Despite its 2-4 record through the first half of the season, Notre Dame has been within striking distance in the fourth quarter of all four losses to date. The average margin of defeat in those four setbacks is 6.25 points — less than a touchdown.
A play here or a stop there, and the Irish could easily be at least 4-2 instead of two games under .500. A defense that’s allowing an average of 29.5 points per game (No. 78 nationally) is largely to blame. To put that in perspective, the top three scoring defenses of Michigan, Ohio State and Florida, respectively, combine to allow just 32.7 points.
The breaks always seemed to go Notre Dame’s way in 2012, when the Irish played in the BCS Championship Game. They could just as easily have been 7-5 as 12-0 in the regular season that year, with five games decided by seven or fewer points, including two games that involved four overtime periods.
“When you get to the fourth quarter you’re going to have to find a way to win,” head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “Sometimes it’s just that — finding a way to win and know that you’re going to play in a lot of close games.”
Two big areas where the Irish can improve offensively that would go a long way in close games are red-zone offense and third-down conversions.
The Fighting Irish currently rank No. 86 (80%) in red zone scores this season. They have scored touchdowns 17 of 25 times (68%) after reaching the red zone. Two of kicker Justin Yoon’s three field goal misses this season have also been from red-zone range.
Notre Dame is even worse on third down in 2016. The team ranks a stunning 111th out of 128 FBS teams with just a 33-percent third-down conversion rate. Toledo (4-1) leads the nation in that category at nearly 57 percent. Twelve teams are converting at least 50 percent on third down, and a total of 66 FBS teams are converting at least 40 percent of their third-down tries this year.
A more consistent running game will help both of the above numbers. The team owns a 3.9 yards-per-carry average (No. 97). Louisville’s 7.1 average is nearly double that number, and 35 teams are averaging at least 5 yards per pop.
The average of 149.5 rushing yards per game (No. 92) reflects the Irish’s problems as well. The rushing numbers are especially perplexing, considering Notre Dame averaged 5.6 yards per carry (a modern school record) and 207.6 per game just a season ago.
Defense is still the main culprit though, especially considering the offense is still averaging 34.2 points — even after being held out of the end zone in last week’s 10-3 loss to North Carolina State.
The Irish have put virtually no pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. They rank 125th in the nation with just three sacks through six games. Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan has two of those three takedowns. Quarterback hurries (22) and tackles for loss (29) have typified a team with non-existent pressure all season long.
Stanford’s quarterbacks have struggled this season, but even they will thrive if Notre Dame can’t generate a pass rush. Spectators will be able to tell if Notre Dame’s struggling defense or Stanford’s struggling offense is able to change the trajectory of a season on Saturday.