No person in their right mind considers the 2013 Notre Dame football team a championship caliber team at this point in the season.
In a game the Irish should have score 50 plus against Temple, they managed four touchdowns.
Michigan proved the Irish could score at any moment.
It's supposed to be the other way around. And against Purdue the Irish again showed the offense can move the ball and score whenever they need to. And with another lackluster defensive performance the offense had to bail out the defense yet again.
The missing link from this year's team is the complete no show of the vaunted defense the nation saw in 2012. Regardless of the team last year-the Irish managed goal line stands,shut down pass defense and held teams to minimal yards and points.
And another element no longer around this year is a quarterback that can extend plays.
What is concrete after 3 games is Coach Kelly knows he is missing Golson in a bad way and perhaps is looking forward to a nice bowl game at best. With Rees-Kelly is finding himself in a position where he has to pass, keep drives alive and score touchdowns. All with zero capabilities to improvise and tap into a deep stable of backs.
The defense or lack of compared to 2012 remains an unsolved mystery.
The Irish have little identity at this point. Brian Kelly said as much after the Purdue win:
"I told our team, we're still kind of defining who we are,” Kelly said. “We're still trying to find ourselves. Here’s what we did: We played hard for four quarters and we fought our butts off. And then we found a way to make some plays. I feel really good about our kids and the way they played.”
Funny thing is- this mirrors 2012 in many ways. The Irish stumbled along, teams felt confident and the Irish moved forward and won games against all odds. And it continues right into this Saturday's matchup against Michigan State.
What to watch for on defense:
Jaylon Smith continues to impress and standout in the linebacking unit. Problem is-Jarrett Grace was supposed to supplant himself in Manti Teos empty shoes to some extent. The unit has left holes open for crossing receivers and left scrambling quarterbacks windows to roam on any down. The Irish have let more 3rd and longs get by and allowed teams to move downfield with no end in sight. Bob Diaco needs to get better play from this unit or the season could be very long. This week's matchup presents itself oppurtunities to step up.
The front four of Sheldon Day,Tuit,Shembo and Nix continue to hold steady. But the elevated level has not shown itself at this point. With first round picks on the horizon with Nix,Tuit and Shembo after this year, many expected stiffleing play. But teams are running on these 4 and scoring on the goal line plays. Last year this was not the case. The Irish defense has played big the last 2 years against the Spartans. To make it 3 years in a row, alot needs to happen this Saturday.
What to watch for on offense:
Tommy Rees continues to surpass expectations of the masses. With zero Vick tendancies, Rees is uncharacteristically putting up Elway like numbers. And he is making Davaris Daniels a star in the process. Should one more back step up and provide some hint of a running game the Irish would be lethal. And less reliance on passes to these backs and more leaning on them for establishing a running game would be a pleasant surprise. George Atkinson was all but gone from the Purdue game and should resurface this weekend.
This game starts a stretch in the Irish schedule that will stamp the season ending destiny. Win against Oklahoma, USC, Arizona State and Michigan State and the remainder of the year's games pales compared to this stretch. It will determine if Notre Dame plays in a BCS bowl or the Pinstripe Bowl.
But it's all for not if they overlook this week's game.
After a tough two weeks on the road, returning home should propell the Irish back on their path to preseason dreams of a BCS bowl, wherever that is.
It starts with win number three for 2013 over the Spartans.