- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Notre Dame escaped the first half of the season with a much-needed win over Arizona State. It went into the bye with a 4-2 record and can still cling to slim BCS bowl hopes.
Losses to Michigan and Oklahoma seem to look worse by the week, but that hardly matters, as a 10-2 Irish squad is virtually a lock to make a BCS game. Between Saturday night's showdown with rival USC and the Nov. 30 finale at Stanford are four very winnable games, but the Irish must take care of the little things before looking ahead.
Brian Kelly has tried to illustrate just how thin the margin of error has been in each of the past two years, and the talent level is certainly there. But the defense has to force more turnovers, tackle better and cut down on the big plays, in addition to getting the kind of pressure up front that it did against ASU (six sacks).
The offense, meanwhile, must continue to gain some traction in the ground game while cutting down on turnovers, which have been costly in both defeats. More receivers have stepped up this year, and Troy Niklas has come along much quicker at tight end than most probably expected after he transitioned from linebacker two weeks ago.
Special teams have been one of the bigger bright spots, as well, with TJ Jones giving Notre Dame a viable threat on the punt return unit when he's not busy being the team's best receiver.
Offensive MVP: TJ Jones. The senior captain has been every bit as good as advertised, leading the team in catches (33) and receiving yards (481) while sharing the team lead with four touchdown receptions. He is also averaging 10.1 yards per punt return.
Defensive MVP: Louis Nix. The nose guard's numbers will not jump out at you -- 20 total tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass breakup and 1 pass defended. Still, he has been an anchor on a defensive line that has been hammered by injuries. He has played more snaps this season, as he is in better shape and has had to deal with double-teams week in and week out. Kelly praised him for not loafing once in the Oklahoma game, as well.
15dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf