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. 

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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.