Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Washington

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It’s bordering on ridiculous and closing quickly on beyond description.

The Irish once again pull out a miracle football game and win one for the ages. Maybe it’s not for the ages, but merely for the season,  as the Irish are making a case for reserving their own ESPN Classic channel. As Jake Locker’s fourth down heave to the middle of the field rattled out of the hands of D’Andre Goodwin (thanks to a fierce sandwich hit by safeties Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith), Notre Dame again escaped improbably, walking away with a 37-30 overtime victory.

During a game where driving rain fell sideways and a sloppy track befuddled Irish defenders and quarterback Jimmy Clausen, the Irish may not have played perfectly, but they certainly had a flair for the dramatic. The Irish defense, battered by the arm of Locker and the running of Chris Polk, stood strong when the going got toughest, pulling out two goal-line stands, the final one a tour-de-force performance that included 8 plays that started after the Huskies got to the Irish one-yard-line, and a mulligan for the Huskies after a bizarre roughing the snapper penalty was called. The Irish forced Steve Sarkisian to attempt a second field goal after running over nine-minutes off the 4th quarter clock, and gave the Irish its chance to win the ballgame by keeping the contest a one-possession game.

It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t pretty, but it was certainly gutty. The Irish stand 4-1 with a bye week before the Trojans of Southern Cal come to town. Here’s what we learned today:

1) Golden Tate has answered the bell.

Tate’s herculean numbers explode from the stat sheet: 9 catches for 244 yards (27.1 per catch), 1 carry for 31 yards, and a TD. With the absence of Michael Floyd, Tate has stepped up his game, getting the ball in every way possible and wreaking havoc on defenses that struggle to contain him. While the Irish offense is certainly a different beast with Floyd out, Tate has done everything he could to put the Irish passing game on his back and create plays.

2) Jimmy Clausen is ready for his closeup.

In a monsoon, Jimmy Clausen completed 74% of his passes for 422 yards. An incredible feat that’s almost becoming a regular occurrence by the junior quarterback. 31 times Clausen dropped back to pass, and 23 times Irish players came down with the ball. Of his 8 misses, off the top of my head, I can think of two throwaways, two drops (one a TD by Robby Parris, the other an INT through Armando Allen’s hands), and only one truly bad decision — a backwards pass that didn’t technically count against Clausen’s passing numbers. The only thing that stopped Clausen today were his suspect feet, already battered before they had to deal with the sloppy sod of Notre Dame Stadium. We’re running out of things to say about Clausen, who was once again cool under pressure in his final two possessions. With 2:52 remaining in regulation, Clausen marched the Irish offense down the field with remarkable efficiency, 5 plays for 63 yards, in only 104 seconds. Most people wait at stoplights longer. With a bye week, expect Clausen to have his foot on ice for the next 9 days, resting for the biggest challenge of his career.

3) The Irish defense continues to pick itself back up.

Let’s start with the bad: 457 total yards — 176 on the ground, 281 in the air — and countless missed tackles. The Irish looked like a powder puff team trying to tackle 200-pound running back Chris Polk, who carried defenders countless times for 136 tough yards, many after first contact. But the defense stood tall when it mattered the most. Bend but don’t break would be an insult to this unit — the Irish defense looked like Rocky Balboa pulling itself off of the mat and miraculously stopping the Huskies when things were at their bleakest. With the Huskies up 24-19 and time running out in the 3rd quarter, the Irish stuffed Locker three times from inside the three-yard-line, getting a turnover on downs at the one-foot line. Then, in a goal-line stand that has to match up with the greatest in school history, the Irish survived 8 plays of do-or-die football, and forced a field goal by Sarkisian’s Huskies when a touchdown would’ve put the game out of reach. The Irish gave up two field goals in the two-minute drill, but when backed up against it all, somehow came out alive.

4) The red zone offense without Michael Floyd is a question mark.

Five field goals. Five. For those who don’t have Nick Tausch in their college football fantasy league, this is a nightmare. The Irish only punted the ball twice today, but when they drove the ball inside the Husky 20, the offense that was running in overdrive seemed to stall out. It’s clear that Notre Dame missing their jump ball threat in Floyd is forcing the Irish to find different ways to score, and today the Irish couldn’t figure a way into the end zone. The running game got stuffed several times today, and while Tausch’s accuracy today was exemplary, Notre Dame needs to get 6 instead of settling for 3, especially in games like this.

5) There’s a magic in the sound of their name…

Say what you will, but there is something going on here. Another miracle finish and another celebration for the Irish and their fans. The goal line stands, the late game heroics, the two-point conversion, it’s as if Notre Dame actually believes that these games should go this way. Even with Locker and the Huskies miraculously marching 70 yards on 9 plays in the final 1:20, the Irish offense calmly went down the field in overtime and scored in two plays. Two minutes earlier, with a one-point lead and two points needed to make it a field goal game, Notre Dame’s trick shotgun draw was snuffed out, but Robert Hughes and a squadron of offensive lineman willed their way into the end zone. That’s the kind of play that becomes a signature moment. That’s the kind of play that wakes up the echoes.

The Irish once again played a dangerous game with fate, but walked away victorious. After years of feeling like nothing can go right, the Irish have reversed course over the last three games and walk into their bye week knowing that the luck of the Irish may have been restored. 

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

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You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)