Benchmarks

At 1-8 after a crushing loss to Navy last Saturday, Notre Dame needs a win this week if they’re going to avoid having lost to TWO service academies in the same season. Perhaps even more than the win itself, though, the Irish need to build on the few successes they’ve had so far this season, to prove to themselves and their fans that at least they’re developing, as individuals and as a team. Here are some benchmarks to look for in tomorrow’s game (statistics via und.com, ncaa.org, and cfbstats.com).

On defense

The Irish held Navy to 278 yards of total offense through four quarters of regulation last week, and also stopped the Midshipmen on one of their three overtime drives: not a dominant performance by any means, but more than good enough to keep the Irish in the game (recall that seven of Navy’s points came off a fumble recovery). This week, their opponent is once again dangerous on offense (the Falcons’ 272.8 rushing yards per game rank fourth nationally), but at the same time much less consistent overall: Air Force has been held under 350 yards of total offense four times this year, and under 250 once. Their running game has also been contained on occasion - 146 net yards against BYU and 133 against TCU, as well as 212 against New Mexico - and while the Falcons have had a few good days passing the ball - 176 yards against South Carolina State, 193 against Utah, and 237 against Navy - they rank only 118th nationally in this department. But against the wishbone attack, it’s hard to say exactly what would count as success: if, like last week, the Irish defense can force a turnover or two and hold the Falcons to 24 points on the day, it will be hard for me to complain.

On special teams

The Irish averaged 26.2 yards per kickoff return against Navy, and their two punt returns went for 37 yards. It would be good to see them continue to build on that success, though it won’t be easy against an Air Force team that has yielded an average of just 18.1 return yards on kickoffs and 8.7 on punts. Special teams coverage will be important as well (the Falcons average 12.3 yards per punt return), and it goes without saying that the kicking game is a huge question mark. But at the end of the day, what Notre Dame really needs is one or two “big” plays from their special teams: think a punt return for more than 20 yards, a kickoff return past the 40, a punt downed inside the 10, a blocked punt or field goal attempt, and so on.

On offense

This is obviously where the big question marks are, since it’s the place where ND has been by far the suckiest this year. So here’s my laundry list of Things They’d Better Do:

  • Average at least 5.0 4.5 4.0 yards per carry on offense: Air Force opponents have averaged only 3.48 so far this season, so this is by no means a guarantee. I’ve already noted that last week, against a Navy team that was yielding an average of over 4.5 yards per run coming in, the Irish picked up just 3.7 yards on their average carry. But given the once again substantial size differential between the Irish offense and the Falcon defense - there’s a 40-lb. gap in the trenches, and Asaph Schwapp has 30 pounds on the average Air Force linebacker - Notre Dame has no excuse not to some improvement here.
  • Pass for at least 180 170 160 yards: Maybe this is the day Jimmy Clausen finally busts out, but maybe not. So we should keep our expectations reasonable: the Air Force pass defense is actually one of their stronger points, yielding just over 200 yards per game on the season, good for 33rd in the nation. If Clausen - who has averaged only 7.6 yards per completion, 4.4 yards per attempt, and 88.3 passing yards per game so far - completes, say, 17 of 26 pass attempts for 157 yards, Irish fans should be pretty happy.
  • Stay out of second- and third-down and long: Those of you looking for Clausen to start off his first series with a bomb to a streaking Golden Tate have (or had better have - you listening to me, Charlie?) another thing coming. I’ve noted that last week the Irish passed the ball nine times on first and ten - hopefully we’ll see them go to the run early and often tomorrow. (The other side of the coin here is offensive penalties, which killed the Irish through the first half of the season but dropped off sharply in their last two games. Hopefully this is a trend that will last through the rest of the year; this offense just isn’t good enough to be constantly digging out of 1st-and-15 or 2nd-and-20.)
  • Give up no more than two sacks: Obviously this will also play a key role in keeping the offense out of long-yardage situations. Yielding four against Navy last week was worse than bad: it was inexcusable. And Air Force comes in as the much more dangerous pass-rushing team of the two, averaging over two sacks per game (Navy had a total of five through their first nine contests). Keeping the undersized Falcons below that average would be a real positive for this offense.
  • Don’t turn the ball over more than once: Interceptions and - especially - fumbles have been an Achilles heel for this team all season long, and it’s time for that to stop now. Air Force opponents have turned the ball over a total of 25 times this year (14 interceptions, 11 fumbles lost): it’s one thing if Clausen throws a pick, but this team needs in particular to stop putting the ball on the carpet.
  • Make turnovers into points: Obviously this is especially important for drives that start on the opponents’ side of midfield, and this is an area where the Irish offense has been especially shaky this year. Here’s a guideline: if you start the post-turnover drive inside the opposing 40, three points is the minimum; if you start inside the 20, it darn well better be seven.
  • No more than one empty trip to the red zone: Somehow Air Force opponents have managed to convert fewer than two-thirds of their red zone chances so far this year, though that’s due in part to their 65% success rate on field goal attempts. (Irish opponents have averaged over 88% scoring from inside the 20.) But the Notre Dame kicking game has been - how shall we put it? - less than dynamic as well, so a big part of the burden here falls on the rest of the offense. In any case, this team just doesn’t move the ball well enough to blow the few scoring chances it does manage to get.
  • 400 375 350 yards of total offense: The fact of the matter is that this is asking an awful lot, especially after ND put up only 375 against the woeful Midshipmen defense. But at the end of the day, against an Air Force offense that comes in averaging just under 400 total yards a game, that’s probably what will be required if the Irish are going to have a real chance to win.

When you sit down, look at the numbers, and consider (1) what the Irish offense managed to do last week against a defense markedly worse than the one they’ll face this Saturday, and (2) the fact that the Air Force offense is almost certainly going to be good for a few scores, the specter of a possible 1-9 record heading into the Duke game becomes a real one. Here’s hoping the Irish can put their demons to rest.

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