Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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There were no style points rewarded, but in the end the Irish came out victorious. As Boston College freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie’s pass hit linebacker Brian Smith in the chest, Notre Dame won another football game that was too close for comfort, and left many Irish fans scratching their head, wondering what — if any — positives they can take out of the hard fought victory.

Still, the Irish are 5-2, and put to an end a streak of six losses to Boston College. While the Eagles’ defensive game plan and excellent special teams kept Notre Dame’s offense in tough situations, the Irish did what it had to do to win 20-16. That included forcing five turnovers — two from running back Montell Harris, who had yet to cough the ball up all season — and three interceptions by the besieged Irish passing defense. The Irish shut down the Eagles’ running attack, holding Harris to only 38 yards on 22 carries, and constantly won the battle on first down.

Last week, a common refrain was that there are no such things as moral victories. If that is the case, then there is no such thing as bad wins, either. Let’s take a look at the five things we learned from the 20-16 win over Boston College.

1) Notre Dame can win ugly.

With the score 3-2 at the end of the first quarter, it was apparent that this was going to be an ugly football game. Boston College’s ability to absolutely dominate the field position battle and refusal to play tight coverage on Notre Dame’s receivers meant that they were willing to give Notre Dame 6 yards a play, if only to prevent them from taking 60. For the most part, Clausen and the Irish offense obliged, constantly throwing quick hitches and comebacks, and settling for 1-on-1 plays on the perimeter. Clausen spread the ball to seven different teammates, including the first two catches of Roby Toma’s career. BC focused their defensive game plan on stopping Kyle Rudolph and Golden Tate. They achieved half of their goal.

No one will call this one of Notre Dame’s better performances, but if anything it was admirable in its workman-like traits. The Irish never wavered from their game plan. They ran the ball effectively with Armando Allen going for just under 5 yards per carry, and took what the defense gave them. Even if they didn’t play well, they still won the football game. Good teams win when they don’t have their best. I’m not ready to say Notre Dame’s a good team, but this certainly was a win that good teams get.

2) Notre Dame avoided the biggest pothole of the season.

There’s was no bigger trap game this season than today’s tilt against the Eagles, and secretly I’m sure the coaching staff is absolutely relieved they walked away with a win. Just think about all the things stacked up against Notre Dame. Not only did the Irish lose a soul-crushing game to USC last week, but there was a bizarre amount of mutual respect and love being shared between two programs that absolutely hate each other. Notre Dame and Charlie Weis’ respect for Mark Herzlich was one of the under-reported stories of the year, but it was just plain weird seeing an All-American linebacker for Boston College being presented a Notre Dame game jersey right before kickoff. These are the guys that have trashed Notre Dame locker rooms, have torn up pieces of the field, have done every single thing you could imagine to poke and prod — and recently dominate — a team that should be their superior.  If you’re Notre Dame, you’ve got to be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and if Notre Dame can get by a mediocre Washington State team in San Antonio next week, they’ll get Michael Floyd back and prepare to unleash some offensive firepower.

3) Notre Dame might have another Heisman contender

I’m all for promoting what Jimmy Clausen is doing out on the field this season, but it’s time to take a hard look at Golden Tate and ask why he’s not in the Heisman Trophy discussion. He’s got 847 receiving yards through 7 games, and is averaging nearly 7.5 catches per game and over 16 yards per catch. He’s also doing most of this damage since Michael Floyd went down, when defensive coordinators are trying everything they can to stopping #23. He was in the top 6 for yards on the season before his game today, and with no front-runner stepping forward to seize the award, why not mention Notre Dame’s most explosive weapon. His three consecutive 100 yard games are the first time a Notre Dame receiver has done that since Derrick Mayes in 1995, and while his numbers certainly warrant a place in the discussion, his chances might actually be hurt by having another teammate share the spotlight with him.

4) The defense still hasn’t figured it out.

While the Irish limited Boston College to just 349 yards and 14 offensive points, this is still a defense that is struggling mightily. How can a team continue to give up such gigantic chunks of yardage through the air? The Irish gave up 10 passing plays of 20 yards or more, which is just unacceptable any way you look at it. Rich Gunnell took his turn decimating the Irish secondary, making 10 catches for 179 yards. Not that he should feel special, because every week a different character lights up the ND secondary with big plays. Check out the guys that have either put up 90 yards receiving or gone for 20+ yards per catch:

Gunnell, BC: 179 yards — 17.9 per catch
Larmond, BC: 61 yards — 20.3 per catch
McCoy, USC: 153 yards — 30.6 per catch
Williams, USC: 108 yards — 27 per catch
Kearse, UW: 94 yards — 11.8 per catch
Goodwin, UW: 65 yards — 21.7 per catch
Johnson, UW: 59 yards — 29.5 per catch
Smith, Purdue: 136 yards — 12.4 per catch
Taylor, Purdue: 38 yards — 38.0 per catch
Valentin, Purdue: 36 yards — 36.0 per catch
Dell, MSU: 121 yards — 20.2 per catch

I’m running out of things to say about this Irish pass defense. Even with an incredible win rate on first down, they still managed to let freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie throw for 279 yards, and if it weren’t for 3 gift interceptions, he’d have had plenty more opportunities. Right now, the secondary is playing with zero confidence, and a promising talent like Harrison Smith looks absolutely clueless out there.

I’m not going to say that this defense didn’t improve, because it’s obvious that they did this week. Sergio Brown looked good playing free safety, and his forced fumble was just another big play he’s made in his limited time on the field. Plus, anytime you can force five turnovers and hold a team to 2.4 yards per carry you’re doing something right. But this defense makes it so very hard on itself when it gives up over 200 yards on explosive plays, and it needs to figure out a way to make an offense beat them, as opposed to beating themselves.

5) Time to reevaluate the specialists.

Ben Turk should feel relieved tonight. He was horrendous punting the ball, managing only a long of 38 yards and averaged a shade under 32 yards a punt. That’s a bad day for a high schooler, let alone a guy you burned a redshirt year on. I love the fact that Turk can bench press 400+ pounds, but if your best punts are low line drives that only end up going 35 yards, maybe it’s time to put the barbells down and start kicking more footballs. Likewise, the story of dorm football player turned Irish kickoff man David Ruffer is a nice one, but if Notre Dame is going to rely on a kicker that can only put it onto the opponents 10 yard-line off the tee, then they’re in trouble. Way too often today the field was flipped in Boston College’s favor, and it’s a big reason why BC nearly won a football game where they lost the turnover battle 5-0. It’s time to see if Eric Maust has anything left in his leg, and to see if placekicker Nick Tausch or Brandon Walker can do better on kickoffs. 

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

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Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.