Up…and Down

Jones has played at a team MVP level

O'Malley offers a dozen reasons to explain Notre Dame's 4-2 start.

4-2: predicted by many, and arguably the most likely first half-season result for Notre Dame from an opening sextet of games that included four ranked foes, three Big 10 opponents, just one (to borrow from boxing parlance) "tomato can" and five consecutive weeks of physical football games.

But 4-2 was also the minimum allowable level of success for head coach Brian Kelly's Irish through six. The second half features USC, a pair of Service Academies, and two teams that played the championship-level Irish of 2012 to the wire last fall. And then a revenge game reckoning on The Farm.

But before we consider looking ahead (an ensuing column), first a review of how the Irish ended up 4-2, completely removed from national title contention, but still in the BCS Bowl hunt -- in need of a five wins in the next six weeks (another bye looms in mid-November) before setting up a potential play-in game vs. Stanford at season's end.

Six Up

Six positives over Notre Dame's first six games. Kelly's Irish encountered plenty of unexpected issues, but this sextet highlighted the first half with consistent play.

1.) Senior Captain T.J. Jones: Tommy Rees' top targeted passer (a whopping 66, or on pace for 36 more than top target Tyler Eifert had last fall), Jones ranks just ahead of Louis Nix as the team's best college football player through six games this season. Tied for the team lead with four scores, Jones is on pace for

2.) Junior Tight End Troy Niklas: The same was true for two handfuls of tight ends that preceded him, but Niklas is on pace to break a 36-year program record for touchdown receptions by a tight end (he has four, Ken MacAfee set the mark with six in 1977). As important, Niklas has emerged as a top tier blocker in-line and playmaker as a pass-catcher. Was a touch off his game at Purdue in terms of making mildly difficult catches, but Niklas has met realistic, and lofty, expectations as a first-year starter in his second season at the position.

3.) Kicking Game Weapon Kyle Brindza: Yes he's missed three kicks he should have made (he's 8 of 11 for the season); yes he's airmailed two punts into the end zone; and yes he's had two shanks. But Kyle Brindza is a triple-threat kicker the team can count on in the crunch.

He's perfect in the fourth quarter in crunch time (vs. UM, PU, MSU, OU, and ASU), not only as a field goal kicker, hitting 3 for 3 this year; 11 for 11 in his career, but also as a kick-off specialist (10 fourth quarter kick-offs, 10 touchbacks), and nearly as good as a punter, with fourth quarter punts of 45, 51, 51, 56 and 53 yards with two of 36 and 39 in the five contested games.

4.) Freshmen First Responders: Jaylon Smith is the featured star, a five-star can't miss prospect that played his best, fittingly, in his most recent contest. But Kelly's 2013 crop of freshmen has gone 10 deep in terms of contributors, most of them of the weekly variety. Three defensive backs (Devin Butler, Cole Luke, and Max Redfield), three receivers (Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, and Will Fuller), an offensive lineman (Steven Elmer), a defensive lineman (Isaac Rochell), a running back (Tarean Folston), and Smith will factor heavily into the season's second half after making contributions to the first.

5.) Cam When It Counted: Was there a moment in which McDaniel was given an opportunity in which he did not respond? By my count, he offered one poor decision (losing four yards on second and goal at the 4-yard line last week) with one missed pass protection assignment (vs. Oklahoma, resulting in a sack). Aside from those standard errors, McDaniel was the perfect complimentary runner for an offense that should have featured the run over the pass. Now, if the Irish could actually feature the run more than the pass and have a consistent lead runner emerge, the running game will be golden.

6.) Pass Protection: One back-breaking, tone-setting sack/strip/interception/touchdown notwithstanding, has there been a more consistent aspect of the Irish offense this season than it's protection of Tommy Rees? The senior triggerman has dropped to pass 214 times and been dropped just four. (At this point last season, Everett Golson and Rees had been sacked on a combined 12 occasions.)

The Irish front will endure stiff tests in this regard vs. USC's Morgan Breslin, Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, Brigham Young's Kyle Van Noy, and Stanford's...well, Stanford, but namely Trent Murphy, in the season's second half.

Six Down

Wondering why the Irish lost twice and played three others to the wire? Inconsistency was the order of the day throughout September and into the season's second month.

1.) Testing Tommy: Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin asked Rees to throw more than 50 times in Ann Arbor. That logic has proven faulty. Rees played his worst against the best team on the schedule to date, Oklahoma. That's been his m.o. in an otherwise solid, at times gratifying career. For Notre Dame to go 6-0, Rees needed more help. As a veteran starter, bad decisions are on him, but putting him in position to fail is an inexcusable tactical error.

2.) Failing to Answer the Bell: Down 10-0 at Michigan. Down 10-0 at Purdue. Down 7-3 vs. Michigan State. Down 14-0 vs. Oklahoma. Down 13-7 vs. Arizona State.

Last season, Notre Dame didn't trail until Game Seven (BYU). This season, they've struggled to bring the same early season approach as their fired up foes. If the Irish trail vs. USC, Pittsburgh, Brigham Young, and Stanford during the season's second half, they'll finish with eight wins, again.

3.) Pass-Rush Prowess: Prior to last week's game vs. Arizona State, Notre Dame's defense ranked below 115 teams nationally in total sacks, with four through five games. Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Louis Nix, Sheldon Day, Ishaq Williams, Jaylon Smith, two returning 5th-year senior inside linebackers, and a host of talented defensive backs managed just four sacks in five games?

Rewind to August camp and consider if someone had approached you with that illogical, nay, impossible, development?

They appear back on track after six sacks against Arizona State (more on that in a forthcoming column), but the Irish were 3-2 for a reason: their defense, especially their pass rush, let them down.

4.) Tackling Troubles: The Irish tackled well vs. Michigan State and won. With one notable exception (a touchdown), they did the same vs. Arizona State. They tackled poorly vs. Temple, Michigan, and Purdue and lost one of the three, largely because they couldn't corral Wolverines weapons when it mattered.

Notre Dame wins at an elite level when blocking and tackling are its hallmarks. The defense is based on making clean tackles in space after allowing short gains. They can't beat the elite without following through on one of the game's two crucial components.

5.) Penalty Problems: In 2012, Notre Dame's defense committed 16 penalties that gave an opponent a first down. That's over 13 games.

In the first half of the 2013 season, the defense has already committed 15 such penalties, with a whopping 11 courtesy a returning starter.

6.) Big Chunks 'R Us: Five gains between 22 and 64 yards allowed at Michigan. Four between 20 and 54 vs. Oklahoma. Both resulted in defeat.

Just two total against Temple, Purdue, and Michigan State, all victories. It's no coincidence Notre Dame entered Game Six vs. Arizona Sate with three wins and two losses. The defense endured seven such gains against the explosive Sun Devils, but Arizona State's offense had produced a whopping 43 prior to the contest.

Notre Dame has much to clean up, because seven chunk plays vs. anyone else on the Irish schedule would likely end up in defeat -- or another outing in which 35-plus points are needed to pull out a win.

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