Except for the second Saturday in September, it hasn’t been a very exciting first half of the season for Notre Dame. And that is positively a positive.
The Irish sit at 5-1 and those five victories have been by an average of 28 points per game. The closest win was against what now looks like a pretty good Michigan State squad by 20 points.
Now, following a week off, Notre Dame will begin the second half of the schedule. Here’s a look at how Brian Kelly's team has gotten to this point and what is to come.
Offensive MVP: RB Josh Adams
Adams has certainly been helped by his offensive line, especially Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson on the left side. But the junior running back is on a 1,500-yard pace while averaging nine yards a carry. Injuries have slowed Adams in the past and he has been bothered by an ankle ailment this year. The Irish will need Adams to be full go after the upcoming off week.
Defensive MVP: LB Drue Tranquill
Tranquill has been a perfect fit as the rover in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system. He is fourth on the team in tackles and leads the team with 4.5 tackles for lost yardage. But it is much more than stats when it comes to Tranquill. He is the heart of Notre Dame’s much improved defensive unit.
Best Moment of the First Half: Shaun Crawford’s forced fumble against Michigan State
With Notre Dame leading 21-7 midway through the second quarter, Michigan State’s LJ Scott looked like he was going in for a touchdown that would make it a one-score game. But just before he crossed the goal line, Crawford punched the ball out and fell on the fumble in the end zone. Five plays later, the Irish scored again and were well on their way to their most impressive win of the season.
Best Newcomer: OL Robert Hainsey/Tommy Kraemer
As good as the Notre Dame offensive line has been, right tackle has been a problem at times. However, it is being manned by two players seeing their first action. Hainsey is considered a better pass blocker and Kraemer is more effective in the run game, so they have platooned at that spot. After the Alex Bars injury on Saturday, Kraemer settled in at guard and Hainsey handled the tackle reps, meaning that ND could have an all-freshman right side if Bars is out for an extended period of time.
Biggest Surprise: Red zone efficiency
The Irish missed on a couple of red zone opportunities on Saturday, though one was the result of kneeling on the ball to run out the clock at the end of the game. But coming in to the North Carolina game, Notre Dame had scored every time the Irish had entered the red zone and only twice did the points come on field goals. In the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame has never finished higher than 54th in red zone conversions. Much of the success can be traced to another surprise — a vastly improved running game.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Development of Brandon Wimbush as a passer
Unless his foot injury is a bigger problem than most expect it to be, Wimbush will continue to be a dynamic runner. But it is evident that his throwing needs to improve. A 52 percent completion rate is not what the coaching staff is looking for and if the Irish are to get where they want to go, that number will have to go way up.
2. Turnover margin
Like red zone efficiency, this statistic has been unkind to Brian Kelly-coached Irish teams. But through the first half of the season, Notre Dame is 13th in the FBS at plus-seven. The primary reason for the success is defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s new ball-hawking defense that is seventh nationally with 14 takeaways. Can that continue for this group for six more games?
First two things to watch run in concert with the schedule. Can Wimbush improve his passing against this schedule? Will the turnovers still come against these teams? Because the JV portion of the Notre Dame slate is over. Five of the final six games are against teams ranked in the current AP Top 25. The one team that is not ranked is Wake Forest, who is 4-2 and played tough against Florida State and Clemson. The combined record of Notre Dame’s final six opponents is 27-6.
Ranking the Toughest games Remaining on the Schedule
1. Oct. 21 USC
Perhaps the Trojans aren’t as good as their preseason ranking. But this is a huge rivalry game and USC has talented athletes all over the field. Plus, the Irish have not seen a quarterback anything like Sam Darnold yet this year.
2. Nov. 11 at Miami
Hurricane Irma has already impacted the Canes' schedule, but they are flying high after Saturday's thrilling come-from-behind victory over archrival Florida State. This will be the first time Notre Dame has played Miami on the road since 1989.
3. Nov. 25 at Stanford
Stanford returned to the top 25 this week after beating Utah in Salt Lake City. In this game, Notre Dame will have to slow down Bryce Love, who leads the country with 207 rushing yards per game.
4. Oct. 28 NC State
The Wolfpack got a signature win last Thursday night when they took down Louisville and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Dave Doeren’s team is powered by a rugged defensive front seven, especially All-American candidate Bradley Chubb.
5. Nov. 18 Navy
Navy is currently 5-0 and entered the AP poll at No. 25 this week. Ken Niumatalolo’s team has no fear of playing Notre Dame and, not surprisingly, leads the nation in rushing offense.
6. Nov. 4 Wake Forest
After playing Florida State and Clemson, the Demon Deacons won’t be intimidated by the Irish either. Defensive lineman Duke Ejiofor is a star and Mike Elko’s old defense is playing at a very high level.
— 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.