Midseason review: Notre Dame

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

No team in America has played more exciting games than Notre Dame. Which is not the same as saying the Fighting Irish have had a great season.

Their last five games have all come down to the last minute, last second or last play of overtime. The offense has given the team a chance to win each week, while the defense has usually made sure the opponent has ample opportunity as well.

Notre Dame entered this year with high hopes and some even predicting a run at the BCS title game. That dream is shot, while a berth in a BCS bowl looks like a remote possibility with two losses already on the slate. Still, the Irish have shown vast improvement over the past two years, which was evident in last week's 34-27 loss to USC. They had several chances to tie that game in the final seconds after not even being competitive against the Trojans since 2005.

There's still a healthy debate to be had about just how good this team actually is. The second half should answer most questions.

Here's a quick review of the highlights of the first half.

Offensive MVP: Jimmy Clausen. The junior has blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the country, making clutch plays and pinpoint throws all season. And he's done it in recent weeks while playing through a painful turf toe injury. Clausen makes sure the Irish are never out of a game.

Defensive MVP: Kyle McCarthy. The safety has literally been the team's last line of defense and usually comes up with big plays when his team needs them most. His interception at the end of the Michigan State game is one of the most important plays of the season.

Surprise: The offensive line is starting basically the same guys who were so disappointing the past two years. Whether it's experience or new position coach Frank Verducci, they've finally come together to form a respectable unit. They've paved the way for a workable running game and have for the most part given Clausen time to do his thing. They got overpowered at times by USC, but many teams would against that defense.

Disappointment: The defense was supposed to get better with veteran coordinator Jon Tenuta taking over and installing more pressure. Instead, the Irish are allowing 419 yards per game, which is about 90 more per game than a year ago. After shutting out Nevada in the opener, the defense has given up an average of more than 30 points in the last five games. It's hard to win consistently like that.

Best game: How do you pick out just one in a season full of storybook thrillers? Let's go with the 37-30 win over Washington, which featured a pair of two-minute scoring drives, lots of momentum swings and an overtime.