Notre Dame Football: Why the Irish Can Still Make a BCS Bowl
After Notre Dame's first two losses, everyone wrote the team off, but the momentum of three straight wins has given fans some hope. Let's see who the Irish need to ride to victory and how the team can finish the season with a BCS bowl appearance.
All Notre Dame has to do to receive an at-large bid is finish in the Top 8 of the BCS rankings. That's a piece of cake, isn't it?
Let me answer that for you. Not in the least.
The Irish have a long and winding road ahead, but that doesn't mean that a BCS bowl is out of the question. Notre Dame has posted some impressive statistics, and it will need to continue to play well in those areas while improving in others.
With a lot of hard work and the luck of the Irish, how can Notre Dame turn what was a disappointing season into a triumphant one?
The Defense Will Lead the Way
Other than an extremely bad fourth quarter against Michigan, the Notre Dame defense has played well this season.
In past years, Notre Dame has had trouble getting to opposing quarterbacks. With the help of a dynamic freshman defense end, Aaron Lynch, and junior Manti Te'o, the Irish are tied for 25th in sacks (13 on the season).
Both of the starting edge rushers, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, have done a good job of getting pressure on quarterbacks, too.
With Lynch playing more every game and if fellow freshman Stephon Tuitt, whose has and will continue to play both defensive end and defensive tackle, can keep contributing after not traveling with the team against Purdue (disciplinary reasons), the Irish pass rush will continue to be better than it has been in quite some time.
And with the improvement of the pass rush comes the improvement of the pass defense.
If opposing quarterbacks don't have time in the pocket, they will only be able to throw underneath. When quarterbacks can't go deep, the Irish secondary can start making quicker breaks on the ball. Gary Gray needs to get better when the ball is in the air, but the Irish pass defense should improve dramatically in the second half of the season.
The Notre Dame offense is pretty good, too, but the Irish defense will be the catalyst for a BCS berth.
The Running Attack
The Irish running game is continuing to impress as the season goes on and will help lead the Irish to a BCS berth.
The two-headed rushing attack of Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood has been a combination that opposing defenses just can't stop. Notre Dame is averaging 179.6 yards per game and 5.41 yards per attempt with the 41st overall rushing offense.
While 41st might not seem outstanding, the Irish have only rushed 166 times. Only six teams in the top 40 rushing offenses have rushed fewer than 166 times.
The running backs have both been spectacular, but the offensive line has been just as important to the team's success.
The linemen have been able to open up holes for Gray and Wood, even when playing against the top-notch rushing defense of Michigan State and the solid rush defense of USF. The line has also been a primary reason for Tommy Rees' success. The offensive line has only given up five sacks all season and are tied for 20th in sacks allowed.
With stellar play from the offensive line and the running backs, the Irish offense will be able to control the clock from here on out, and the Irish will likely have to do so against the offensive powerhouse of Stanford.
Depth at the Most Important Position
Tommy Rees has done enough to propel the team to a turnaround after two devastating losses, and although his propensity to throw interceptions has driven fans mad, head coach Brian Kelly is firmly behind the sophomore quarterback.
While Rees hasn't even been close to perfect, fans will have to be OK with the young quarterback learning on the job, but fans are also content to know that the team has one of the best backups in all of college football.
Just because he had one bad half against USF, no one should think that Dayne Crist can't lead the team to victory. Everyone on the Irish had a bad first half against USF, not just Crist.
For better or for worse, Rees is the guy that is going to lead the team for the rest of the season, but if for some reason he gets hurt or has a horrible stretch, Crist can get behind center and there won't be a dramatic drop-off in production or a shattering of the Irish's BCS hopes.
What About the Schedule?
If Notre Dame plays to its potential, it should be in every game, but the team is still set to face a handful of very difficult opponents.
The three games that make Irish fans the most anxious are versus USC, Navy and at Stanford.
In order for the Irish to get the luxury of a trip to a BCS bowl and finish in the Top 8, the team will likely have to win out.
USC always has a lot of talent. The Irish pass defense will have to play lights out against USC quarterback Matt Barkley, but USC lost to Arizona State and the team is certainly not the threat to Notre Dame that it once was.
Navy has had Notre Dame's number the past two seasons. Its running game has given the Irish fits, but with Notre Dame's improvement against the run, Navy shouldn't be able to dominant this time. Navy has already lost two games to the University of South Carolina and Air Force.
The biggest and toughest game of the year will be at Palo Alto.
Stanford has the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, a shoo-in as the first NFL draft pick and an all-around playmaker in Andrew Luck. The Stanford quarterback leads the 32nd-ranked passing offense, one spot ahead of Notre Dame, and has thrown 11 touchdowns to just a single interception.
And Stanford isn't a one-dimensional offensive attack. The team also has the 31st rushing offense in the FBS.
The Stanford defense is no pushover either. The team ranks 26th in total defense and fourth in rushing defense.
Notre Dame will need to will all of its game in order to make a BCS appearance, but it seems all roads lead to Palo Alto.
If Notre Dame can do the difficult but not impossible, the team will prove all the doubters wrong and head to a BCS bowl this season.