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No. 13 Notre Dame dreams alive and well at season's midpoint

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

By TODD BURLAGE

Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Six games, obviously, does not a season make.

But halfway through Brian Kelly's latest judgment year after the 4-8 implosion from 2016, the Notre Dame coach has changed attitudes and fortunes with five impressive wins and a one-point loss to now-No. 3 Georgia. His postseason dreams are still alive and well.

"We came into this season wanting to play for a championship and win championships is our mission," Kelly said after a 33-10 victory over North Carolina ran the Irish winning streak to four games.

With the easier part of the regular-season schedule behind and the more difficult half dozen games ahead for No. 13 Notre Dame - starting Saturday night with a visit from No. 11 Southern California (6-1) - Kelly and his team are being asked to share the secrets to their success during a 5-1 start.

To a man, the players highlighted a more involved approach to coaching in the offseason by Kelly and his staff as the catalyst to improvement.

"That change is as telling as anything as to why guys are buying in," said senior offensive tackle and team captain Mike McGlinchey, who delayed a first-round NFL draft projection to return for a fifth season. "That's why guys are coming to work every single day since January with a great attitude and a want and a drive to get better. That's something that I think we lacked over the last couple of years, and I think last year specifically."

Attribute the turnaround to a different attitude in the locker room, better conditioning through the preseason or a winning edge from an overhauled coaching staff, but the improved production compared with last season is remarkable. Because Notre Dame is playing to its strengths, it ranks No. 8 in the country in victory margin at 23.2 points, but it also remains unsatisfied.

"Pleased with the mindset and the way that we've developed," Kelly said, "but we're going to have to coach and play better in the second half (of the season)."

With a dominating offensive line, a mobile quarterback in junior Brandon Wimbush and a deep stable of running backs led by workhorse Josh Adams, this team is built to run the football, and it has, very successfully.

Notre Dame ranks No. 5 in the country with 308 rushing yards per game, its best performance since 1973. It also checks in at No. 3with 6.9 yards per carry and is tied for No. 7 with 23 rushing touchdowns.

The passing game has been far less reliable. Wimbush has struggled with his accuracy and ranks among the worst in the country in passing efficiency. As a team, Notre Dame is completing only 52 percent of its passes so far this year, which is 114th out of 129 teams.

Defensively, the oft-analyzed statistics for Notre Dame such as rushing and passing defense rate only in the middle of the pack, while intangible measures such as scoring defense (16.8 ppg) and takeaways slot this unit among the most opportunistic.

With eight fumble recoveries and six interceptions already this season, Notre Dame is tied for No. 17 in the country with 14 turnovers gained, a takeaway total that matches what it had for all of 2016.

Notre Dame has also been tremendously stingy when opponents have moved inside the Irish 20-yard line. Notre Dame leads the FBS with only one rushing touchdown allowed and they rank fourth in the country with a 35-percent red zone touchdown allowed percentage, giving up only seven total touchdowns in 20 opponent tries.

"We just came off of this horrific season in terms of standards at Notre Dame," recalled senior linebacker and team captain Drue Tranquill of what drives this defense. "How do we change that? How do we move forward? We feel like we're getting there but we have long way to go and plenty more to prove."

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Updated October 18, 2017

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