Notre Dame’s first bye week falls midway through the season, allowing time to examine what happened in the first half of the season before the Irish enter the final six weeks.
We’ll examine the offense first, specifically the running and passing performances at this point in the season.
The Irish are 4-2 heading into the bye week. How does the offense grade out at the midterm? PASS OFFENSE: C. After a promising start against Temple, Tommy Rees’s performance under center had been on a steady decline up until a revitalized act against Arizona State in Week 6.
After throwing for more than 300 yards in each of the first three games, Rees threw for 246 yards against Michigan State and Oklahoma combined. Two years after he finished second in Notre Dame history for completion percentage in a season (65.5 in 2011), Rees is completing an average of 51.7 percent of his passes this season. Rees’s accuracy hit an all-time low when he completed 9-of-24 (37.5 percent) of his passes against Oklahoma. Rees, who once had stalwart targets in Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd, has frequently overshot his receivers in deep routes and has slipped back into his “Turnover Tommy” days against high-caliber defenses. He’s has thrown five interceptions in Notre Dame’s two losses and one interception in the team’s four wins.
That looks like a whole lot of negatives for a team that is 4-2, but Rees, his line and his receivers have done a lot of good things, too. Despite Rees’s relative lack of mobility, the offensive line has allowed only four sacks this season, good for eighth nationally. Senior receiver TJ Jones has exploded onto the scene, building on a solid junior season. Jones has grabbed 33 passes for 481 yards — including two 100-plus yard games — and four touchdowns. Head coach Brian Kelly nods to the chemistry between Rees and Jones, the two having grown up in the program together.
Jones is faster, stronger and more evasive than ever before. If the second half of his season can match his first half, expect to see him playing on Sundays next year.
DaVaris Daniels continues on his roller coaster ride of a junior season, tip-toeing up the sideline for the 82-yard go-ahead touchdown against Purdue but almost disappearing in struggles against Oklahoma and Michigan State. Kelly said Daniels will see extra work during the bye week to be a more consistent target in the second half of the season. Freshman Corey Robinson gives Notre Dame a lot to be excited about. The lanky, 6-foot-4 1/2 receiver became a key player against the Spartans, grabbing 54 yards in the first half for the otherwise ineffective Irish offense.
Though there aren’t any Floyds or Eiferts on the roster, Rees is making due with the talent he has. He targets an average of six receivers per game, the lion’s share going to Jones, Daniels and Troy Nikas. The offense struggles with consistently complete performances, but the ingredients are there.
RUN OFFENSE: C. Pre-season storylines painted a picture of a stable of running backs brimming with talent, but the numbers so far this year tell a different tale.
George Atkinson fit into specialty packages as a freshman and sophomore and continued to shine running along the perimeter but couldn’t pack the punch up the middle needed to be an every-down back and struggled to catch Rees’s bubble screens. He’d be as likely to crumple at the line of scrimmage as he was to break away up the edge on a 12-yard dash.
Atkinson slipped into the shadow of Cam McDaniel’s surprisingly rising star and Amir Carlisle’s growing versatility, but McDaniel and Carlisle also lacked the tools needed to be the clear No. 1 back. Freshman Tarean Folston rarely saw the field, classmate Greg Bryant saw even less.
With the Irish running game failing to break the 100-yard mark, Rees was forced into throwing the ball more than he should need to (namely 51 times against Michigan). The Irish undoubtedly have talent in its backfield, but each of the five tailbacks stamping the ground for carries looked more like pieces of the puzzle than the complete picture.
After being told by coaches that he’d no longer get touches if he continued to get tackled so easily, Atkinson broke away on a career-high, 80-yard touchdown run, a lone bright spot in an ugly loss to Oklahoma. Atkinson didn’t post great numbers the following game against Arizona State (18 carries, 54 yards), but the running game in general continued to find success, totalling 145 yards between Atkinson, McDaniel and Carlisle. The run offense got off to a slow start this season, but the running backs can build upon their success heading into USC after the bye week.
In its first six games, the Irish are averaging 4.3 yards per carry and four total touchdowns. Upcoming games against Navy, Pitt and Air Force may help boost those numbers.