Deciphering what Pitt we'll see

12 Comments

I’ve thought long and hard about this weekend’s game. (A loss like the Navy game will do that to you…) Yet the more I think about Pitt, the more I’m just not sure of what we’ll actually see out there.

I understand that the AP Top 25 has Pitt ranked eighth, the BCS has the Panthers at twelve, and the Coaches’ poll has them at ninth. But honestly, who really knows what kind of team Pitt is?

There are two parts of me thinking about this game, and I figure I’ll just spell them both out:

Part One (aka Pitt doesn’t scare me…):

What’s to respect about Pitt? They’re a poor man’s, Big East equivalent of Iowa, a team that was finally exposed last weekend with a loss to Northwestern. Let’s take a look at the Pitt schedule. A victory over Youngstown State that shouldn’t count. A track meet victory against Buffalo, where this “vaunted” Pitt defense gave up 500 yards to Buffalo, 433 in the air, and capitalized on three lost fumbles. This isn’t last year’s Buffalo either, this is back-down-to-Earth Buffalo.

If you’re looking for a signature victory, could it be Navy? A team that is now such an embarrassing loss that it could cost the Notre Dame coaching staff its job because they turned the ball over twice inside the five-yard line and came away with nothing in four trips to the red zone?

Pitt’s one loss is an eyesore, a 38-31 loss to NC State, that only last week finally won their first ACC conference game with a win over 2-7 Maryland. If we want to talk about an ugly loss, this should qualify as an ugly loss.

While we should all give credit for Pitt winning the games on its schedule, what kind of credit should it be? This part of me is leaning toward the polite golf clap, something akin to sinking a three-footer for par. South Florida is doing it’s annual sink, Pitt needed 21 second half points and a 15 point rally to beat UConn, and they won an “Ehh” Rutgers game, against a team that really hasn’t beaten anyone close to good this season either.

This part of me expects a motivated Notre Dame, playing in front of a national audience, to overwhelm Pitt early and often, coming together in a cathartic experience to avenge last week’s loss and the four-overtime debacle last season at home.

Part Two (aka Oh boy, is ND in trouble…)

When I think about match-ups I like, I don’t think about Pitt.

Front four that can get pressure on a quarterback? That’s Pitt. By the numbers, they’ve got a better pass rush than USC, and I think Paul Duncan kept his game uniform from that week and used it as a turn-style costume for Halloween. If USC provided a long day for the Irish while playing in the sanctity of Notre Dame Stadium, what’s Pitt going to do in front of the largest crowd in school history?

And how about that running game everybody thought would fall apart when Mark May’s favorite, Shady McCoy, left for the NFL. Dion Lewis has rumbled for 1,139 yards already this season and is averaging 5.6 per carry with 12 touchdowns. He’s run for 100+ yards for four straight games and has yet to be held below 79 yards a game, so the Irish’s middle-of-the-pack rush defense doesn’t look like it’ll present many problems.

Think tight ends have hurt the Irish? We haven’t seen anyone like Dorin Dickerson since Anthony McCoy, so Dickerson might as well get his shoes shined and his Sunday best pressed and ready for the postgame media conference. Maybe the uneasy sleep I had this week was because I was seeing Dickerson run wild in the secondary, with Harrison Smith trailing behind him by four or five steps.

And speaking of the Irish’s stout passing defense, Notre Dame has climbed all the way up to 88th, but mostly because they played woeful Washington State and Navy, who only attempted three passes, but still caught the Irish napping for a long touchdown pass. Add in Bill Stull, the fifth-rated passer in college football and deep-threat Jonathan Baldwin, who is averaging 20 yards a catch, and, well — let’s just say I didn’t get a whole lot of confidence in Tenuta’s gang over the past six days.

If this part of me has learned anything, it’s that Notre Dame does it’s very best to play to the level of its competition and hasn’t executed with enough precision to win all the close games, especially in the red zone. Hopped up crowd, fragile team psyche, bad matchup and good opponent… hopefully the jitters won’t effect the team’s live-blogger as well.

*************

Now what do I think is going to happen? I still see a lot of resolve in this Irish team, but they’ve just made so many mistakes that I am done trying to predict what’s going to happen. If anything, I feel like the Irish are due for some good luck, and nothing creates good luck like playing good football.

Up until the Navy game, I thought things were trending up, yet the loss to the Midshipmen put everybody on red alert. Still, I really feel like this Notre Dame team isn’t the same as the disappointing group from last season, and that they’ll figure out a way to win this game.

We’ll find out a lot about this team tomorrow. If they rally around their embattled head coach and win decisively, it could get the Irish back on a roll and finishing the season strong. And if that happens, it could save the man that leads the program.    

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)
Getty Images
29 Comments

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)
Getty Images
40 Comments

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…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
24 Comments

A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
45 Comments

Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.