What I thought preseason: The defense could be elite. Reality: It’s been inconsistent.
1. The Irish are giving up 123.7 yards rushing per game and 237 yards passing. Notre Dame has an elite turnover-producing defense, which is responsible for 10 interceptions and four fumble recoveries, but the Irish have been inconsistent. It’s been susceptible to big plays and long drives at various times. Florida State burned them for an 89-yard touchdown run and a 60-yard touchdown pass and Toledo got them for a 60-yard run and a 27-yard TD run. Virginia Tech had three long scoring drives. They’ve had great games against Wisconsin and Purdue but it’s been spotty in between. The Irish face some good offenses, like USC, Virginia, and North Carolina in the second half of the season. It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out.
What I thought preseason: The running game would pick up where it left off last year. Reality: It’s been bad.
2. The “bad” part of the equation comes with a caveat. The offensive line has been worse, which makes it hard to fairly judge the lack of rushing production. Notre Dame is averaging 2.8 yards per rush and 97 yards per game. Kyren Williams is averaging 3.9 yards per carry as opposed to 5.3 last year. Chris Tyree, who was at 6.8 yards in 2020, is at 3.2 this year. To further muddy the evaluation of the running backs, the coaching staff hasn’t put them in a good position to succeed. The running game is overwhelmingly better when Tyler Buchner plays, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. For Drew Pyne, it’s 3.7 yards per carry and it’s just over a yard per carry with Jack Coan in at QB. The numbers dip dramatically for Coan because he’s been sacked 22 times. So, the story would be different for the running game if either Buchner or Pyne got the majority of snaps.
What I thought preseason: The quarterback situation would be evolving. Reality: It’s been strange.
3. Coan has turned into the designated closer who has had to, at least publicly, earn his starting job every week since the Toledo game. Buchner is the quarterback of the future but Pyne is still listed as the backup quarterback. And Brendon Clark just transferred this week right after Brian Kelly said on Monday that he was trying to keep Clark engaged and ready to go as the scout team quarterback. Through all the mayhem, the coaching staff has stuck to its plan of starting Coan and using Buchner as a change of pace quarterback (mostly). Coan led the Irish to come-back wins on the last drive against Virginia Tech and Toledo and he looked good against Florida State. The rest of his play has been marginal. Buchner is exciting and he produces but he’s prone to freshman mistakes and he doesn’t know much of the playbook. Pyne is solid No. 2 and perhaps a 1A but Kelly isn’t sold on him. Next year’s quarterback competition should be interesting.
What I thought preseason: The offensive line would be a work in progress. Reality: It’s been the worst performance by a Notre Dame line in Kelly’s tenure.
4. There has been a continual search for stability that has yielded few tangible results. The Irish are averaging 2.8 yards per carry rushing and they have allowed 24 sacks. It looks like they might have settled on a left tackle (freshman Joe Alt) after Blake Fisher went down in the Florida State game with a knee injury. Again, though, the line looks better during the normal course of a game when Buchner or Pyne plays because of their mobility. In almost every scenario, it would seem that a quarterback who can use his feet to make yards and is a serviceable passer is better than a relatively immobile, accurate passer in Kelly’s offense. This seems to be the exception to the scenario, at least from Kelly’s standpoint.
What I thought preseason: This team could be .500 halfway through the year or undefeated. Reality: It’s closer to the latter.
5. Say this about Notre Dame. It’s been wildly entertaining, with multiple storylines, like who will play quarterback this week? Or how many sacks will the offensive line give up? Or what kind of a bad joke will Brian Kelly have on national TV? It doesn’t feel like this team should be 5-1. It doesn’t run the ball well. They’ve used three quarterbacks. You could make an argument that the defense is the one part of the team that hasn’t lived up to expectations. And yet, they are one bad turnover game away from being undefeated. The Irish didn’t lose against Cincinnati because of the defense or their quarterbacks or their offensive line. It was because they threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball once. In this picture, the parts seem to be greater than the sum. That is, this team seems to do enough in one aspect, whether it’s forcing four turnovers against Wisconsin or getting game-winning drives from Jack Coan, to win. Give them their due, it’s entirely possible they could finish 11-1 but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost at least two games on the backstretch.
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