And in that corner… the Purdue Boilermakers

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Little has gone right for the Purdue Boilermakers the past two weeks. After outplaying Oregon in the always intimidating Autzen Stadium, Purdue inexplicably lost to Northern Illinois, giving the Big Ten another black-eye courtesy of the MAC. New coach Danny Hope has brought a new attitude to West Lafayette that hasn’t been seen in last years of the Joe Tiller era, but the team is still in the midst of a program defining transition.

Travis Miller runs the Purdue fan site Hammer & Rails, one of the better named sports blogs out there, and an off shoot of his popular Purdue football blog Off the Tracks. Travis was kind enough to take some time and answer a few questions I had on the Boilermakers, and to see if they were taking away sharp objects from the guy in charge of banging the World’s Largest Drum yet.

Inside the Irish: Where do Purdue fans stand right now after two soul-crushing losses?

Hammer & Rails: It is hard to say where we stand right now. Last week at this time, we were sky high because we had played a great game at Oregon, only to beat ourselves. We were encouraged that we went into one of the most hostile venues in college football, fought off giving the home team 17 points on turnovers, and still had a chance to win. Unlike last year’s Oregon loss, I felt we had played a better game and had a better attitude coming out of it.

Then Saturday happened. Not only did was lose to a mid-level MAC team, they dominated us in all phases of the game. There was no excuse for it and no one expected it. We had absolutely no energy at all. Right now, I don’t know what Purdue fans expect. I know we can compete with anyone on our schedule, but it is clear that if we lose our focus things can get ugly in a hurry. Personally, I still think this season can be salvaged, but a win this weekend is absolutely necessary. Everyone expected us to be 2-2 after the Notre Dame game anyway, so beating the Irish erases the Northern Illinois loss in my mind.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Purdue victory this weekend?

H&R: We have to stop beating ourselves. Our own mistakes killed any chance at regaining the momentum against NIU. At Oregon, we gave up 17 points on two defensive TD’s and an interception deep in our own territory that led to a field goal. By simply cutting down on our own mistakes I think we can compete with Notre Dame.

We also need to regain the edge we had in the first two games. Everyone on offense looked about a step too slow against Northern Illinois. We cannot afford to have that again against Notre Dame because the talent difference between the Irish and Huskies is huge. Finally, we have to tackle better. The return of our top cornerback, Brandon King, should help there.

ITI: The Irish defense has been anything but impressive. Who will haunt us this year? Who will be the next Kory Sheets or Desmond Tardy?

H&R: I think at receiver it will be Keith Smith. He is the big target we have not had since Dustin keller was playing for us. He had an off game against NIU, but was very good against Toledo and Oregon. Then there is Ralph Bolden. Much was made of NIU “holding” him to just 64 yards after an explosive first two games. In truth, we did not have the ball enough to give him more touches. He still averaged over 5 yards per carry and had a couple of nice catches on our final drive as we scrambled to tie the game. Last week we fell into the same trap we did last year in South bend. We fell behind and panicked even though there was plenty of time left. We went away from what was working, the running game, even though it would have allowed us to rest our defense and move the ball while wearing down the team with less depth. If we stay committed to the running game this week I like our chances.

ITI: With Joe Tiller gone, Purdue’s identity is still being determined. What do you make of Danny Hope? How do you look back on the Joe Tiller era?

H&R: I like Danny Hope’s fiery attitude. Near the end, Tiller just did not seem to have any kind of fire and the entire team was complacent. I think coach Hope has this team thinking it can compete with anyone in the country. The one positive I can take from last week as that we kept fighting. We were down 28-7 at home and most of those late Tiller teams would have folded. Despite every mistake, we kept fighting. If we had stopped the fact punt or had NIU simply punted at that point, I was absolutely confident we were going to go down and tie the game. Even though we got pushed around all day long, the offense was finally moving and probably would have scored to tie if we had just one more minute.

As far as the entire Tiller Era, I haven’t made up my mind about it. It was obviously one of the most successful eras in school history, and was especially welcome since it came after 12 straight losing seasons. I think in the end Tiller’s greatest success ended up being his greatest failure. Before he came, we did not have more than four wins in one season since 1984 (I don’t count the 1992 season where a loss to Michigan State is no officially a win via forfeit, making us 5-4-2). He immediately made us believe that Purdue’s program could be successful. Unfortunately, we never sustained that success and made the jump to being a consistent championship contender. It is unfortunate, but we are still under the specter of The Fumble.

We were ready to make that jump when we were ranked #5 in 2004 with Wisconsin and College GameDay in town. We blew a 10 point lead in the final eight minutes, the final six coming on Kyle Orton’s infamous fumble that was returned for a touchdown. We were inches from rising even higher, but since then we have not been able to recover, going 28-32 since that game. It sucks, but that Fumble was Tiller’s final epitaph because it ultimately comes back to him for us not recovering.

ITI: How does a Purdue fan look at the Notre Dame rivalry?

H&R: I view it as our biggest football rivalry, and it has gotten here because of what Joe Tiller. It was his modest success, going 5-7 against the Irish after a 12 game losing streak in the series, that elevated the rivalry above Indiana. At the same, Purdue dominated Indiana much like Notre Dame dominated Purdue for years. I don’t think it is even so big as it is to us if not for the fact Tiller’s first win came in a shocking upset in 1997.

I know Notre Dame will never take the rivalry as seriously as we do, but beating Notre Dame, even a historically awful team like in 2007, is still a name win for Purdue. For one day we have the entire country looking at us. I think some people still view any win we get over the Irish is an upset no matter how good we are. It is that perception that adds to the rivalry because it comes off as disrespect toward our program. Those people cannot believe it is possible Purdue could compete with the vaunted Irish. These people ignore the history in the series where Purdue has numerous wins over Notre Dame, more than any other program in the country save USC and Michigan State.

ITI: Are you excited for the Robert Marve era? Are you worried about the headaches, or just looking forward to the potential?

H&R: I don’t think there is any guarantee he will be the starting quarterback in 2010. Since my wife is a Miami alum, I watched his freshman year at the U and was not impressed. When the recruiting frenzy for him was reaching its peak I actually wrote that I did not want him. I have since changed my mind, but I want him to earn the job. We are also going to have a scramble for the starting quarterback job next year. Marve will be competing with current backup Caleb TerBush, current true freshman Rob Henry that is very similar to Marve in style, incoming true freshman Sean Robinson who is having a very impressive senior season, and possibly Justin Siller who could return from a one year university suspension.

If Marve has his head on straight I think he is the best of those candidates. He is the most polished, but a torn ACL has prevented him from even practicing so far. This hurts his chances because he does not get that year of practice to learn the system. Marve, Henry, Siller, and Robinson are also mobile quarterbacks that can escape the pocket, so it will be hard to distinguish between them. Siller has an edge in that he was likely going to start this year before his suspension. Henry and TerBush can each practice right now and get better in the system. Robinson is a bit of a wild card in that he is still in high school.

Ultimately though, Marve did not come to Purdue to sit the bench. I would say it is his job to lose, with either TerBush or Henry as his top backup. I have no idea where Siller would come in if he came back.

Here’s wishing Hammer & Rails and Purdue best of luck when the Big Ten season starts. Check out their site for some great ND coverage this week.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)