After two consecutive weeks of plummeting, the Notre Dame football stock leveled out, at least for now, with a 50-33 victory against the Syracuse Orangemen. It’s too soon to say whether this is a signal of an upward trend for Brian Kelly’s troops; Syracuse is no powerhouse and 33 points given up isn’t anything to throw a pizza party over, but given the way Syracuse plays on offense, it was to be expected that points would be scored. The offense was an embarrassment of riches from a big play standpoint, in no small part aided by playing a defense that is worse than the one they put on the field on a weekly basis, which is really saying something. To their credit, DeShone Kizer and his skill players took advantage of most of the opportunities that were presented to them by a leaky defense, en route to 654 yards of offense and 50 points.
Next up are the North Carolina State Wolfpack, who sit at 3-1, in Raleigh. A true road win for this team would definitely tilt the scales towards a positive trend for the football program and set them on a course to turn the season around.
CJ Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown
Alright, we’ve seen enough, these young men are ballers. It always takes a little bit to fully buy into young players who are getting their first real playing time in their careers. There is a tendency to over react to strong early performances and cast stardom onto players with too little of a sample size. Through the first five games it’s safe to declare these two players will be stars for the Irish for as long as they are on campus.
The St. Brown hype train was rolling even last year with the reports of what he was doing in practice and he got some preseason love from Bruce Feldman from Fox Sports as a possible breakout star in college football. Turns out everyone knew what they were talking about. Threw five games St. Brown has 25 receptions, 541 yards and 6 touchdowns. He is not a Will Fuller type of player, but that is Will Fuller type production, which should suit everyone just fine. Impressively, he has scored his six touchdowns in multiple ways. He hit Texas and Michigan State for jump balls, a red zone post corner against Duke, a dig, catch and run against Syracuse and a blow by for his second touchdown against the Orangemen. And of course there was his cartwheel flip into the end zone after going up the seam against Texas. In this way, he is somewhat more valuable than Fuller, who had trouble being effective in the red zone. Three of St. Brown’s six scores have already come from that area of the field that plagued the Irish last season.
There have been numerous calls to get Sanders more involved in the offense, but he won’t be kept down even with minimal touches. The sophomore already has returned three kicks for scores with a fourth being called back by penalty. He also seems to catch everything that is thrown his way and is deadly when he has even a little bit of open space. It’s only a matter of time before Notre Dame fully takes advantage of his vast skill set and when paired with St. Brown should give Kelly’s unit a formidable duo at the receiver position.
The 2017 Defense
Notre Dame emptied the cupboard on defense Saturday playing a slew of underclassmen in what was a major change in philosophy on that side of the ball. As was maddeningly apparent during the Brian VanGorder era, he generally had a selection of players that he was comfortable with and stuck with them for better or worse. New defensive coordinator Greg Hudson seemed to have received some pretty straightforward marching orders from Brian Kelly to play as many people as possible. The result was a free flow of substitutions at all positions that mostly occurred from possession to possession instead of play to play. How much positive effect will this have on this defense overall? It’s hard to really say. It’s certainly too soon to proclaim that anything has been solved on this side of the ball, although there were plenty of encouraging signs.
The most encouraging thing, however, is likely what this means for the future of the defense in subsequent seasons. What we’ve seen, for the most part, is a bunch of quality individual performances mixed in with a unit that plays like they are running the schemes for the first time. This is a problem that isn’t likely to rectify itself this season. But, the talent is there and given a proper coach with a quality scheme, coupled with all of the playing time the youngsters are amassing should bode very well in the seasons to follow.
DeShone Kizer on 3rd down
Heading into the season, one of the most talked about problems with the Notre Dame offense was the red zone touchdown conversion percentage, and for the most part that aspect has been improved significantly so far in 2016. Notre Dame is currently sitting at a 74% conversion rate, last season they converted their red zone opportunities into touchdowns just 58% of the time. Unfortunately, their struggles in the red zone have given way to struggles to convert on third down. They haven’t been over 50% in any game this year and are converting at 39% on the season. This is especially troubling given the talent they have at quarterback in DeShone Kizer, who hasn’t been especially good moving the chains in third down situations as a thrower. He’s attempted 36 passes on third down with the 14 completions resulting in a first down achieved, which matches their overall conversion percentage of 39%. Last season Kizer was operating at a 52% conversion percentage on attempts per first down.
Kizer also hasn’t picked up the slack as runner either. Last season Kizer was 11 of 23 (48%) converting third down runs between 1 and 6 yards into first downs with 19 carries totaling 170 yards. So far this season there has been a dramatic drop off in his third down rushing efficiency. He’s run the ball 8 times for -4 yards on all third downs so far and has yet to pick up a first down with his feet. For a player with his athleticism this is pretty staggering. Winning on third down is a key for any offense, especially one that relies so heavily on that unit to score points. Punting and playing defense is not a winning formula for this football team.
The Targeting Rule
This play in the second quarter by Devin Studstill in the game against Syracuse resulted in his ejection.
This play against Torii Hunter Jr. was deemed legal and safe. I mean, even the video guy can see it. Targeting.
This play in the Stanford at UCLA game on September 24th was deemed legal and safe.
The officials don’t know what they are doing, either on the field or in the booth. Get rid of the rule, re-write it and make it clear what is legal and what is not. Studstill was essentially ejected for a late hit on a play where the quarterback slid at the last second in front of him and contorted his body to avoid helmet to helmet contact. Hunter Jr. and Owusu were knocked unconscious on the field with direct helmet to helmet contact and nothing happened, except an incompletion and a fumble recovery. NCAA officials embarrass themselves on a weekly basis on this issue, it’s time to drop it.