Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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It’d be so much easier if things were cut and dry. But once again, Notre Dame loses, and it doesn’t even begin to tell the story. For much of the game, the Irish were shut down offensively, failing to get into the red zone for the entire first half while the defense held it’s own against the potent combination of Pitt’s running and passing attack.

Yet as the script always does, the Irish mounted a furious comeback, thanks to the electric play of Golden Tate, and after Tate’s punt return for a touchdown, the Irish found themselves attempting a two-point conversion to make it a field goal game. Yet Jimmy Clausen’s shovel pass dropped between backup tight end Mike Ragone’s hands, and the Irish never got any closer.

Still that doesn’t tell us everything, as the Irish had another chance to march down the field and win the game. With Pitt down two key cornerbacks, the Irish had a chance to mount another rally until a chop-block penalty was called on Dan Wenger, dropping the Irish back from a 2nd and 1 at the 42 to a 2nd and 16 back at the 27. On the very next play, Clausen was flushed from the pocket, and hit just as he threw the ball, the ball squirting forward and putting the Irish in a 4th and ballgame situation. The Irish called timeout to get a play set, the Big East replay officials called downstairs to take one more look at the play.

We’ll never know what would’ve happened on that 4th and long for the Irish. The Pitt pass rush ate Paul Duncan and the Irish offensive line alive all evening and maybe the Irish wouldn’t have had a chance to throw down field. But Golden Tate and Michael Floyd were going against a beat-up secondary, and at the very least the Irish — and their embattled head coach — deserved a shot. Yet a replay official who couldn’t overturn a controversial completion to Jonathan Baldwin a few series earlier could somehow determine that Clausen’s pass was a fumble and the inadvertent whistles once again didn’t kill a play before Pitt recovered?

Sigh.

In the end, there will be more questions than answers. If this is it for Charlie Weis, he certainly deserved better. Better than being on the short end of nearly every replay review short of one against Washington, and better than knuckle-headed mistakes his players made while they played frantically for their coach.

Here’s five things we learned tonight:

1) Pitt’s pass rush killed the Irish.

If Notre Dame fans hear the name Greg Romeus again they might get sick to their stomachs. Romeus, Gus Mustakas, Jabaal Sheard and Mick Williams controlled the line of scrimmage when the Irish tried to throw the ball, taking away the deep threat and letting Pitt’s defensive backs jump the short throws. Even when Weis tried to slow down the pressure with screen passes, the Pittsburgh defense was game, snuffing out every attempt for a loss of yardage with great pursuit by the linebacking corps. Ditto the Wildcat formation. The Notre Dame running game was surprisingly effective with Armando Allen gaining 5.5 yards per carry, yet to get back into the game, the Irish needed to lean on their passing attack, and without any time to throw the ball, Jimmy Clausen just couldn’t get it done.

2) Notre Dame’s kicking game killed them

Just when the Irish finally get a big play out of their special teams, they have a game like Pittsburgh, where kicking and punting factored largely in the outcome. I’m sure Eric Maust is a good person, but he was terrible punter on Saturday night, kicking 5 times for an average of 24.8 yards. When he wasn’t punting short ineffective kicks, he was dropping the snap and shanking punts out of bounds when he should’ve been pinning the Pitt offense deep. Much of the first half the Irish offense was shut down because they had to start deep in their own territory. On the flip side, David Ruffer filled in for freshman kicker Nick Tausch, who was a surprising scratch from the lineup, and while Ruffer made his only field goal and did well on kickoffs, his low extra point attempt was blocked, putting the Irish in another hole. (To be fair, Trevor Robinson got run over…) Either way, the Irish have now committed two scholarships to punters, two to kickers, and even another one to a long snapper, all to try and get the Irish special teams to average. Even with Tate’s punt return for a touchdown, it was clear that Notre Dame could never flip the field on a change of possession, and Maust’s short punts put Notre Dame at a real disadvantage.

3) Irish defense just can’t force turnovers.

During this two game losing streak, the Notre Dame defense has failed to force a single turnover. In their four losses, the Irish have only managed two turnovers — an interception of two freshman quarterbacks, Tate Forcier and Matt Barkley, who both seemed to manage pretty decent games despite the gaffs. It’s become so evident that the Irish defense is deficient that the offense knows it, and it’s permeating the entire gameplan for Notre Dame. While Weis can say that he likes his offensive’s chances with the defense holding a team in the 20s, what he isn’t mentioning is that most teams depend on a big play or two from the defense to help score some points. The lack of pass rush out of the front four against Pitt forced the Irish to gamble with blitzing linebackers and once again Jon Tenuta’s scheme rolled snake eyes, giving up big plays to Jonathan Baldwin and Dion Lewis that ultimately sank the Irish’s chances.
 

4) Way too many games are turning subjective.

Remember when people used to say, “Let’s settle it on the field?” Not anymore. Too often the replay booth is getting in the way of the ebb and flow of the game, stopping to look at a trivial replay to confirm a play when a referee was within feet of the action. I’m all for getting things right, but when you’ve got the game starting and stopping to review plays that aren’t even close, the replay officials are getting in the way of a the football game. Even more baffling is the decision to overturn a call. Whether it’s Friday night’s game in Cincinnati or the final offensive play for the Irish, there is just way too much subjectivity getting in the way of football. When you slow a person’s movements down to a single frame per second it warps your sense of what really happened.

Jimmy Clausen’s fumble/incompletion at the end of the game is a proof that replay officials have forgotten what the word inconclusive means. There’s no way you can overturn Clausen’s fumble if you understand what indisputable means. And if Clausen’s fumble is the line of demarcation, then Jonathan Baldwin’s controversial catch with under seven
minutes left in the game should’ve been brought back. The NCAA has to do something this offseason about it’s replay system, and putting the onus on coaches to call challenges instead of allowing partisan officiating crews to dictate what play gets looked at is the best solution. Football may be a game of inches and the officials may be doing the best job they can, but it’s getting to the point where even logical fans start questioning the integrity of officiating crews.

5) Notre Dame’s nightmare scenario is upon us.

Once again, Charlie Weis and the Irish are in a position where they’ve given up their ability to control their own destiny. A win at Pitt would’ve silenced a very vocal minority that is hellbent on change. Now there’s another week of questions, another week of speculation, and another week where people will look for word out of Notre Dame’s athletic department regarding the head coaching situation. As I said earlier, it’s too bad that things aren’t black and white, because it’d be a much easier decision. There’s no doubt in my mind that the whispers from last week weighed on the Irish players and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’ll effect them again as they prepare for UConn. Now it’s up to Weis to prepare his team for another tough game, or for Jack Swarbrick to tell him he doesn’t need to do it anymore.

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. Obviously, this development drops that number to 83. 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.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)