At the halfway point of the 2021 regular season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have compiled a 5-1 record as they head into their badly-needed bye week. While the record looks impressive, three of those wins came either in overtime or with furious fourth-quarter rallies that very easily could instead have saddled the Irish with a 2-4 record.
To be fair, there have been some standouts on both sides of the ball, including tight end Michael Mayer and defensive end Isaiah Foskey. Yet, the precarious nature of the majority of Notre Dame’s wins this season show that there are plenty of kinks that need to be smoothed out over the final six regular-season matchups
Below are five things that the Irish need to work on during their brief time off:
Getting Things Started Earlier
For whatever reason, Notre Dame has struggled during the opening quarter this season. That might seem odd when recalling that the opening drive of the season witnessed the Irish waltzing down the field in five plays to take an early 7-0 lead over Florida State. Six days later, a six-play drive to start the game against Toledo also resulted in a touchdown.
However, since then, Notre Dame has been kept scoreless during the opening 15 minutes. In those contests, a trio of three-and-outs and a goal-line interception have marked the opening drive of the game. Gaining the early momentum would likely help avoid the nerve-wracking need to mount the fourth-quarter comebacks that were required against Toledo and Virginia Tech.
Ending the Quarterback Inconsistency
The revolving door of Notre Dame quarterbacks during the first six games is not a good look for a team looking to challenge for a national championship. Jack Coan was in charge in his debut against Florida State but has struggled enough at times since then to be replaced by either Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne.
The two times that an Irish quarterback has been replaced because of injury, the team has rallied to pick up wins against Wisconsin and Virginia Tech. Continually trying to shake a team from the doldrums with a new quarterback is hardly a strategy for success, so getting consistent play behind center is a key issue moving forward.
Making the Offensive Line Less Offensive
Over the past two games, the Notre Dame offensive line has shown improvement when it comes to giving up sacks, though any uptick would have been noteworthy. That’s because Irish quarterbacks were sacked an average of five times per game in the first four contests, largely due to a rebuilt line that was still in the development phase.
Besides not giving the team’s signal-callers enough time to throw, Notre Dame’s line struggles have also had an impact on the limited success of the running game. Injuries have caused some of the issues, but finding the most effective five-man unit over the next few weeks needs to be a priority,
Continuing to Limit Opposing Red Zone Success
While Notre Dame’s opponents are putting points on the board at an 83 percent clip once they reach the red zone, the Irish defenders are having better success when it comes to keeping them out of the end zone. At the midway juncture, Notre Dame’s foes have only scored touchdowns 42 percent of the time after reaching the Notre Dame 20. That’s after those teams broke the 50 percent threshold in each of the past three seasons.
Of course, stopping those foes from getting to the red zone would be the ideal situation. That could happen, though a more likely scenario that would benefit Notre Dame would simply be to hold their opponents to a field goal, if possible. That’s giving the Irish offense a four-point cushion that could come in handy, especially if Brian Kelly’s squad continues to flirt with danger in close games.
Developing a Broader Running Game
The Irish running game saw its biggest output of the season against Virginia Tech, gaining 173 yards on the night. Whether that’s finally the wake-up call this unit needed or simply another aberration is still an open question. However, this is an area that needs to establish some consistency in the second half, especially with the weather inevitably getting more sketchy as the season goes on.
Kyren Williams has yet to deliver the type of eye-popping performance he did last year. Some of that might be attributed to the early chaos on the offensive line, but the Irish ground game as a whole has struggled to give Williams help. Tyler Buchner is the team’s second-leading rusher, but Notre Dame shouldn’t have to rely on a reserve quarterback to pick up yardage. More production from Chris Tyree and more touches for players like Logan Diggs could make this happen.