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. 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.