Notre Dame Football 2017: What a Difference a Year Makes

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.

These include:

Better Defense

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.

Running Wild

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.

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  1. This is going to be a tough stretch coming up. I don’t think this is as good as Alabama or Clemson. I do think it can play with most teams in the top 25, but they could drop a few in the second half. The teams they play are just brutal

  2. What a difference having a normal, competent college defense makes. Brian Van Gorder almost cost Brian Kelly his job.

  3. Doubting Jeff, Better jump on the bandwagon now. What do you have to wait for, to see the wounds we inflict on the other teams coming up?

    1. I think Jeff is just afraid of being burned, as it has happened a number of times during the BK era. You just start thinking we turned a corner and bam, we lose 3 games in a row. I think back to that Florida State game a few years ago. We were 6-0, we lose to the number 1 team in the country on a controversial call, EG seemingly crumbles after that and we end up losing most of the remaining games.

      Personally I think so far this is a solid team thus far. But I’m not ready to say they are home free yet. If they beat USC that will go a long way to making me think they may be the real deal. I guess you can say I’m cautiously optimistic.

      I do strongly disagree with Jeff, however, about the Georgia team. They actually look like a pretty good team right now and ND’s 1 point loss looks less damning as each week goes by. They’re pretty much crushing everyone else on their schedule (granted their schedule thus far hasn’t been particularly rough to this point, outside 2 or 3 games).

      1. Damian, Yes I agree Georgia looks like a really strong team right now. But dont forget when they played ND on the road in
        South Bend they were forced to start a True Freshmen QB in a hostile environment and they still won. I think USC and NC St.
        will be more of a challenge for ND than Georgia. Lets see how it plays out. We can revisit this in a couple weeks.

      2. Bruce, Your’re Right! Thanks for reminding me about that situation. What should’ve bee a hostile environment
        turns out to be a home game for the bulldogs. Lets just meet in the middle and call it a neutral site game.

  4. Still havent played anyone other than a one dimensional Georgia team at home and lost that game. Im still going to err on the
    side of caution before i get caught up in the hype like most on this site. Take care of USC and NC St. and ill start to believe in
    this team.

    1. Jeff? There’s a term “Don’t be a negative-Nellie.” Adjusting the term to your gender, I advise “don’t be a negative-knucklehead.” You are welcome to be skeptical of us “pie-in-the-sky”ers. But you should be a little more substantive in your doubt. I’m just saying…

      1. Quick clarification as to WHAT “I’m just saying.” I’m questioning your skepticism because you are essentially saying you’ll start to believe once the season is ie. over. (exception, Stanford) Very conservative/weak-minded. Good day.

  5. This team is on a mission on their redemption tour. You can feel it. Out of nowhere comes the big play, a new star emerges, totally new positive attitude. They are a credit to their uniforms.

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