Now that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have a week off to relax before starting the latter half of the 2017 season, Irish fans can also take a breather as their team remains in contention for a major bowl berth. With a 5-1 record, Notre Dame could conceivably become part of the conversation regarding national title playoffs, though navigating through the tougher portion of their schedule serves as a stiff challenge.
Last season at the same point, the Irish were floundering with a 2-4 mark, numbers they were destined to repeat by the time the second half of the 2016 season ended with a miserable 4-8 mark. 2017’s turnaround is something that can explored more deeply by delving into the team’s statistical numbers and comparing some severe contrasts.
This year’s edition of the Notre Dame offense isn’t much more prolific than the 2016 unit, averaging 40 points per game, compared just over 34 last year. Like most winning teams, an improved defense serves as the chief calling card for the 2017 Irish, with opponents scoring nearly two touchdowns less per game than one year ago.
The areas of run and pass defense have each seen upticks in comparison to last season, a testament to the influence of the new defensive coordinator Mike Elko. While opponents have gone more to the air against Notre Dame this season, their ability to punch the ball into the end zone has been virtually non-existent, with just one rushing touchdown in 2017, as opposed to 13 at the same point last year.
Yet even with 20 more opposition completions this season, they’ve actually gained 29 less yards when comparing the first six games of each season. In addition, the greater focus on passing for Irish rivals has only been able to deliver one additional touchdown pass over 24 quarters of play.
Forcing the Issue
A major component of that improved defense has been the ability to force turnovers, with Notre Dame having already matched their 2016 total of 14 in that category. At the same point last year, the Irish were only able to take advantage of six opposing miscues, with two of those coming on fumble recoveries in the swampy conditions at North Carolina State.
Part of the reason for this surge has been the more aggressive posture Irish defenders have adopted, with pass breakups having seen a 60 percent increase from last year at this point, going from 15 to 24. That number works in tandem with the 50 percent jump in quarterback hurries from 22 to 33 within the same time.
Actually getting to the quarterback was a season-long problem in 2016, with just three opposing signal callers sacked during the first six games. This season, that number stands at 13, with the play up front of both Jerry Tillery and Daelin Hayes accounting for five sacks. The duo has also contributed eight tackles-for-loss, in contrast to three last season.
While a good portion of the credit for Notre Dame’s improvement can be attributed to the defense, the offense has also been an invaluable aspect of this year’s three additional wins. The team’s running game has been the main weapon on that side of the ball, having seen a jump in yards per carry from 4.35 in 2016 to 6.89 this year.
Heading the running game has been Josh Adams, who currently stands just 157 yards away from matching his total of 933 from last season. One consistent image from the first half of the 2017 campaign has been the sight of Adams on a breakaway run, which helps explain why his yards-per-carry average this season is nearly double that of last year’s number: 9.0 to 4.8.
Adams’ work has been supplemented by the duo of Deon McIntosh and Dexter Williams, who’ve combined for 444 yards. Williams has been an equally dangerous on the ground, considering that in his 20 carries, he’s averaging 10.7 yards every time he’s handed the ball.
A Dual Threat
Last season, the duo of DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire handled the passing and running aspects of the offense, respectively. This season, sophomore Brandon Wimbush has played well enough in both areas for head coach Brian Kelly to avoid falling back on a strategy that ultimately wasn’t successful.
Wimbush has largely kept his throwing within shorter distances, which has meant only two interceptions in 132 pass attempts. Despite sitting out the win at North Carolina, he’s still thrown for 782 yards in five games and tossed six touchdowns. While those numbers don’t compare to Kizer’s at the same point last year, Wimbush’s game-managing ability has helped make the won-loss record much more palatable.
Plus, Wimbush’s ability to move with the ball has kept opposing defenses guessing, with the quarterback collecting 402 yards rushing and scoring eight times. In the first six games of 2016, the dual quarterback system managed to only gain 198 yards and reach the end zone five times.
The Road Ahead
Notre Dame is currently ranked in the Top 25, though matching their 5-1 start will require numbers that rival those already racked up. With all but one of the final six games coming against a ranked opponent, the gauntlet has been thrown down. Whether the Irish pick it up will determine where they land when bowl games start.