Entering their bye week with a 5-1 record, the 2019 season for Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish has mostly gone according to plan. The lone blemish was a competitive road battle against Georgia last month, while the two contests against outmanned New Mexico and Bowling Green resulted in a combined score of 118-14. In their other three victories, the Irish managed to get past some early adversity to stay in the hunt for a postseason playoff berth.
Given the juggernauts currently ahead of them, Notre Dame may not get that playoff opportunity when the decision is made in December. They not only have to run the table for their final six regular-season contests but also need some help from other teams to topple those schools that are in prime position to be selected. The Irish also need to take care of some nagging issues that have developed during the first half of the season.
Below are some areas that need to be tweaked:
A Running Infusion
The Notre Dame running game currently ranks 45th when it comes to rushing offense, with nearly half of the 1,131 yards they’ve gained coming from the legs of Tony Jones Jr. He’s one of five players to score a touchdown this season, among the 14 players that have toted the ball during the first six games. However, he’s going to need help during the stretch drive that has some challenges ahead.
One asset that Brian Kelly hasn’t been able to use for virtually the entire season is Jafar Armstrong, who was injured early in the opener at Louisville and returned to make a cameo appearance against Southern Cal on Saturday night. He was expected to be a much more important option this season and can still have an impact by working in tandem with Jones to offer the Irish a one-two punch in the backfield. Also, he would provide Ian Book with a receiving option.
Looking at the Lines
Looking at the offensive production thus far and the decrease in sacks allowed, the performance of the Irish offensive line would seemingly be noteworthy. However, there have been continuing issues when it comes to penalties, especially those involving false starts. Also, some of those penalties have been costly ones, mistakes that can’t occur if Notre Dame wants to consider themselves among the elite.
On the defensive side of the line, a two-week dry spell serves as the only flaw for a front that’s made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks, even when they haven’t been sacked. That’s because the underrated statistic of quarterback hurries have made both Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem constant threats. Okwara got off to a slow start but has picked up the pace in recent weeks, with the hope being that he can end up matching last season’s effort of 21 hurries.
Like the running back situation, the Notre Dame receiving corps hasn’t had a consistent collection of options for Book. Three players make up more than half of the 115 receptions over the first six games, led by Chase Claypool‘s 27, with four touchdown catches among them. Cole Kmet made up for his two-game absence at tight end to start the year and has 21 in his four games, while Chris Finke‘s 15 have made him a key possession receiver.
In Kmet’s absence, Tommy Tremble helped expand the field for tight end tosses by snagging nine during his time on the field. The problem for the Irish is that after that, they have a hodgepodge of talent that hasn’t truly been tested or, in the case of Michael Young, have contributed catches that have gained minimal yardage. Javon McKinley’s eight grabs are skewed by the fact that all but one of them came in the blowouts over New Mexico and Bowling Green.
Red Zone Contrasts
When it comes to delivering in the red zone, the Notre Dame offense has done all they can do, while the team’s defense needs to improve in this category. On the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame is one of three FBS teams that have managed to score each of the 23 times they’ve reached this particular area. The problem is that they’ve allowed the opposition to put points on the board on all but one of their 14 times.
That latter number has the Irish ranked in the bottom 10 in the NCAA, with the Irish only able to hold the opposition to a field goal on five occasions. While plenty of scores take place beyond the red zone, Notre Dame has split their two games decided by a touchdown or less. Keeping other teams out of the end zone would help make such games less of an issue for the road ahead.