Pregame Twelve Pack: Navy Edition

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Bring on another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Navy game in the new Meadowlands.


1. Want a key to victory? Irish need to win the turnover battle.

Even though the Irish have won the yardage and first down battle in the last three games against Navy, they’ve been absolutely dominated in the turnover margin, losing 9-2 over the span.

In the 2007 triple-overtime Irish loss, the turnovers were tied 1-1, in the 27-21 escape victory in Baltimore in 2008, the Irish turned the ball over five times to Navy’s one, and in the 23-21 loss last season, the Midshipmen were flawless in the turnover department, while ND turned the ball over three times (twice in the red zone) and also missed two field goals.

Navy enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 7 in the country with a +1.2 margin on turnovers, while the Irish rank 57th in the country, so holding onto the football will be critical for the Irish.

2. Add to the critical column: Cut down the offensive three and outs.

The fine folks over at Her Loyal Sons crunched the numbers and found that on just under 22 percent of drives, the Irish go three-and-out. Obviously, that’s way too high of a number, and — well, I’ll let Domer.mq explain the rest:

We already knew that ND’s 82nd national ranking in 3rd down conversions, at just 37.89% was bad. It seems even worse if you consider that the 22 3-and-out drives by ND this season account for about 58% of the drives in which ND punted, meaning there’s quite-a-bit better than a coin-flip’s chance that if ND is punting, they’ve made absolutely no headway in one of the most important aspects of any football game: field possession. Further, at the going rate, almost 1/4th of all of ND’s 3rd down attempts will occur in the first attempt at gaining a new first down and will result in the team punting.

The number gets even uglier when you consider that only ND’s on about the same pace with 3-and-out drives as it is with TD scoring drives. Couple those 3-and-out drives with turnover drives, and the Irish offense’s TD scoring rate is overwhelmed by a “negative result” rate of about 37% over 23%. Even if you pair FGs with the TDs, the “positive result” rate only reaches 34%. More “objectively bad” drives have occurred with ND’s offense to this point in the season than have “objectively good” drives.

Just one more thing to think about: No Navy opponent this year has had more than 12 possessions in a game. Further, Navy’s opponents are only averaging about 10 possessions a game. Notre Dame’s offense averages 14 possessions per game thus far. When an opponent, like Navy, manages to eliminate 3-4 of your possessions simply by virtue of the style of football they play, you truly can’t afford to throw away 22% of the remaining possessions by going three-and-out. Some quick, cocktail napkin math extrapolates that, if all of these rates remain unchanged for the Navy/Notre Dame game this weekend, Notre Dame will only score about 17 points.

If Notre Dame is getting the ball only 10 times on Saturday, they’ll have to do better than punting after three plays on two of their possessions. The good news, as HLS points out, the Irish are trending positive, doing a better job of staying on the field.

3. Offensive efficiency is the key to Kelly’s game plan.

Navy limits teams possessions with their ball-control option attack. Head coach Brian Kelly has made it clear that the Irish are going to have to play a cleaner game of football than they’ve played in the past few weeks.

“We have to be efficient, we have to catch the ball,” Kelly said. “We have to throw it accurately, and we’ve got to run the ball.”

The key to that efficiency will be Dayne Crist, who has played good football in his first season starting at quarterback, but fallen into mini-slumps during each of his seven starts this year.

“The quarterback has to put the ball on guys. He’s got to be on his game,” Kelly said. “If he’s on his game, you know, we’ll be fine. But if he’s not efficient in throwing the football, obviously, we’ll have to struggle at times.

4. Ricky Dobbs will walk away from the Naval Academy as one of its best ever.

While his preseason Heisman campaign probably ended after a season opening loss, Ricky Dobbs is still one of the best players ever to wear the Navy uniform. Dobbs is just three rushing touchdowns shy of tying Chris McCoy‘s school record. (McCoy sits at 1oth in NCAA history for touchdowns by a quarterback.)

Dobbs’ incredible 2009 season included a NCAA single-season record for TD runs by a quarterback with 27, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that Dobbs played the final six games of the season with a broken kneecap.

Dobbs ran for 102 yards on 31 carries last year against the Irish, and also broke the Irish’s back with a 52-yard touchdown pass on play-action.

5. If Navy wins Saturday, the Midshipmen will make history.

Three wins in four years would help make Navy’s senior class one of the most successful against Notre Dame in school history. A win this weekend by Navy would join the 2010 class with the Class of 1937 and Class of 1964 as the only classes to beat Notre Dame three times.

That 1964 class was captained by Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.

6. A tip for the Irish defense — Tackle Vince Murray.

Only playing in two varsity games during his first two seasons at Navy, Vince Murray seemed to hit his stride last October. The 215-pound fullback from Union, Kentucky had consecutive games of over 100 yards against Southern Methodist, Wake Forest and Temple before walking into Notre Dame Stadium and setting the world on fire.

Murray absolutely killed the Irish running the ball straight up the gut, and he averaged 11.3 yards per carry against Notre Dame for 158, far and away the best game he’d ever had in a Navy uniform.

Nose tackle Ian Williams and middle linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o will be tasked with making sure Murray doesn’t run wild through the heart of the Irish defense again, though a knee injury may stop Williams Murray before he ever gets the chance to step on the field.

7. Stopping the Midshipmen on 4th down is critical for the Irish defense.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo is known for his aggressive style, and that’s personified in his penchant for going for it on 4th down. Last year, Navy went for it on 4th down the fifth most times in college football, finishing 4th in the country with 19 4th down conversions and a rate just shy of 68 percent. Navy is converting on two-thirds of their attempts this year, attempting nine 4th downs through six games.

Navy converted both their 4th down attempts last year against the Irish, both on their opening drive on short runs by Dobbs, the final attempt for a one-yard touchdown run. The Irish were 0 for 2, with an incomplete pass at the Navy three-yard line costing the Irish points, and a fourth-quarter attempt going for a safety. A net swing of about nine pretty important points.

8. Bob Diaco versus the Option: A quick look.

It’s hard to complain about the job Bob Diaco has done with the Irish defense, and there’ll be no coach more in the line of fire than Diaco this weekend, who is tasked with stopping an option attack that absolutely ate up the Irish for 404 total yards and 6.1 yards per carry last season.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly mentioned that Diaco had experience against the triple-option attack that Navy ran, so I went back and looked for the games. Here’s Diaco’s work against Navy’s triple-option attack:

  • 2003: Navy 39, Eastern Michigan 7. As an outside linebackers coach, Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston‘s over-matched Eagle defense held Paul Johnson‘s Navy attack to only 11 first-half points, before the floodgates opened up.
  • 2005: Central Michigan 14, Army 10. Though not running the same attack as Navy, a Diaco coordinated Chippewa defense held Army to 239 yards and only 66 through the air in a tight battle.
  • 2008: Virginia 24, No. 18 Georgia Tech 17. Coaching linebackers under 3-4 guru Al Groh, the Cavalier defense did such a good job against Paul Johnson’s spread option that when Groh was eventually fired as head coach, he was brought on to coordinate Johnson’s Georgia Tech defense.

Looking at the great work the Cavaliers did against a Georgia Tech team that had taken the ACC by storm, Diaco should have a pretty firm grasp on what Navy’s trying to do.

9. Beware of the Red Army.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Al Lesar did a nice job profiling three Notre Dame back-up quarterbacks, Matt Mulvey, Nate Montana, and Brian Castello, a trio of (mostly) benchwarmers that walk the sideline wearing red hats and have the incredibly important job of signaling in the plays.

Lesar recounts offensive coordinator Charley Molnar talking about their importance.

“Let’s just say this, when a mistake occurs, which it does very, very infrequently, from the signalers to the players out on the field, they’ll be the first to hear about it,” said Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. “There’s a lot of pressure on them.

“They have to be really perfect in their job because your offense has no chance if they’re not. If a signaler would make a mistake, nobody would have confidence in the signals. We can’t play football that way. (The players) have to have great confidence that the signal’s correct.”

“When they get the play call, they have to signal it almost simultaneously. Usually coach Kelly will communicate it. That’s pressure for anybody, believe me.”

Castello joked that the red hats aren’t for quarterback Dayne Crist to easily see them, but for a larger meaning.

“The true meaning of the red hats, as quarterbacks, we call ourselves ‘The Red Army.’ It came about as we all wear red jerseys as we’re all very valuable and breakable; we don’t see a lot of contact during practice. It’s kinda like a fraternity started by Evan Sharpley.

“I think we’re the most feared group on the team; and also (most) respected.”

Between the Red Army and Team Reckless, there are quiet a few funny guys on this football team.

10. David Ruffer’s expertise can be attributed to another former Notre Dame special teamer.

There’s not much left to be written about David Ruffer, the walk-on kicker that’s turned himself into an Irish folk hero. The former walk-on that’d never played in a football game is now a record-setting field goal kicker and potential All-American candidate.

How about this factoid:

Ruffer’s career as a kicker started under the tutelage of another Notre Dame special teams ace, former Irish punter Joey Hildbold, one of the top punters in Irish history. Hildbold was the special teams coach at William & Mary when Ruffer decided that he’d attempt to play football for the first time.

11. Andrew Hendrix is drawing plenty of praise on the scout team.

While he’s playing a position that won’t let him fight his way onto the field, freshman quarterback Andrew Hendrix received quite a bit of praise this week, reminding Irish fans why they were so excited to bring in the rocket-armed quarterback in the first place.

“He’s impressive,” Kelly said of the quarterback that’s playing Ricky Dobbs this week. “The ball comes out of his hand like probably one other guy that I have coached. I mean it comes out that quick and that fast. He has escape-ability and maneuverability. He has all the pieces. It’s now just going to be about getting into the offense and seeing how he picks things up from a spread quarterback standpoint. The tools are pretty impressive. When the defensive coaches rave about somebody, and they don’t do that very often, you know you have somebody who has a chance to be really good.”

I’ve mentioned it a few times this season, but it’s doubtful that all three freshman quarterback remain on this roster until the end of their senior season. Here’s hoping Kelly does a better job convincing guys that they’ve got a chance at winning the quarterback job than Charlie Weis did, who ran both Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones out of town after it was clear that Jimmy Clausen was being given the starting quarterback job his freshman season.

12. A four game winning streak would be incredibly rare for this team.

If the Irish win Saturday against the Midshipmen, it’ll be a four-game winning streak for Brian Kelly’s bunch. How rare of an achievement is that for this team? Well, consider that not a single senior on this roster has won four straight games.

The only members of the roster that have a four-game winning streak under their belt are Barry Gallup, Chris Stewart, and Darrin Walls, all fifth-year players that were a part of the 2006 team.

It’s been a tough four-year stretch…

Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs vs. Clemson: Receivers and Tight ends

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The obvious, shortened version of this thought process ties every piece of the receivers’ and tight ends’ development to the shift in quarterbacks. That change certainly aided their production, but so did their development.

A year ago, Brandon Wimbush’s inaccuracy was exacerbated by repeated drops from the likes of Chase Claypool and Alizé Mack. Some of those passes were not perfectly on target, but many hit the target in the hands and yet fell to the turf.

This season, Claypool made twisting grabs contested by defensive backs. Mack held onto passes despite immediate hits. The receivers and tight ends improved on their own, improvements made more evident by Ian Book’s aptitude distributing the ball.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
While discussing the quarterbacks a couple days ago, this space featured a quote from Irish head coach Brian Kelly following the victory in week two against Ball State. In it, Kelly claimed Notre Dame’s leading receiver had nine catches entering 2018. It was only hyperbolic in that senior Miles Boykin had 12 last season and 18 in his career. If Kelly were speaking specifically to Boykin’s regular season output in 2017, nine was indeed accurate.

It remained quoted as nine, rather than with a usual parenthetical correction, because it so aptly underscored the Irish inexperience at receiver and tight end entering this season. Whether Boykin had nine or 12 or 18 receptions, it was not many.

Notre Dame senior receiver Miles Boykin entered the season with 18 career catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns. He has more than doubled each of those in 2018 alone, pulling in 54 passes for 803 yards and eight scores. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

When Boykin established himself as the leading receiving in spring practice and even more so in the preseason, it seemed to serve as a reminder of Claypool’s continued inconsistencies. When sophomore Michael Young suffered a hamstring injury in August, it seemed to lower the ceiling on the passing game even further, pulling the only-known speed threat and replacing it with Chris Finke’s good hands, but not much more.

Book changed those perceptions, but arguably not as much as the receivers themselves did throughout the season.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Let’s continue to use Claypool as the driving example, and let’s acknowledge a mistake in analysis from yours truly. At Northwestern to start November, Claypool had a catch on the second Irish drive, gaining 16 yards and a first down. A possession later, he pulled in another for 19. Both were quality, physical plays. Then he went silent for more than a quarter, targeted just once. Claypool was no longer getting separation as he had to begin the evening.

The halftime score of 7-7 left one wondering how Notre Dame would find needed offensive output. One colleague posited it would come from Claypool. This response? “He already has his two big catches for the day. He’s good.”

To that point, Claypool had not strung together consistently-good performances at any point in his career. Last season he exceeded three catches just twice, and they were separated by six weeks. Through this September and October, he had established five as his lofty ceiling, reaching it in each of the two weeks preceding the trip to Lake Michigan. Expecting Claypool to break out in the second half of a close game was a hope based on little evidence.

Then he put together six catches for 95 yards in that half alone. Two weeks later, a similar stat line came in Yankee Stadium. Claypool has not yet shown a reliable ability to reach his best, but in Book’s last five starts, the junior receiver’s floor became five catches for 60 or so yards. That is production the Irish will gladly take.

“He has really ascended this year,” Kelly said following that Northwestern showing. “… The way he practices, anybody who has been around the game knows the great players are great practice players. The way he practices now carries over to the way he plays, and it’s showing itself in his maturity and the way he practices.”

Similar growth has been seen from the rest of Notre Dame’s primary passing targets.

Boykin’s breakthrough came as September turned to October, making 11 and eight catches in back-to-back weeks, each breaking triple digits and reaching the end zone. Before last year’s Citrus Bowl heroics, Boykin had never made as many as three catches in a game. At this point, he has done so in eight straight. Senior Chris Finke has gone from only one game with multiple catches in 2017 to managing such in every game in 2018.

Miles Boykin: 54 catches for 803 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Chase Claypool: 48 catches for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Chris Finke: 47 catches for 547 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Alizé Mack: 34 catches for 349 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Cole Kmet: 14 catches for 151 yards.
Michael Young: 7 catches for 138 yards and 1 touchdown.
Kevin Austin: 5 catches for 90 yards.
Nic Weishar: 3 catches for 10 yards and 2 touchdowns.

If Notre Dame senior tight end were to match his two touchdowns scored against Florida State when the Irish face Clemson on Dec. 29, that would bode very, very well for the chances of extending his collegiate career by a game. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
This newfound consistency, plus a big play or two from the tight ends. That is where a mismatch may be found.

Such an added dimension has been lacking in part because the receivers have played so well, in part because sophomore Cole Kmet has battled a lingering ankle injury, and in part because it is a difficult aspect of the game in general, let alone for a first-year starting quarterback without the greatest deep ball.

Kelly has spoken of slipping in a speedy freshman to create a deep threat and put pressure on the Tigers’ safeties.

“We’re looking for maybe one speed guy that could do some things for us in a limited role,” Kelly said last week. “… We’ve got a couple guys on audition. We’ll see if it’s a gong show or if there is someone that can up and do something.”

The thought feels manufactured, something to motivate the freshmen through this month and possibly make Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables think for a night. There is a reason it has not happened yet this season, and that is the Irish know what they may have at tight end.

“Chris Finke was clearly established at that position (where a freshman could step in),” Kelly said. “Our ability to use a tight end as the next guy in at the position in terms of how we were going to run our offense …”

In other words, Finke is backed up by Kmet, not by freshman Braden Lenzy or Lawrence Keys. Kmet’s or Mack’s athleticism and size could put a Tigers safety in a compromised position, creating a 30-yard shot downfield against the defense that ranked No. 11 defending those this season.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
A tricky question to ponder until knowing whether Boykin and Claypool head to the NFL or not. Finke is staying, Mack is going, and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar is out of eligibility. The decisions affect the position’s experience, not as much its depth, considering 11 receivers and six tight ends (counting Mack and Weishar) currently populate the roster with two more receivers expected to sign National Letters of Intent in less than a week.

Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs: Running backs

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This discussion will shift greatly a month from now. As soon as Notre Dame’s Playoff run ends, one way or another, the Irish running back room will revert back to what it was in August.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Treading water until the return of a flashy big-play threat who had never shown any semblance of consistency, a reputation underscored by his unspoken four-week suspension to start the season.

The Irish could not wait for senior Dexter Williams to return from that forced sabbatical, and with sophomore Jafar Armstrong and junior Tony Jones around, they did not need to, but neither represented the same potential as Williams.

The duo combined for 111 total yards against Michigan before Armstrong broke loose a bit against Ball State (66 rushing yards, 61 receiving) and Jones did so a week later against Vanderbilt (118 rushing, 56 receiving). They kept things afloat, and that has been forgotten due to Williams’ eventual eight-week explosion. It should not have been. Considering how stilted Notre Dame’s offense was in those two one-possession victories, it is not hard to fathom a loss if not for those respective dual-threats out of the backfield.

To a degree, such an absence was expected; those showings the welcome Irish surprise. Armstrong is a converted receiver, a first-time contributor. Jones proved steady when healthy in 2017, but he had never produced more than 59 yards in a game, let alone nearly triple that.

As Notre Dame struggled to its first three wins, its running backs provided enough offense to keep the Irish afloat, despite the absence of senior Dexter Williams. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“Jafar is developing each and every week,” head coach Brian Kelly said following the 24-16 win against Ball State. “You saw his versatility again. … He’s learning a lot every week. There’s new experiences for him each and every game that he plays in. This is just accumulating reps for him, game reps, learning as he goes. He’s got some really good skills.

“Tony Jones, we just need him in there, consistency, play at that high level. I think he can be an outstanding back. We just got to get that on a more consistent basis.”

That was the world Notre Dame lived in for four weeks, one where the running backs needed to learn, needed to be consistent. Not one where they ripped off 45-yard touchdown runs against a Stanford front …

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As Williams did on his first carry of the season, and he has hardly looked back since. Not much more time needs to be spent on what the senior has done in a truncated season. Averaging 6.63 yards per rush, Williams gained 941 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in eight games. Both Pittsburgh and Northwestern bottled him up, but that came at the cost of their passing defenses.

The conversation around Williams has focused on his return from suspension, the second notable misstep in his career, complementing injuries and lackluster pass blocking. That conversation is warranted. But so is realizing just how much Williams progressed in on-field ways this season. He had never before touched the ball more than 10 times in a game. His 2018-low came against the Panthers, 15 touches for 33 yards. That durability and reliability comes from more than a simple flip of the proverbial switch.

And it pales in comparison to the 202 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries Williams put together against Florida State.

“His attention to detail now is so much better,” Kelly said the day after that performance. “His working out, his taking care of his body, all the things that championship athletes have to do, Dexter is doing that. Now put the athleticism in front of that, and you’re not surprised that he’s having the kind of success that he’s having.”

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
As much as Williams can muster, and then some from Armstrong, plus a bit of physicality from Jones. And yes, that is a lot to ask.

Going by numbers beyond sheer yardage allowed per game, the Tigers have the best rush defense in the country. As it pertains to Williams and his penchant for breaking long runs, Clemson limits rushing explosiveness better than 129 other teams in FBS. Note: There are a total of 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The Irish are going to struggle against the Tigers front. Any chances at chunk rushing yardage will be few and far between. In a way, the afternoon of Dec. 29 may need a heavy dosage of Jones’ bruising style to loosen up the defense before Williams can then chip away at it.

The best rush defense Notre Dame has faced with Williams included has been Northwestern (No. 19 by advanced metrics). The Irish gained 132 yards on 37 carries (kneel downs adjusted) against the Wildcats, numbers that may need to be satisfactory against Clemson. Before junior quarterback Ian Book’s game-clinching 23-yard touchdown run in the final minutes, the longest Notre Dame rush was Williams for 19 yards.

To get to 132 yards without relying on big plays showed how devoted Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long was to the run that evening along Lake Michigan. Such stubbornness kept Northwestern honest, eventually allowing the passing game to open up.

Expecting more than a hard-nosed and frustrating effort against possibly the most-talented defensive line in a generation is to pin hopes on the exceedingly unlikely. A serviceable showing, though, would keep Notre Dame in the mix at the end of the month.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Without Williams next season, the thoughts will again return to the two-headed possibilities of Armstrong and Jones, with current freshmen C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith their backups.

Where Notre Dame was and is: Quarterbacks

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Of all the position groups to come in this series, this one will clearly feature the greatest disparity between where Notre Dame was and where it is. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the difference can be just about summed up with one statistic …

Through three games, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had completed 48.84 percent of his passes.
In his eight starts this season, junior quarterback Ian Book completed 70.04 percent of his passes.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
With Wimbush at the helm, the Irish have gone 13-3. For all the criticisms levied at the former starter, that gets overlooked too often. Nonetheless, this was a position of concern entering the 2018 season. Certain preseason practices amplified that worry tenfold. While Wimbush could move the offense, he did so inefficiently and not necessarily within the wanted parameters of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s design. Wimbush’s playmaking was needed against Michigan, but its inconsistent nature made it a perilous crutch to lean on all season.

“We needed Brandon against Michigan because of Michigan’s defense,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in the postgame scrum after beating Wake Forest 56-27 in Book’s first start of the season. “The whole offseason was focused on getting Brandon ready to beat Michigan.

Of Notre Dame’s 302 total yards against Michigan, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush produced 229 of them, with 170 passing yards and 59 rushing. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“(Running backs) Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones were not ready. (Freshman receiver) Kevin Austin wasn’t ready. Our leading receiver had nine receptions coming in. This offense was not mature enough going into the Michigan game. The playmaker on our offense was Brandon Wimbush. It needed to center around him to beat Michigan.”

Then, as Armstrong began to break out and Jones remained reliable, as Austin did not do much more than flash on the field because senior Miles Boykin was playing so well it limited the freshman’s snaps, as Chase Claypool and Chris Finke became more consistent, the Irish could turn to Book, which brings this discussion to …

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Set for at least the next season.
Trotting out a viable passer against Clemson’s passing defense, a unit which ranks No. 6 in the country by advanced metrics.
Leaning on a quarterback proficient enough it is conceivable — maybe not likely, but realistic — the Irish can pass their way past the Tigers, because running by them is even more improbable.

Book has his flaws — a few rash decisions yet (see: red zone, Los Angeles Coliseum), does not always recognize coverage wrinkles (namely, drop ends), a questionable deep ball — but his ability to operate within Long’s system has made Notre Dame’s a downright dangerous offense. With Book starting, the Irish have averaged 36.6 points per game this season, which would be a program high tracing back to 2005, when Brady Quinn led an offense scoring 36.7 points per game. That’s flattering company.

Barring a Cotton Bowl collapse, both Book’s completion rate and passer efficiency this season should break the records set by Jimmy Clausen in 2009. Again, a complimentary comparison.

When Quinn and Clausen were putting up those numbers, they were both third-year starters, not first-timers thrown into the mix midseason. Book has more to learn, more maturity to develop, more nerves to steel.

“Every game’s different, every game presents itself in a different fashion,” Kelly said earlier this month. “That was his first rivalry game against the Trojan helmet and the mystique of the Coliseum. It may not be big for you because you’ve been to the Coliseum many times and when you walk in there that’s nothing to you. That’s the first time he’s been in that stadium. That’s the first time he’s played in that game. That’s different for a 20-year-old.

“He needed to experience that. He has. He’ll be better for it moving forward.”

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
More.

Book’s best performance by yards was in the finale in that Coliseum, throwing for 352, also breaking 300 at Northwestern (343), Navy (330) and Wake Forest (325). It seems a coincidence his best yardage games come away from South Bend, but if it is anything more than that, well, JerryWorld is as different from Notre Dame Stadium as one can get. (What’s AP Style? JerryWorld, Jerry World or Jerryworld?)

He threw four touchdowns against Stanford and a pair in his seven other starts, avoiding adding an interception against only Wake Forest, Stanford and Northwestern.

His completion percentage peaked at 81.2 and 81.8 in back-to-back games against Pittsburgh and Navy, but remained above 60 percent in his next two starts, at Northwestern and against Syracuse.

If Book combines those bests — something like Wake Forest’s 325 yards, two touchdowns, 73.5 completion rate, no interceptions — then the Irish will have a genuine chance against the Tigers.

“He’s still evolving as a young quarterback and there’s going to be a couple games where he’s not at his best each and every week but his ‘B’ game is pretty good,” Kelly said. “We’re just going to need his ‘A’ game for a couple weeks.”

Producing that ‘A’ game will be difficult. If sticking to advanced numbers, Book has not faced a passing defense better than USC’s No. 33.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Presume Wimbush transfers. For storyline concerns, Miami (OH) would be preferable, reuniting with Chuck Martin, the second Irish quarterback to do so, though Wimbush and Martin know each other from recruitment only. The RedHawks need a quarterback with Gus Ragland’s career concluded.

Either way, a Wimbush transfer leaves the Notre Dame depth chart at three next season: Book, current freshman Phil Jurkovec and current three-star commit Brendon Clark.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame avoids silliness of postseason

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Bowl season can beget silly season, a month of idle time leading to far too many conversations about April’s draft, roster decisions, unlikely offensive wrinkles and so forth. In that respect, Notre Dame making the College Football Playoff diminishes those concerns. With so much at stake, there is no chance the Irish have to worry about any players sitting out the bowl game to declare for the NFL draft earlier than early.

West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, for example, has opted to miss the Camping World Bowl to prep for the draft process. A first- or second-round pick, Grier’s decision has merit, and it is one undoubtedly somewhat inspired by the injury to former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith three years ago.

“My situation has affected college football forever,” Smith recently told Sports Illustrated. “I’m going in the history books.”

Judging Grier or Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary, a possible top-10 pick, is an exercise in ego for anyone who has not been in those shoes. Rather, simply accept it as a fact of life in 2018.

The Irish do still need to put up with the agents and natural wonderings inherent to the NFL draft being within sight on the football calendar. Notre Dame tries to ready the pertinent players for that process for months so as to lessen the load now.

“We lay out a timetable where we don’t get into distractions,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “We’ve had some success with players that have had to answer these kinds of questions of when you deal with the agent and how you deal with it. We take the time in spring to sit down with all of our guys and talk through a timetable of how to handle it and how we will help them with it.

“They’re in no stressful situation as we prepare right now. Their parents can handle any decisions for them relative to representation. We will handle evaluations for them and inquiries. They know that we will put them in the best position moving forward, so they can focus on what’s most important.”

Those evaluations will help inform the decisions of five players in particular — presumably those requests were on the behalf of receiver Chase Claypool, cornerback Julian Love and ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem with a fifth included, as well — while the coaching staff balances those expected results and the returns of a few current seniors with the pending haul in next week’s early signing period.

Kelly said 10 incoming freshmen will enroll early among 21 current commitments. Just like last offseason, there will be subsequent roster math, but that can wait until those national letters of intent have arrived signed and sealed.

Opponents’ bowl dates, times, spreads, etc.
With Navy’s 17-10 loss to Army on Saturday, so ends the regular season. Now eight Notre Dame foes ready for seven bowl games, listed in chronological order:

Wake Forest vs. Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 22 at 12 ET as a 5-point underdog with a combined point total over/under of 73.5.
Vanderbilt vs. Baylor in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 at 9 ET as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 55.
Syracuse vs. Grier-less West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 at 5:15 ET as a 1.5-point underdog with an over/under of 68.5.
Michigan vs. Florida in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29 at 12 ET as a 7.5-point favorite with an over/under of 51.
Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati in the Military Bowl on Dec. 31 at 12 ET as a 5-point underdog with an over/under of 53.5.
Stanford vs. Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 at 2 ET as a 6.5-point favorite with an over/under of 52.
Northwestern vs. Utah in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 31 at 7 ET as a 7-point underdog with an over/under of 45.

What is going to be remembered as the most memorable moment of the 2018 season? 2012 had the goal line stand and the triple-overtime Pittsburgh game. — @cmupensfan

This question has percolated in my mind for two weeks, and I have yet to land on an answer. Dexter Williams’ 97-yard touchdown at Virginia Tech? Jalen Elliott’s pass breakup against Vanderbilt? Maybe that moment has yet to arrive?

If 2018 will be remembered for any singular item, it will be the quarterback change three weeks into the season. Kelly made a gutsy move, and it paid off better than could ever have been hoped.

What stat of the season (aside from the W-L record) are you most surprised/shocked by? — @TheBookofChaz

Again, no ready answer presented itself, but in combing through the season book, two did stand out. They never became season storylines like Ian Book’s historic completion percentage or Williams’ undeniable success once he got on the field.

Did you realize Notre Dame gave up only seven passing touchdowns this year? Let’s give context to that number: Last year the Irish gave up 12 scores through the air, including two to LSU. In 2016? Twice as many as this season. And in 2012? A total of 11, with four coming against Alabama.

In other words, this defense has played as well against passing attacks as 2012’s did.

Secondly, a season like this can be skewed by the slightest of things. In a game with a misshapen ball, that is often forgotten, and it is worth remembering that when realizing Notre Dame lost only three fumbles this season, having laid the ball on the ground eight times.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
The ‘Notre Dame can do this, right?’ Mailbag
A statistical comparison: The Best Notre Dame offense of the decade
A statistical comparison: How much better is Notre Dame’s defense than last year’s?
Kelly wins Coach of the Year honor; Love, Mustipher up for positional awards
Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes awards
Notre Dame names Ian Book as MVP

OUTSIDE READING
Notre Dame and Clemson’s redemption stories clash
Notre Dame unveils ‘Rush 4 Gold’ uniform for Playoff
Drue Tranquill named 2018 Wuerffel Trophy winner
Let’s talk Clemson ($)
The moment Alohi Gilman knew Notre Dame was the right choice
Jaylon Smith on skipping bowl games
Injured Duke DT Cerenord gets extra year from NCAA
Mike Gundy reimburses better who lost money on Oklahoma State win total