Interesting is a good way to describe Notre Dame’s first seven games. For the second year in a row, injuries have reared their ugly head as the Irish have lost several key players for the season.
But unlike last year, the Irish have held things together, mostly because the replacements have performed at a very high level. Notre Dame is at 6-1 going into their off week and is in position to challenge for a major bowl appearance, if not a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Here is a look behind and a look ahead.
Offensive MVP: RB C.J. Prosise
Through seven games, the Petersburg, Va., native is No. 9 in America with 922 yards rushing and is tied for fifth with 11 rushing touchdowns. He’s also caught 18 passes for 219 yards and a score. With DeShone Kizer finding his way as the new quarterback, Prosise’s production has been invaluable.
Defensive MVP: LB Jaylon Smith
A strong case can be made for defensive tackle Sheldon Day, but the junior from Ft. Wayne, Ind., takes the honor. Smith is the leading tackler by a pretty wide margin, is second behind Day in tackles for lost yardage, and has two fumble recoveries. His versatility in being able to defend the pass, pressure the quarterback when called upon, and stop the run make him the best player on defense.
Best Moment of the First Half: Kizer-to-Fuller to Beat Virginia
With 1:54 left against Virginia, things looked bleak for Notre Dame. The Irish trailed 27-26 and starting quarterback Malik Zaire was out with a broken ankle. But Kizer led the team into Virginia territory where he connected with Will Fuller for a 39-yard, game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds remaining. A loss to the lowly Cavaliers would have been a crushing defeat. Instead, the Irish carried a spine-tingling victory with them back to South Bend.
Best Newcomer: PK Justin Yoon
Notre Dame had so many returning starters, not many true freshmen were going to get a lot of minutes. But Yoon was deemed the starter immediately and after some early growing pains has been very solid. His 52-yard field goal just before halftime against Navy gave a reeling Irish squad a boost going into the break.
Biggest Surprise: QB DeShone Kizer
Obviously, this could have gone to Prosise as well. But Kizer left spring ball No. 3 on the depth chart behind Zaire and Everett Golson. Golson’s defection and Zaire’s injury thrust the sophomore into the limelight. He has completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 1,370 yards, 10 touchdowns, and four interceptions. He threw the winning score against Virginia and led the near comeback against Clemson. His emergence is a significant reason why Notre Dame is 6-1.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Correcting Defensive Breakdowns
Notre Dame is tied for 104th in the country in allowing plays over 30 yards. They have similar rankings for allowing plays over 40, 50, 60, and 70 yards. They have allowed two plays over 80 yards, putting them tied for last nationally. Missed tackles have been a problem as have missed assignments and getting burned by trick plays. The Irish defense has to clean things up and not give the opposition easy points.
2. Getting Help for Prosise
Prosise leads the team with 129 carries. Josh Adams is second among running backs with 34. Prosise has taken several big hits and the Irish cannot afford to have him injured. Getting Adams more involved will ease the wear and tear on Prosise and make the senior a more dangerous weapon when he does touch the ball.
3. Turnover Margin
The Irish are even in turnover margin after a plus one against USC. Clemson was aided in its win over Notre Dame by four Irish giveaways. The games leading up to Stanford are contests ND should win, but the great equalizer would be Notre Dame turnovers. Win the turnover margin and the Irish should be 10-1 going to Palo Alto.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 28 at Stanford
After a season-opening loss to Northwestern, Stanford has turned things around. This game could be a battle of two 10-1 teams with Playoff implications on Thanksgiving Saturday.
2. Nov. 7 at Pittsburgh
The Panthers are 5-1 with their only loss coming on a last-second, 57-yard field goal at unbeaten Iowa. Plus, the Irish have struggled with Pitt in the recent past.
3. Oct. 31 at Temple
The Owls are 6-0 and a contender in the American Athletic Conference. They also defeated Penn State in the season opener. Their tough conference games are ahead of them, however, and there is a big talent disparity that favors the Irish.
4. Nov. 21 Boston College (at Fenway Park)
BC is strong defensively but very poor offensively. They are averaging just over six points a game against FBS competition. Notre Dame’s offensive balance should be able to put enough points on the board to put down the Eagles.
5. Nov. 14 Wake Forest
In 2012, Senior Day at Notre Dame ended with a 38-0 win over Wake Forest. Something similar could occur on this year’s Senior Day.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.