Brian Kelly wanted to look at everything without getting lost in it.
After tweaking the practice schedule to boost third down and red zone production along with end-game situations, Notre Dame’s head coach won’t go back to his normal routine during the season’s real second half. What Kelly wanted to do is to improve that approach during the bye week by doing a self-scout, reviewing virtually every part of Notre Dame’s game day approach that’s led to the 2-5 start.
“I was looking at a lot of things,” Kelly said. “I was looking at special teams, defense, defensive efficiency, red zones, things of that nature. Then to the point where I was actually going back and looking at sequencing, play calling, all of those things.
“I think just the state you're in, you're not leaving any stone unturned from that standpoint.”
Notre Dame can’t fix everything about this season on the fly. But here are five areas where Kelly should know the Irish can get better. Will it save this lost campaign? Probably not. But it might help Notre Dame scrap its way to a bowl game.
About That Run Game…
Less than two carries.
That’s the difference in Brian Kelly’s commitment to the ground game year over year, which feels like a twisted way to view Notre Dame’s rushing reverse through seven games. At this point last season the Irish had 276 carries or 39.4 per game. This year that figure is 264 carries, which means 37.7 carries per game.
In other words, it’s not that Notre Dame isn’t trying to run the ball, it’s more an issue that the Irish haven’t been productive when they do. An offense that averaged 234.6 rushing yards per game through seven games last year is way down to 150.0 through the same span this year.
Kelly has talked about playing slower to help the defense, which might reduce carries per game further, but to date the issue is much more efficiency than commitment. Last year C.J. Prosise was efficient* on 52.9 percent of his runs and Josh Adams was good on 59.8 percent of his carries. This year Adams is down to 53.9 percent efficiency and Tarean Folston is at 51.1 percent.
*Rush efficiency means picking up 40 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down.
The Irish rank 91st in yards per carry at 3.98. That’s below Stanford (3.99) and ahead of Arkansas (3.97), a couple traditional run-first offenses.
Third Down And Out
Of all Notre Dame’s offensive trouble spots, its third down game has been the biggest trip wire. The Irish rank 112th in third down conversions at just 33.7 percent. That stat tanked the past three games when Notre Dame went a combined 9-of-41 against Syracuse, N.C. State and Stanford.
“I think our third-down efficiency has to be better,” Kelly said. “Especially in 3rd-and-4 to 3rd-and-7.”
The bigger issue might be just avoiding third-and-long altogether with better play calling. Notre Dame has faced more third downs needing 10-plus yards (34 attempts) than needing three yards or fewer (23 attempts). No surprise, the Irish have converted just 5-of-34 in those third-and-really-long situations while third-and-short hasn’t been hyper efficient either at 12-of-23 (boosted by a 5-of-5 showing against Nevada).
That means against Power 5 competition that third-and-short isn’t even a 50-50 proposition for Notre Dame’s offense.
Miami, which leads the nation in tackles for loss, ranks No. 38 in third down defense, allowing conversions on just 35.1 percent of attempts. On paper, his might be a difficult week for Notre Dame to get right on third down.
Give Up On The Sack Race?
Maybe you’ve heard that Notre Dame doesn’t have much of a pass rush.
The Irish have just six sacks on the season and just one from a defensive lineman. Considering the Irish might not make a bowl game and have two option teams in November (meaning limited pass attempts), there’s a real chance Notre Dame doesn’t hit double-digit sacks this season. In the past five years only two Power 5 conference teams have posted single-digit sacks in a season: Kansas and Boston College. The Eagles actually did it twice.
How do the Irish fix it? Maybe they don’t. Without a true pass rushing defensive lineman, the Irish might be better off rushing three and dropping eight to muck up coverages. While drop eight won’t work against everybody, it was funky enough to slow Syracuse earlier this month. Against drop eight looks the Orange went 8-of-15 for just 55 yards and took a sack.
This is another change from the Brian VanGorder era. During the season’s first four games the Irish dropped eight on just five pass attempts.
Turnover Troubles, Again
It’s hard to make sense of Notre Dame’s turnover problems because in theory an experienced quarterback should help solve them. Yet the Irish have been poor in both keeping the football and taking it away, ranked 89th in turnovers gained (nine) and 85th in turnovers lost (13). That’s added up to a dismal turnover ratio of minus-four, which is No. 104 nationally.
Notre Dame has won the turnover battle just once all season, during its 17-10 loss to Stanford. Yet in practical terms the Irish lost that one considering Sam Mustipher’s errant snap for a safety doesn’t count and DeShone Kizer’s first interception got returned for a touchdown. Cole Luke’s fumble return going for a touchdown instead of getting blown dead would have changed that, obviously.
The Irish are on pace to have the second-worst turnover margin of the Kelly era barring a November reversal. The minus-14 turnover ratio of 2011 remains the low point with last season’s minus-six the next worst. Notre Dame is on pace to slightly go under that.
Going Even Younger
Can youth really be the cure for inexperience? Kelly intimated that might be the case when asked about players who could see their roles expand into November. Defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner, along with receivers Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson, were mentioned as potential late-season boosts, with all three already on the rise coming out of Stanford.
Against the Cardinal, Bonner forced a fumble that Julian Love recovered, Claypool played a part in the failed game-tying drive and Stepherson looked like a first-team contributor. Stepherson started against the Cardinal and the coaching staff is open to a trio of Equanimeous St. Brown, Torii Hunter Jr. and Stepherson as the team’s top three receivers. In that lineup Hunter moves into the slot to replace C.J. Sanders while Stepherson fills the space Hunter vacated.
On passing plays against Stanford, Sanders logged a season-low 10 snaps while Stepherson got a season-high 22.
“I think there's some players that even though they may have not gotten a ton of playing time, their play is starting to demand some more time, which I think you'll see over the last five weeks,” Kelly said.