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Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Correcting a relaxed defense & injury updates


Though Notre Dame’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest was hardly ever in doubt Saturday, the Irish defense also never played up to its 2017 standard. The Demon Deacons final three scores can perhaps be chalked up to garbage time malaise, but the yardage totals before that stretch speak to an efficient offense moving the ball nearly at will.

Through two minutes less than three quarters, Wake Forest gained 352 total yards (224 passing, 128 rushing). The only thing preventing the Demon Deacons from putting genuine pressure on Notre Dame was their difficulty on third downs, converting only three of 10 to that point. For context, that is more total yards than five previous Irish opponents, including each of the last three, managed in entire games.

Before criticizing the Irish defense, some kudos should be offered to Wake Forest and head coach Dave Clawson’s staff.

“That’s the first thing I’ve told everybody tonight, hats off to Wake Forest,” Notre Dame senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said following the final victory of a successful three-game stretch at home. “Offensively they came in and executed really well. Their quarterback was crisp in his reads, getting the ball to his receivers, and they got effective in the run game.”

Naturally, Tranquill and the Irish expected to keep the Deacons in check no matter how well senior quarterback John Wolford played (28-of-45 for 331 yards and two touchdowns plus 62 rushing yards and a score on 11 carries). Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday some of the issues may have come from a schematic angle.

“From a coaching standpoint, if we had to do some things differently, we definitely would have done them differently,” Kelly said. “Maybe [we] got too cute in terms of what we were trying to accomplish, trying to cover up some things that we thought they knew about us.”

Without saying as much, Kelly seemed to be referencing the unique dynamic of Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko having spent the last three seasons in the same position at Wake Forest. If his tendencies, preferences and plans are familiar to anybody, it should be Clawson.

“We didn’t do what we normally do,” Kelly said. “We’ll take some of the blame for that in terms of coaching.”

Then, there is the indifference created by a large lead. Kelly specifically referenced Notre Dame’s 41-16 advantage it gained with 2:04 remaining in the third quarter. The Deacons promptly went 75 yards in six plays and 1:34 to cut seven points off that margin. If including that with the fourth quarter totals, Wake Forest gained 235 yards in Saturday’s final 17:04. Including one on that touchdown drive, the Deacons converted three of their final four third downs.

“We didn’t handle ourselves in a manner to close out the game the way we have all year,” Kelly said. “So a little bit of coaching there, a little bit of having a killer instinct on defense, and Wake Forest executing extremely well.”

The Elko aspect is a confluence of his success, Notre Dame’s lax defense last year and a one-in-three chance of scheduling. That will not come about again.

The decreased defensive intensity, however, will undoubtedly be a coaching point for Kelly this week before heading south to face a Miami (FL) offense averaging 461.0 yards per game.

Injury updates
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush officially has a bruised left hand. Kelly indicated the treatment was as simple as an ice pack and expects the dual-threat to be good to go against the Hurricanes.

Kelly reiterated junior running back Josh Adams is not in the concussion protocol after missing all but the first quarter Saturday.

“He felt great today,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to practice and be ready for Miami.”

Junior running back Dexter Williams may not have the same availability. A sprained ankle has robbed Williams of his explosiveness much of the season. When he broke loose with open field in front of him but was quickly tracked down by the Wake Forest defense, that ankle presumably prevented Williams from speeding away for more than 32 yards.

Kelly said the ankle is no longer the pressing concern with Williams, but rather a quad contusion from earlier in the season has acted up.

“It’s an old injury that has been one that has popped up here and there,” Kelly said. “As you saw in his long run, it affected him. He’s a day-to-day kind of guy.”

From there, Notre Dame should be relatively healthy. Sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem suffered a hyperextension of his knee, but Kelly said he will not be limited this week. Junior tight end Alizé Mack will return from a concussion Monday. Senior cornerback Nick Watkins will be as available as tendonitis allows him to be. When he can’t go, in steps sophomore Troy Pride.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame is really good, even when it isn’t

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — How quickly do college football fans forget? Three weeks ago may as well not have happened. Notre Dame was on bye, so one might think Irish fans would have seen some other games, remembered the notable results, memorized scores such as:

Oct. 13: Clemson 24, Syracuse 27.
Oct. 13: Washington State 3, Cal 37.
Oct. 14: Washington 7, Arizona State 13.

There is a distinct and important difference between those trio of tallies and the final from Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday:

Nov. 4: Notre Dame 48, Wake Forest 37.

Winning week-in and week-out is hard. Very few teams can do it. This year, just five teams have done so thus far, and only so much praise should be heaped upon Central Florida and Wisconsin for winning every game in their particularly-unimpressive schedules. If winning is hard enough, winning in dominating fashion can be nearly impossible to do for an entire fall.

“We play to win and we play to win hard,” Notre Dame fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said after Saturday’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest. “… We’re trying to dominate no matter what the score is, no matter where we are on the field or what the other team is doing. It’s our job to dominate our opponent no matter what the situation is. We’re never going to try to just get out of here with a win.”

Alabama and Nick Saban have proven doing that for three full months is not truly impossible, just similar in appearance. In quite the dichotomy, the Irish showed they are capable of that task even while it remains just beyond their reach.

Notre Dame’s offensive line exceeds all attempts at description.
It has been long-known the Irish road pavers were good. Ripping through the Demon Deacons for 384 yards on 45 rushes with hardly any boost from junior running back Josh Adams, however, is more than good. It was an emphatic confirmation of how far ahead of their competition the Notre Dame offensive linemen are. From freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey to McGlinchey and back to right tackle with sophomore Tommy Kraemer, the six linemen open holes so large two running backs could run through them without touching either defenders or each other.

Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey (left) and senior left guard Quenton Nelson get the headlines, but the entire Irish offensive line deserves high praise by this point. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The tight ends, all of them included, play a role in that run blocking, as well.

Wake Forest’s rush defense is not exactly stellar, giving up an average of 183.8 yards per game before facing the Irish. Missing leading tackler and junior safety Jessie Bates did not help that cause.

Yet Notre Dame’s more than doubling of that figure underscores how easily the Irish ran Saturday. Notre Dame converted eight of its 16 third-down attempts. Four of those first downs came on only six rushing tries, gaining 11.8 yards per carry Whenever the Deacons thought they had stymied the Irish offense, it turned to the running game. It turned to that offensive line.

“This to me was a different game than we’ve ever had,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said. “We’ve never had a game that we couldn’t get [the opponent] off the field like that.”

Heisman-hopeful Adams was Notre Dame’s seventh-leading rusher. Even his long-run of 13 yards trailed the high marks of the other six ballcarriers. As strong of a season as Adams is having, the offensive line showed Saturday it is making Adams’ individual highlights possible.

That line can dominate the rest of the schedule at this point. Frankly, a College Football Playoff rematch with top-ranked Georgia is tantalizing not just because it would be a Playoff game and would hold those inherent stakes, but also because it would allow for a definitive measuring stick of the Irish offensive line’s progress. It seems increasingly possible the line could now handle the country’s best front-seven.

But Notre Dame’s defense is human.
With nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the temperature in South Bend was a frisky 45 degrees. Fog was descending upon Notre Dame Stadium. After a day of rain, it was wet, cold and miserable. Hardly anyone wanted to be outside.

The Irish defense lost its focus. An experienced quarterback took advantage of that. The Deacons managed two more touchdowns. These are the results of fallible human nature.

Wake Forest never truly threatened to take control of the game, but the Deacons’ offense did not struggle in Saturday’s second half. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

“[Defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s message to me and all the other guys was just when you think this game gets easy, it humbles you really fast,” senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “It did that tonight for us defensively.”

Not much else needs to be said. Notre Dame misread options, misfit holes, allowed receivers to finish routes. The Irish gave up more than 20 points for the first time this season. Wake Forest’s 587 total yards towers over the 496 gained by Michigan State. Notre Dame forced only one turnover.

None of these are good things. The Irish are aware of as much.

“The great ones are consistent,” Tranquill said. “Defensively we didn’t execute tonight, offensively we did. If we want to be a championship team, we have to play great defense. We have to come back next week and execute better.”

To win the next five games, Notre Dame will need more from its defense, but in giving credit to the Irish offense, Tranquill acknowledged a margin for error. Through the season’s first half, the offensive explosions drew the headlines, but the defense was the real backbone of the team. That became even truer the last two weeks. That offensive firepower, though, allowed Notre Dame to flip that script for an afternoon.

“Even when we had a bad performance defensively, our offense is there to put up 48 points and absolutely crush the opponent.”

Jonathan Doerer can fill his intended freshman role.
Notre Dame recruited the freshman kicker with the explicit intention of him kicking off this season to spare junior Justin Yoon some of the leg work. Instead, Doerer flagged toward the end of preseason practice, leading the Irish coaching staff to keep him sidelined and the kickoff duties on Yoon’s plate. When Doerer did get his chances, he sent them either short or out of bounds.

All six Notre Dame kicks came from Doerer on Saturday, three going for touchbacks. The best Wake Forest kickoff return reached the 30-yard line. Including the touchbacks, the Deacons’ average starting field position off those nine kickoffs was the 25.1-yard line.

There is no need to watch Tuesday’s College Football Playoff poll release.
The Irish will remain No. 3 in the selection committee poll come 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday. It would be quite a shock if No. 4 Clemson’s 38-31 victory over mutual opponent No. 20 North Carolina State was enough to move the Tigers past Notre Dame after the Irish beat the Wolfpack 35-14 just a week ago.

Similarly, No. 5 Oklahoma barely got past No. 11 Oklahoma State, 62-52. That certainly qualifies as a résumé-building win, but it should not vault the Sooners past Notre Dame.

With Nos. 1 and 2, Georgia and Alabama, both prevailing, as well, the top-five should remain as are.

The Irish may not have left Wake Forest in shambles, but they did not struggle much in the victory, either. This week especially, a win alone will likely be enough in the committee’s eyes. More than a third of the top-25 lost: Nos. 6, 7, 11, 13, 15, 19, 20, 21 and 22.

Football matters only so much.
When Kelly opened his postgame comments with a mention of Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, he voiced what most in the Notre Dame Stadium press box had been thinking for the better part of seven hours. Prister has covered Notre Dame football for more than 30 years, attending more than 300 consecutive games. (That number is actually far closer to 400, but I am not 100 percent certain of the exact figure at the moment.) He suffered a heart attack before Saturday’s game.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family,” Kelly said. “… Notre Dame football and obviously everybody associated with our program has him and his family in our prayers.

“Tim is a battler, and we’re with him.”

Tim Prister is many things, and a battler is certainly one of them. Many of the other descriptions I might apply are not fit for public consumption, though I have shared each of them with Tim at some point with a smile on my face.

I look forward to doing so again soon. There are few people I respect more.

Notre Dame gets what matters against Wake Forest: A win, 48-37


NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Its first two offensive plays of Saturday’s second half netted Notre Dame a loss of one yard, yet those two plays turned a pyrrhic victory into a prototypical 48-37 victory over Wake Forest.

Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh’s four-yard gain was quickly negated by a false start penalty on fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. Then junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush missed a deep connection with sophomore receiver Chase Claypool.

The dropped pass counted as a good thing. The deep shot showed Wimbush was still healthy, at least as far as football is concerned. Instead of the needed win costing Notre Dame its offensive keystone to a left hand injury, the sloppy victory fit in line with what has become a usual Irish offensive performance, though this one exceeded even those expanding norms.

“I’d say offensively, they’re certainly up there with the caliber of Clemson,” Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson said. “They’re a really good football team. They’ve beaten a lot of good teams. They beat us today and we’re a good team.”

The Irish rushed for 384 yards, led by Wimbush’s 114 yards and two touchdowns. Junior running back and Heisman-hopeful Josh Adams took only five carries for 22 yards, sidelined for all but the first quarter after a hit to the head prompted concussion concerns. Kelly said Adams was cleared to return, but the exercised caution caused no harm. Notre Dame averaged 8.53 yards per carry. It gained a total of 710 yards. For now on, let’s just call that “a lot” of yards, because 710 is a somewhat difficult to fathom.

Most of them were necessary, though. After being held to 10 points and 242 yards in the first half, Wake Forest managed 27 points and 345 after halftime.

“Winning is hard, especially in November,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Anytime that you find a way to win football games when teams are executing at a high level, which Wake Forest executed their offense extremely well today, you’re pleased.”

Wimbush played a key role in the offensive showcase, adding 280 yards and a touchdown through the air to his rushing totals. All that was nearly rendered a footnote when just before halftime he took a hit at the end of a 28-yard run. Though he did not score, Wimbush remained down in the Notre Dame Stadium north end zone for a few minutes. From there he went straight up the tunnel to the locker room, emerging after the break with a padded glove protecting his non-throwing hand. A large bandage covered the hand in post-game interviews.

Wimbush said the injury did not bother him much in the second half, and it should not moving forward, either, then admitting taking snaps from center was difficult.

“But we don’t do that too much and we were able to do the things we do under center out of the gun or out of the pistol, so it didn’t affect much in terms of the throwing game,” Wimbush said. “Maybe handing it off, as well, but everything is good and I’ll be good to go next week.”

For the second consecutive game and the third time this season, sophomore cornerback Julian Love jumped a route and saw clear passage to the end zone in front of him. This time Love ended a Wake Forest drive early in the second quarter with the Irish leading 14-3. A touchdown would grant Notre Dame both a three-possession lead and an abundance of momentum.

Unfortunately for Love’s stats, Deacons senior quarterback John Wolford had an angle on him and knocked him out of bounds at the five-yard line. No matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones took the next snap into the end zone for the aforementioned lead and momentum.

It was one of Wolford’s few mistakes, finishing the day with 331 yards and two touchdowns on 28-of-45 passing. As well as the Irish defense has played this season — and it has — Wolford knows the scheme well. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko spent the last three seasons in the same role at Wake Forest.

“Their quarterback was playing against this defense for three or four years now,” Irish senior captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill said afterward. “He’s obviously very experienced in that. His eyes were in the right place at every point in the game and ours weren’t necessarily.”

Despite the defensive lapses in the second half, forcing a miscue early and immediately capitalizing on it set Notre Dame toward the eventual win. Love is beginning to make a habit of such.

The Irish defense had yet to relax when the Deacons marched 54 yards in three minutes midway through the third quarter. That was simply a good offense, and if it went the final 23 yards to the end zone, the Notre Dame lead would have been cut to 34-17 with six minutes left in the third quarter. Wake Forest might have started to wonder about the realm of possibility.

Instead, Irish senior defensive end Jay Hayes forced Wolford to rush a pass and then Love made a tackle in the backfield to bring up third-and-12. When the Deacons could not convert, they turned to their field goal unit.

Missing the field goal was an added bonus for Notre Dame. The real task had been to keep Wake Forest out of the end zone. The 24-point deficit was not going to be overcome in 21 minutes relying on field goals.

This could qualify as another overlooked point of the game. Tossing superlatives on it may seem out of place. One should not usually praise spin moves that lead to unnecessary fumbles and injured running backs.

Toward the end of the first quarter, Wimbush took to a scramble, attempting to make something happen with a mere 7-3 lead. As he spun from a tackle, Deacons linebacker Kalin McNeil poked away the ball. It bounced around for a moment. Somewhere in this sequence Adams took the hit that knocked him out for the day.

Irish senior left guard Quenton Nelson saw the ball, already on the ground having physically completed a block. He climbed over a Wake Forest defensive lineman to get to it.

Of course he did. Nelson does whatever he wants on a football field.

The drive resulted in only a Notre Dame field goal and a 10-3 lead, but that was far preferable to the Irish than gifting the Deacons a short-field and a chance at their second lead of the day.

To produce 390 total yards and three touchdowns in only three quarters is to stake a claim to this space, and thus Wimbush did. He also received the game ball from Kelly.

“The narrative of him [not] being able to throw the football should change dramatically,” Kelly said. “He had a couple of drops out there or he would have easily thrown for close to 300 yards, so hopefully that has been put to rest.”

Kelly apparently did not want to play Wimbush in the second half. As much as Adams is the star of the Irish offense, Wimbush is the headache for opposing defensive coordinators. Kelly wanted to protect that asset.

“How many scrambles did he have?” Clawson asked rhetorically. “How many third-and-long scrambles did he have that we couldn’t tackle? … We’d get after the passer, get a little bit of a pass-rush, get them fleshed, but couldn’t get [him] on the ground.”

Wimbush insisted to Kelly he would play, and with that cushioned glove he did.

“I loved his grit, his toughness,” Kelly said. “Gets hit pretty hard, right before the half, and … he wanted to get back in the game. Put a pad on his hand and went back in the game and showed great grit and great leadership.”

Josh Adams deserves to be in the Heisman Trophy discussion. He deserves it because he is a complete running back achieving great individual success this season. He deserves it also because Notre Dame’s offensive line is making that success quite possible. Consider the individual rushing totals Saturday:

Wimbush ran for 114 yards on 11 carries, adjusting for a sack.
Sophomore Deon McIntosh ran for 63 yards on nine carries.
Jones gained 59 yards on 10 rushes.
Sophomore quarterback Ian Book took three carries for 54 yards.
Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson had two end-arounds for 42 yards.
Junior Dexter Williams gained 33 yards on three carries.
And Adams managed 22 yards on five rushes before his injury.

“You could put a lot of running backs behind that offensive line and anybody will produce,” Wimbush said. “The rest of the backs did a great job of preparing throughout the week, and when they have the opportunity, they are able to take advantage of it, and obviously it’s a testament to up front continuing their dominance and opening up holes for the guys.”

“A little sloppy today, but the message is a win is a win.” — McGlinchey.

On a day where many of the nation’s elite did not do enough to issue such an abbreviated cliché, McGlinchey’s point rings strongly.

A win is a win is a [insert four-beat pause] win.

First Quarter
8:46 — Wake Forest field goal. Mike Weaver 34 yards. Wake Forest 3, Notre Dame 0. (14 plays, 82 yards, 4:11)
6:26 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush six-yard run. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Wake Forest 3. (7 plays, 48 yards, 2:20)

Second Quarter
14:18 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 34 yards. Notre Dame 10, Wake Forest 3. (9 plays, 70 yards, 3:38)
14:00 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones five-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Wake Forest 3. (1 play, 5 yards, 0:05)
10:13 — Wake Forest touchdown. John Wolford 20-yard rush. Weaver PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Wake Forest 10. (3 plays, 69 yards, 0:40)
8:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush 50-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Wake Forest 10. (5 plays, 65 yards, 1:35)
0:22 —Notre Dame touchdown. Nic Weishar one-yard reception from Ian Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Wake Forest 10. (9 plays, 99 yards, 2:47)

Third Quarter
9:19 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 22 yards. Notre Dame 34, Wake Forest 10. (12 plays, 52 yards, 4:00)
2:54 — Wake Forest touchdown. Alex Bachman 30-yard reception from Wolford. Two-point try failed. Notre Dame 34, Wake Forest 16. (6 plays, 63 yards, 1:32)
2:04 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 34-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 41, Wake Forest 16. (4 plays, 78 yards, 0:50)
0:30 — Wake Forest touchdown. Matt Colburn 24-yard rush. Weaver PAT good. Notre Dame 41, Wake Forest 23. (6 plays, 75 yards, 1:34)

Fourth Quarter
11:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh two-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 48, Wake Forest 23. (9 plays, 85 yards, 3:51)
8:45 — Wake Forest touchdown. Jack Freudenthal 11-yard reception from Wolford. Weaver PAT good. Notre Dame 48, Wake Forest 30. (12 plays, 70 yards, 2:54)
0:51 — Wake Forest touchdown. Isaiah Robinson two-yard rush. Weaver PAT good. Notre Dame 48, Wake Forest 37. (14 plays, 90 yards, 4:36)

Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 3 Notre Dame (7-1) vs. Wake Forest (5-3), otherwise known as defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s current employer against his former employer, respectively.

WHAT? It’s pretty simple, really. If the Irish win their remaining four games, they have a very good chance — though not a sure thing — of reaching the College Football Playoff. If they lose so much as one, Orlando is nice in late December or early January.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Note: Come Sunday, those clocks pivot back to standard time. It is truly one of the best weekends of the year, albeit created by one of the most-outdated practices still maintained. Daylight saving time, the designated hitter and unicycles — all things that have hung around in society long enough.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., and broadcast on NBC.

The game will also be available through the NBC Sports app or online at:

WEATHER? If you like 50-degree rain, then here is some great news: The day in South Bend is expected to be around 50 degrees with a strong likelihood of rain throughout the day. Let’s just avoid lightning.

WHY? In many respects, the Irish suffering a loss so early in the season gave each and every subsequent week a distinct impetus. If undefeated, it would be conceivable Notre Dame might start to think of grandeur, or at least of a trip to Miami in a week. If losing more recently, the deflating aspect might crush all hopes of righting the ship to reach the Playoff. Instead, the Irish know exactly what position they are in and seem to be focused appropriately.

As for the Demon Deacons, they are a win away from bowl eligibility and besting the win total over/under mark of 5.5. While they would certainly like to snag that victory in an attention-grabbing upset, they still have two prime chances remaining if needed (at Syracuse on Nov. 11; vs. Duke on Nov. 25).

BY HOW MUCH? The looming weather may dampen the game’s total score, but current odds project Notre Dame to win by two touchdowns with a combined point total over/under of 55. In other words, bookmakers expect the Irish to win 34-20.

Notre Dame has scored fewer than 35 points only once this year with its starting quarterback, junior Brandon Wimbush, taking snaps. That was the 20-19 loss to now-No. 1 Georgia in the season’s second week. The Bulldogs are also the only team to reach 20 points against the Irish.

Expecting Wake Forest to join Georgia in either category seems far-fetched, so let’s flip a touchdown to Notre Dame and then round up to make it consistent with a typical football tally.

Notre Dame 42, Wake Forest 13. (6-2 record on the season.)

Monday’s Leftover: Notre Dame embraces Adams’ Heisman hopes with ’33 Trucking’ theme
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Six still hold conference title hopes
Notre Dame among the dozen looking at the Playoff, though it is still October
Notre Dame at No. 3 in initial CFP poll
Notre Dame’s best-case and worst-case CFP scenarios
Notre Dame lands speedy CA receiver’s commitment
And In That Corner … The Wake Forest Demon Deacons and a very familiar defense
Things To Learn: Wake Forest offers a look into Notre Dame’s defensive future
Quick Notre Dame Notebook: Injury updates, cornerback swap & ‘developmental’ players
Friday at 4: A statistical look at how Notre Dame routed two top-15 teams in consecutive weeks

Notre Dame ‘dominates’ Wolfpack 35-14
Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s in-season improvements make the previously-maybe become increasingly possible
Notre Dame Sunday Notebook: Injury update and punt block blocks

Long drives, reliably delivered
’33 Trucking’ hats available with all proceeds going back to Irish student-athletes
Meet the replacements: Deacons line up with depth in light of injuries
New projections factor in first CFP poll
North Carolina State QB and head coach explain pick-six misunderstanding

Friday at 4: A statistical look at how Notre Dame routed two top-15 teams in consecutive weeks

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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.

Forcing a turnover deflates the opponent enough. Returning an interception for a touchdown, as Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love did against North Carolina State, only amplifies the effect of an aggressive defense. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Turnover margin:
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.