SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame enters its first of two bye weeks of the season knowing there is no margin for error.
The Irish improved to 4-2 with a 37-34 victory Saturday over Arizona State in Arlington, Texas, but that leaves the team that reached the BCS championship game last season only faint hope to earn a spot in a BCS bowl game this year.
I think the most important thing for them is they now look at it as a six-game schedule, and they have got to be perfect for six weeks, coach Brian Kelly said.
Here’s a look at the Irish through the first six games and what is ahead for the team:
Defense makes strides
The Irish are not as imposing as they were last season when they held teams to 12.8 points and 305.5 yards per game. Notre Dame is ranked 50th in total defense, giving up 374.5 yards per game, and No. 58 in scoring defense, giving up 25.5 points per game. Notre Dame will also deal with the loss of starting inside linebacker Jarrett Grace, who suffered a broken right leg against Arizona State.
The final game before the break did offer plenty to build on. Notre Dame sacked Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly six times after only having three sacks coming into the game. The Irish also forced three turnovers with Dan Fox, who will return to the starting lineup at inside linebacker with Grace out, recovering a fumble to set up a touchdown and returning an interception for the final TD against the Sun Devils.
Tommy Rees has given Notre Dame good and bad performances in the opening half. The senior quarterback threw for more than 300 yards in each of the first three games and has 1,494 passing yards and 13 touchdowns. But he has also thrown six interceptions and is completing just 51.7 percent of his passes. Rees has been intercepted by each of the ranked teams Notre Dame has played, throwing two picks in a 41-30 loss to No. 18 Michigan on Sept. 7, three in a 35-21 loss to No. 12 Oklahoma on Sept. 28 and one against then-No. 22 Arizona State.
On the run
After opening the season with 188 rushing yards in a 28-6 win over Temple, Notre Dame failed to gain 100 yards in its next three games against Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State. The Irish broke out for 220 rushing yards against Oklahoma, with George Atkinson III leading the way with 148, and they ran for 166 yards against Arizona State.
Atkinson leads the team with 323 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and Tarean Folston have combined to run for 506 for the team’s 818 rushing yards.
Notre Dame has played 11 freshmen this season. Linebacker and former Bishop Luers standout Jaylon Smith and receiver Corey Robinson started in the season opener when 10 freshmen played. Smith has started every game and has 27 tackles with 2 1/2 for loss and two pass breakups. Robinson, Will Fuller and James Onwuala have combined to make five starts, and Robinson and Fuller have combined for six receptions for 114 yards.
Notre Dame’s schedule lightens up after starting the season with three ranked opponents in the first six games. The Irish return to action Oct. 19 when they play host to USC, which fired coach Lane Kiffin after a 3-2 start, and then play Air Force, Navy, Pittsburgh and BYU, which have a combined record of 10-9. Notre Dame’s last big test comes in the season finale when it plays at No. 5 Stanford (5-0) on Nov. 30.