After finishing 2017 with a 10-3 record, expectations were high for Notre Dame. The Irish had to replace two top 10 draft picks on the offensive line and defensive coordinator Mike Elko left for Texas A&M, which led many outside of South Bend to believe that this Notre Dame team may be good, but they won’t be great.
The schedule looked tough, with three teams on the schedule that many thought could be in the top ten at some point in the season in Michigan, Stanford, and USC. This looked to be a Notre Dame team that was overhyped and underachieved their way to an 8 or 9 win season.
Those doubters were proven wrong in the first 8 minutes of the season. Michigan traveled to South Bend looking to take the first step towards a strong College Football Playoff resume, and it was the Irish that walked out of Notre Dame Stadium with one of the best wins of the young season. Michigan kicked the ball of to Notre Dame to start the game, and Brandon Wimbush, aided by a facemask by Michigan defensive back Tyree Kinnel, tore apart the defense that many thought would suffocate Notre Dame’s offense. He did it again on the next drive, once again helped by a penalty, this time targeting, he lead his team 96 yards to take a 14-0 lead 8 minutes into the game.
Notre Dame would score another touchdown before the end of the half, and after Michigan took the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, they led 21-10 at halftime. Turnovers forced by the Notre Dame defense, led by new coordinator Clark Lea helped to keep Michigan’s comeback efforts at bay. Up 24-17, the Irish forced Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson to fumble with under a minute to go, sealing the win. A Patterson interception forced near the end of the third quarter halted a Michigan drive that was threatening to go deep into Notre Dame territory.
The Irish walked out of that game 1-0, and after a few close calls in the next two games, they have cruised to a 6-0 record, running over Stanford and Virginia Tech.
Brandon Wimbush led Notre Dame into the Michigan game and played fairly well, throwing for 170 yards and a touchdown while adding 59 yards on the ground. He did throw an interception, but ultimately played a part in picking apart the Michigan defense early in the game. He threw for nearly 300 yards the next week against Ball State, but failed to throw a touchdown while throwing three interceptions.
The Vanderbilt game was when the quarterback position started to shift towards Ian Book. Wimbush again struggled to throw the ball, only getting 122 yards for no touchdowns, but avoided throwing an interception. He was strong on the ground, running for 84 yards and a score. Book only threw three passes, but completed all of them for 13 yards and a touchdown.
Book has received nearly exclusive snaps at quarterback in the last three games, with the exception of Phil Jurkovec throwing two incomplete passes. He has taken the offense to a new level, throwing for eight touchdowns and one interception during the stretch. He threw four touchdowns en route to a 38-17 win over Stanford, and has far outperformed Wimbush, even if the running threat isn’t the same.
Book’s lack of games this season has limited his stats. He is 91st in the country with 887 yards and 116th in yards per attempt at 8.4. He is tied for 49th with 9 touchdown passes, but his accuracy is the most impressive part of his game. Through four games appearances and three starts, he ranks third in the country with a completion percentage of 73.3%.
For comparison, Wimbush ranks 120th with 589 passing yards, 151st with 7.8 yards per attempt, only has one touchdown pass, which ties him for 175th in the country, and his completion percentage is 55.3%, and doesn’t even have enough passing attempts to qualify for the list.
To help Book and Wimbush, the Irish have four players with 200 or more receiving yards, led by senior receiver Miles Boykin. Boykin leads the team in receiving yards, with 428 and in touchdowns, with 3. Outside of a 119 yard day against Ball State, he wasn’t able to do much in the first four games, being held to one reception in the other three. Against Stanford, he broke out, catching 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown. He followed that up with an 2 touchdown game against Virginia Tech where he caught 8 passes for 117 yards.
The quarterback change probably helped the stats improve as much as they did, but the Notre Dame receivers are coming into their own. Senior tight end Alize Mack has been a reliable target this season, catching 19 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown. The evolution of the Notre Dame passing game will make them a tough team to beat in the second half of the season.
Their rushing attack is solid, at 195.7 yards per game they are 47th in the country. They have scored 16 touchdowns on the ground, 13th in the nation. Dexter Williams leads the balanced rushing attack with 339 yards, 102nd in the country. Many of his yard came off of a 97 yard touchdown, which is the longest run in the country thus far. Williams is fourth on the team in carries, but he averages 8.9 yards per carry, fifth in the country among qualified players, and most of that is because of one run. Williams, who was rumored to be suspended, though Brian Kelly never confirmed it, to start the season, has only appeared in two games this season, the Stanford and Virginia Tech games, and got over 160 yards in both games. He ran for 178 yards against Virginia Tech and scored 3 touchdowns as his Irish dominated on the road.
The Irish have four players with more than 100 yards rushing, as Tony Jones, Jafar Armstrong, and Wimbush. Jones started in place of Williams for the first four games, and never got rolling the way Williams did after his return. His longest run was for 31 yards against Ball State, and he passed 100 yards once against Vanderbilt. He scored three touchdowns in the stretch, two of which came against Ball State. He reps have been seriously limited since, and only carried the ball twice for -1 yards against Virginia Tech. Armstrong is a receiver who has converted to running back, and has done a decent job. He backed up Jones and ran for around 50 yards in each of the first three games. His best day came against Wake Forest when he ran for 98 yards on 8 carries and two touchdowns. He is currently injured. Wimbush has 144 yards on the ground this season, a stat that would be higher if sacks were not counted as negative rushing plays.
Under new leadership, the Notre Dame defense has been solid in 2018. They give up only 19.5 points per game, 27th best in the country, and they give up 357 yards per game, 49th in the country. For four of their first six games, they gave up either 16 or 17 points, and gave up 27 and 23 in road wins against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, respectively.
Notre Dame’s pass defense has struggled at times this year, giving up 229.5 yards per game, 72nd in the country. Most of that average is affected by Kyle Shurmur’s 326 yard day through the air when Vanderbilt visited the Irish and lost 22-17. They do have 7 interceptions on the year, 20th in the country. They have also gotten to the quarterback for 15 sacks, good for 33rd in the country. Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery has seven sacks, which is second-best in the nation, and he has forced three of the four fumbles for Notre Dame, including the fumble at the end of the Michigan game, sealing the win. Cornerback Troy Pride Jr. and safety Jalen Elliott lead the team in interceptions with two each.
Senior linebacker Te’von Coney, along with Tillery, Pride, Elliott, and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill, leads the Irish defense in pursuit of a Playoff berth. Coney leads the team in tackles with 48, has one sack, an interception and recovered the fumble that sealed the win over Michigan. Tranquill is second on the team in tackles, with 40, fourth in tackles for loss, with 5, and has a sack. Junior defensive lineman Khalid Kareem leads the team in tackles for loss with 8 and has 4.5 sacks on the year.
The Notre Dame defense has been strong under Lea’s leadership. They may give up a few more yards than some fans are comfortable with at times, but they come up force turnovers and don’t put the Irish in a hole and threaten the outcome of the game. Overall, their defense is strong and will be valuable as they push towards the Playoff.
Special teams for Notre Dame have been solid in 2018. Kicker Justin Yoon is perfect on extra points, but has missed three field goals. He is 7 for 10 on the season, missing one against Ball State, Vanderbilt, and Stanford. His long is 48 yards against Michigan. Punter Tyler Newsome ranks 11th in the country in punting, averaging 46.3 yards per punt and a long of 63 yards. The return game is fairly unremarkable, as they haven’t scored a touchdown.
Prediction for 2nd Half of the Season
The toughest games of the season are behind Notre Dame, going 3-0 against Michigan, Stanford, and Virginia Tech. Now, they must maintain their perfect record, and they’ll almost certainly be a College Football Playoff team. Florida State and a road trip to USC remain, which looked like much tougher games at the beginning of the season. They have two neutral site games on the schedule, as they face Navy in San Diego after a bye week before playing Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in the second to last week of the season. They also host Pitt for their seventh game and travel to Northwestern, whose 2-3 record is lower than expected, the week after going to San Diego for the Navy game.
Going undefeated over a college football season is a difficult task for any team. In the Playoff era, there has not been an undefeated national champion. While I think that Notre Dame has proven that they have the talent to go 12-0, especially after the quarterback switch, I find it hard to believe that they can go through the season undefeated.
If Navy were better, I could see them taking down the Irish, derailing the perfect season, but they have struggled and could enter that game 2-5. Northwestern appears to be turning around their season after suffering early losses to Duke and Akron.
I predict that Notre Dame will lose one game, and while I’m not entirely sure where that would come from, I’d guess that the most likely losses are USC, Northwestern, and Syracuse, in that order.