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Things We Learned: At 8-0, Notre Dame still has not reached its best

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Notre Dame was good. The No. 3 Irish could be better.

That has become something of a theme this year. The routs of ranked opponents Stanford and Virginia Tech were impressive, but Notre Dame’s offense could have offered more. Entering the off week with a win against Pittsburgh, well, let’s not revisit that one. Saturday’s 44-22 victory against Navy in San Diego showed both peak offensive and defensive efficiency for the Irish, for a half.

“What we learned today is getting of to a great start is one thing, but if you don’t play with the same physicality for four quarters, you’re going to be in trouble,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said, not for the first time this season.

Yet, 8-0 is 8-0, how serious can the nitpicking be?

Sophomore left guard Aaron Banks (center, blocking No. 97) held his own in his first career start Saturday. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

The greatest Irish changes came on the offensive line, and they worked this week. Working against Navy, though, is different than excelling in November.

Sophomore Aaron Banks started at left guard and senior Trevor Ruhland moved from there to starting at right guard. Former starter Tommy Kraemer saw action only once the outcome was no longer in doubt.

“We did some decent things,” Kelly said. “We pass protected very well today. I want to exert our will at any time, and we’re not there yet.

“We have to be more effective at running the ball when teams know we’re going to run the football. We’re not there yet.”

Nonetheless, Notre Dame ran 43 times against the Midshipmen, averaging 5.9 yards per rush. In a game against one of the worst passing defenses in the country, the play calls nonetheless shifted toward the ground game 43 :: 33. It cannot be said the Irish rushing attack was lacking this weekend.

Perhaps the clearest thing learned in this category is Kraemer’s time may be limited the rest of the season. It will be advertised as a timeshare, a rotation similar to the one he had at right tackle last year with Robert Hainsey. But Kraemer is at his best in a run-heavy offensive attack, and even with one, he did not play much against an undersized defensive line.

Making offensive line changes in November is too late for a contender. This needs to be the alignment to close the season, barring injury, and it once again appears to leave Kraemer as the sixth man on a five-man unit.

Irish sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong silenced any workload concerns in his return from a month-long recovery from a knee infection. (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)

That offensive line is clearing space for a still-developing group of running backs, and in this case, that adjective is a good thing for the Irish.

Sophomore Jafar Armstrong fit in nicely alongside senior Dexter Williams in the former’s return from a month-long absence with a knee infection. They had yet to play together, ships passing in the night between the infection and Williams’ undisclosed four-game suspension. As excellent as Williams has been in his four games, Armstrong offers a more diverse skill set.

“Having Jafar back in the backfield just allows our offense to be able to run a bunch of plays that we’ve been wanting to run,” junior quarterback Ian Book said. “He’s been preparing all week. Couldn’t be happier with the way he played.”

Those plays did not inherently include a 27-yard completion on 3rd-and-10 in the fourth quarter, a play Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo cited as a breaking point of sorts, but that improvised play still exhibited Armstrong’s abilities at their best. The converted receiver recognized the situation and made a break for Book to find him in coverage.

“As a quarterback, to see Jafar sprinting down the field, there’s nothing better,” Book said.

For the second time this season, Irish senior running back Dexter Williams found the end zone three times Saturday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

It would have been reasonable to worry Armstrong’s return may cut into Williams’ touches. Reducing the chances for a back with 512 yards on 74 carries, a 6.92 yards per rush average, would be counterproductive. That does not have to be the case. Williams can still rush 20-plus times per game while getting Armstrong 15 touches.

“What’s starting to become clearer to us is that Dexter is clearly that top back,” Kelly said. “He’s becoming a complete back. He has not been that for us.”

Such a breakdown is exactly what happened at San Diego County Credit Union Stadium. Williams took 23 carries for 142 yards and three touchdowns while Armstrong combined nine rushes with five catches for 116 yards and the night’s first score.

In time, offensive coordinator Chip Long will trot out the duo together, putting defenses in a bind similar to the one he relishes with two tight ends. This backfield is still coming together, even as the calendar turns to the month Notre Dame fans dread.

“Jafar is coming back after a month off,” Kelly said. “He’s not there yet as the runner that we want him to be. But, boy, can he catch the football, so they’re kind of identifying themselves as to who they are right now. I think we’re going to get more out of Jafar as we continue to play.”

The moment of fear Saturday came with fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill crumpled on the field, but that turned out to be only a sprained ankle, and sophomore Drew White acquitted himself well for the night.

White should not be forgotten amid dreams of Playoff possibilities and Tuesday’s first ranking from the selection committee. In any other game, White would not have been the likely replacement. In the long-term — Kelly would not rule out Tranquill for the trip to Northwestern, but by no means is Tranquill likely for next weekend — White is probably no more than barely in the linebacker rotation. But he stepped forward against Navy, and that was needed.

One absent-minded defender can ruin a game plan against the triple-option. Its monotony, relentlessness and uniqueness demand constant attention. (See: Tiech, Alexander; 2010.) White filled that hole.

“You lose arguably one of your best defensive players in the first series against Navy, it harkens me back to when we lost Joe Schmidt,” Kelly said, remembering the dismal, injury-filled end to 2014. “Things can go awry quickly. They did not from that position. Drew went in there and did a really nice job.”

Quickly bypassed and forgotten on the depth chart, White had few paths to playing time, if any. Kelly would not even describe this as delayed gratification, because White could “not see the end in sight.” Six tackles on Saturday may not even be his end, considering this headache is scheduled annually.

“He continued to work through injury, dedicated himself to get bigger, faster and stronger,” Kelly said. “He found his opening in special teams. He found his niche this week with the triple-option.”

And with that, Navy and the triple-option are in the rearview mirror for another year. Notre Dame is through two-thirds of its schedule without a loss. Everything remains possible.

How much more can anyone ask for?

By the way, kickoff next weekend will be at 7:15 ET on ESPN.