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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

September 29, 2022
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Well, they did it. Notre Dame got to 2-2 heading into the bye after a disastrous start.

A lot of people picked against them and were probably justified to do so, but they’re back to even and have eight more games left, with seven coming against teams who are ranked lower than them in F+. The Irish are 19th. Clemson is the only program they have to face who is currently ranked higher (13th).

That doesn’t mean they are going to go 7-1 or run the table the rest of the way. It’s not out of the question, though. Two weeks ago that would have sounded insane.

It would be ridiculously presumptuous to predict that will happen. No one should do that after one game where the offense looked good against a horrible defense. Rather than predict it, I’d rather talk about what has to happen with this Notre Dame team for it to be a possibility.

It starts with what we saw from the offense against North Carolina being more than just a glimmer of hope. Notre Dame has to be an offense like the one they thought they’d be at the beginning of the season. The core strength of the group has to be the offensive line and if they can run the football consistently well, it takes the pressure off of Drew Pyne to not be more than he should have to be.

If the offensive line and the running game becomes the backbone of their success, then after that it’s about finding more options at the receiver position outside of Lorenzo Styles. He has 16 catches this season. The rest of the receivers have 13 combined.

They have the talent in the backfield who can add a lot in the passing game, but if they can get more from a receiver or two to compliment Styles and Michael Mayer, then they become a much more difficult offense to defend.

I don’t think they have the pieces to be a great offense, but they can be a good one and they’ll need to be if they want to win out.

2. As for the defense, there was a lot to like about the first four games. They faced one great offense (Ohio State) and one very good one (UNC) and did well in both of those games.

I think as the season progresses, what they did against Ohio State will continue to look better and better. Ohio State had 5.72 yards per play and 21 points against the Irish. They have averaged 9.11 YPP and 58 points per game in their other three games.

The same might be said about what Notre Dame did to bottle up Cal running back Jadyn Ott. I definitely noticed that he went off against Arizona last week. His yards per carry against Notre Dame was 2.54. His YPC in Cal’s other three games is 10.0.

The defense is on the right track if the defensive line continues to play like they have the last two games. They’ve had a 48.3% pressure rate on quarterbacks against Cal and UNC and nine sacks. They’re now 14th in the country in sack percentage.

If they can have those kinds of performances, then we’ll ultimately see the Havoc Rate go up. It’s only 12.7% on the season and it’s surprising it’s even that high with zero forced fumbles, zero interceptions, and only eight pass breakups. They are 130th in the country in passes defended and I have a hard time imagining that won’t improve greatly if they continue to sack and pressure the quarterback.

Isaiah Foskey had six forced fumbles on his own last season so I think it will only be a matter of time for him to get at least a couple.

Notre Dame has two offenses ranked in the top-20 in OF+ (USC and BYU) left to go and I wouldn’t pick the Irish to win either of those games unless the defensive line decisively wins their matchup up front. I think that’s the way it has to be until we get more playmaking from the back seven.

3. That leads right into one of the most unexpected things on defense in the first ⅓ of the season: there hasn’t been much from Brandon Joseph in terms of splash plays.

That’s surprising given the fact that he had nine interceptions the last two years at Northwestern and in the limited time we got to see him in the spring and in fall camp, he always made plays on the football. He has one pass breakup this season through four games.

Of course they should want to get more playmaking from the secondary in general, but the assumption was that Joseph would lead the way. That hasn’t happened yet. It would help Notre Dame if it does happen. Joseph needs it to happen if he wants to leave early for the NFL Draft. This is not the kind of production he’d want to have before turning pro.

I see it a bit differently with Marist Liufau at linebacker.

He’s the guy Notre Dame needs to make more Havoc plays at linebacker because I’m not sure where they are getting it from if it isn’t from him. Hopefully there can be another linebacker in addition to him that we’re talking about over the next ⅓ of the season that can join the conversation.

This basically Liufau’s second season of playing after redshirting in 2019 and missing the entire 2021 season. He’s asked to do a lot for the defense. He rushes the passer on 34.4% of passing downs and has played pretty well in coverage. He’s lined up 57 snaps on the line, 140 in the box, and 13 outside. No one else has all of that on their plate.

He’s only had one tackle for loss this season, but there’s been a bunch of times where he has impacted the play that don’t show up with Havoc in the box score whether it be as a blitzer, as a spy against Drake Maye, or generating pressure off the edge. I also think he is coming off of his best game against North Carolina.

If he continues to do the things he’s done, the Havoc will come because it’s been close. I’m more worried about Joseph at this point, but he does have the track record from the previous two years and maybe he just needs to get one and then floodgates will open.

4. Some might have missed that Stanford just lost their starting running back, EJ Smith, for the season. It’s another blow for David Shaw’s program. They’ve been hurt way more by injuries in the last few years.

It’s incredible to see how steep the decline has been for Shaw at Stanford and Ken Niumatalolo at Navy in the last few years. In his first eight years at Stanford, Shaw went 80-26 for a .755 win percentage. Niumatalolo’s first full-year as head coach at Navy started in 2008. From 2008 to 2019 he went 98-59, a .624 win percentage.

Since 2019, Shaw is 12-21, a .364 win percentage. They got beat by three scores against both USC and Washington and their only win this season is against FCS Colgate.

Since 2020, Niumatalolo is 8-17, a .320 win percentage. They lost to Delaware in their opener and their only win came against East Carolina in two overtimes.

Those two coaches were considered rivals to Brian Kelly in the first part of the 2010’s. I’m not sure how much longer they can last at their respective programs if things continue to trend the way they have.

5. Stanford is 123rd in EPA (expected points added) per rush this season. Boston College is 89th, Syracuse is 115th, BYU is 122nd, and USC is 125th.

That BYU ranking matters more in the near future, but I’m just throwing that out there for everyone because if Notre Dame’s O-line does continue to get better and they are facing some pretty bad run defenses, it’s going to be a massive advantage for the Irish.

For the people in the back saying, “So what? They couldn’t run it against Marshall!”, you might be surprised to learn that Marshall’s defense is 5th in EPA per rush and 8th in EPA per play. Strictly by the numbers, Marshall has played the run significantly better than the aforementioned teams have at the start of this season.

6. A football season is a long journey filled with winding roads, ups and downs, and often more than the occasional injury surprise along the way. There aren’t a lot of sure-things that you can count on.

There is one, though: Notre Dame owns the ACC.

Since 2018 they are 25-2 against the conference and both losses came in post-season games to Clemson. Take Clemson off the board and they are 24-0.

I don’t think anyone will be picking Syracuse or Boston College to beat Notre Dame later this year and if they do, they’ll likely be proven wrong.

Clemson might be a different story as they appear to once again be the class of the ACC. They also haven’t been great in September and it feels like a significantly different program than the one that visited South Bend in November of 2020.

The Irish have some tests before they get there, starting with BYU in Las Vegas, but that Clemson game looms large when it comes to the status of Notre Dame’s program. Even if they might not be the same Clemson, they still have the same reputation so that game brings a little bit extra juice.

I’m sure many Notre Dame fans were dreading that matchup a couple of weeks ago. If they can win the next four games, it will be back to a measuring stick game.

The team can’t afford to look ahead, but it’s a bye week on ISD as well and we’re very much allowed to do so. There is a path that the 2022 Fighting Irish can follow to win the rest of their games this season. I’m excited to see if they can navigate their way through it.

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