SOUTH BEND — Nine of the Associated Press’s top 10 teams play this weekend. The only team off? No. 8 Notre Dame.
This is the second bye week for the Fighting Irish on the season, with the first bye coming after the first game of the season. At that time, the Fighting Irish were trying to get starting tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Michael Young back from injury. As they conclude their second bye week, getting healthy is still on the mind of head coach Brian Kelly.
The primary returning player for the Irish is redshirt sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong. While Armstrong did see action in last week’s 30-27 victory over USC, his playing time was limited. Armstrong finished with just one carry for minus-4 yards.
“We wanted to be very specific in terms of what he was going to do for us, and the way the game unfolded, it never really materialized,” Kelly said. “We thought that we would get him involved in more of the passing game. Because of the way (USC) played us, we didn’t get those opportunities.”
Although Armstrong didn’t play much against the Trojans, being a part of the game plan was key for Kelly and his staff. With the bye week, it’s now about getting Armstrong 100% healthy — along with two backup wide receivers.
“Getting him some opportunities now that he’s closer to where we need him to be – involved in the offense a little bit more,” Kelly said of Armstrong’s plan during the bye week. “Getting Lawrence Keys back, getting Joe Wilkins back. Getting these guys involved more, offensively.”
With four of five starters returning from last year’s Cotton Bowl, the Notre Dame offensive line was expected to be a strong point of the team. It’s lived up to the hype so far in its first six games.
The Fighting Irish have a 94.4% pass blocking efficiency rating, according to Pro Football Focus, which is ranked highest in the country. They’ve allowed just nine sacks.
The offensive line has also been good in run blocking, as the Irish have averaged 188 yards per game on the ground. They had a season-high 308 in the victory against USC, 176 of which came from redshirt junior running back Tony Jones.
Now, Kelly said, it’s about putting a full game together for his offense’s front five.
“I think consistency in performance for four quarters is the next thing for this group,” Kelly said.
With six games down and six games to go, it’s natural for a head coach to assess his team at the halfway point on what he’s liked so far, what he hasn’t liked and what he hopes for the final six games. One thing Kelly commended his team on through the first half of the season was its adaptability.
“Each week has required our team to find different ways to win,” Kelly said. “(USC) was a team that was very difficult to defend in the passing game. Georgia was a team that, obviously, beat us, but we had to defend a great running game. Virginia, they had a quarterback that we had to contain. So, it just seems like each week has been a different challenge for us in finding different ways to win.
“I just like the fact our guys, regardless of what the situation is, can adapt and adjust during the game to whatever the situation is and find ways to win games. At the end of day, what you’re looking for is a team that believes and knows how to win.”
Kelly also said the maturity of the team has stood out to him. He mentioned how his team is able to “embrace some of the difficulties of preparing,” which will be key for next week’s showdown with rival Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Along with embracing preparation, Kelly saic the team’s camaraderie has helped propel the Irish to a 5-1 start and the No. 8 ranking in the latest AP poll.
“They have a high ‘care’ factor, is the way I would talk about the 2019 (team),” Kelly said. “This group cares a lot about each other and cares about what they do as a unit — offense, defense and special teams.
“They’re not perfect. There’s plenty of imperfections, but they don’t look at it that way. They look at it as, ‘We’re just going to plow through it, and we’re going to keep working hard, and we’re going to do it all the entire game. And, at the end of the day, we’ll look up and I think it’s going to work for us.’ That’s kind of how they’ve set themselves up during this year.”