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A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On bowls, momentum & passing game struggles

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This bye week mailbag starts off with a long answer. I’d apologize for that, but it would be insincere. The question was a valid one and I understand the thinking. That is why I took the time to dissuade it outright.

“One question I’ve been toying with in my head is, if we run the table, do I want us to make the playoff? I think we’d have the résumé for it, particularly given the back half of our schedule, but I’m worried the one-point loss to a potentially really good Georgia team is kind of obscuring the fact that we got Jake Fromm in his first start and honestly he played pretty poorly. I still don’t think we’re really playoff caliber.
I’d like to see us get to a winnable bowl that sets the table for next season.”
— “Marcus”

I’ve known Marcus for nine years. And no, his name isn’t Marcus. I look forward to him trying to figure out why I used that pseudonym. I’ll give only one clue: It has nothing to do with “The Matrix.” That’s a movie, and this is life we’re wasting here.

In nearly a decade, this may be the first time I have ever thought Marcus was 100 percent wrong. He has taught me much, led me toward both vice and virtue, even paid me a few compliments over the years. But here, he’s off-base. Then again, he probably was with those kind words, too.

Aside from getting ahead of yourself — it’s only natural during the bye week, and it isn’t even beyond comprehension considering fivethirtyeight.com gives Notre Dame an 11 percent chance of finishing 11-1 — and not questioning your assessment of the Georgia game, you want to make the playoff. Yes, Alabama and Clemson appear to be better than everybody else. The other two playoff entrants will likely leave with nothing but the wrong end of a rout on national television.

But what if? Sometimes it takes just one bounce.

Basketball and football are very different games, but when it comes to the performances of 18- to 22-year-olds, some things translate. If you talk to many college basketball coaches, their goal is not a national championship. Rather, they aim to make a Final Four in their career. At that point, they know one bounce could change the entire weekend.

One deflected pass could lead to a 14-point swing. Perhaps at that point, a still-proving-himself quarterback (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant) doubts himself and makes another mistake before getting his head on straight. Suddenly, a defense has more moxie than anticipated and that New Year’s Day hangover you are nursing goes out the window as you realize “What if” might have some validity.

That is not an outlandish scenario. Is it less likely than a 42-14 beatdown? Yes, much less likely, but it is not beyond feasibility.

Furthermore, bowl game wins are overrated. They do not offer as much momentum as fans like to think. The biggest perk, a few weeks of added practice time, comes in both victory and defeat.

Consider Notre Dame entering the 2009 season. The previous Christmas Eve, the Irish routed Hawaii 49-21 in the aptly-named Hawaii Bowl. Led by Jimmy Clausen (22-of-26 passing for 401 yards and five touchdowns) and Golden Tate (six catches for 177 yards and three scores), that was supposed to mark the arrival of a long-awaited offensive explosion no collegiate defense could stop. Instead, Notre Dame went 6-6 in 2009, leading to Charlie Weis’ dismissal.

Just this past bowl season, LSU beat then-No. 13 Louisville (and Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson) 29-9 in the Citrus Bowl, Tennessee finished a hectic season with a 38-24 victory over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl, and Boston College notched a postseason victory for head coach Steve Addazio, slipping past Maryland 36-30 in the Quick Lane Bowl.

LSU lost to Troy two weeks ago. Volunteers head coach Butch Davis is firmly on a hot seat after starting this season 3-2 — one of those victories came in overtime against Georgia Tech while another was by only four points at home against Massachusetts. Addazio’s job is also in jeopardy thanks to a 2-4 beginning to his fifth season with the Eagles.

For an even more distinct example of bowl games not setting a tone for the coming season, take a look at Washington State the last two years. The Cougars finished 2015 with a 20-14 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl. It was supposed to mark the turning point in the rise of Mike Leach’s program. Instead, Washington State started last season 0-2 before winning eight straight to seemingly put those struggles in the rearview mirror. That momentum did not last long. The Cougars lost their final three last season, including a 17-12 defeat to tumult-plagued Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl.

How did that that dismal end to the season set the table for this year? Washington State is currently 6-0 and No. 8 in the AP top 25. If you put off reading this until Saturday, the Cougars are probably now 7-0 thanks to a matchup at Cal late Friday.

Bowl games make December tolerable and provide an excuse for fans to slip off to a southern clime for a few days. They inevitably produce fluke outcomes and comical conclusions. They do not provide or destroy any momentum for a season beginning nine months later.

“Do you think there is credence to the term good teams win, but great teams cover?”
@IRISH_GL

To an extent. This next sentence is not meant to say Notre Dame is a great team, because the Irish aren’t.

Great teams do what Notre Dame did against Miami (OH). This space’s first sentence after that 52-19 victory, in fact, was, “The Irish did what good teams do, they blew out their opponent.”

That does not need to be the case every time. Great teams also find a way to win in close games. The last few years, Notre Dame has lacked in both categories. Notching five lopsided victories in the season’s first half speaks to developing one of those characteristics. The one-point loss to Georgia shows the other is still lacking, though more chances to prove otherwise will undoubtedly come in the next six weeks.

As for the general concept, spreads in expected blowouts attempt to factor in one fluke, be it a turnover, a garbage time touchdown or a broken tackle leading to an unlikely score. Covering a spread of three touchdowns or more means none of those things happened, a sure sign of a focused and disciplined team.

Great teams are focused and disciplined. Thus, great teams tend to cover.

“Odds we come out in the green jerseys against USC?”
@pe11iott

You had my attention by opening with that delightful four-letter word. Considering this year is the 40th anniversary of the first time the green jerseys were used, and considering that occasion was indeed against the Trojans, let’s knock the odds down by half from 40-to-1 to 20-to-1.

“Biggest positive and negative surprise of this year’s football team?”
@PrinceLeo103

The positive is easy: the defensive line. In retrospect, the world should have listened to Irish coach Brian Kelly, to defensive coordinator Mike Elko and even to fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. They all said Notre Dame’s defensive line was pretty good. No one, yours truly included, took them at their word.

The Irish defensive line is pretty good.

The negative is also easy: The ineffectiveness of the Irish passing game to date does not bode well for some of the challenges coming in the second half of the season. By no means was junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush expected to challenge records or the Irish receivers thought to be potential All-Americans, but a certain degree of potency was a reasonable prediction. Clearly, that has not yet been the case.

Notre Dame will need that to change if it wants to manage much offense against North Carolina State and Miami.

On that note …

“Are the problems with the passing game more of a reflection of the play calling, the QB, the receivers not getting separation or a combination of any of them? From my couch, it appears the issue is a combination of the QB and play calling. The play calling Saturday gave the QB a lot of easy reads, but in other games that has not been the case. If the QB is struggling, and we all agree he is, than why not give him easy reads and simplify things?”
codenamegee

All of the above.

(Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Why not give Wimbush easier reads? It is not necessarily that simple. Wimbush is most-dangerous when the defense fears both his arm and his legs, but he has not shown much accuracy while on the move, unlike sophomore Ian Book. Thus, to set up Wimbush for success in the passing game, calling plays keeping him in the pocket makes more sense. The flipside of that is in those situations, the defensive backs and linebackers can focus more on coverage, no longer worrying as much about Wimbush breaking off on his own to gain the first down.

The Irish receivers have not made Wimbush’s job any easier. Sophomore Chase Claypool’s increased involvement in the passing game should help with that in a few ways. Not only does he provide Wimbush a big, sure-handed threat on the sideline, but he also draws a bit of the coverage away from junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

St. Brown’s slow start to the season is the most startling of all the receivers’ struggles. At some point, one has to think he will break loose, assuming he is completely healthy. At that point, it may be akin to a basketball player making a layup. Seeing the ball go through the rim gives the shooter enough confidence to make a three-pointer on the next trip down. If St. Brown can break just one six-yard slant for a 45-yard touchdown, he may start approaching defenders with the expectation of making them miss rather than simply holding onto the ball.

“I’d like to see a comparison of Wimbush to date compared to other first-year starting quarterbacks with five games under their belts. I think he will compare well, exceeding in some areas but behind in others.”
glowplugv

That selection of quarterbacks could be skewed any which way. At some point or another, every quarterback fit the description in the beginning of their careers and common sense will quickly tell which ones were successful from the outset and which ones were not. USC’s Sam Darnold and Miami (OH)’s Gus Ragland both started their careers with winning streaks in excess of five games. Their statistics reflect that.

Instead, let’s acknowledge the coincidence of Notre Dame thus far facing five first-year starting quarterbacks (the exception being Ragland), and take a look at their numbers.

Wimbush in five games: 52.3 percent completions, six touchdowns, two interceptions, 782 yards, 5.92 yards per attempt.
Temple’s Logan Marchi in six games: 53.9 percent completions, eight touchdowns, seven interceptions, 1,302 yards, 6.82 yards per attempt.
Georgia’s Jake Fromm in six games: 60.0 percent completions, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions, 836 yards, 8.80 yards per attempt.
Boston College’s Anthony Brown in six games: 53.1 percent completions, six touchdowns, seven interceptions, 909 yards, 4.73 yards per attempt.
Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke in five games: 61.3 percent completions, nine touchdowns, two interceptions, 1,057 yards, 6.82 yards per attempt.
North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt in six games: 58.8 percent completions, six touchdowns, three interceptions, 1,167 yards, 6.86 yards per attempt.

“Any predictions for players who have flown under the radar so far this year but end up with a big second half of the season? I’m not sure any of the RBs can even qualify anymore, but maybe a Boykin, Studstill or Cam Smith?”
jimharbaughcanbeunpleasant

Chase Claypool.

Let’s start with Claypool. He has 12 catches for 144 yards and one touchdown this season. Nine of those catches, 120 of those yards and that score have come in the last three games.

Then let’s go to junior receiver Miles Boykin. All four of his catches for 84 yards and a score have come in the last three games.

Lastly, let’s include junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. He has performed excellently thus far this season, but he has also flown under the radar in doing so. Well, as much under the radar as one can while making 27 tackles with three sacks and 1.5 more tackles for loss and a forced fumble. In fact, let’s go ahead and boldly declare Tillery will record his first multi-sack game of his career in eight days against USC.

“How many carries do you see CJ Holmes getting per game the rest of the season? I realize it was garbage time against a terrible defense, but I think he showed great poise and patience running the ball.”
ripvanroo2

This is entirely dependent on running backs’ health. Notre Dame will defer to juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams every step of the way in the high-profile matchups to come, bringing in sophomore Tony Jones anytime a multiple-back formation is desired. But, those three will need to be healthy, and thus far, they have had four troublesome ankles among them.

If those ankles hold up, and the coming games are as competitive as expected, don’t look for Holmes to garner many carries. Do look for him to make a few tackles on special teams.

 “A few weeks ago, in response to Brian Kelly’s arguably rude response to a reporter’s question following the Georgia loss, ESPN’s Paul Finebaum went on a rant about Kelly being a bad coach, a jerk and on his way out at Notre Dame. The comments felt more like a reflection of a preexisting dislike for Kelly (or ND?) than professional commentary. Is there some backstory to Finebaum/SEC and Kelly/Notre Dame?”
cbhoov144

The sensitive among Irish fans will insist I give Finebaum too much credit here. Oh well.

Paul Finebaum knows his audience. It is that simple. He rose to prominence by catering to SEC fans. There is no reason for him to stop now. That means any non-SEC school is wrong in all regards. Notre Dame isn’t in the SEC. Thus, Kelly is always wrong in Finebaum’s eyes.

The Irish outrage is only frosting on Finebaum’s cake. In today’s debate culture, many will tune in looking to be upset. To ESPN, the tuning in is what matters.

“Does Doug Flutie have a chip on his shoulder about being rejected by Notre Dame during his recruiting? Seems like it sometimes.”
oxnardpat

Every Saturday morning, I reorder my columns in Tweetdeck to make any tweets directed to the @NDonNBC account show up on the edge of my computer screen. Five of six weekends this year, those tweets have been filled with anger at the announcers. Note: Only three Notre Dame games have been on an NBC channel thus far. Either no one tuned in to watch the Irish top North Carolina on ABC this past weekend, or everyone was okay with the commentary provided by play-by-play announcer Bob Wischusen and color analyst Brock Huard.

The point is, your dislike of Flutie fits in line with no announcer being liked by any audience, no matter the network. (Wischusen and Huard being the apparent exceptions.) Flutie very well might not be the greatest color commentator in the world, but that is not because he has any ill will toward Notre Dame. He is simply doing his job, and that job does not include flattering the Irish.

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2).

WHAT? The Irish can burgeon their Playoff claim with a second top-15 win. It will be their third if considering when teams were ranked, but Stanford has plummeted from its No. 7 ranking in September.

The Orange, meanwhile, can come this close to securing a spot in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. Syracuse will still most likely need to beat No. 20 Boston College next weekend, but even a loss there could have the Orange in consideration after a win this weekend. Suffice it to say, such would be a program high tracing back to at least 1998, which ended with a 31-10 loss in the Orange Bowl to Florida.

WHEN? 2:30 ET with kickoff set for a dozen minutes later. For all the griping about moving this game to Yankee Stadium, at least it gives those in attendance a chance to still enjoy New York City on a Saturday night.

WHERE? Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York City. But yes, this is considered a Notre Dame home game because words don’t have meaning.

NBC will have the broadcast, with the game streaming online here or on the NBC Sports app.

Per usual, NBC Sports Gold is available to international fans.

WHY? Obviously, this is the 10-year rematch of the 2008 Irish loss to Syracuse in South Bend.  Despite lacking a head coach — Greg Robinson was fired the week prior, though he coached through the end of the season — the Orange pulled off a 24-23 victory to spoil Notre Dame’s Senior Day.

It was not just a cold day, but a snowy one, with students apocryphally throwing snowballs at the Irish sideline. That dramatic retelling ignores the very obvious truth that the undergrads were proving who could throw the farthest, and only three or four genuinely reached the field. They were poor optics, to be sure, but no worse than the quartet of scrawny shirtless freshmen in the stands.

The day did reap some reward for Notre Dame. A future All-American linebacker spent his official visit bundled up in the snow, wondering why people live anywhere on this mainland. Those snowball-throwing students, though, showed enough passion despite the weather to get Manti Te’o’s attention.

The Irish never played Syracuse during Te’o’s time, but they have won their last two meetings, both technically Orange home games though held in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands: 31-15 in 2014 and 50-33 in 2016.

A STAT THAT MAY HAVE BEEN MISSED IN THE WEEK’S COVERAGE
Syracuse is No. 70 in rushing yards allowed per game at 169.0 and No. 78 in yards per carry against at 4.40. Those numbers are very similar to Pittsburgh’s: No. 76 in yards per game at 172.0 and No. 79 in yards per carry at 4.41.

Then again, the Panthers held Notre Dame to 112 yards on 35 rushes (sacks adjusted), a 3.2 average.

BY HOW MUCH?
Favored by 10 points with a combined point total over/under of 65.5, the Irish are expected to win 38-28. That would necessitate holding the Orange to 16 points below its season average. That is ambitious, even for Clark Lea’s defense.

It is a cliché to say a game will hinge on the turnover battle, but it is such for a reason. It is true, and perhaps especially true this weekend. Syracuse has forced 25 turnovers this season, 2.5 per game. Notre Dame has coughed it up 12 times. (Even if removing senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s five interceptions, the Irish average 1.17 turnovers per game with junior Ian Book starting, compared to 1.2 turnovers per game all season.)

One turnover may happen; it usually does. Notre Dame may not be able to afford any more than that. The Orange will score, and giving up chances to match that is a recipe to end an unbeaten season.

Here is where it proves worth remembering the Irish running backs have not lost a fumble in 37 games, tracing back to its last in a baseball stadium, a 16-13 victory against Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015. Relying on the ground game again would reduce Notre Dame’s turnover risk. Let’s presume that happens.

Notre Dame 35, Syracuse 27.
(9-1 in pick; 4-6 against the spread, 4-6 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s Senior Night special for all, but especially two linebacker captains
Can Notre Dame count on Book’s health?
Conversation around Notre Dame changes, even as the Playoff poll does not
The rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Syracuse
And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise
Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever
The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

OUTSIDE READING:
Inside the creation of a football field at Yankee Stadium
Why does Notre Dame ever deviate from its ionic uniforms?
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick talks Brian Kelly, a 10-0 start, moving the Syracuse game and more ($)
Subway alums on board for Notre Dame return to New York City
Who is the third-best team in the country?
Don’t let anyone tell you the Irish are out with one loss.
All the chaos that can still happen in the season’s final three weeks
The highest-graded players in every Week 12 marquee matchup in college football
‘Finally, we got one’: Ball State football upsets Western Michigan in overtime thriller

Friday at 4: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

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For the better part of two seasons, junior quarterback Ian Book has been compared to his position coach, Tom(my) Rees. Both began their Notre Dame careers as understudies, seemingly physically-limited, clearly not as athletic as particular peers at the position. The Book-led Irish comeback in the Citrus Bowl seemed to cement his standing as super-sub, a la Rees in 2012 behind Everett Golson.

Perhaps the Rees comparisons should have instead featured senior Brandon Wimbush.

Last week, it was Rees who texted Wimbush on Monday, distracting him throughout a class as he tried to figure out what could possibly be so urgent. Once Wimbush got to the football facilities, Rees told him that Book probably would not play against Florida State. It was a role Rees had handled himself in 2012, most notably when Golson suffered a concussion against Stanford and Rees started the next week against BYU.

‘That guy’s been through everything you can imagine at the quarterback position here,” Wimbush said of Rees. “He’s helped me. He’s led the entire quarterback room, being that young figure who was here not too long ago.

“He has the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom to teach us. He’s done a great job of putting us in a position to succeed on and off the field.”

Wimbush threw two interceptions last week, his fifth and sixth of the year. Yet, the 42-13 victory made his spot-start an unqualified success. His demeanor in handling it, the benching back in September that made last weekend just a spot start, and any of the expected turmoil in the interim, all extended the success to off the field, as well.

As the 10-0 Irish continue this regular season unbeaten and set for the Playoff, Wimbush’s contributions warrant more praise. Not becoming a malcontent is a low bar to clear, but one too high just a couple years ago. It has not gone unnoticed in this locker room.

“Brandon is a high character guy, great guy to be around, we love him to death,” junior defensive Daelin Hayes said following the victory against the Seminoles. “It was our job to go out and have his back.

“He came out and obviously with him being the starter, he handled that as well as anybody could possibly handle that situation.”

Notre Dame likely would have beaten Florida State with freshman Phil Jurkovec at the helm. Frankly, given the first-quarter interception return to the three-yard line from senior Nick Coleman and Julian Love’s two-point return, the Irish may have prevailed with you or me at quarterback. Can you successfully hand off to Dexter Williams 20-plus times?

But Wimbush removed most, perhaps all, stress from the situation. That is not as dramatic as Rees leading the winning drive against Purdue or throwing the winning touchdown against Stanford. It may not stand the same test of time in lore. But it should. Wimbush took the back seat maturely, as frustrating as that must have been. Then he stepped forward when needed, threw three touchdowns and enjoyed a victorious Alma Mater.

The Irish needed that stability as much as they once needed Rees’ heroics.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever

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When now-No. 3 Notre Dame opened its season against now-No. 4 Michigan, the Irish relied on their quarterback, and senior Brandon Wimbush delivered. In meeting No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame once again will presumably need its quarterback in order to keep up with the Orange scoring pace, averaging 44.4 points per game.

And the Irish will have junior Ian Book ready to go, per head coach Brian Kelly on Thursday.

“He’s had a good week,” Kelly said. “Normal rust on Tuesday, Wednesday ran the offense effectively and then [Thursday] settled in as if he had not had a week off.”

Despite a ribs injury that kept him sidelined against Florida State, Book is already back working within the entirety of Notre Dame’s offense.

“We have run game in for him,” Kelly said. “He’s going to get hit. We feel very comfortable — we wouldn’t play him if we had to put him in bubble wrap.”

This should be an occasion for Book to put up some gaudy stats … in part because Syracuse runs its offense at a high pace, creating more plays for both teams; in part because the Orange defense is somewhat susceptible to the passing game; in part because Book’s numbers in his six starts have been relatively absurd on their own.

Syracuse averages 82.2 plays per game, fourth-most in the country and just behind Wake Forest’s 83.9. That distorts giving up 261.3 passing yards per game (No. 107), but the 7.5 yards per pass attempt still shows a struggle to defend the pass. For comparison, Northwestern gives up 6.8 yards per attempt, and Book memorably threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-34 passing against the Wildcats, mostly with the rib injury.

Yet, the Orange may present Book a challenge he has not yet seen. Giving up a 56.0 percent completion rate (No. 32), Syracuse makes opposing quarterbacks work for their gains harder than any of the six defenses Book has faced. If styles make fights, then it is worth remembering Book leads the country with a 74.5 completion rate.

Book can also prove once and for all whether this season or last was the anomaly as it pertains to his turnovers. Book has thrown four interceptions in 2018, just as he did in 2017. This year they have come on 204 attempts, nearly triple last year’s 75. The Orange intercepts the opposition once every 25 attempts (14 picks on 350 attempts), a number that would pose a concern against the more inexperienced version of Book.

“They play good defense,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t call them a trapping defense in a sense that they’re in a lot of exotic (coverages). They’re a four-down front that plays Cover 1 and they rotate down and play some three-down.

“My first characterization of them wouldn’t be that of a team that takes the ball away. I think they’re fundamentally sound and they put their kids in good position.”

This is all of such concern because Syracuse is going to score. The offense is too high-powered to presume otherwise. Notre Dame behind Wimbush would probably not be able to keep up. With Book back, it becomes more likely, if not outright probable.

Nick Coleman’s interception on Florida State’s second play last week set up an Irish score and Coleman for an increased role at nickel back moving forward. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Orange will stress the Irish defense in ways not yet seen, particularly its nickel packages and senior Nick Coleman. Notre Dame has struggled to replace senior Shaun Crawford since his preseason ACL tear. With an interception and a pass breakup a week ago, Coleman once again asserted himself as Notre Dame’s presumed nickel back. Freshman Houston Griffith has struggled in coverages, leaving only junior Julian Love as a remaining viable option, which then forces freshman TaRiq Bracy (or, less likely due to his lackluster performance this season, junior Donte Vaughn) into outside coverage.

Thus, Coleman will be counted on against an offense with four receivers averaging 11.17 yards or more per catch with at least 28 receptions, all with multiple scores this season.

“Certainly with their [one running back, no tight end] personnel, the nickel will be a very important piece in terms of what we do,” Kelly said. “I thought [Coleman] was savvy. … I got a chance to see him a lot this week, and I thought he was on top of his game.”

As Eric Dungey goes, so goes Syracuse’s offense and the four-year starting quarterback is having quite a productive season, accounting for 26 total touchdowns. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey further complicates that concern, the best dual-threat the Irish have faced this season. On paper, it was a schedule littered with such concerns, but Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson was knocked out for the season by injury before Notre Dame arrived, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has not been as mobile since tearing his ACL in December, and the same can be said of Florida State’s Deondre Francois regarding his ACL tear to start the 2017 season.

Dungey, meanwhile, has taken 147 carries for 690 yards, not adjusting for sacks, and 12 touchdowns. With Coleman at nickel, the Irish will need to rely on linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill to keep an eye on Dungey, especially in the red zone.

He is but a piece of an offense ranked No. 28 in rushing yards per game with 216.1, No. 6 in rushing touchdowns with 32 and No. 12 in attempts per game with 46.1.

“The whole change in their ability to sustain their offensive structure is their ability to run the football,” Kelly said. “If they can’t run the football, this team is not 8-2.

“… By being an effective ground team, it sets up everything they can do.”

Everything the Orange does may make it the best offense first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has faced. In the Notre Dame Stadium press box before last week’s 42-13 victory, it was an easy conversational piece to ponder if Syracuse is the best offense the Irish will play this season. The answer is obviously yes. The follow-up question was tougher to answer, who has been the best thus far?

Michigan’s has come furthest, the best at this point, but it was a shell of this version to open the season. Stanford’s was expected to be much more than it has been, bothered by uncharacteristically poor offensive line play. The consensus settled on Wake Forest, which also scored a season-high 27 points against Notre Dame. If/when the Orange tops that, it will not be an indictment of Lea’s defense, but a challenge to Book’s offense.

Lastly, will freshman defensive end Justin Ademilola play? This is largely a piece of housekeeping, but Ademilola has appeared in three games, meaning he can play in one more before losing a year of eligibility. Given how many games are left — two — and what is at stake — a Playoff berth — burning the year may make sense. Defensive line depth is not something to be taken for granted, and Ademilola has shown he can hold his own for a handful of snaps per game.

The only other freshmen worth monitoring in this regard would be running backs C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith and receiver Joe Wilkins, all having played in two games to date. Barring injury, four games should be the logical limit for each.

Mike Tirico Podcast: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise

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Brian Kelly can very much understand what Dino Babers has done to bring Syracuse to No. 12 in the country. Babers orchestrated that rise along the exact same timetable the Notre Dame head coach made his career on, a timetable that then risked his career, Kelly explained to NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico on his eponymous weekly podcast.

Babers is in his third year leading the Orange, now at 8-2 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons.

“He has stuck with his system and developed his players,” Kelly told Tirico. “These young men are now veterans on the offensive line. He has gone out and brought in some veteran players on the defensive line. He can do some things on the line of scrimmage that he couldn’t before.

“They present a challenge because they can run the football, they can throw it, they’re balanced on offense. … He’s a smart football coach, and he’s developed Syracuse into a winning team.”

While each of Kelly’s first two seasons at Notre Dame matched Babers’ combined wins in his first two with the Orange, it was still Kelly’s third that saw his break through, a la Syracuse currently. That season, as many remember, ended in the BCS national championship game.

This followed a trend for Kelly, going 19-16 in three seasons at Central Michigan before moving to Cincinnati where he went 34-6 before taking over the Irish. That final season with the Bearcats featured the same regular season record Kelly’s third at Notre Dame did, 12-0.

Then, one could say Kelly and the Irish stagnated for three seasons. He had not needed to navigate those years at the FBS-level before.

“Got here and after that third year, really went past that three-year turnaround again and stopped doing the things that I had been doing in the process that I had always stuck with,” Kelly said. “The 4-8 season (in 2016) was a re-awakening of getting back to the things that I had always done and just validates the fact that if I stick with the process and the things that I have always done as a football coach, then we can have success.”

This, along with the general enormity of coaching at Notre Dame and all that comes with it, had Kelly unprepared for the scope of the gig despite being a 19-year head coach when he arrived in South Bend.

“I don’t think I was actually adequately prepared for it,” he said in a moment of candor.

To hear Kelly expound on that list of responsibilities, on recruiting players who fit the University’s culture and on his early career in politics, give Kelly and Tirico a listen via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever else you may get your podcasts.