- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Notre Dame's first bye week comes at the season's midway point, giving us the perfect opportunity to make a decent evaluation of what this team's strengths and weaknesses are following a 4-2 start. We'll break this down into four categories over the next four days: offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff.
Without further ado, here is the first installment.
Summary: Notre Dame is averaging 27.3 points per game, a slight increase from last year's 25.77 mark. Of course, part of that is a result of playing from behind, something the Irish did against Michigan and Oklahoma, both losses. They found themselves in another shootout this past weekend against Arizona State and proved they were able to pull out a contest far different from some of the meat-grinders they endured in 2012.
Tommy Rees has been Tommy Rees. He eclipsed the 300-yard mark in the first three games. He threw two picks in a loss at Michigan, a game in which the Irish defense did the offense no favors. Rees misfired several times against a stout Michigan State defense, but he protected the ball and the Irish escaped the Spartans in a game reminiscent of last season. He became the easy scapegoat against the Sooners after throwing three picks — which Oklahoma turned into 21 points — but he received little help from his offensive line and receivers on two of those gaffes. Andrew Hendrix has appeared here and there, but Rees remains the Irish's best option at quarterback. Criticize Rees for his physical attributes if you must, but if you're going to get mad about the offense's make-up, blame the starting quarterback who got himself suspended for school this semester — after the program spent a whole spring investing in him to take charge. Rees stayed through the good and bad, has endured a lot more than most signal-callers has had to, and has kept a strong mindset through it all. Go back and watch the Purdue game, especially late in the second half, as he rallied the offense on the sideline, commanding the group's attention in a way only a senior with the respect of the entire locker room could. Brian Kelly has stuck by Rees, and he will continue to do so as long as Rees remains the offense's best option, which is what he is.
His offensive line has been stellar in pass protection, ranking eighth nationally in fewest sacks allowed per game (.60), surrendering just four on the season. That's all the more impressive when you consider Rees' lack of threat with his legs. Still, the running game had trouble getting off on the right foot, tallying three consecutive under-100-yard performances in games 2-4 before George Atkinson III broke out against Oklahoma. The Irish continued to build off that ground success last week against the Sun Devils, rushing for 145 yards. Slowly, the Irish have made progress in that department, raising their rushing yards per game average from 114.3 to 137 since Week 4.
In the pass-catching department, meanwhile, TJ Jones has been every bit as good as advertised, with the captain hauling in 33 passes for 481 yards and four touchdowns. He has had two 100-yard games and a 98-yard effot, absorbing hit after hit and becoming the kind of reliable target for Rees that Tyler Eifert was in 2011 and 2012. He has gotten big lifts here and there from DaVaris Daniels (25 catches, 385 yards, 4 TDs) and Troy Niklas (14, 250, 4), and the Irish have regularly played true freshmen who have made some minor contributions (Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Will Fuller).
Overall, the offense has been uneven, as it has yet to really turn in a complete performance outside of Week 1 against a Temple team that is still seeking its first win. The Irish appeared to be moving closer to that direction against ASU, but a pick-six put a dent in that performance. The bye week will serve them well as they prepare for a skilled but depleted USC defense that should give the offense its biggest test before Senior Day against BYU.
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information