Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Mid-Season/Bye Week Report Card

Notre Dame’s best grade is in the passing game, although that has taken a downturn since the defense has shown some life post-Brian VanGorder.

RUSHING OFFENSE
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

• Weekly grades: B (Texas), B+ (Nevada), F (Michigan State), C (Duke), C- (Syracuse), F (N.C. State), B (Stanford)
• Average grade: C+
• Adjusted grade: C-

Notre Dame is 89th in the country at 150.0 yards rushing per game with just 3.98 yards per carry (93rd) and 12 rushing touchdowns (55th).

The Irish have had less than 150 yards rushing in just two games this season – Michigan State (25 carries, 57 yards, 2.2 avg.) and N.C. State (38 carries, 59 yards, 1.5 avg.). The best performances came against Nevada (46 carries, 239 yards, 5.2 avg.) and Texas (46 carries, 206 yards, 4.4 avg.).

Josh Adams leads the way with 391 yards and 4.8 yards per carry, but a disturbing one rushing touchdown after scoring six in his freshman season. DeShone Kizer has half (six) of Notre Dame’s rushing touchdowns, but he’s averaging three yards per carry (67 attempts), due largely to the rash of sacks in recent weeks.

Tarean Folston, who did not play versus Syracuse and N.C. State due to an ankle injury, has averaged just 3.9 yards per carry with a mere one rushing touchdown. Dexter Williams is averaging 6.5 yards per carry with three scores, but he’s carried just 27 times.

One of the most damning stats of all is the inefficiency on first down, which has led to more passes on second down. Coupled with the recent flurry of sacks, the Irish have been behind the chains a good portion of the last five games, four of which have been losses.

Of Adams’ 47 first-down carries, 22 (46.8 percent) have netted three yards or less, including 17 stuffs (two yards or less), which is more than one-third of his carries.

After Folston’s 54-yard run to start the season, nine of his 22 first-down carries (40.9 percent) have been for three yards or less. Seven (31.8 percent) have been stuffs.

Other than his 23-yard first-down run against Nevada, Williams has had 10 first-down carries for 30 yards.

The trio of Adams, Folston and Kizer has been stuffed 31-of-81 times (38.2 percent) on first down since Folston’s 54-yard run.

The bottom line: the Irish cannot count on their rushing attack when it’s needed the most, partly because of the lack of emphasis on the ground game.

PASSING OFFENSE
USA Today Sports Images

• Weekly grades: A (Texas), A- (Nevada), B (Michigan State), C+ (Duke), A (Syracuse), F (N.C. State), D (Stanford)
• Average grade: B
• Adjusted grade: C+

Regression has hit the Irish passing game hard since opening with dynamic performances against Texas (17 completions, 238 yards, five TDs), Nevada (19 completions, 205 yards, two TDs), and Michigan State (20 completions, 344 yards, two TDs).

Sacks are up (nine the last two games) with at least one interception in each of the last six games. DeShone Kizer is on pace to shoot past last year’s 10 interceptions. The Irish rank 110th nationally in sacks allowed.

The one positive performance in the passing game over the last six games was Syracuse in which the Irish netted an incredible 471 yards through the air on just 23 completions. The Orange rank 111th nationally against the pass.

The Irish don’t get marked down for managing just 54 yards passing on nine completions in hurricane-like conditions at N.C. State, but for attempting so many passes (26) in hurricane-like conditions at N.C. State.

When the Irish needed a top-notch passing performance against Stanford, they managed just 154 yards on 26 attempts (5.9 avg.) with no touchdowns, just one completion over 18 yards, two Kizer interceptions and four sacks.

With Nevada the only opponent ranked higher than 54th in pass defense, the average grade – based upon big numbers against Texas (112th in pass defense) and Syracuse (111th) -- creates a vastly different adjusted grade than the average grade.

Since converting 14-of-31 third downs in the first two games (45.1 percent), the Irish have converted 18-of-64 (28.1 percent). Even if you eliminate the weather-related 1-of-15 against N.C. State, it’s still just 34.6 percent in the other four games.

Sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown has been a standout at receiver with 28 catches at a 20.4-yard clip with six touchdowns. But Torii Hunter, Jr. (21 catches, 13.8-yard average) has scored just one touchdown, and that came in the opener against Texas. C.J. Sanders is a hit-and-miss target.

Freshman Kevin Stepherson has been a pleasant emergence, along with St. Brown, with nine receptions averaging 22.6 yards and three touchdowns. But Notre Dame’s tight ends have accounted for just six catches and one touchdown.

RUSHING DEFENSE
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

• Weekly grades: D (Texas), A (Nevada), F (Michigan State), C (Duke), B+ (Syracuse), C (N.C. State), C+ (Stanford)
• Average grade: C-
• Adjusted grade: C-

Through seven games, the Irish already have surrendered more than 200 yards rushing to three opponents with Navy and Army – threats to crack 300 yards – still on the docket.

To be fair, the defense has shown improvement since Brian VanGorder was dismissed after four games, but Syracuse is 109th in rushing offense, Michigan State is 107th, Stanford is 96th and Duke is 94th.

The only real quality rushing attacks the Irish have faced are Texas (20th), which netted 237 yards on 59 carries and five touchdowns, and N.C. State, which had an effective 157 yards on the ground in terrible weather.

Despite facing mostly anemic rushing offenses, the Irish rank 83rd in the country against the run, allowing 180.4 yards per game and a total of 14 rushing touchdowns (90th).

Credit has to go to the Mike Elston/Greg Hudson-led defense in the last three games, albeit against poor rushing offenses and/or tough weather conditions. The Irish have allowed 153.0 yards rushing per game and 3.7 yards per carry in the last three games compared to 201.0 yards rushing per game and 4.4 yards per carry in the first four.

It’s progress, and thus, a slight bump in the adjusted grade. But the Irish still have a long way to go.

PASSING DEFENSE
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

• Weekly grades: D- (Texas), A- (Nevada), D (Michigan State), D- (Duke), B (Syracuse), A (N.C. State), B (Stanford)
• Average grade: C+
• Adjusted grade: C-

The pass defense against Texas, Michigan State and Duke all led directly to losses.

With a freshman quarterback, the Longhorns averaged 17.5 yards per its 16 completions and two touchdowns, including a 72-yarder.

During the Spartans’ 36-0 run in the second and third quarters, the Notre Dame pass defense was a sieve, starting with veteran cornerback Cole Luke’s inability to defend a pass in the end zone despite perfect positioning on a freshman receiver.

The Irish recorded their first sack of the season against the Blue Devils, but that was one of the few highlights. Big-play strikes from 32 and 64 yards sparked Duke’s 10-0 run to the finish the game. Freshman quarterback Daniel Jones completed 75 percent of his passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns.

Notre Dame ranks 121st in the country in sacks with six and 94th in passes defensed (19). Terrible third-down conversion defense versus Texas (8-of-18), Michigan State (9-of-18), Duke (6-of-14) and Stanford (7-of-12) were instrumental in four of the five losses.

Only eight defenses in the country have allowed more 50-yard-plus pass plays than the Irish, who have coughed up six, including 72-yarders to Texas and Syracuse, a 68-yarder to Nevada and a 64-yarder to Duke. Again, big plays have been on the decline since VanGorder’s departure.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

• Weekly grades: B- (Texas), B+ (Nevada), F (Michigan State), D (Duke), C- (Syracuse), D (N.C. State), C (Stanford)
• Average grade: C-
• Adjusted grade: D+

Notre Dame had solid special teams performances against Texas, Nevada and Stanford. But shoddy play led directly to losses against Michigan State, Duke and N.C. State.

Against the Spartans, it was the opening-kickoff hold that negated a 100-yard return by C.J. Sanders, the “fumbled punt” off the leg of Miles Boykin, and the easy two-point conversion run allowed.

The Irish allowed a 96-yard kick return for a touchdown and missed a 42-yard field goal in a three-point loss to Duke.

The Wolfpack’s fourth-quarter blocked field goal turned into a 16-yard touchdown return for the game-winning score.

Justin Yoon has converted 5-of-8 field-goal attempts with two of his misses coming against Texas from 36 yards in the three-point overtime loss and from 42 yards in the three-point loss to Duke. He did, however, nail a clutch 40-yarder at N.C. State in abominable conditions.

Tyler Newsome has a hefty 43.6-yard punting average on 32 attempts with just one touchback, 10 punts of 50 yards-plus, and 11 punts inside the 20. Where he’s consistently struggled is flipping the field in Notre Dame’s advantage, which are missed opportunities to alter the field position.

C.J. Sanders has been an effective punt returner…when he’s had a chance. Six returns netting 96 yards (16.0 average) is impressive. Even without his long of 40 yards, he’s averaging 11.2.

Notre Dame’s kick return game remains inconsistent. Other than his 93-yard return for a score against Syracuse, Sanders is averaging 20.5 yards on his other 13 returns, which is a reflection of the hit-and-miss blocking efforts of the Irish.

On the flip side, the Irish are allowing 17.7 yards per 12 punt returns, including a 74-yarder less than a minute before halftime against Syracuse. Again, subtract that long one from the equation and Notre Dame is allowing 12.5 yards on its other 11 returns, which is poor.

COACHING
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

• Weekly grades: D (Texas), B+ (Nevada), F (Michigan State), F (Duke), A- (Syracuse), D- (N.C. State), C- (Stanford)
• Average grade: C-
• Adjusted grade: D

The bulk of the credit this season goes to a) the firing of Brian VanGorder and b) the response of the defense since VanGorder’s firing.

Some would argue that VanGorder should have been dismissed following the 2015 season. It took the “contributions” of University Vice President/Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick to get it done, but Brian Kelly didn’t resist and the healing process began.

The damage had been done.

From the ill-fated 3-3-5 defense against Texas to the inability to get the team emotionally prepared for home games against Michigan State and Duke to the over-emphasis of the passing game in stormy weather to the failure to utilize Malik Zaire’s strengths in the rain to the prolonged benching of DeShone Kizer against Stanford to the uproar created by post-game rants and finger-pointing…

…the list is lengthy. It’s difficult to imagine a coaching staff pressing the wrong button more frequently than this one has.

Considering Notre Dame has yet to face a real quality opponent (although Michigan State, Duke and Stanford are very well coached), this has been an abysmal coaching performance.


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