I’ll tell you what’s trending up, the Notre Dame football team, that’s what. An undefeated team that looked unsustainable three weeks ago, suddenly looks like a juggernaut. The defense ranks in the top five in S&P+, the offense has risen 50+ spots in their S&P rating since week three and, at least on paper, the two toughest games on the schedule are behind them. Certainly not making a prediction in terms of record or outcome, this is college football where the inexplicable happens weekly, but things look really good at the moment.
The nice thing about the pasting of Stanford last weekend was how repeatable the whole thing seemed. It wasn’t out of character in any way. The defense has looked strong all season, and the things that worked well against Stanford on offense looked good against Wake Forest the week before. The key to excellence is consistency, which was something Notre Dame didn’t get last season out of the offense, which ran pretty hot and cold from week to week, largely because of the quarterback. It could all go south because, again, college football. But, there is no reason to think it will.
The hope for Bilal this season was a performance similar to that of Danny Spond in 2012. Steady performer, nothing spectacular, someone that can be relied upon week to week. Spond finished that season with 39 tackles, one tackle for loss, and one interception. Numbers like that made sense for Bilal with a front four as stout as it is and two contemporaries at linebacker in Coney and Tranquill that figured to eat up tackles. Basically, as long as he wasn’t a negative that would be good enough.
Following his six tackle, one tackle for loss, and one pass broken up performance against Stanford, Bilal is on pace to finish with 65 tackles and around eight tackles for loss on the season. He’s had at least four tackles in every game this season, with six twice against Stanford and Vanderbilt. His ability in coverage was also key to the victory against the Cardinal. In the third quarter, when he was isolated against Stanford tight end Kaden Smith, who torched Notre Dame last season, tracked him across the field and broke up the pass without holding or interfering, it was a strong sign it was Notre Dame’s night. If Stanford wasn’t going to be able to exploit that match-up, they had nothing for them on offense. Turned out that was the case.
The Irish Offense
Since the switch to Ian Book at quarterback, the Notre Dame offense has accumulated 1,116 yards of total offense, 6.8 yards per play, 253 yards on the ground, 302 yards in the air, 47 points a game. Following week three, they were ranked 87th in offensive S&P+, they currently sit at 37. It’s been a remarkable turnaround, and it must be better than even the coaches imagined. If they knew Book would be this effective, they’d have started him from day one. Brian Kelly mentioned the confidence Book gives to everyone, and it can’t be overstated what it means for a receiving corps to know their quarterback can get them the ball if they can get open. It has clearly lifted not only them up, but the entire team.
Turns out, if you let Jonathan Doerer kick the ball as far as he wants, that works out much better for everyone. He kicked off seven times on Saturday, with five resulting in touchbacks, with neither of the other two resulting in the return getting past the 25 yard line.
Tyler Newsome is getting rid of some of the weak punts and simply bombing the ball, with nine of his punts against Vanderbilt and Stanford averaging 56 yards. That’ll do just fine.
Chris Finke posted a big return against Wake Forest down inside the five, and had another solid return called back due to a shaky (see: terrible) block in the back penalty against Stanford. Suddenly that part of the return game has come to life.
And finally, Chase Claypool continues to be a crusher of souls on kick coverage, a role where if he is motivated he simply dominates opponents. After the first two weeks it looked like special teams would be an unmitigated disaster, but much like the offense as a whole, Brian Polian’s unit has largely righted the ship.
The guy scored on his first freakin carry. HIS FIRST CARRY! How does it feel to be free young man?
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) September 29, 2018
The Pass Rush
I beat the drum last week about the number of pressures Notre Dame was getting without much to show for it in terms of sacks. The pay off had to be coming.
Five sacks against Stanford, four for Jerry Tillery, to go along with another four quarterback hurries. The sky is limit for this front four.
The Nickel Position
The defense currently has a bit of a liability and it is the nickel corner spot. Replacing the injured Shaun Crawford was always going to be difficult, but right now the level of play at that spot is the achilles heal of the defense. Houston Griffith is better suited to be taking reps at safety at this point, and Nick Coleman hasn’t followed up on his strong camp, purging snaps to Griffith. The good thing about Griffith at this point is while he has struggled some in coverage, he is an extremely aggressive player who is very willing to support the run. Have to think a player with his ability will with each passing game become more and more comfortable inside.
If not, moving Julian Love inside and inserting Donte Vaughn at corner is an option, but not what the defensive coaches would prefer. This is something to monitor in the coming weeks.