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POPE: Notre Dame midseason report card

SOUTH BEND IN - OCTOBER 19: TJ Jones #7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish tries avoid Anthony Brown #16 University Southern

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 19: TJ Jones #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tries to avoid Anthony Brown #16 of the University of Southern California Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium on October 19, 2013 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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The Big
Number

Tight end Troy Niklas has five touchdown receptions. He is one shy of tying the school’s single-season mark for a tight end. Ken MacAfee had six in 1977.

The Extra Point

Safety Elijah Shumate is questionable for Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury. Shumate suffered the injury Thursday and missed the USC game. He started four of the five previous contests.

Updated: November 24, 2013 6:42AM



Notre Dame isn’t in contention for the national title.

Heck, the team isn’t even ranked in the top 25 in the first BCS standings.

Turnovers, and the inability to stop big plays, were costly in the Irish’s two losses this season. But if the game is close late, Notre Dame has found a way to win.

Just past the midway point of the regular season, here’s a look at the 5-2 Irish.

Offense

Quarterback Tommy Rees threw three interceptions against Oklahoma. But he’s had five touchdowns and one interception the next two games. Rees left the USC game with a strained neck, but was cleared to practice Tuesday. Wide receiver TJ Jones and tight end Troy Niklas are dependable targets. The ground game has been inconsistent. George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel have handled the bulk of the duties lately. The line has pass protected well.

“I think we’re getting better every week,” Jones said before the USC game. “There are still improvements that need to be made. I think now we are starting to find our identity. We’re starting to believe in our identity and starting to believe in each other and know that the defense could start to lean on the offense rather than the offense always leaning on the defense.

“We’re starting to become a big-play offense, one that can take control of the ball. We can make big plays passing and running. We can extend plays at the quarterback spot. And we have trust in our quarterbacks to always get us in the right play.”

Grade: C

Defense

Notre Dame had four sacks in its first five games, but eight in the last two contests. Injuries have taken a toll, particularly at linebacker (Danny Spond in the preseason, Jarrett Grace during the season). Players like freshman Jaylon Smith have stepped in nicely. Carlo Calabrese (48 tackles) and Dan Fox (41 tackles) are contributing at inside linebacker. Nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt are disruptive up front. Cornerback Bennett Jackson, one of the captains, is second in tackles (42).

“We’ve learned that we can be that dominant defense,” Jackson said before the USC game. “We’ve learned we can make those plays, we can still make those plays, we still have that swagger, that energy, but we have to bring it. We have to show it. When we don’t show it, we’re a completely different defense. And when we do show it, we can be an extremely dominant defense. That’s something we’ve been pushing for in practice.”

Grade: B

Special teams

Kyle Brindza has handled a bulk of the kicking and punting duties. He’s 8 of 11 on field goals and is averaging 40.4 yards for 28 punts.

Grade: B

Coaching

Brian Kelly and his staff have navigated through the various injuries, not to mention the offseason news of the loss of quarterback Everett Golson for a season. Four of the team’s five wins have come by a touchdown or less. Notre Dame has won shootouts (37-34 against Arizona State) and low-scoring games (14-10 against USC).

Grade: B

Offensive MVP

WR TJ Jones: Jones has at least one touchdown reception in four straight games. He leads the Irish in catches (37), receiving yards (527) and touchdown receptions (5).

Jones had four receptions for 46 yards and one touchdown against the Trojans.

“I just made the plays that came to me,” Jones said after the USC game. “My number was called a couple of times. Fortunate enough to make a couple of tough catches and really just trying to be that leader, make those tough catches and know that the team can count on me in those situations.”

Defensive MVP

DE Stephon Tuitt: After a slow start, Tuitt has been dominating. He leads the team in tackles for loss (6½) and sacks (five). He had two sacks and seven tackles (matching a career high) against USC.

“He’s continued to work hard in the weight room,” Notre Dame Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s continued to monitor his nutrition. He’s doing the things we’ve asked him to do from post surgery on and I think it’s just a collection of those things.

“He’s played himself into the kind of condition and shape necessary for him to exert his physical prowess on the football field.”

Prediction

Preseason: 10-2; updated: 9-3 (Regular-season finale at Stanford still looms large).



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