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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

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Notre Dame Does What it Has to Do

Notre Dame didn’t lose, and that’s all that matters. But the Irish didn’t win pretty, that’s for sure, and needed every ugly bounce, tackle and yard possible to escape with a 15-12 victory over Pittsburgh. That makes two straight for Notre Dame on the heels of its 0-2 start, but here’s what’s interesting: the Irish played better in their two losses than the wins. In all areas but one, of course, as N.D. has done a better job – not a good job, a better job – at cutting down on costly turnovers. They were still there on Saturday, including another interception in the red zone, but after committing 10 combined turnovers against South Florida and Michigan, the Irish have turned the ball over only five times over the last two weeks.

Only five, as if that’s an improvement. It is an improvement: five is less than 10, as bad as it was, and the Irish can take some solace in the fact that steps are being taken to button up the sloppiness that led to their stumble out of the gate. The steps are simple.

Just take fewer chances. When in the red zone – when in opposing territory, even – don’t do anything that might draw Brian Kelly’s ire; Kelly, not calm in the first place, has shown more sideline emotion through four games than he showed in his entire debut season in South Bend.

The result of being more careful has been a far more pedestrian offense – a somewhat more predictable, more straight-edge, less big-play philosophy. Not that the Irish aren’t still throwing the ball: Tommy Rees made 41 attempts against the Panthers, the second-most of his career.

But Rees’ 41 passes – he completed 24 – went for only 216 yards, a very paltry yards per attempt average. Most of his attempts went underneath: tight end Tyler Eifert was his favorite target, pulling down 8 catches for 75 yards and a score. And Notre Dame’s top two receivers, Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick, combined to make 10 receptions for 79 yards. Floyd, one of the nation’s best, had three catches on Notre Dame’s opening drive and only one more the rest of the way.

Notre Dame’s lone touchdown prior to the game-winner, when Rees found Eifert, came on the ground, via Jonas Gray’s winding, weaving 79-yard score in the second quarter. Gray gave N.D. a 7-3 lead; Pittsburgh followed with a field goal and touchdown – with a failed two-point try – to sneak in front, 12-7, until the Irish went ahead for good roughly eight minutes into the final quarter.

So Kelly has broken things down, from prolific to pedestrian, and the end result has been two wins. Rees’ totals tell the whole story: he averaged 8.4 yards per attempt against the Bulls and Wolverines, 5.6 in beating Michigan State and Pittsburgh.

That the Irish have taken two straight despite the simplified attack makes you wonder if this is the new trend or simply Kelly dialing things back while he sands down his team’s rough edges. Can Notre Dame afford to be punchless throughout the rest of the schedule?

The simple answer is that Kelly needs to do whatever it takes, offensively and defensively, to win football games. It’s a bit more complicated than that, however, and Notre Dame needs more offensively despite its rejuvenated defensive effort over the last two weeks.

Maybe not this week, when the Irish take on Purdue. The Boilermakers make Notre Dame’s two-game offensive showing look like Oregon; Purdue puts Notre Dame’s quarterback issues to shame. And maybe not against Air Force, should the defense show up. And against Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College – the Irish should have no problems there.

U.S.C., Stanford, Navy: those teams will present issues, since the Irish won’t be able to rely on 15, 20 points being enough for a victory. Against those teams, 15 points might mean a two-touchdown loss.

Here’s the good news: U.S.C. isn’t until Oct. 22, Navy until a week later and Stanford not until Nov. 26, ending the regular season. That leaves Kelly and Notre Dame with time to rebuild the offense, increasing not just its production but also its confidence, which has left the building.

More good news: I think Notre Dame can win eight or nine games even if the offense maintains this safety-first philosophy. But that’s not quite good enough; this team was supposed to be better than that – 10 wins and a B.C.S. bowl good, which was the team’s goal heading into 2011.

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