Notre Dame is 6-1 and currently sits at No. 9 in the latest Associated Press poll, and while head coach Brian Kelly’s team has feisty opponents remaining on the schedule, the most difficult part has passed. And Notre Dame has been able to keep their playoff hopes alive thanks to the outstanding play of five midseason MVPs, both individual and collective.
5. Justin Yoon
Pressure is inherent for starting true freshmen. That pressure amplifies when your head coach calls you the best at your position in the nation before you’ve even arrived to campus. Such was the case for Justin Yoon, the former No. 1 high school kicker in the country.
Yoon struggled early in the season and headed into Death Valley to face Clemson having converted only three of five field goal attempts, but all that was before Yoon drilled a confidence-boosting 46-yarder in a must-have situation in the midst of hurricane conditions against the Tigers. Since that impressive field goal Yoon has been perfect, going 5-5 and blasting each attempt directly through the uprights.
The talented true freshman has already emerged as a legitimate weapon, and it would not be surprising – given Yoon’s physical ability and mental toughness – if he wound up being the best kicker to ever wear a golden helmet.
4. Team Defense
Notre Dame’s defense has been wildly inconsistent at times in 2015 but they have managed to come through when needed the most. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit systematically dismantled Georgia Tech’s triple option attack, an offensive system Notre Dame has struggled to stop in recent years. And despite rough beginnings, Notre Dame’s defense held strong against some of the nation’s top offenses.
Clemson was held to only 10 points in three quarters as star quarterback DeShaun Watson was limited to less than 100 yards passing and a 50-percent completion rate. To put this accomplishment in proper perspective, Watson threw for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns against Boston College, the No. 1 overall defense in the nation heading into this past weekend. Likewise, the potent USC Trojans offensive attack was held scoreless in the last 25 minutes, gaining only 87 yards and turning the football over twice.
3. Offensive Line
Preseason pundits singled out the offensive line as the key to a successful 2015 for Notre Dame given the inexperience at the quarterback position after Malik Zaire was named the starter. That prediction magnified many fold when Zaire was lost for the season due to injury and former third string quarterback DeShone Kizer was elevated to the top of the depth chart. Thus far the offensive line has lived up to the hype.
The Irish rushing attack is averaging 235 yards per game, which is No. 15 nationally and tops like the likes of Stanford, Georgia, Clemson, UCLA and Alabama. And the pass protection has been stout to the point Kizer is struggling with holding on to the ball too long in the pocket, a good problem for a young quarterback to have.
2. DeShone Kizer
Notre Dame would not still be in the playoff hunt without the incredible play of DeShone Kizer, whose story is every underdog’s dream. Buried on the depth chart this spring as Everett Golson and Malik Zaire battled for the starting position, Kizer found himself thrown into the fire with very few practice reps when Zaire went down with injury. And with the game very much in doubt against Virginia, Kizer led a miraculous comeback, connecting on a 39-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller with only seconds remaining to win the game.
Despite Kizer’s lack of experience he’s already built a strong resume in a very short period of time, defeating Georgia Tech and USC and nearly defeating Clemson in Death Valley, a program that hasn’t lost at home since 2012.
1. C.J. Prosise
If Notre Dame’s annual team banquet was held today, C.J. Prosise would capture MVP honors. Prosise has one of the most unique career trajectories one can find in college football. A one-time under the radar three-star recruit from Virginia, Prosise arrived in South Bend as a safety prospect before being moved to wide receiver. When former five-star running back Greg Bryant left the program and starter Tarean Folston suffered a season-ending injury, Prosise, who had never played the running back position even in high school, became the workhorse and is having a historic season.
Prosise is No. 11 in the nation in rushing yards and will likely eclipse the 1,000 yard mark this Saturday against Temple. And in one season at running back he has managed to pass former greats such as Rocket Ismail on the all-time rushing list and is on pace to break the school record for most rushing yards in one season.
With some of the nation’s top defenses remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule, Prosise will need to continue his MVP season to keep the Fighting Irish in the playoff hunt.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.