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Notre Dame is scoring big on offense, and so are its opponents

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Dave Doeren has never been presented with a better opportunity to take down a marquee opponent than the one he has this weekend. Notre Dame comes into this game 2-3 overall and as the Vegas underdog, but make no mistake about this: the Irish are the more talented team.

Brian Kelly has consistently recruited at an elite level since arriving in South Bend, and while his current team--gutted as it was by personnel losses--isn't exactly a model of functionality, it still can be very good. Especially on the offensive side, where future top-10 NFL draft pick DeShone Kizer runs the show.

Notre Dame S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Offense 8 7.0 (6) 5.6 (8) 8.8 (15)
2016 Offense 13 6.9 (14) 4.4 (65) 9.9 (6)

One of the benefits that comes with great recruiting: there's a greater possibility you will spit in the face of attrition and keep on keepin' on despite losing a lot of key contributors. That's the case with Notre Dame's offense, which is lost explosive running back C.J. Prosise and four of its top five receivers (Prosise included) after 2015.

Prosise ran for 1,029 yards last season and scored 11 times on the ground while averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Leading receiver Will Fuller caught 14 touchdown passes. But the Irish offense hasn't really slipped, thanks to the emergence of Kizer as an elite passer. He ranks third nationally with an average of 10.4 yards per attempt, and he's improved both his TD and INT rates this year.

His favorite target has been Equanimeous St. Brown, a big sophomore who caught exactly one pass in 2015. This season, he has 25 grabs for 541 yards (21.6 per catch) and six TDs. This sort of progression is what I'm talking about when I say good recruiting can speed up a team's timeline in certain ways.

Brown was a four-star recruit; so was Kizer. Both now are playing like stars, which is helping the Irish forget about the big-play guys they've lost.

The Irish have had more trouble re-working their offensive line, despite the presence of a couple of very talented veterans. So it's not gonna be a silver bullet in every case (as we will see with the defense), but there is no luxury like pure talent, even when there isn't much experience attached to it.

Notre Dame S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Defense 35 5.6 (64) 4.6 (87) 6.9 (54)
2016 Defense 84 6.0 (97) 4.2 (71) 8.5 (110)

While great talent generally increases a program's floor and decreases the likelihood of a bottoming out, there are no guarantees--improved bad odds are still bad odds.

The Irish lost eight of their top 10 tacklers from a year ago, including their most disruptive defensive linemen. There are a dozen underclassmen on the defensive two-deep, and only four starters have made 10 starts or more. Reworking this side of the ball obviously has been a lot more difficult--the statistics, whether raw or schedule adjusted, are a testament to that.

Plus, y'know, this is a team that fired its defensive coordinator in September.

A few things stick out as particularly gruesome. For one, the Irish have been horribly inefficient. Their defensive success rate is among the worst in the country. So opponents are routinely staying on schedule. Their havoc rate, as you might guess, based on that, is also dreadful. Across the board. No position group is making plays at a high level by that measure, and they aren't forcing turnovers.

And my goodness have they been bad on passing plays.

Notre Dame Offense Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Passing S&P+ 104.8 62 81.7 119 100.0
Passing Success Rate 47.7% 23 47.1% 117 40.9%
Passing IsoPPP 1.69 30 1.69 108 1.50
Adj. Sack Rate 110.2 63 30.6 124 100

(Table yoinked from Bill C.'s Notre Dame statistical profile page.)

They are ranked 117th in efficiency, 108th in their ability to limit explosive plays, and 124th in sack rate.

About the only thing they've done well thus far is limit explosive running plays. But their rushing success rate is terrible, so in other words, while opponents aren't necessarily breaking off chunk plays on the ground, they're consistently piling up positive run plays. Add that to Notre Dame's horrific numbers against the pass and it's really no wonder the Irish defense has provided little resistance all year.

Brian Kelly has been more hands on with the defense since he fired his defensive coordinator, and that change may eventually turn this group around. For now, though, it's hard to expect much from these guys.

So in a very basic sense, NC State and Notre Dame are a lot alike: both have good offenses, both have bad defenses. How this battle of strength on weakness sorts itself out when the actual humans involved are running into each other on Saturday afternoon is anybody's guess.