Oct. 23, 2015
By John Heisler
The Notre Dame football team is taking a few days off this week during the University’s fall break, as the Irish have an open date this weekend between its first seven outings (five of those were played in Notre Dame Stadium) and its final five assignments (four of those away from home). Here’s what we know to this point in the 2015 campaign:
1. Brian Kelly’s “Next Man In” Works—It’s easy for a coach to use a phrase like that and expect/hope it plays out that way. It’s another thing to see it really work. Kelly’s 2015 Notre Dame suffered a cruel series of early injuries, and yet none of the losses has come back to haunt the Irish:
– Running back Greg Bryant left the University in August, and classmate Tarean Folston suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Texas. In their place, C.J. Prosise (129 carries, 922 rushing yards, 11 rushing TDs; 18 receptions, 219 yards, 1 receiving TD) has been one of the most productive runners in the country.
– Quarterback Everett Golson transferred to Florida State in May, and sophomore Malik Zaire fractured his ankle the second week of the season at Virginia. In their stead, sophomore DeShone Kizer (100 of 153 passing for 1,370 yards, 10 TDs, 4 interceptions; 55 carries, 175 rushing yards, 3 TDs) has shown a coolness and aplomb that belies the fact he’d never played significant minutes until that late afternoon in Charlottesville.
– Veteran defensive tackle Jarron Jones saw his 2015 campaign end on the practice field back in August. In his place, Daniel Cage (13 tackles, 2 TFL) and Jerry Tillery (9 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack) have held up impressively in the middle of the Irish defense.
– Starting tight end Durham Smythe also went down in the Virginia game and is lost for the remainder of the season. That position remains a work in progress, yet Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar (3 receptions, 19 yards) and Alize Jones (9 receptions, 117 yards) have combined to keep the Irish offense moving down the tracks.
2. Notre Dame Can Score—The Irish are averaging 38.3 points per game (19th in the country). If that pace holds up, it would be the highest scoring average in Notre Dame history. The record is 37.6 from 1968. Notre Dame is averaging 498.9 yards per game (16th nationally)—and the only time an Irish team has surpassed that mark came in 1970 (510.5 yards per game). Part of the reason for that success is the varied nature of the Notre Dame attack: The Irish are the only team with a player in the top 10 nationally in rushing yards (C. J. Prosise is sixth with 922) and receiving yards (Will Fuller is tied for 10th at 702).
3. C.J. Prosise Can Run—Prosise is averaging 131.7 yards per game—better than the current Notre Dame single-season record of 130.6 by Vagas Ferguson in 1979. Ferguson ran for a season record 1,437 yards in 1979, and if Prosise’s per-game average holds up he would finish the regular season with 1,580 yards. NCAA single-season statistics and records now include bowl games, so Prosise’s gross numbers would improve with a postseason appearance (NCAA stats in 1979 did not include bowl games).
4. The Schedule Always Changes—Who would have predicted that so far Texas would be 2-4, Georgia Tech would be 2-5 and USC would be 3-3? On the flip side, who would have guessed No. 22 (Associated Press) Temple would be 7-0 and No. 25 (AP) Pittsburgh would be 5-1?
Temple this week is ranked for the first time in 36 years. So far the Irish have gone 6-1 versus teams that are a combined 20-22. Notre Dame’s remaining five foes are a combined 23-10 (including Temple at 7-0 and both Pittsburgh and No. 10 Stanford at 5-1).
Notre Dame ranks ninth in this week’s Sagarin ratings and its schedule is rated 23rd. The official NCAA toughest schedule rankings (which only include games vs. FBS teams) list the Irish tied for 43rd overall (33-26 for .559), tied for 22nd as far as future opposition (18-10 for .643) and 73rd in terms of past opposition (15-16 for .484). Those numbers do not include Temple’s 24-14 victory over East Carolina Thursday night.
5. DeShone Kizer Doesn’t Act Like a Rookie—It’s been less than two months since Kizer attempted his first college pass. Yet, from the time he took the field after Zaire broke his ankle in the third period against Virginia, Kizer has shown few moments, if any, that the glare has been too much for him. He hasn’t been perfect, but he displayed a flair for the dramatic right off the bat with his 39-yard game-wining throw to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left in Charlottesville (on only his 13th college pass).
Kizer currently ranks 16th nationally in passing efficiency (156.9 rating points), 24th in passing yards per completion (13.7) and 26th in completion percentage (.654). He’s averaging 195.7 passing yards per game—and if he continues at that pace he will finish with one of the top 10 single-season yardage totals in Notre Dame history. He threw for 202 yards in the final period alone at Clemson in the comeback attempt that came up barely short.
Yahoo Sports this week rated the quarterbacks of the teams ranked in the current Associated Press top 25 and listed Kizer 12th.
6. The Irish Said They Would Run the Ball and They Have—After running roughshod over LSU to the tune of 263 rushing yards in the Music City Bowl victory, Irish coaches said they would lean on a veteran offensive line and emphasize the running game in 2015—and they have. Notre Dame’s current 234.6-yard per-game rushing average (rates 14th nationally), if it holds up, would be the best by an Irish team since 1996 (269.5).
7. The Notre Dame Defense Can Be Good Enough—The Irish haven’t pitched a shutout on defense (they currently rank 51st in total defense, 79th in rushing defense, 36th in passing defense and 41st in scoring defense), but they’ve had periods (literally) in just about every game when they’ve been great:
-- Texas— Notre Dame opened the season allowing only 60 rushing yards (on 29 tries) and eight first downs to Texas. The Longhorns didn’t manage a 10-play drive until the score was 38-3, and eight of their 12 possessions produced eight yards or fewer. Notre Dame limited an opponent to the fewest yards allowed by an Irish team in five years.
-- Virginia— The Irish proved stout early. After Justin Yoon’s 32-yard field goal (at 3:09 of first period), Notre Dame held a 120-4 edge in total yards and an 8-0 edge in first downs. Yoon added a field goal from 45 yards to make it 12-0 with seven seconds to go in the first period. To that point in the game the Irish led 154-12 in total yards (113-8 in rushing yards). Virginia finally notched its initial first down of the game (on its second pass completion) on the final play of the first period.
-- Georgia Tech— Of Georgia Tech’s 14 offensive possessions, 11 involved six plays or fewer and 10 produced 26 or fewer yards. The Yellow Jackets were abysmal on third down, finishing three for 15 in that category and coming up empty on their first nine attempts. They didn’t convert one until a pass completion three minutes into the final period. That was the same Tech team that led the nation in third-down conversions in 2014. Georgia Tech finished with 216 net rushing yards, significantly less than half its average.
-- Massachusetts— The last two first-half possessions by the Minutemen produced one and 14 yards, respectively. Then, three of their first four third-period possessions featured only five, five and seven yards, respectively. By that time Notre Dame led 55-20, with Massachusetts scoring only seven second-half points.
-- Clemson— The Irish defense cobbled things together well enough to limit Clemson to 32 second-period yards and force four straight punts to end the half. Four of Clemson’s final five first-half possessions combined to total 10 plays for 15 yards (including a kneel-down on the last play). The Irish limited Tiger quarterback Deshaun Watson to 45 passing yards during the game’s final 45 minutes. They finished the contest with edges of 141 in total yards and 224 in passing yards. Clemson gained total yards over the final three periods.
-- Navy— Navy had the ball four times after halftime (resulting in a fumble, a missed field goal and an interception), netting only 95 yards. The Irish defense limited the Midshipmen to three second-half points—the best Irish half against Navy since Notre Dame led 27-3 at the half in 2012 in Dublin.
-- USC— The Irish limited the Trojans to seven second-half points and held them scoreless the final 25 minutes. USC’s first three final-period possessions combined for eight plays and 29 yards—and the Trojans gained only 127 net yards over those final 25 minutes. Over the course of seven games, Notre Dame has allowed only 58 combined second-half points (8.2 per contest).
8. The Irish Are on the National Window— Several media outlets selected midseason All-America teams, and five Irish players received mention—Will Fuller (ESPN.com and USA Today first team, Sports Illustrated second team), Nick Martin (CBS Sports first team), Jaylon Smith (CBS Sports, NFL.com and Sports Illustrated first teams), Sheldon Day (NFL.com first team) and Ronnie Stanley (Sports Illustrated second team). Bleacher Report at midseason listed its top 25 players for 2015 based on contributions to date and had Smith 13th, Prosise 21st and Fuller 22nd. The Associated Press listed Kizer as the “best injury replacement,” with AP college football writer Ralph Russo saying, “So many good players have gone down, but none had more pressure than Kizer, the redshirt freshman who stepped in when Malik Zaire broke an ankle in the second week of the season. Kizer threw a last-minute, game-winning TD pass in his first game and ranks 16th in the nation in passer rating (156.91) behind Cal star Jared Goff and ahead of Clemson's Deshaun Watson.” Russo’s AP midseason roundup listed Notre Dame as one of four projected playoff teams (along with Ohio State, Alabama and Baylor). Sports on Earth this week predicts the Irish will play current unbeaten Memphis in the Peach Bowl. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports predicts the Irish will meet Oklahoma State in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
9. Notre Dame Draws— Here are Irish television ratings so far in 2015: 4.5 for Clemson in prime time on ABC, 3.7 for Virginia on ABC, 2.5 for USC in prime time on NBC, 2.4 for Texas in prime time on NBC, 2.4 for Georgia Tech on NBC, 1.9 (overnight) for Navy on NBC and 1.45 (overnight) for Massachusetts on NBC. The Oct. 31 Notre Dame-Temple game in prime time on ABC represents the first time an American Athletic Conference team has appeared on an ABC primetime national telecast. The game has been sold out since Oct. 13 in 69,176–seat Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
10. Notre Dame Needs to Play Better on the Road— Brian Kelly quickly made the point to his team after the win over USC that its future will be determined by its ability to prosper on the road. The current 6-1 slate includes only two away-from-home ventures. One in Charlottesville turned out to be a victory, but only after the amazing late pass completion from off-the-bench quarterback DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller. The other saw the Irish rally late in the heavy rain at Clemson, only to fall two points short against the currently unbeaten Tigers. The remaining schedule features four trips—to Philadelphia (Temple), Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh), Boston (Boston College) and Palo Alto (Stanford).
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
-- Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner—and Moves On
-- Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
-- Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:
-- Sunday Brunch: Holy Smokes, Irish Beat USC!
-- Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:
-- Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:
-- Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: