Notre Dame Football: 6 Biggest Early-Season Storylines for Fighting Irish
Only one-sixth of Notre Dame's regular season has been completed, but the storylines surrounding the 2013 squad are aplenty.
After two weeks of action, the Irish own a record of 1-1.
Believe it or not, Notre Dame's 41-30 loss at Michigan on Saturday night was the Irish's first regular-season loss since a 28-14 defeat at Stanford on Nov. 26, 2011.
The defeat caused Notre Dame coaches and fans to take a step back and look at the program on a macro level, leading to the emergence of the following budding storylines.
What's Wrong with the Defense?
Notre Dame's incredible journey to the 2013 BCS National Championship Game was built on the outstanding play of the Irish defense.
During the course of that undefeated regular season a year ago, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit allowed just nine touchdowns.
Shockingly, a defense that returned eight starters from last season's stingy group has yielded six touchdowns—or two-thirds of last season's scores, if you prefer to frame it that way. What caused, and will continue to cause, teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing in South Bend, Ind., is that five of those touchdowns were scored by Michigan.
Both Temple and Michigan have attacked what was the Irish defense's overwhelming strength last season—their front seven.
Through the first two games, that unit, headlined by stars Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, has allowed 300 rushing yards. Yes, you read that correctly.
Even more frustrating is the fact the two leading rushers against Notre Dame in each contest were the quarterbacks. Michigan's Devin Gardner and Temple's Connor Reilly combined to gash the Irish defense for 182 yards on the ground.
And for the second time in Notre Dame's past three games, the Irish defense has allowed at least 40 points.
Quite clearly, there remains a significant amount of work to be done on that side of the ball.
The Place-Kicking Battle Has Been Decided
Entering Week 1 against Temple, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had reiterated that the battle for place-kicking duties would be ongoing between junior Kyle Brindza and fifth-year senior Nick Tausch.
That statement proved prophetic, as both Brindza and Tausch missed a field goal apiece during the 28-6 victory against the Owls.
However, Brindza, a native of Plymouth, Mich., seemed to lock up the job while playing in front of a hometown crowd at Michigan Stadium on Saturday evening, as he nailed field goals from 44, 40 and 24 yards.
The 6-foot-1, 236-pound kicker also converted each of his extra point attempts.
While Kelly hasn't announced that the job is Brindza's, it appears that he is the No. 1 option going forward.
The Dream of Returning to the BCS Championship Game Is Shot
A few weeks prior to the start of the regular season, Notre Dame officials made it no secret the program's ultimate goal of the 2013 season was to return to the BCS National Championship Game.
To accomplish that, the Irish were tasked with running the table for a second consecutive season, though that became an impossibility following the Irish's 41-30 loss at Michigan Saturday night.
What may possibly console Irish fans is that since the format of the title game changed in 2007, only two teams have made at least two consecutive appearances—Ohio State (the Buckeyes lost two in a row) and Alabama during its current dynasty.
While the Irish won't be traveling to the Rose Bowl for the 2014 BCS National Championship Game, Kelly does have the program as an annual contender.
The Irish Offense Misses Everett Golson
Whether you like it or not, the Notre Dame offense was more versatile when former starting quarterback Everett Golson was directing it.
While the Myrtle Beach, S.C., native didn't have quite the mental grasp on the game that current starter Tommy Rees does, Golson added the threat of the run, something the Irish saw loads of from Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.
With the immobile Rees taking the snaps, opposing defenses aren't forced to respect the threat of a quarterback run.
As many opposing defenses have done against Rees during the past four seasons, the Wolverines consistently sold out against the run and dropped eight in coverage on obvious passing downs.
The end result was Notre Dame's rushing attack being limited to just 96 yards and Rees being dared to beat Michigan as a passer.
The Lake Forest, Ill., native completed just 56 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions, bringing many, including your's truly, to dream of Golson's return to Notre Dame.
Rees supporters, including a few of my loyal readers, will be blinded by Rees' successful outings against subpar defenses, but his deficiencies drag down the offense as a whole and will continue to be on display against quality competition.
The Irish Defense Misses Manti Te'o
This moment was bound to occur. I knew it would.
The Irish defense sorely misses Manti Te'o.
Notre Dame's linebacker unit underwent a significant transformation following his departure to the NFL, as true freshman Jaylon Smith and fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese are now among the starters among that position group.
The duo of Dan Fox and Calabrese has been atrocious through the season's first two games, as both Temple and Michigan have recognized the glaring vulnerability in the middle of the field where the two patrol.
What made Te'o such a fantastic linebacker was his ability to read and diagnose offensive looks while protecting the middle of the field against intermediate passes.
But neither Fox nor Calabrese are anywhere near the athletes that Te'o was, leaving a rather gaping hole in the heart of the Irish defense.
Amir Carlisle Is Slowly Becoming the Irish's No. 1 Running Back
It has only been two games, but George Atkinson III has worn out his welcome as Notre Dame's No. 1 running back.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound back has continued to consistently run with a high pad level, leaving himself susceptible to bone-crushing hits when running the ball between the tackles. The Stockton, Calif., native has also proven to be a liability as a receiver, dropping four passes against Michigan.
Meanwhile, Amir Carlisle has quietly asserted himself as the Irish's most consistent running back. The USC transfer, has been Notre Dame's leading rusher in both of the Irish's two games, amassing 132 yards on 19 carries.
Kelly has yet to address any potential shifts on the depth chart at running back, though a reordering of the pecking order seems imminent.