ND FOOTBALL: A look back at ND's first half of the season

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Oct. 16—Six games have now been played in No. 14 Notre Dame's season, and the Fighting Irish are 5-1.

During the preseason, with all of the variables and question marks the Irish faced during fall camp, one lone blemish against No. 3 Cincinnati halfway through the campaign to this point is a positive.

In fact, it's a blessing.

Notre Dame's flaws have popped up on numerous occasions during the six-game up-and-down roller coaster ride that was the first half of the season.

An overtime win over struggling Florida State. A three-point win at home over upset-minded Toledo. A wild comeback victory over Virginia Tech on the road.

The Irish are 5-1, and nobody can take that away from them. They've earned it. Yet the reality is that this team is a handful of plays away from being 2-4.

This Irish team, though not as proficient as some of the College Football Playoff teams before it, has grit and a determination to win. Its weathered that storm, and now stares down a six-game stretch (Southern Cal, North Carolina, Navy, at Virginia, Georgia Tech, at Stanford) featuring just one team currently holding a winning record.

Despite an inconsistent showing at times on both sides of the ball, the Irish now have a legitimate shot to win out. If they finish the season at 11-1, a spot in a New Year's Six bowl game almost certainly awaits.

EVALUATING THE OFFENSE

Losing a veteran presence like former Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book was going to hurt the 2021 offense regardless of who started under center.

The Irish went out and picked up an experienced transfer in Jack Coan, and the belief was he'd be the guy from the beginning.

Well, Coan did indeed earn the starting job, but his lack of consistency along with a nagging ankle injury opened the door for fellow quarterbacks Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner to play valuable snaps in big-game situations.

At least stats-wise though, Coan has had the upper hand. Due to that, it'd be shocking to see Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly give the nod to anybody else the next time the Irish take the field against USC on Oct. 23.

Coan has completed 100-of-162 passes for 1,208 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Pyne and Buchner have combined to go 24-of-50 for 415 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions through the air.

Both Pyne and Buchner have given Notre Dame's offense a spark on occasion this season, especially when it comes to providing elusiveness and finding space to run downfield, but neither have shown the type of passing ability Coan has through six games.

One player on offense that has shown a lot of consistency in making plays is running back Kyren Williams. Williams was a menace on the ground a season ago, and many had very high expectations for the junior coming into the 2021 season.

Behind an offensive line that's struggled with consistency in its own right through the first half of the season, Williams hasn't enjoyed the type of running room he did in 2020. While he has just 396 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 96 carries, he's the team's second-leading receiver behind tight end Michael Mayer. Williams has 19 catches for 200 receiving yards and three touchdowns through six contests.

Expect Williams to continue to progress in the running game during the second half of the season behind a line that'll only get better as the year winds down.

EVALUATING THE DEFENSE

With a large majority of people outside the program focusing on the offense's struggles, the pressure hasn't necessarily been on the defense as of late.

A lot of that is because, at times, Notre Dame's defense has looked like a solid unit. Led by defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, the Irish didn't start the season well defensively. They looked lost during the first two games with Freeman's group giving up an eye-opening 67 combined points to the Seminoles and Rockets.

When asked about the defense's struggles after those games, both players and Kelly said it takes some time to get comfortable in a new system, but things would get figured out. Well, after a really solid performance against Purdue in the third contest of the season — 13 points and 348 total yards — Notre Dame's defense started coming together. During the following weeks, the Irish terrorized Wisconsin's offense in a blowout win and helped keep the game close at times in the 11-point loss to the Bearcats.

The defense has continued to evolve behind solid play by new starters at every level. Defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey has 27 tackles (6.5 for loss) and six sacks so far this season after mainly being a special teams player during his Irish career.

Linebacker J.D. Bertrand perhaps has been the biggest surprise after he was plugged into the Will linebacker position opposite of Drew White due to Marist Liufau's injury. Bertrand leads the team in tackles with 58 — 25 more than the second-leading tackler — proving he has a nose for the football. An instinct every good linebacker has to have.

In the secondary, Cam Hart has used his physical 6'2", 205-pound frame to make big plays. The converted high school wide receiver has 22 tackles, two interceptions and four pass breakups through the first six games.

Notre Dame's defense may have taken a bit of a step back in the team's comeback win over Virginia Tech, but the unit still only allowed 321 total yards and 16 points that weren't scored off of Irish turnovers.

During the second half of the season, expect Notre Dame's defense to give its team a chance to win every remaining regular season game on the schedule.

Evan Lepak can be reached at evan.lepak@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240326. Follow him on Twitter @EvanMPLepak.

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