Time flies when you’re having fun. And the season has been a blast for Notre Dame, who in what seems like a blink of an eye stands at 6-0 and is ranked fifth in the country. Led by a consistently solid defense and an offense that has improved exponentially following a much publicized quarterback change, the Fighting Irish have their eyes on one of the four College Football Playoff spots.
In such a successful first half of the season, there are plenty of accolades to go around and a high level of optimism going forward. Here’s a look back at what the Irish have accomplished and a peak into what could be an exciting drive to the finish.
Offensive MVP: QB Ian Book
It’s not often that an MVP award goes to someone that has played only about half his team’s snaps. But the impact Book has made since being named the starting quarterback has been incredible. An offense that was averaging 23 points per game with Brandon Wimbush at the helm has put up 46 per contest in Book’s starts thanks to his 73 percent completion rate and 9:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Defensive MVP: DT Jerry Tillery
There are no shortage of MVP candidates on the defensive side of the ball, but it starts up front with Tillery. The senior has seven sacks from his tackle position and his presence has opened things up for everyone else on the defense.
Best Moment of the First Half: Dexter Williams’ 97-yard Touchdown Run Against Virginia Tech
The Irish led 17-16, but had given momentum back to the Hokies at the end of the first half and were pinned inside their own 5-yard line early in the third quarter. The running game had done nothing and Williams has just been thrown for a loss on the previous play. The Virginia Tech crowd could smell blood. Then Williams bolted around the left side, went 97 yards for a score, and the Irish onslaught was on.
Best Newcomer: S Alohi Gilman
Much was expected of the Navy transfer and he has delivered. Gilman is third on the team with 35 tackles, has two pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Moreover, he has helped solidify what was a problem area for the Irish in 2017.
Biggest Surprise: S Jalen Elliott
The other Irish safety was part of the problem in 2017, taking bad angles and making virtually no impact plays. But Elliott has been a different player this fall, with 34 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can the Book magic continue?
He’s been special so far and at this point he shows no signs of slowing down. With a win against Notre Dame nemesis Stanford and a victory on the road in Blacksburg, he looks like the real deal. But if the Irish are going to be one of the four teams standing at the end of the regular season, the Ian Book we have seen so far cannot be a mirage.
2. Turnover margin
Through the first six games, Notre Dame is a plus-five in this department. Under Brian Kelly, when the Irish have been successful they have won the turnover battle; when they have struggled, turnovers have been a problem. ND will be heavy favorites in most of their remaining games and if they continue to take the ball away more than they give it away, more wins will follow.
It’s been the major issue for the Irish in recent years, regardless of which teams they have played, sporting a sub-.500 record in the 11th month since the conclusion of the 2012 season. And this year’s travel itinerary in November is brutal. They go to Evanston, Illinois, following a San Diego date with Navy to close out October. After the final home game of the year against Florida State, the Irish head to the Bronx to face Syracuse and then back out to California for the second time in a month.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 24 at USC
The Trojans have started the year just 3-2, losing to Texas and Stanford. But this is a young USC squad that will improve and be ready for the rivalry game on Thanksgiving weekend.
2. Nov. 3 at Northwestern
The Wildcats also got out of the gates slowly, but Pat Fitzgerald’s crew always seems to get stronger as the season progresses. Northwestern’s development may have started in earnest on Saturday with an upset of No. 20 Michigan State.
3. Nov. 17 vs. Syracuse (at Yankee Stadium)
The Orange played Clemson to the end, but then suffered a hangover in losing to Pittsburgh this past week. Syracuse didn’t win a game following the Clemson upset last year, but with an improved defense and a healthy (for now) Eric Dungey at quarterback, the Cuse should still be formidable down the stretch.
4. Nov. 10 vs. Florida State
The misery at Florida State continued as the Seminoles blew a 27-7 third quarter lead and lost to Miami 28-27. Willie Taggart’s team has gotten poor offensive line play and what has to be a defeatist mentality after the struggles of the past year and a half.
5. Oct. 13 vs. Pittsburgh
The Panthers are a tough team to figure out. They were destroyed by Penn State and UCF while also losing to a North Carolina team decimated by suspensions. But the Panthers also have beaten Georgia Tech and a talented Syracuse group. Pitt does have the good fortune of playing Notre Dame following the Irish’s two emotional victories over Stanford and Virginia Tech.
6. Oct. 27 vs. Navy (in San Diego)
This is not a vintage Navy football team. Air Force destroyed the Midshipmen this past weekend 35-7 and Navy also has lost to SMU. Plus, Notre Dame has an open date prior to the trip to San Diego, giving the Irish an extra week to prepare for Navy’s triple option.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.