After winning five of their first six games, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are still clinging to the hope of reaching the college football playoffs for the second year in a row. That may difficult with the current logjam of teams ahead of them, but the Irish have no choice but to forge ahead and try to make their case by winning the final six games of the 2019 regular season.
During the first half of the current season, specific numbers have stood out more than others that represent why Notre Dame has either had success in a particular area or has seen issues surface that needs to be addressed. Listed below are some of those numbers and the players that have been key contributors in building them up:
That number represents the number of sacks compiled by Julian Okwara, which, coupled with his 13 tackles on the season, might now draw a lot of praise from those not focused on Notre Dame’s fortunes. However, it’s his overall play that’s allowed him to have a stellar season and put him in the mix for strong consideration when postseason awards get handed out.
Okwara’s sack total leads the Irish, but he’s also managed to combine with fellow end Khalid Kareem in racking up 12 quarterback hurries. That latter category was something that Okwara dominated last year, while he’s already matched his career total for forced fumbles this season, including his first fumble recovery. Staying revved up the rest of the way would give the Irish a solid chance for a major bowl appearance.
One of the more frustrating numbers for Notre Dame this season has been in the area of penalties, with the Irish being flagged 38 times in the first six games. In the team’s lone of loss of the season, they received 12 penalties that cost them 83 yards, sloppiness that they couldn’t afford in a game against a highly-ranked opponent that had the benefit of strong crowd support.
One of the chief problems for Notre Dame has been the issue of false starts on the offensive line, with tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey serving as the primary culprits. Eichenberg’s lack of discipline was especially costly in the Georgia loss, which included picking up a personal foul. Cleaning up this concern and reducing penalties, in general, is vital to keeping the Irish in the hunt.
The Irish running game was expected to feature Jafar Armstrong prominently, but that emphasis was forced to change after he was injured in the opening win at Louisville. That led to Tony Jones Jr. taking over that role, leading to 557 yards on the ground from the veteran who’s averaging seven yards per carry and has reached the end zone four times. In addition, he’s caught six passes, though four of those came in the Georgia loss when the running game was stopped cold.
Jones has always been a supplemental player for Notre Dame, having only gained 624 yards during his first three seasons. His new importance has led to no other back, other than quarterback Ian Book, gaining over 100 yards on the year. The hope is that Armstrong will be ready to provide a significant jolt to the running game, which would give the Irish a potent tandem.
In his first two seasons with Notre Dame, tight end Cole Kmet served as a capable blocker and only managed to catch 17 passes, all without scoring a touchdown. Yet after missing the first two games with an injury, Kmet has emerged as a favorite target of Book over the last four games. The first indication of this new look came in his first game back, when he caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in the Georgia loss.
Since then, he’s averaged four grabs per game and 13 yards per catch, while also finding the end zone twice more. Entering this season, Tommy Tremble was supposed to be more of a passing option, but Kmet seems to have adapted to this new look nicely.
Forcing a turnover has always been an essential part of the game, which helps explain why Notre Dame has won all three games this season in which they collected multiple turnovers. The Irish defense has racked up 14 in six games, which isn’t all that much different than last season’s 11 in the first six contests.
However, the three in the Louisville opener helped the Irish overcome a shaky start, while their five against Virginia changed the momentum entirely in the second half. One easy way to keep opponents out of the end zone is to make them cough up the ball, which is a philosophy that Notre Dame needs to continue.