ultimately it comes down to a black and white, cut and dried bottom line, and that is in seven games, the Irish have won six and lost one on the road by two. As often as Kelly-coached teams start slowly, they almost always offer a valiant comeback attempt, which is a direct reflection of how a team responds to its mentoring.

Winning is important to the Notre Dame players, otherwise they couldn’t bounce back from early deficits and challenge for victory. Perhaps the motivational tools at the outset of the game could use some improvement. But there’s no questioning the desire and effort of this football team when the game is on the line, as well as the overall preparation in multiple aspects of the game.

This grade can’t be higher because Notre Dame’s defense is too inconsistent in terms of fundamental play and preventing explosive plays for touchdowns. That’s a defense living on the brink of disaster much too often, even with a ton of other indicators (third-down defense, three-and-outs, second-half performance) working in their favor.

One can argue for and against Kelly’s two-point decision early in the fourth quarter against Clemson. There is gray area on both sides. But the fact is the decision ultimately impacted the defeat. The Clemson game was a missed opportunity in a difficult venue.

By and large, the staff has made this what most expected the ceiling to be through seven games – a 6-1 football team. The Irish are in position to finish as a double-digit-winning football team…and perhaps a bit more than that.


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