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Things To Learn: Can Notre Dame retain its focus against a “letdown” opponent

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It is a concern too-often cited by fans. Very rarely does one Division I team actually look past another. The coaches have spent decades studying film, finding strengths on any opponent. Even the players — even the freshmen — have played football long enough to know there is plenty of talent on each team to have a seemingly-surprisingly good day.

If nothing else, current freshmen were eight-years-old when Appalachian State won at No. 5 Michigan. They remember that legend as the fact it is. If they don’t, the 10-year anniversary was certainly discussed enough at this season’s beginning to remind them.

The opening week of this season, in fact, provided an even more historical example of the talent to spare across Division I college football — it extends to the Football Championship Series, too. A 45-point underdog, Howard University stuck it to not only the Vegas bookmakers but also to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, upsetting the Rebels 43-40.

Notre Dame is not overlooking Miami, no matter if it is the Ohio version rather than the Florida foe waiting in November.

The question is not will the Irish be ready for the RedHawks. The question is, will Notre Dame stay focused on the RedHawks? Focus has yet to be an issue early in the season. For example:

— Through four games, the Irish have committed 23 penalties for an average of 48.2 yards per game. Aside from a borderline personal foul on sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara against Georgia, none of those penalties jump to mind as screaming a lapse in judgement. Even that mistake by Okwara was steeped in football instinct and was within the pace of play, though he still should not have given the referee the opportunity to make the call.

— Notre Dame has turned the ball over five times. Admittedly, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has lucked out of a few more interceptions, but those, along with the two he has thrown, speak more to a developing passing game than any version of sloppiness.

— The Irish defense has given up a total of five plays of 30 yards or more, four of them coming in the 20-19 loss to Georgia. If granting the premise the Bulldogs might be pretty good at the football thing, then letting Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke spring a quarterback sneak for 52 yards may be the only real moment of Mike Elko’s charges letting one get by them, literally and figuratively.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has now spent months repeating the catchphrases he considers the traits Notre Dame should emulate at all times. “Attention to detail” may not get the same headlines as “grit” or “trust the process,”, but it is among them all the same.

Showing that attention to detail is most telling when favored by 20-plus points facing a Group of Five opponent who has already suffered two losses to fellow Group of Five teams. If the Irish do that, they will be making it clear this fall has no motions to simply go through. Rather, each action will be deliberate and with purpose.

If Notre Dame commits repeated false starts, carries the ball a bit more loosely or blows an additional coverage or two, that will not mean it assumed a victory over Miami was a sure thing. It will, however, mean the mental consistency needed to be a top-tier team has not yet arrived.

Speaking of giving up big plays, can the Irish secondary, specifically its safeties, hold its own against a genuine passing attack?

No disrespect to Georgia freshman Jake Fromm, Notre Dame has yet to face a dangerous arm this season. Fromm has one, and it will show itself more with time, but in his first career start, he was not asked to do much.

Miami coach Chuck Martin will ask his senior quarterback, Gus Ragland, to do a lot against the Irish. For that matter, Ragland has the targets available to put the Irish defensive backs in compromised positions. Take a look at a 24-yard RedHawks touchdown against Cincinnati.

If the secondary does not work as a unit, does not stick to each and every assignment, does not exceed preseason expectations, then Ragland will be able to exploit it for a score or two. At the least, Miami could add to that listing of plays allowed of 30 yards or more. Martin’s playbook creates a number of options for such an impact.

This does not mean Ragland’s deep shots could be enough to beat the Irish. Rather, if he finds success, it bodes poorly for future encounters with the likes of USC’s Sam Darnold, North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley and the other Miami’s Malik Rosier.

What about the Notre Dame passing attack? Will Chase Claypool be a consistent No. 2 option?

Consistency is the next hurdle for Irish sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to clear in establishing himself as the second option, behind junior Equanimeous St. Brown, among Notre Dames’ receivers. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The sophomore receiver caught four passes for 56 yards against Michigan State. The way he has been praised since then, including by this space, one might think Claypool caught 14 passes for 256 yards. It was a solid performance, but there is more room to grow.

“We think he’s capable of being a very nice piece to putting our wide receiver corps together,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s big, he’s athletic, he can catch the football. We can get some nice matchups with him.

“But he’s a young player that, quite frankly, the game is still evolving for him.”

If Claypool continues to keep piece with that evolution, he will remain the primary complement to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. If Claypool is an “up one week, down the next” type of commodity, Wimbush may be better served finding another second read.

Could that, in time, be Kevin Stepherson?
Originally, that question was going to read, “Where will Kevin Stepherson line up?” Kelly preemptively answered that Thursday, pointing toward the boundary position. There, the sophomore receiver should be able to use his speed to blow the top off a secondary and distract a safety from other assignments in doing so.

That does not mean Stepherson will immediately challenge Claypool for the targets on the boundary.

“He has to work his way up the depth chart, too,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to accelerate that. He has to earn that. That’s going to take time.”

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has many physical gifts, but he does not display them consistently. And that is just when he can get himself onto the field. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Much like Claypool, holes in Stepherson’s game may restrain his impact from the outset. Whereas Claypool is still learning the game, Stepherson is learning to pay attention to the game.

“He’s got to work on his concentration skills and his focus,” Kelly said. “He’ll drop a ball here or there just because he’s not locked in the way we need him to be.”

If Stepherson can be locked in enough to make any form of an impact in his first week back in action, it should be only a matter of time before he gets those chances consistently. For now, those opportunities will likely come primarily once the Irish have a sizeable lead.

Might other members of the second unit get a chance to impress?
Stepherson should not be the only substitute to have multiple opportunities. If and when Notre Dame goes up by three possessions in the second half, Kelly and his coaching staff should start to view the remaining time as a trial-and-error session.

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book attempted three passes against Boston College, all falling incomplete. It would be beneficial for all involved to get Book a few completions of confidence before he has to step in for Wimbush in any competitive situation.

The same could be said for freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath on the opposite side of the ball. Kelly does not expect Genmark-Heath to be only a special teams maven this season.

“He’s attached to coach Elko at the hip at practice, so he’s learning the safety position,” Kelly said. “… We have to continue to train Jordan to be prepared to play this year, so that training will continue, but as that training is going on, we want to keep playing because we think he’s got some nice skill sets.”

In other words, Genmark-Heath might be needed at safety should so much as one injury occur. In order to keep him physically dialed in, some hits on special teams hold merit. In order to keep him mentally ready, some fourth-quarter snaps may be necessary.

When it comes to freshman kicker Jonathan Doerer, some fourth-quarter kickoffs could help boost his confidence. Recruited specifically to take over kickoff duties, a below average performance at Boston College relegated Doerer back to the bench.

“We’d like for him to continue working toward kicking off, but I think that’s a process right now that we’re evaluating each week,” Kelly said. “… We’ll see if there’s an opportunity that we could get him into the game. We would.”

Those opportunities are the building blocks for future success needed for sustained progress. In order to get them, the Irish cannot mess around against the RedHawks. Notre Dame is not, by any means, looking past a collection of players coached by the familiar Chuck Martin. That does not mean Notre Dame will pay the needed attention to detail.

Oh, and does your cable package get NBC Sports Network?
Consider this your daily reminder this weekend’s game is on NBCSN at 5 p.m. ET.

Kelly on Stepherson’s return to action, Notre Dame RB injuries & hypothetical protests

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At some point Saturday, Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson will return to action, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly confirmed Thursday. It almost certainly will not be at the first snap. It most likely will not even be in the first quarter. Perhaps it won’t come until the game’s result is well beyond doubt, but it should happen.

“He’ll be limited in action,” Kelly said. “He’s doing a better job. His cumulative work is such that he just doesn’t have the volume.

“But he’s been doing a much better job in terms of the day-to-day attention to detail and just his focus. The traits that I had been talking about with him, he’s better. But don’t expect him to be playing a high-volume game.”

For whatever reason, Stepherson has yet to see the field this season after catching 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman. Three of those touchdowns qualified as “big” plays not just by scoring but also by their distance, covering 37, 44 and 57 yards. Stepherson also caught a 53-yard pass against Miami only to be tracked down at the nine-yard line, a rare moment where his speed was not unrivaled.

“He’s got great explosion, takeoff,” Kelly said. “He can run by anybody that we play against, elite speed.”

Kelly indicated the difficulties with traits, to use his phrasing, that kept Stepherson off the field have been an issue since January. With that in mind, there was certainly ample time for Stepherson to pack his bags and find opportunity elsewhere.

“That’s where I’m probably most proud of him, is his grit and sticking with it,” Kelly said. “He could have kicked the can and said, ‘I’m done, I’m going to transfer.’ He knew that Notre Dame was a place that could change his life and I think in a large degree it has in many ways and continues to every day.”

Just a week ago, Stepherson’s return to the field would have been heralded as a possible salve to the woes plaguing the Irish passing game. Against Michigan State, however, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool established himself as a viable No. 2 option to junior Equanimeous St. Brown, the former catching four passes for 56 yards and the latter pulling in four throws for 61 yards. In many respects, it was the first time the Notre Dame passing game showed a semblance of a rhythm.

Running backs injury update: Nearly all of them

Off a record-setting performance against Boston College, ankle “stiffness” limited Irish junior running back Josh Adams at Michigan State. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The good news: Kelly said junior Josh Adams is completely healthy and took the majority of the first-team snaps in practice this week. Nonetheless, the Irish continue to monitor Adams’ weekly workload. Adams experienced ankle “stiffness” at halftime of the victory over the Spartans, limiting him to only two carries in the second half.

The also good news: Sophomore Tony Jones has recovered fully from the ankle sprain he suffered two weeks ago at Boston College. Jones did not don pads at Michigan State, though he was present on the sideline.

The not-so-good news: Junior Dexter Williams is now in the position Jones was a week ago. Kelly said Williams’ availability against Miami (OH) would be a game day decision, simply depending on how his ankle feels at that point.

The expected news: Sophomore Deon McIntosh handled the third-team repetitions this week, behind Adams and Jones, respectively. This is of some note only in that with all three of the backs usually ahead of him battling tender ankles already this season, McIntosh must be ready for competitive action at all times, despite being a nominal fourth-stringer.

Yes, that was targeting
Notre Dame submitted a request for further evaluation of a particular missed call in the 38-18 victory over the Spartans. In the first quarter, Michigan State senior linebacker Chris Frey connected with Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s neck/head with his own helmet, but no targeting call was made. On Tuesday, Kelly described the hit as “egregious.”

Both the Big Ten and the ACC agreed with Notre Dame the call was “clearly missed,” per Kelly.

Kelly on hypothetical protests
At this point, it is surprising if a football coach at any level is not asked about the sideline protests seen throughout the NFL last weekend. Those displays came in response to comments made by President Donald Trump, and those were made as commentary on previous NFL player actions meant to protest racial inequalities.

Kelly was asked if any of his players, particularly team leadership, has approached him with thoughts of showing some solidarity with the NFL players, keeping in mind they personally know quite a few of those professionals.

“I meet with [leadership] every week and that has not been an agenda item,” Kelly said. “They haven’t brought it up to me. I think that whatever we would do, obviously they’re students here and we respect the fact that they have the opportunity to free think and be who they are.”

Kelly did point out he would prefer any such action be done as a team rather than only by individuals.

“That’s the struggle from a distance that I see that’s going on right now. You’ve got a team sport. It’s hard to put the team parameters on individuals that want to be able to have their voice. It’s a tough mix there.”

Yoon remains on kickoff duty
Junior kicker Justin Yoon will handle kickoffs again this weekend, just as he did at Michigan State, most of the Boston College contest and all of the two previous games. Freshman Jonathan Doerer had the first chances at the duty against the Eagles.

Cage’s focus remains on diploma
Fighting concussion symptoms shortly after a knee surgery, this past summer senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage opted to spend a year away from football. Kelly said the focus with Cage is still on finishing his degree this year, but he did not rule out a return to football, including a return to football at Notre Dame.

“We’ve had conversations about really focusing this fall on his academics and making sure that he’s solid there,” Kelly said. “Then in January if we feel we wanted to restart this, then we’d sit down and have that conversation.”

And In That Corner … The Miami RedHawks and former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin

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Notre Dame has not faced Miami (OH) in more than a century. Irish fans can be forgiven for not knowing much about the RedHawks aside from their head coach looking a bit familiar. To offer a quick education, let’s turn to Brady Pfister, beat writer for The Miami Student:

DF: Starting with football-specific questions, senior quarterback Gus Ragland leads the way, first entering the scene halfway through last season. It would be hard to top his initial debut — throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions over a six-game winning streak — but how has he fared this season in the face of those somewhat high expectations? His statistics (881 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions in four games) certainly bode well, though a completion percentage of 52.1 may leave something to be desired.
BP: Head coach Chuck Martin’s offensive design makes it hard to evaluate Ragland based on his numbers. Miami wants to establish a run game to open up the downfield passing game later on, so the 52.1 completion percentage is in large part a result of the multiple deep shots the ‘Hawks tend to take throughout the course of a game. Either Ragland’s man catches the pass for a big gain, or no one catches it at all.

Ragland has been the steady hand these RedHawks have needed to compete in every game they have played. He controls the offense well, makes good reads, and puts his receivers in positions to make plays. Last week at Central Michigan, Ragland took his performance to another level, throwing for 217 yards for two touchdowns while adding another score on the ground. If Ragland plays like he did against the Chippewas, the Miami offense adds another level of potency, but if he simply manages the game, then the ‘Hawks can struggle to truly play up to their potential.

Notre Dame has yet to face an offense with a truly threatening passing attack. Miami’s may not be the most vaunted in the country, but it might be more focused that way than any of Temple, Georgia, Boston College or Michigan State. Specifically, Irish coach Brian Kelly has worried about his secondary’s approach to down-and-distance situations. Does Ragland have the experience, even veteran savvy, needed to expose that possible Notre Dame vulnerability?

Miami senior quarterback may be the best pure-passer Notre Dame has faced yet this season. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

As much as these plays may come from Ragland’s, the emphasis should be on his targets. For a defensive backfield lacking confidence, having James Gardner, Jared Murphy and Ryan Smith can cause headaches, having proven to be able to make tough catches Ragland sends their way. However, if the Irish take advantage of their talent on the defensive side of the ball, they can turn touchdown passes into interceptions, allowing them to pull away. For Miami to compete in this game, Ragland needs to connect on some potentially risky downfield passes.

Ragland prefers to target junior receiver James Gardner. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, Gardner will tower over whatever Irish cornerback lines up opposite him. Is that how he has found his way to 294 yards on 16 catches this season?
Whether it be in the red zone or blazing past corners for deep balls, Gardner is a reassuring presence for Ragland. If the ball is anywhere in the vicinity of the big man, chances are he’s coming down with it. In the ‘Hawk’s week 2 matchup against Austin Peay, Gardner played a huge role with two deep touchdowns, but his snaps were limited the following week against Cincinnati. Late in the game, the RedHawks were in the red zone in need of a score, but were unable to make big catches in the end zone. I truly believe if Gardner was on the field, Miami would have been able to turn those incompletions into a touchdown.

Defensively, it seems Miami may have the defensive backs to capitalize on Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s inexperience and accuracy questions. The RedHawks already have six interceptions this year. Should that be a viable Irish concern?
Absolutely. Miami’s strength is its staunch defensive backfield, which refers to itself as “The Mob.” Leading the way is fifth-year cornerback Heath Harding, the vocal leader of the team as well as a disruptive force on the field. Harding, a top-10 prospect at his position in this year’s draft class according to multiple scouting experts, has collected 22 tackles this year and is excellent in run support. Joining Harding is senior safety Tony Reid. He has a knack for coming up big and is always around the ball. Reid has made 23 tackles on the year while being a part of three turnovers, all coming in just one quarter. Unfortunately for Miami, it will have to go without Reid in the first half Saturday due to a targeting penalty in the second half of last week’s matchup at Central Michigan. (Oddly enough, Reid incurred a targeting penalty against Central Michigan in 2016, as well.)

Before going macro, what might have I missed that Notre Dame fans should be aware of before this weekend?
Running backs Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith provide a potent running back duo. Are they going to put up huge numbers each and every week? No, but if Notre Dame does decide to lock in on Gardner and Miami’s receivers, the RedHawks are just fine with feeding Young and Smith.

Junior linebacker Junior McMullen missed last week due to injury, but senior backup Sam Connolly had a career day in his place with nine tackles and an interception. Between McMullen, Connolly and senior Brad Koenig, the Miami defensive second unit has depth, versatility and proven production.

On a broader scale, Miami’s momentum from last year’s second half seems to have dissipated quickly. That 0-6 to 6-6 story was quite something, even with the one-point St. Petersburg Bowl loss to Mississippi State. Now at 2-2, with losses to Marshall and Cincinnati, is that momentum all gone? Or is there still great hope since both of those were non-conference defeats?
The 2-2 record at this point definitely is not what RedHawk fans were hoping for. What makes it even more disappointing is both losses were very winnable games. Special teams blunders cost the ‘Hawks at Marshall. Even more frustrating though is the loss to in-state rival Cincinnati. For the majority of the game, Miami was controlling the ball, making stops on defense and looked to be on its way to its first win over the Bearcats since 2005. Then, Ragland threw a pick-six with a few minutes to go, giving Cincinnati the lead for good.

There is still momentum with this team. It is only four or five plays away from being 4-0, have faced only one MAC opponent and have experienced players in Harding, Ragland and Reid who know how to overcome tough losses. That ability to bounce back was displayed last week at Central Michigan. The ‘Hawks jumped all over the Chippewas early and cruised the rest of the way.  If Miami had come out flat last week, that would have been a major sign the RedHawks don’t have the toughness to live up to expectations. That was not the case. This team can still do big things and take the next step.

Entering the season there was distinct conversation of the RedHawks making a run at the MAC championship, at the least the Eastern Division. Is that still an expectation?
Yes. The two losses thus far are undoubtedly frustrating, but Miami finds itself 1-0 in conference play. It does not have to face the top two teams in the MAC West, Western Michigan and Toledo, this year and start off with struggling Bowling Green and Kent State following the trip to South Bend. The matchup that likely will decide the MAC East is a Tuesday night Halloween collision between the ‘Hawks and Ohio in Athens. In 2016, the Bobcats took the MAC East crown because of their head-to-head win at Miami. I would not be surprised if this year’s game has similar ramifications in deciding if Miami can finally get back to the MAC title game.

Let’s turn to Chuck Martin. This space does not usually spend undue amounts of time on an opposing coach, but he holds particular interest for Notre Dame fans for obvious reasons. He is now in his fourth season in Oxford. Safe to say the honeymoon is over, but he still is enjoying versions of success. What are Miami fans’ expectations of Martin?

In his fourth season with the RedHawks, it may be getting to be time for Chuck Martin’s team to show some success. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Martin has always been a realistic coach. When he arrived in December 2013, he did not promise overnight resurgence. Rather, he spoke of an incremental rebuild to get the right type of players in his program to play his style of football. The rebuild has not been flashy, yet Miami has steadily improved in Martin’s three years, from 2-10 to 3-9 and 6-6.

This is the year it all needs to come together for Martin. He has a veteran quarterback with weapons around him along with a defense filled with playmakers. Miami has been very patient with Martin, giving him time to make the program his own. Now it is his time to deliver. He did so last year by rallying to rattle off six straight wins to make a bowl game. He will need to do so again this season in order to keep himself off the hot seat.

You spend more time around him than anyone here does. What sense do you get of his long-term plan? Again, this is a weighted question in Irish eyes.
With many coaches in the MAC, you can tell they are trying to build a flashy program in order to get head coaching offers two or three years down the road with bigger schools. Martin has never appeared to be this kind of coach. His goal first and foremost is to “Graduate Champions,” a motto used throughout Miami athletics referring to developing the athlete in order to equip him or her to make an impact after sports. In hearing him talk at press conferences, it is apparent Martin cares deeply for his players as men, not just athletes. Through and through, Chuck Martin has seemed committed to Miami football. If a Power 5 school came calling after this year, would he consider a move? Probably. But I do not believe his sole purpose at Miami is getting that call like other MAC coaches.

The spread this week has risen to more than three touchdowns. Let’s presume you expect Notre Dame to win — if you don’t, please, say so. Can the RedHawks keep Saturday close enough to provide some second half consternation for Notre Dame fans?
Talent-wise, it is a mismatch. Martin explained it in a distinct way, saying Notre Dame is the team in the school yard that gets the first 85 picks, leaving Miami with what’s left. This is not to say that the RedHawks lack talent, but it is a tall task for a MAC team to compete with the ability, strength and speed of the Irish.

On the other hand, Miami is a team set up to keep games close by holding the ball to keep potent offenses on the sideline. This bodes well for the RedHawks in a game where they are outmatched such as this one, so don’t be surprised if the game is still competitive going into the second half.

While we are at it, let’s go ahead and ask for a score prediction. This is the internet, after all.
I think Miami is able to put some drives together early to make things interesting and keep the Irish offense off the field. With the knack the ‘Hawks have for causing turnovers, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a while for the Irish to fully pull away with the halftime score sitting somewhere around 17-7.

Late in the third quarter, the speed and strength of Notre Dame should take over. Miami is headed in the right direction and remains hopeful for a MAC championship, but there’s just too much talent to overcome in this one.

Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Miami 10

Notre Dame’s increased turnover focus is 2012-esque

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The Irish have emphasized forcing turnovers this year. Such a party line is an inevitable mantra following a season when the defense created only 14 takeaways. It became even more a pertinent point when three turnovers were the primary difference in Notre Dame’s 38-18 victory at Michigan State on Saturday.

“We’ve got smart players, we need to play smart,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Part of it is not giving up big plays and taking the football away. We can do that.”

Indeed, Notre Dame can. And thus far this season, it has. Nine turnovers in four games is nothing to scoff at. But is it simply a convenient data point easily explaining the defense’s improvement, especially with Shaun Crawford’s savvy play against the Spartans serving as a tangible example?

No. It is more than that.

Earlier in the same answer as the above quote, Kelly used a phrase few would have expected to apply to the Irish defense this season. He used it in something of a conditional context, but it was there all the same.

“This is not by coincidence,” Kelly said. “This is about crafting the tenets of playing the kind of defense necessary to be a championship football team.”

The last time Notre Dame had a championship-level football team, the defense provided the backbone. 2012’s unit led the nation in scoring defense in the regular season. It was, quite frankly, the reason the Irish made it to the national championship game.

Of Notre Dame’s four interceptions already this season, undoubtedly the most-dramatic was sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s takeaway returned 59 yards for a touchdown in the Irish victory at Michigan State. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

To date, Notre Dame’s 2017 defense is performing comparably with that modern standard of 2012, even if the scoring statistics are not as headline-worthy.

Before closing this window and claiming this space has lost all its marbles, allow for an explanation.

There are four ways for an offense to get the ball back:

1) A kickoff from a score, a sure sign the defense failed.
2) A turnover on downs, something rather situationally-driven as much as anything else.
3) A punt, a sign the defense succeeded.
4) A turnover, a sign the defense succeeded and provided improved field position in doing so.

Aside from that second category because, again, it is determined by an array of factors including score, time, field position, etc., not all necessarily reflecting the defense’s performance, then those categories can break into three defensive results:

1) Scoring opportunities, including missed field goals. Why include those? No defensive coordinator relishes seeing the opposing placekicker on the field. It is simply preferable to seeing a receiver with the ball in the end zone.
2) Punts.
3) Turnovers.

In 2012, Notre Dame’s defense forced a turnover on 16.2 percent of the opposing possessions while allowing a scoring opportunity on 28.2 percent of them.

This year, the Irish have forced nine turnovers on 54 opposing possessions, a turnover rate of 16.7 percent. Only 29.6 percent of opposing possessions have resulted in scoring opportunities.

That turnover rate is the highest of Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. The scoring opportunity percentage is bested by only 2012, with the next-closest coming in Kelly’s 2010 debut season in South Bend at 31.3 percent.

(The eight-plus point difference between 2012’s regular season points allowed per game [10.3 in the regular season] and 2017’s thus far [18.5] is easily explained by looking at possessions. Entering this season, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long was expected to increase the tempo. That uptick has resulted in a 23.6 percent increase in total possessions compared to 2012’s rate and a 13.3 percent increase from just a season ago.)

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble in the end zone preventing a Spartans touchdown underscored an Irish focal point this season. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

On a more recent basis, the rate at which Notre Dame is forcing turnovers jumps off the page when compared to the last two seasons. In 2016, only 9.6 percent of opposing possessions resulted in turnovers. Despite the 2016 storyline of the Irish struggling to take the ball by force, that number actually edged up to 9.8 percent. Clearly, this year’s defensive improvements go beyond a few lucky breaks to be within shouting distance of twice those figures.

What does any of this mean? It is intended as a gauge for the defensive performance thus far this year and a reflection on its possible sustainability.

Looking past Notre Dame, how do this year’s rates compare on a national level? Those teams are listed below, but to summarize: The turnover rate lags behind the most-aggressive defenses, but it is consistent with the best scoring defenses. Those latter teams, however, still do a bit better when it comes to limiting scoring opportunities, meaning the Irish have room for improvement, obviously.

On that much at least, Kelly would agree.

“We’re certainly not a finished product by any means,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work on that.”


2016’s leaders in turnovers forced:
Houston — 35 turnovers forced — 18.3 percent of opposing possessions resulted in turnovers — 28.3 percent resulted in scoring opportunities.
Utah — 34 turnovers — 28.8 percent turnover rate — 48.7 percent scoring opportunities rate.
Arkansas State — 34 turnovers — 17.6 percent turnover rate — 29.5 percent scoring opportunities rate.
San Diego State — 34 turnovers — 19.0 percent turnover rate — 25.7 percent scoring opportunities rate.

2016’s leaders in scoring defense:
Wisconsin — 13.7 points allowed per game — 18.2 percent turnover rate — 28.5 percent scoring opportunities rate.
Ohio State — 15.1 points — 16.3 percent turnover rate — 24.7 percent scoring opportunities rate.
Alabama — 15.1 points — 14.6 percent turnover rate — 21.2 percent scoring opportunities rate.
Boston College — 15.3 points — 16.3 percent turnover rate — 32.5 percent scoring opportunities rate.

Notre Dame during Kelly’s tenure:
2010 — 15.1 percent turnover rate — 31.3 percent scoring opportunities rate.
2011 — 9.3 percent turnovers — 31.3 percent scoring opportunities.
2012 — 16.2 percent turnovers — 28.2 percent scoring opportunities.
2013 — 11.5 percent turnovers — 39.8 percent scoring opportunities.
2014 — 14.4 percent turnovers — 38.1 percent scoring opportunities.
2015 — 9.6 percent turnovers — 35.6 percent scoring opportunities.
2016 — 9.8 percent turnovers — 39.9 percent scoring opportunities.
2017 to date — 16.7 percent turnovers — 29.6 percent scoring opportunities.


In a continued effort to offer kudos where kudos are due … This concept was sparked by a conversation with an old drinking buddy first mentioned in a January introductory letter. From here on out, let’s refer to him as Harry.

“The stathead in me wonders what the rate of turnovers per defensive snaps is this year,” he pondered.

A valid thought, but a turnovers-to-snaps measurement would be an inherently-flawed metric. A turnover would not only increase the first half of the ratio, but it would also decrease the latter half by immediately reducing the number of coming snaps. Thus, turnovers-to-possessions should offer a more accurate depiction of the defense’s nose for the ball.

Chuck Martin readies for return to Notre Dame

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In his 27th season as a head coach, Brian Kelly has seen firsthand most of what football might have to offer. This weekend, though, will be a first for the Irish coach. He has never before faced one of his former assistants, let alone one who worked alongside him for a total of eight seasons.

In comes Miami (OH), led by Chuck Martin. Martin coached under Kelly when they were at Division II Grand Valley State as his defensive backs coach for three seasons, adding defensive coordinator duties to that job description in 2003. When Kelly then moved on to Central Michigan, Martin took over the Grand Valley State program, where he continued the winning ways established by Kelly until the latter reached Notre Dame in 2010.

Martin joined Kelly’s initial Irish staff as defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator before moving to offensive coordinator in 2012. He drove eastward to Oxford, Ohio, in 2014.

All that said, Kelly indicated he expects little to be different this weekend.

“Chuck and I are not going to be playing the game,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I know how he is going to prepare his football team. He knows how I’ll prepare my football team. That’s probably it.

“I’ve gone against other coaches that I know very well in terms of how they’ll prepare their football team, and I think that’s probably the similarity.”

Martin during the press conference announcing his hire at Miami in December of 2013. (Getty Images)

For Martin, however, the occasion may be a bit different. A lifelong Irish fan, he will be coaching against those allegiances as well as his friends. When he took the RedHawks job following the 2013 season, one of the first administrative items he tended to was scheduling this game, despite those personal conflicts. In fact, it may have been somewhat because of them.

“I wanted Miami football to experience Notre Dame,” he said Monday. “Four years later, for me, not super enjoyable. I have really, really good friends on the other sideline. That’s not something you really enjoy, coaching against people that you really care about.”

Nonetheless, Martin will use his knowledge of Notre Dame as a whole to be sure his team gets the most out of the weekend before he turns to using his knowledge of Kelly’s coaching to try to spring an upset. The RedHawks will arrive on campus Friday earlier than they would for a usual road trip. Martin also encouraged Miami fans to be sure to enjoy the weekend as much as possible, as well. The chance is unlikely to come again.

“If you look at Notre Dame’s schedule, they don’t play that many teams,” he said. “There’s the usual suspects — they don’t play the same 12 every year — but they don’t get outside of their usual 20 very often. … It’s going to be something that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for many people.”

As for a once in a lifetime upset, Martin was a bit more pessimistic, bordering just shy of completely ruling it out.

“Their kids that they recruit never looked at or heard of Miami University,” he said, and he would certainly know having, again, spent time as the Irish recruiting coordinator. “Our kids that we recruit weren’t talking to Notre Dame.

“… If you went to recess and one team got the first 85 picks, it probably wouldn’t be much of a fair fight. People that don’t understand that have no idea what’s going on. They have delusional beliefs of what can happen.

“Now can upsets happen? Yes. Upsets happen. They happen every week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It happens all time.”

Notre Dame and Miami kickoff Saturday at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.