With the Irish in a bye week, we’re grading Notre Dame’s offense, defense, special teams and coaching staff after seven games. Yesterday was the coaching staff, today is the offense:
What’s gone right: What a strange season it’s been for this position. DeShone Kizer looked infallible over the first five weeks of the season, throwing for 14 touchdowns against four interceptions and racking up 1,567 yards. Notre Dame’s red zone efficiency significantly improved thanks to Kizer’s six rushing touchdowns in that span, too, helping keep this offense productive despite the departures of almost every key contributor from 2015’s group.
While things took a turn for the worse in Notre Dame’s last two games before the bye week (more on that below), Kizer has proven over the last 13 months that he’s more than good enough to rebound from those back-to-back ineffective games. The bye week probably benefits him the most, as he can get away from a season that’s put an immense amount of pressure on him for a few days.
What’s gone wrong: Kizer’s horrific stat line at N.C. State (9/26, 54 yards, 1 INT) can be explained by Notre Dame’s hard-headedness in forcing the redshirt sophomore to drop back and throw so frequently in Hurricane Matthew’s rain and wind. But the weather was clear, warm and dry a week later in South Bend, and Kizer completed 14 of 26 passes for 154 yards with two interceptions and was pulled from the game in the second half for Malik Zaire.
Coach Brian Kelly’s message after the Stanford loss was that Kizer needs more help on offense, which is certainly true — Kizer was asked to do it all in the first seven games, and it only resulted in two wins. And against Stanford, Kizer looked tentative and not all together confident in his ability to prop up the rest of the offense.
Combine the pressure on Kizer with an offensive line that hasn’t played up to expectations and that’s led to 16 sacks. The end of the Stanford game highlighted Kizer and the Irish offense’s problem: After driving Notre Dame to the Cardinal eight-yard line, Kizer was sacked, spiked the ball, and sacked again to end the game only a few yards from tying things up.
Zaire hasn’t been effective in his limited time, completing six of 16 passes for 72 yards and rushing 11 times for 27 yards.
Running backs: C
What’s gone right: Dexter Williams earned praise from Kelly for his tough, physical running against Duke and ripped off a 59-yard touchdown against Syracuse. Tarean Folston had a 54-yard run on his first carry since tearing his ACL in Week 1 of 2015 and had a handful of impressive runs against Stanford. Josh Adams, probably not coincidentally, had 100-yard games in both of Notre Dame’s wins.
What’s gone wrong: It’s hard to pin all of Notre Dame’s ground game struggles on either the running backs or offensive line, but whatever the combination is, it hasn’t been effective. Notre Dame enters the bye week averaging 3.98 yards per carry, 93rd in FBS and down over a yard and a half from 2015’s average of 5.63 yards per carry (which ranked 8th).
However it happens, Notre Dame needs to get more production from its running backs if it wants to effectively take the pressure of Kizer in these last five games.
Wide receivers: B
What’s gone right: Equanimeous St. Brown has been a revelation, catching 31 passes for 611 yards with six touchdowns in his first seven games. He instantly became Kizer’s go-to target at Texas with his pair of touchdowns — including that highlight-reel somersault into the end zone — and had a ridiculous stat line of four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse.
Torii Hunter Jr. has at least four receptions and at least 60 yards in every game since returning from the concussion he sustained at Texas. He caught passes for a pair of impressive third-and-long conversions against Stanford, which were good examples of why the redshirt junior captain remains an important piece in the Irish offense.
C.J. Sanders (18 catches, 260 yards, two touchdowns) and Kevin Stepherson (10 catches, 209 yards, three touchdowns) have shown flashes as explosive players this year, too. Stepherson’s continued emergence from an impressive spring practice has been a positive, and he’s the first true freshman receiver in the Kelly era to have three touchdowns in his first seven games (per College Football Reference’s play index).
What’s gone wrong: In 2015, Kizer’s top four targets — Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Hunter — each caught no less than 61.5 percent of their targets. This year, only Sanders has caught at least 60 percent of his targets: St. Brown is at 58.5 percent, Hunter 58.1 percent and Stepherson 52.6 percent. Granted, those numbers are certainly skewed by Hurricane Matthew, so we’ll see how they rebound over these final five games.
But this is a young receiving corps that, as is the case with underclassmen, isn’t always as sharp as a group of juniors and seniors would be. The good news is this group has laid a relatively solid foundation on which to build next year, when St. Brown and Sanders will be upperclassmen and Stepherson will have two spring practices and a full season under this belt.
Tight ends: D
What’s gone right: Durham Smythe’s touchdown against Michigan State helped fuel what was ultimately a too-little-too-late comeback effort.
What’s gone wrong: Losing Alize Jones prior to the season certainly dinged this group, which has seen Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar combine of 13 targets, seven catches, 87 yards and one touchdown. Combined with Notre Dame’s running game struggles, there just hasn’t been much production from this group in 2016.
Offensive line: C
What’s gone right: Mike McGlinchey announced earlier this month he’s planning on returning for a fifth year in 2017, which means Notre Dame at the least will return 87 starts on its offensive line next fall (92 if it reaches a bowl game).
What’s gone wrong: It’s a little strange evaluating this group given that McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are objectively excellent players, both of whom could wind up being first-round picks and stalwarts on NFL offensive lines someday. But the expectations for this group were high coming into the season, and for whatever reason — having four players playing new positions or being first-time starters is probably No. 1 — they haven’t been met. Notre Dame ranks 58th in adjusted line yards, 61st in opportunity rate and 86th in adjusted sack rate, and even when you distribute some of responsibility for those numbers to the rest of the Irish offense, they’re still below what this line was supposed to be in 2016.