The 2012 season has been one of many surprises, with Notre Dame football being no exception.
And yes, I realize that I am one week late for a true “mid-season” review, but this is my blog so I’ll do as I please (haha).
I don’t care who you are, if you told me that you thought the Irish would be undefeated heading into the week 9 match-up against #8 Oklahoma, I’d call your bluff. But here we are. Notre Dame is 7-0 after last week’s grind-it out victory over BYU and sit at #5 overall in the BCS standings.
If the Irish can keep it up and remain undefeated, they have a legitimate shot at their first National Championship since Lou Holtz lead the team to the top in the 1988 season. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. The Irish have a couple of tough games to play still, both on the road. This week they are in Norman, Oklahoma and end the season November 24th at Los Angeles Memorial Stadium against current #9 USC. In between, they have potential trap games against Pitt, Boston College, and Wake Forest. The path is clear, but can they overcome the odds? We’ll just have to wait and see.
This is about the Irish’s performances to date, not what they have to do in the future, so let’s get on to the grades.
Overall Achievement: A-
It’s hard to go against a 7-0 record. There have been some stumbles here and there, and the team itself is not without its issues, but overall this has been a great first half of the season. The only thing keeping this from being an A+ has been the performance of the offense. As good as the season has been it’s tough to see this team staying in the National Championship picture unless some real improvements in the pass game start to happen. More on that next.
Offense – Passing: C-
I’ll admit that I am likely being a little lenient with this one, but hear me out first. For the vast majority, Brian Kelly has been playing a red-shirt freshman quarterback in Everett Golson, a quarterback who is more of a dual threat than a pure pocket passer. Add to the fact that Golson has no idea exactly when or if he’s going to pulled in favor of The Closer Tommy Rees, and suspect offensive line play, and you can begin to understand why the Irish pass game ranks just 98th out 120 FBS teams. But all of that aside, it’s not been fun to watch the pass game this year at all, and must improve for Notre Dame to stay relevant. Also hurting this grade is the lack of ability to get the ball to their most dangerous offensive weapon: Tight end Tyler Eifert.
Offense – Running: B
Notre Dame’s run game is unique in that it has 3 legitimate starting caliber backs in Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, and George Atkinson III. Combined, the three have amassed 1,145 yards with 9 touchdowns. If they are so good, you might ask, why only a B? Because as good as they are collectively, there is no one guy who seems capable of taking over a game on a consistent basis, and even with their impressive stats on limited carries, the team ranks just 38th in total rush yards. By far the best unit on the offense, but they need more help from the pass game to stay on the field longer and have more opportunities to improve their numbers.
Defense – Passing: A-
The pass defense was, in the beginning, thought by me to be the real weakness of the unit. That belief held its core in the absence of cornerback Lo Wood, who was lost before the season began with a torn ACL, and safety Jamoris Slaughter who was lost to the same injury following the Irish’s 20-3 win over Michigan State in week 3. That left Notre Dame playing true freshman KeiVarae Russell and sophomore Matthias Farley. So what has that perceived lack of depth accomplish so far? They are surrendering only 173.9 yards per game (14th) and have given up only 5 scores through the air. That of course is complemented by the guys up front who have sacked the opposing quarterback 19 times in seven games (21st),
Defense – Running: A+
As good as the Irish have been on pass defense, the crown jewel has been the run D. Sure, they rank only 15th in yards allowed per game (106.7), but in seven games they have allowed exactly zero touchdowns And that includes games against run-heavy teams such as Navy, Michigan, and Michigan State. This is due in large part to the stellar play of senior linebacker Manti Te’o, though the glory should be spread around to the entire front seven: Defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt, nose tackle Louis Nix, and fellow linebackers Danny Spond, Prince Shembo, and Dan Fox. All have made contributions to the success of the defense, and will continue to be the team’s best shot at staying undefeated.
Special Teams: C+
Together, kickers Kyle Brindza and Nick Tausch are 19-20 on extra points and 12-16 on field goals. That may not seem bad enough to warrant a C+ grade, but the missed field goals have come anywhere between 20 yards and 47 yards, including 1-3 for attempts more than 40 yards. With the offense struggling, Notre Dame needs every point it can get, and hitting on only 75% is unacceptable.
7-0 is great, and head coach Brian Kelly has done a good job getting his young players prepared on a weekly basis. But the inconsistencies on offense are hard to overlook, and the bull-pen quarterback system – while effective so far – makes it tough to allow a young quarterback to develop his skills properly.
Offensive MVP – This is a tough one to call, but for right now I’d have to give the nod to George Atkinson. He doesn’t have as many yards amassed as do Cierre Wood or Theo Riddick, but he’s been their home run hitter, averaging 8.1 yards per carry, and leads the team in rushing touchdowns (4).
Defensive MVP – This in is not so tough to call. Manti Te’o is easily the best defender not only on the team, but in the nation at this moment. He’s the leading candidate for the Butkus Award, and is even getting high mentions for the Heisman.
Best Game – Stanford, week 7 (W, 20-13 in overtime). The Irish trailed 10-3 heading into the fourth quarter, then managed to tie it up at 13-13 with 20 seconds to play. One Tommy Rees touchdown pass and a controversial 4th and 1 goal line stand later, and Notre Dame pulled out a thrilling win to remain undefeated.
Worst Game – BYU, week 8 (W, 17-14). Coming off the Stanford win and heading to play Oklahoma on the road the next week, this had every possibility at being a pit-fall game. And it nearly was. Tommy Rees played terribly, the defense made uncharacteristic errors and penalties, and Notre Dame found itself trailing again in the fourth quarter, 14-7. Though they managed to eke out the win, this game showcased the worst performance by the Irish this season.
The next 5 weeks are going to be a roller coaster ride, beginning this week at Oklahoma. Keep an eye out for the game preview later this week.
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