Much has been made this week about Notre Dame getting stronger as the season goes on. The unusual aspect of that statement is it is meant literally. Apparently the Irish are still progressing in the weight room, rather than simply holding on through the end of the season as has been the case in years past and quick logic might favor. A football season is brutal enough — why add additional strain each week?
“We’ve made incredible strides during the season,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We’re a stronger football team today than we were in August.”
This space is not one to deep dive on weight-lifting techniques and physical fitness, especially not at this time in the week. Rather, let’s take senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill’s word for it.
“It just continues to allow us to become stronger as the season goes on,” he said Wednesday. “I think a lot of programs are probably focused on maintenance throughout the year, just keeping their guys ready to play, whereas our staff has really focused on us getting stronger and growing as the season progresses.”
This space, however, is one to notice the on-field effects of that strength. Quite literally, the Irish are a better football team entering November than they were in all of September.
Aside from the loss, it is hard to find fault with a 5-1 start. Notre Dame won those five games by an average of 28 points, after all. Yet, the victory at Michigan State hinged entirely upon three turnovers. The other victories were hardly against tough opponents, even if Boston College has turned around its season since then.
Those beginnings showed little of what was to come in two blowouts of top-15 opponents in consecutive weeks. How did the Irish rout both USC and North Carolina State? Though the passing game is still developing, Notre Dame simply played better than it had all season against the best opponents it faced since losing to Georgia in the second week of the year.
Turning to four statistics referenced here a few times this season, the differences in beating the Trojans and the Wolfpack are stark when compared to the six games before the bye week, even when compared to the Michigan State game in particular.
Third down conversion percentage:
Through six games: 39.56 percent
At Michigan State specifically: 57.1 percent
vs. USC and NC State: 55.2 percent
Third down conversion percentage allowed:
Through six games: 34.95 percent
At Michigan State: 57.9 percent
vs. USC and NC State: 31.0 percent
The Spartans gained yards against the Irish. They kept drives alive. Notre Dame’s defense never granted that luxury to the Trojans or the Wolfpack.
Through six games: +1.17 per game
At Michigan State: +3
vs. USC and NC State: plus four in two games, or +2.0 per game.
Perhaps more vital than the simple margin, Notre Dame did not turn over the ball against the Trojans or the Wolfpack — blocked punt notwithstanding. While the defense continues its aggressive play, the Irish offense has become even more protective of the ball, robbing opponents of chances at short fields or quick points.
Rush attempts per game:
Through six games: 43.17
At Michigan State: 40
vs. USC and NC State: 101 in two games, or 50.5 per game.
Rush attempts against per game:
Through six games: 34.0
At Michigan State: 32.
vs. USC and NC State: 55 in two games, or 27.5 per game.
In a sample size this small, some of that decrease in rush attempts against per game ties to both the Trojans the Wolfpack leaning on their passing games, but that aside, neither wanted to run against Notre Dame in the first place. Meanwhile, the Irish rely on the ground game more than ever.
Average yards per pass:
Through six games: 5.73 yards
At Michigan State: 8.65 yards
vs. USC and NC State: 5.46 yards
Average yards per pass against:
Through six games: 5.85 yards
At Michigan State: 6.51 yards
vs. USC and NC State: 6.48 yards
Frankly, allowing fewer than 6.5 yards against the two best passing attacks seen thus far this season should be considered an accomplishment, even if it is a bump up from the previous marks.
RELATED READING: Four key statistical tidbits and a $4 cost (Sept. 1)
A statistical look at Notre Dame’s offense through six games compared to the past (Oct. 11)
Notre Dame’s defense has limited scoring, but what keys have led to that? (Oct. 12)
The Irish played well, at least well enough, in the season’s first half. They played much better against superior competition the last two weeks. Rising to that challenge may be seen as a change from recent years. Perhaps the change is more fundamental, and they really are getting better with each week.
Only one rushing touchdown allowed
Notre Dame has scored 30 touchdowns via the rush through eight games while allowing only one. That latter figure leads the country. (The offensive number is tied with Oregon for No. 7 in the nation. Florida Atlantic leads the way with 32.)
Allowing just one running score speaks to the Irish defense’s discipline, of course. No one has broken past its second level to outrace a safety to the end zone. The only touchdown given up was a six-yard run by Georgia’s Sony Michel.
It also speaks to Notre Dame’s ability to stymie opposing drives. Only 23.4 percent of drives have reached the red zone against the Irish defense. (25 times out of 107 tries.)
When it comes to preventing rushing scores, this is a common theme. Alabama and Virginia Tech have given up two touchdowns on the ground apiece. The Tide allow only 17.0 percent of opposing drives to reach the red zone (16 of 94) while the Hokies stifle their opposition to the rate of 13.1 percent (14 of 107).
Anyway, all this is to say, Notre Dame’s defense has blossomed into this team’s strength. USC and North Carolina State boast the country’s No. 35 and No. 38 scoring offenses, respectively. Not only did they rack up all of 21 points against the Irish, they ran a whopping 10 combined plays in the red zone.
A last-minute GameDay question
As these thoughts went through the cheese grater of editing, a very bland name popped up on Twitter.
Obviously, this answer hinges on this coming weekend’s results. If both TCU (v. Texas) and Oklahoma (at Oklahoma State) lose, then the Big 12 is all-but knocked out of College Football Playoff contention entirely and sending College GameDay there would be exceedingly unlikely. Likewise, if the Hurricanes lose to Virginia Tech tomorrow, then Miami will plummet down the standings and Lee Corso donning a leprechaun’s hat becomes doubtful, even if the Irish should be favored next weekend no matter how the Hurricanes fare against the Hokies.
Thus, Michael, expect it to be Georgia at Auburn, provided they survive South Carolina and Texas A&M, respectively. In that case, the game in Jordan-Hare will end up in the 7 p.m. ET slot on ESPN.
Now did this need addressing? No. But it granted this scribe a chance to publicly remind Mr. Smith that he owes me a bottle of alcohol of my choosing for accurately predicting DeShone Kizer would start at Texas in the 2016 season opener. It would admittedly be quite welcome right about now.