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Notre Dame’s defense has limited scoring, but what keys have led to that?

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In looking at some preseason predictions, this space speculated Notre Dame would give up between 23.6 and 25.1 points per game this season. That would have been in-line with last season’s final seven games, a period in which the Irish defense performed much better than may be realized, allowing only 23.9 points per game. Such a mark would demand respect and set up Notre Dame for success. After all, if the offense could muster three touchdowns and a field goal, the Irish would claim victory more often than not.

That average currently stands at 16.5 points. Let’s put that in starker terms. If Notre Dame gave up 33.7 points per game in the season’s second half, the 2017 average would still rise to only the upper-level of that preseason window, 25.1 points per game.

Clearly, the Irish defense has been good. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko has proven deserving of every inch of offseason hype. Frankly, more probably should have been offered.

Just like Wednesday with the offense, let’s turn to a few key previously-discussed statistics to read into the defense’s success.

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

Third down conversion percentage allowed
2017: 34.95 percent
2016: 38.95 percent
2013-15: 39.34 percent
2012: 36.52 percent

Anytime a defensive metric surpasses 2012’s standard of excellence, it should be noted. Admittedly, the Irish have yet to face the stiffest challenges this season. That onslaught will begin with USC next week. Nonetheless, six games is not a negligible sample size when discussing college football. Whether that 2017 rate remains below the mark set by the peak defense of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s tenure or not, it is a pace indicating sustainable success.

For that matter, the Irish defense ranks No. 50 in the country in this category. More of note, though, is no team ahead of Notre Dame has opposed more third downs (103). This speaks to two things. First of all, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long does keep a quick pace, somewhat aided by the big plays the running game has provided. Secondly, Notre Dame’s defense has not made a habit of giving up big chunks of yardage on first and second downs. The more third downs forced, the less likely an opponent is to string together enough to sustain a damaging drive.

Average yards per pass against:
2017: 5.85 yards
2016: 7.53 yards
2013-15: 6.84 yards
2012: 5.98 yards

In other words, the Irish have not given up many big plays this season, especially through the air. No matter the opposition, a single mental lapse can balloon this statistic at any point. Avoiding that is a clear sign of defensive focus and, pardon the simplicity of this thought, competence.

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Rush attempts against per game:
2017: 34.0
2016: 42.92
2013-15: 37.73
2012: 27.85

Some will argue this statistic is skewed by Notre Dame claiming all five of its victories in decisive fashion. Perhaps it is diminished slightly by that fact. More than that, however, this points to the Irish defense minding assignments and limiting consistent rushing yards, thus greatly discouraging opponents from relying on the ground game. Even if big plays are not likely to come in the passing game, at least some yardage can be gained.

It should be noted here: This speaks to Elko’s work with the Notre Dame defensive line. Such an improvement never would have been expected coming into the season, and this change set the foundation for any further defensive success.

Turnover margin:
2017: plus seven in six games, or +1.17 per game.
2016: negative four in 12 games, or -0.33 per game.
2013-15: negative nine in 39 games, or -0.23 per game.
2012: plus eight in 13 games, or +0.62 per game.

This was mentioned Wednesday. This will be mentioned again Friday. This point cannot be mentioned enough times.

It is much easier to win games when your opponents’ possessions turn into your scoring opportunities. Forcing 14 turnovers to date, the Irish defense has done that more than at any point in this window. Even that vaunted 2012 defense managed “only” 23 takeaways. (And let’s remember, five of those 16 interceptions came on five consecutive Michigan pass attempts in truly one of the most absurd play-by-play sequences in gridiron history.) (And to anyone reading that previous parenthetical sentence but not remembering that Sept. 22, 2012, contest — it is not an exaggeration. Literally, five Wolverine pass attempts in a row were intercepted.)

To summarize: Notre Dame’s points per game will rise in the second half of the season. The yards per pass against likely will, as well. As long as the Irish continue to limit third down conversions while driving opponents away from the running game, the defense will still stand out as an unexpected success. Every turnover will only enhance that strength.

Got questions? It’s bye week. Let’s try to answer them.
Later this week, this space intends to run a mailbag. If you have any questions for it, drop them into the comments below. They do not need to be litigated there — and they just might “disappear” if they are — but good ones will be noted and hopefully answered by week’s end.

A statistical look at Notre Dame’s offense through six games compared to the past

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Before the season, it was largely expected Notre Dame’s passing game would thrive. This thinking came from offensive coordinator Chip Long’s past, Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s tendencies and Notre Dame’s recent history.

That has not been the case. Instead, the Irish offense has gone as far as its running game could carry it. In five of six instances, that was plenty far enough.

The obvious ways to illustrate those differences come in rushing and passing yards per game, maybe with an inclusion of points per game. Averages of 308.0 rushing yards and 163.2 passing yards leading to 40.0 points per game do not quite tell much of a story, though.

Rather, let’s refer back to a grouping of statistics discussed before the season. The premise behind them was they are quickly found and calculated, but they still give a more in-depth understanding of a particular game or season.

RELATED READING: Four key statistical tidbits and a $4 cost (Sept. 1)

“Both third down conversion percentage and turnover margin are more accurate indicators of possession and control of the game than time of possession is. An explosive offense might find the end zone multiple times from 50 or more yards away, diminishing the time of possession while still dictating the terms of the contest. Average yards per pass attempt indicate just how frequent those big plays may be. Total rush attempts show how confident an offense is in its ability to produce in the most basic way possible.”

Using 2016 as the low-end of the performance spectrum and 2012 as the high-end, with the intervening three years as a combined middle ground, how has Notre Dame fared in those categories thus far in 2017?

Average yards per pass:
2017: 5.73 yards.
2016: 7.86 yards.
2013-2015: 8.13 yards.
2012: 7.46 yards.

Fewer than six yards per passing attempt may be concerning, but consider the stated purpose of the metric: To indicate just how frequent big plays might be. The Irish have not needed to rely on junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s arm for those big plays. Rather, his legs, and others in Notre Dame’s rushing game, have provided them. Of 23 Irish plays of at least 30 yards thus far this season, 16 have come on the ground.

RELATED READING: Monday Afternoon Leftovers: Notre Dame has already exceeded many of 2016’s totals

Rush attempts per game:
2017: 43.17
2016: 34.17
2013-15: 34.38
2012: 37.54

It may be obvious Notre Dame is relying on its running game this season, but it is still surprising to see the number of rushing attempts per game tick upward by 26.34 percent over last season. Some may claim this number is inflated by the inevitable draining of the clock in routs, and that is not false, but those moments alone do not account for such a spike. Rather, Long, Kelly and the Irish are simply running the ball that much more often.

Turnover margin:
2017: plus seven in six games, or +1.17 per game.
2016: negative four in 12 games, or -0.33 per game.
2013-15: negative nine in 39 games, or -0.23 per game.
2012: plus eight in 13 games, or +0.62 per game.

Much of the credit for the turnover margin should go to the defense for forcing 14 turnovers (more on the defense tomorrow, tentatively). Nonetheless, Notre Dame has given away the ball only seven times through six games, especially notable considering a first-time starter at quarterback has led the offense.

Third down conversion percentage:
2017: 39.56 percent
2016: 40.48 percent
2013-15: 44.11 percent
2012: 46.33 percent

Even if removing the abysmal 3-of-17 performance in the 20-19 Irish loss to Georgia, the Irish have converted only 44.59 percent of their third downs. That figure would greatly exceed the national average, but it is not necessarily the mark of an elite team or a team looking at sustained success. Despite everything Notre Dame has going for it offensively this year, more consistent success on third down will be an imperative for a breakthrough second half of the season.

Got questions? It’s bye week. Let’s try to answer them.
Later this week, this space intends to run a mailbag. If you have any questions for it, drop them into the comments below. They do not need to be litigated there — and they just might “disappear” if they are — but good ones will be noted and hopefully answered by week’s end.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Second half of schedule continues to look even more impressive

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The back half of Notre Dame’s schedule toughened its outlook over the weekend, suffering only one loss, and that came on the road against the No. 2 team in the country. Overall, Irish foes went 8-3 (not counting Notre Dame’s win at North Carolina) and are predicted to do so again this weekend, with Wake Forest joining the Irish in taking the week off.

Temple (3-3): The Owls may be buoyed by a 34-10 win at East Carolina, led by junior quarterback Logan Marchi’s 321 yards and two touchdowns, but the score is more a commentary on the Pirates’ defense than anything else. East Carolina ranks last in the country in yards allowed per game, making Marchi’s first career 300-yard game and Temple’s 523 total yards effects rather than causes.

Marchi did cut down on his turnover tendencies. After throwing seven interceptions over the past two weeks, he threw only one in the conference victory.

The Owls may make it two in a row, favored by 9.5 points against Connecticut this weekend (12 p.m. ET, ESPNews). A combined point total over/under of 62 hints at a 36-26 conclusion.

Georgia (6-0): The Bulldogs defense stifled Vanderbilt, holding the Commodores to 64 rushing yards while the Georgia rushing attack powered the offense with 423 yards en route to a 45-14 victory.

Senior running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb led the way, as usual, with 288 combined yards on 28 total carries. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm had an efficient day, as well, completing 7-of-11 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason returned from injury during mop-up time to complete all three of his pass attempts, gaining 24 yards.

It will continue to be a breeze for the Bulldogs, now hosting Missouri (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). Favored by a whopping 30.5 points, Georgia very well may prevail by more than a 43-13 margin.

Boston College (2-4): The Eagles continue to play the ACC’s elite close and physically, but they just cannot come out on top. Despite not turning over the ball and committing only five penalties, Boston College fell to Virginia Tech 23-10.

Another of the ACC’s best welcomes the Eagles this week, with Louisville favored by 21.5 points (12:20 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The over/under of 57 indicates an unorthodox score of 39-18. Frankly, Boston College has played everyone relatively close so far — there is no reason to think that stops now.

Michigan State (4-1): When Notre Dame routed the Spartans a few weeks ago, it looked like nothing more than an easy evening against a rebuilding opponent. Michigan State may have rewritten that narrative with its 14-10 victory at Michigan on Saturday.

The Spartans got out to a 14-3 lead at halftime, an important note as the second half was marred by a miserable rainstorm. Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke led Michigan State both through the air and on the ground, gaining 61 yards and a score on 15 carries.

The Spartans now head to Minnesota (8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) to risk their undefeated Big Ten record. A 4.5-point favorite in a likely low-scoring night, Michigan State should come out on the right side of a 22-18 theoretical final.

Miami (OH) (2-4): The RedHawks season took a turn for the worse this weekend. Bowling Green is a MAC doormat, yet Miami lost to them 37-29. The RedHawks looked poised to escape with a close win before fumbling on the plus seven-yard line with less than two minutes left. A Falcons defender picked up the loose ball, and 93 yards later it was an eight-point margin with only 1:21 left.

The season is not yet lost, though, and Miami can right the ship at Kent State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3). Favored by 9.5 points, the RedHawks will undoubtedly be plenty motivated this weekend. Combining the over/under with the spread leads to a 26-17 final.

North Carolina (1-5): Notre Dame knocked the Tar Heels another step down a spiral staircase. The 33-10 Irish victory will likely be a larger margin of defeat than North Carolina experiences this weekend, but even a slim loss could be crippling for the Tar Heels. Hosting Virginia (3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network) just may be their last best chance at another FBS-level victory this year.

Bookmakers do not expect them to manage that. North Carolina is a four-point home underdog against a lower-level ACC opponent. That should give a very clear idea of how far this season might sink. A 55.5-point over/under makes for a 30-25 ending.

USC (5-1): The Trojans cruised past Oregon State 38-10 in Beavers’ head coach Gary Andersen’s final game before resigning. USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-35 passing.

This week will be much tougher on the Trojans. They host Utah (8 p.m. ET, ABC), likely the toughest competition for the Pac 12 South Division title. USC should not have too much trouble, favored by 13 points with a 54.5-point over/under, rounding to a 34-20 result.

North Carolina State (5-1): The Wolfpack has definitively arrived, topping Louisville 39-25 on Thursday to add a second victory over the ACC’s top teams, only awaiting a Nov. 4 matchup vs. Clemson.

North Carolina State gained 520 total yards and averaged 11.5 yards per pass attempt. For a team led by its defense, the offensive explosion was quite noticeable. Junior quarterback Ryan Finley led the way, completing 20-of-31 passes for 367 yards, connecting with three different receivers for at least 99 yards.

The momentum should continue at Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET, ACC Network), where the Wolfpack is favored by a likely-too-slim 12 points with an over/under of 56. A 34-22 final sounds both too close and too generous for the Panthers.

Wake Forest (4-2): The Demon Deacons could not recover from going down 14-0 in the first quarter to Clemson, eventually falling behind 28-0 before closing the gap to 28-14. The Tigers clearly controlled the contest throughout, holding the time of possession edge 35:05 to 24:55 and rushing for 190 yards on a whopping 48 carries.

Florida State may be struggling this year, but by beating the Seminoles, Miami and quarterback Malik Rosier cleared most of their path to an undefeated ACC regular season. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Miami (FL) (4-0): The good news: The Hurricanes beat Florida State 24-20 thanks to a 23-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Malik Rosier with only six seconds left.

The obvious news: This may be a down year for the Seminoles, somewhat devaluing the win.

The forward-looking news: Miami has only one genuine ACC challenge left, Nov. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, meaning an undefeated conference slate and a regular season as a whole are both distinct possibilities.

The bad news: The Hurricanes lost leading running back Mark Walton for the season due to an injury.

They will look to first adjust to Walton’s absence against Georgia Tech this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Favored by just less than a touchdown, Miami will need to handle the triple-option to come out ahead in a supposed 29-23 contest.

Navy (5-0): For the second consecutive week, the Midshipmen needed to come from behind to preserve their undefeated season. This time, that comeback took until there were 15 seconds left, when junior quarterback Zach Abey completed a 16-yard touchdown pass to push Navy past Air Force 48-45. Abey accounted for four total touchdowns in the back-and-forth affair.

This week the Midshipmen may not be so lucky, heading to Memphis as four-point underdogs (3:45 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The 76-point over/under implies another offensive afternoon, perhaps 40-36 in the Tigers’ favor.

Stanford (4-2): The Cardinal slipped past Utah 23-20 in a tough, one might even say gritty, game. Junior running back Bryce Love managed only 152 yards on 20 carries, but his fourth-quarter, 68-yard touchdown run provided the difference.

Stanford turned to two quarterbacks. Keller Chryst completed 7-of-14 passes for 106 yards while K.J. Costello went 6-of-10 for 82 yards.

Whoever takes the snaps against Oregon this weekend (11 p.m. ET, ESPN) will undoubtedly rely on Love to match a 10.5-point spread in the Cardinal’s favor. A 36-25 final may make for a low-scoring #Pac12AfterDark, but that catchphrase exists for a reason. Something is bound to keep it interesting.

Got questions? It’s bye week. Let’s try to answer them.
Later this week, this space intends to run a mailbag. If you have any questions for it, drop them into the comments below. They do not need to be litigated there — and they just might “disappear” if they are — but good ones will be noted and hopefully answered by week’s end.

Monday Afternoon Leftovers: Notre Dame has already exceeded many of 2016’s totals

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Editor’s Note: Excuse the title change from the usual “Monday Morning Leftovers.” It’s bye week. These things happen.

Halfway through the season, Notre Dame has already exceeded its win total from all of a year ago. That may not mean as much when the preceding standard was four victories, but it is a sign of improvement, nonetheless. It is not the only one, either.

The Irish defense has already matched the 2016 total of 14 turnovers. The split in those takeaways varies a bit thus far, but the shift points to a more sustainable aggressiveness.

2016: eight interceptions, six fumbles recovered, eight fumbles forced.
2017 through six games: six interceptions, eight fumbles recovered, 10 fumbles forced.

Both interceptions and fumble recoveries can be dictated by the unpredictable bounce of an oblong ball. Being in the vicinity more often obviously helps those numbers, but it can still come down to chance. The increase in forced fumbles — and keep in mind, that increase has come in just half the number of games — indicates Notre Dame will continue to disrupt opposing offenses in the most effective manner possible.

“Our ability to give our offense additional possessions by takeaways, we’ve been starving in that area for a few years,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “To see our defense really transform itself from a group that really never came up with those plays to one that is thriving in that regard, that’s probably the biggest transformation.”

Continuing with some increased defensive marks of note, Notre Dame has 13 sacks through six games, led by junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s three. 2016’s total? All of 14.

Including those sacks, the Irish have made 35 tackles for loss this season, led by senior linebackers Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan with 4.5 apiece. Notre Dame did not register its 35th tackle for loss until its eighth game in 2016, amassing 61 total.

If removing that eighth game — a victory over Miami with 12 tackles for loss — the Irish brought down the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage only 49 times in 11 games. Again, this year’s defense is well ahead of that pace.

The offense has already outperformed its predecessor, as well.
The most obvious difference between Notre Dame in 2017 and its dismal 2016 is the emphasis on the running game. That change has been most felt, intentionally so, in the red zone.

“We’ve got really good players that we want to feature, and [it is a] commitment that I made to change the focus of the offense toward a much more physical approach to running the football,” Kelly said following the 52-17 topping of Miami (OH). “We’ve got really good players. So making sure that we utilized out strengths, and our strengths are we’ve got two guys on the left side that are going to playing on Sundays as well as a very good center, right guard, and our right tackles are coming along, as well.

“… Maybe I just woke up one morning, hit my head and came to my sense and said, let’s go to our strengths and run the football.”

In 12 games last year, the Irish rushed for 18 touchdowns.
Through six games this year, Notre Dame has rushed for 23 touchdowns.

That is playing to your strengths, indeed.

Junior running back Josh Adams has made it a habit to run away from defenders and into the end zone this year, a distinct shift for Notre Dame from a year ago. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Six of those ground scores have come from more than 30 yards away. The Irish have 16 total rushes of at least that length, as well as seven passes. Last year, only 25 plays in 12 games exceeded 30 yards, seven rushes and 18 passes.

That is not to say the receivers have not been routinely involved in the big plays this year. Kelly has given them distinct credit for some of the longer runs.

“The physicality does not stop at the offensive line,” he said earlier in October. “The physicality is all over the field. We’ve got guys at the wide receiver and tight end position that are sustaining blocks and are playing really physical all the way down the field. That says a lot about their commitment to what we’re doing.

“At times, you can get frustrated that you’re not getting the ball but these guys are really doing a great job.”

Junior running back Josh Adams has eight of those 30-plus yard carries as well as one reception in that category. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has four such rushes, and junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has three receptions qualifying.

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: A 2014 win over Stanford helped create Notre Dame’s current offense

Another factor has changed from preseason expectations: The Irish schedule.
Notre Dame’s 2017 was always going to be split into two halves. The first would feature the unknown in a Georgia team with unproven potential, but otherwise be devoid of challenge. The second half would showcase two Pac-12 national title contenders.

Well, Stanford is out of the title race and USC cannot afford another loss if it wants to remain in it. Georgia, however, is in the thick of it, and Michigan State displayed some validity Saturday by upsetting Michigan on the road.

The emphasis here should echo Kelly’s sentiments from Sunday: The back half of this schedule is loaded, with five of the six opponents currently ranked. Of those five, though, the ACC duo may present more of a challenge than the Pac-12 pair. Few would have seen that coming before the season.

Do not be surprised at all if North Carolina State beats the Irish a week after Notre Dame outdoes the Trojans. If that occurs, do not mark it up as a “letdown” or a “trap game.” No. The Wolfpack just might be that good, and USC might be a step below.

Such is the flip that can occur in just six weeks.

With that in mind, a reminder: The polls are meaningless.
The first College Football Playoff committee ranking comes out Tuesday, Oct. 31, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Until then, every top-25 poll mentioned is done so only to provide conversational fodder and offer some delineation between the contenders and the rest of the country.

The polls have no meaning, no consequence, no effect. They do not influence the committee, they do not change coaches’ game plans, they do not alter broadcast times.

Frankly, there is no reason to think North Carolina State is not better than the Trojans, even though the Associated Press ranks USC at No. 13 and the Wolfpack at No. 20. The beauty of college football is the Irish will provide a pertinent comparison point between the two teams by the end of the month.

Maybe Will Fuller was the secret ingredient to 2015’s success.
Fuller left Notre Dame for the NFL after his junior season, depriving quarterback DeShone Kizer of his preferred target in 2016. In only his second game of this season, Fuller caught two passes for 57 yards and two touchdowns last night in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Houston Texans receiver now has four touchdowns this season. To reiterate, Fuller has played two games this year.

Kizer, meanwhile, was pulled after his second turnover as the Cleveland Browns lost to the New York Jets yesterday.

Got questions? It’s bye week. Let’s try to answer them.
Later this week, this space intends to run a mailbag. If you have any questions for it, drop them into the comments below. They do not need to be litigated there — and they just might “disappear” if they are — but good ones will be noted and hopefully answered by week’s end.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Recover, relax, recruit and ready for USC (and Navy)

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With a week off before hosting USC, Notre Dame’s to-do list is filled with the obvious: Get healthy, rest up and get ready for one of the more difficult second halves of the season in the country.

The most pressing piece of that first category — health and recovery — junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush should take first-team snaps in practice Wednesday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. Notre Dame has today (Sunday) off, as usual, and will spend Monday only in the weight and film rooms. With Tuesday an added off day thanks to the bye week, Kelly expects the number of days with such a focus on rehab to be enough for Wimbush.

To be clear, in no uncertain terms, with no ambiguity, Wimbush remains the Irish starting quarterback despite sophomore Ian Book leading the way to a 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Saturday.

“Brandon is our starter,” Kelly said. “Ian did a great job coming in while Brandon wasn’t healthy, but no.”

Senior right guard Alex Bars suffered a “low-grade ankle sprain” against the Tar Heels. That should be the only other injury Notre Dame may worry about in two weeks. Naturally, the Irish will spend plenty of time these next two weeks tending to the ankles of junior running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore running back Tony Jones. None of them are 100 percent, but all could and would play if Notre Dame had a game scheduled this week, Kelly said.

“We also need to get some guys that are banged up some rest and rehab,” he said. “That’s very, very important as we get ready for this big push for the next six weeks.”

When in practice this week, the Irish defense will focus on more than USC. As has been the case in many years during Kelly’s tenure, Notre Dame will spend some of the bye week getting introduced to the triple-option scheme run by Navy, even though the Irish will not see that attack until Nov. 18.

Some of the coaching staff will hit the road Tuesday to begin recruiting for a few days, while the rest of the staff will do so Thursday after practice. The players will then have the weekend off, an undoubtedly welcomed respite considering this week is mid-terms week, making it only a physical bye in its own way.

Upon return, Kelly knows what awaits Notre Dame in the second half of the season. If looking at the Associated Press top 25 poll released today, five of the six coming Irish opponents are ranked: in chronological order — USC at No. 13, North Carolina State at No. 20, unranked Wake Forest, No. 11 Miami, No. 25 Navy and No. 23 Stanford. The Irish are ranked No. 16 in the inconsequential poll, while previous opponents Georgia (No. 4) and Michigan State (No. 21) make it seven foes on the listing.

“We’ve got to coach better and our players have to play better in the second half because we’re going to have five of our next six opponents ranked currently,” Kelly said. “Pleased with where we are at the halfway point, but this is not where we want as a destination.”