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.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”

 

Monday’s Leftovers: Wimbush’s accuracy, finally five offensive linemen & Jay Hayes’ destination

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If Brandon Wimbush excelled in Notre Dame’s 12th spring practice Saturday — and all reports indicate he did — then it was an anomaly only in that Irish head coach Brian Kelly has not seen such a complete two-hour performance from the rising-senior in the previous 11 sessions. Wimbush’s progress throughout this spring, though, made such a Saturday possible.

“He’s building his consistency,” Kelly said. “His footwork has now put him in a position where now he can accurately put the ball where it needs to be and be so much more consistent with his progression reads.”

Kelly highlighted the seam route as one now within Wimbush’s arsenal whereas it was only nominally considered in 2017. Hitting a seam route — in which a tight end or receiver skirts the linebacker’s or cornerback’s coverage while theoretically remaining just out of reach of the safety; more a situational route than a rehearsed one — requires the quarterback to recognize the exact coverage and then have the touch to put the pass where only the target can reach it. As a first-year starter, Wimbush struggled with both the mental and the physical aspects of that, only finding mild success with it when looking for 6-foot-5 tight end Durham Smythe on an adjusted seam route.

“[Wimbush’s increased] ability to do that is a product of he’s really been much more consistent with his footwork,” Kelly said. “His delivery and throwing motion has allowed him to throw a lot more on the black and throw strikes.”

Consider this another step toward the inevitability of Wimbush starting for Notre Dame against Michigan on Sept. 1 (139 days away, for those counting), despite the seemingly-open competition between Wimbush and rising-junior quarterback Ian Book this spring.

After a disappointing and error-filled November, the question with Wimbush was never his athletic ability, but rather if he would piece the physical aspects together with the mental necessities, a question applicable to the vast majority of first-year starting quarterbacks.

The question was also never if Kelly would praise Wimbush this spring. April practices yield nearly only positive reviews, but when those trend toward specific pass routes, that suggests a genuine nature to the applause.

— Kelly has previously said his hopes for the offensive line this spring was to figure out who could play where, not necessarily what the exact formation would be. Notre Dame seems to have settled on five linemen in fifth-years Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, rising-juniors Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, and rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey.

Three of their positions may even be settled by now with Mustipher at center, Eichenberg at left tackle and Hainsey at right tackle, where as a freshman he split time with Kraemer. This differs from the first half of spring practice when Hainsey typically worked at left tackle.

“He’s just a good back-side setter,” Kelly said of Hainsey. “He can do the job we’re looking for at the right tackle.”

As Eichenberg develops the confidence and consistency at left tackle, Kelly and offensive line coach Chip Long have to debate at which guard spots to station Bars and Kraemer. Bars spent the 2017 season at right guard after starting at right tackle in 2016. He moved to left guard Saturday to aid Eichenberg.

“What we really like about Liam is his strength, his size, his physicality,” Kelly said. “He’s learning, so why not move a veteran next to him where he can communicate with him, help him pass off twists, give him cues prior to the snap and settle him in a confident and really consistent basis?

“I like [Eichenberg’s] size, his reach. He can stand up to the different pass rushes we’re going to get out there, the bull rush. He’s long enough to help off the edge.”

This will likely not be the last offensive line configuration seen before the Wolverines’ arrival, although it could be the one deployed that Saturday.

It should also be noted, in moving Bars to aid Eichenberg, Kelly is indirectly praising Hainsey’s aptitude, which has been apparent since he forced his way into the rotation as a freshman at Eichenberg’s expense.

— Continuing with last week’s praise of early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith, Kelly left no wiggle room about Griffith’s chances of seeing the field in 2018.

“He’s got great instincts, knows the game. He’s going to be a really good player here,” Kelly said. “… He’s going to play for us in the fall. How that ends up, whether he’s a starter or a backup, [we’ll see]. He will play football for Notre Dame this fall. No doubt.”

— Former Irish defensive end Jay Hayes announced he will transfer to Oklahoma for his final season of eligibility.

Former Notre Dame assistant coach Kerry Cooks still serves as the Sooners assistant defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Per both rivals.com and 247sports.com, Cooks was not a vital piece of Hayes’ initial recruitment to the Irish, but undoubtedly having a known point of contact on the field helped Hayes head south this time around.

Furthermore, Hayes’ lead recruiter from Notre Dame, then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, has joined the Oklahoma staff this offseason as a defensive analyst, furthering the logical connections.

— The NCAA announced another kickoff rule change. Now any kickoffs fair caught within the 25-yard line will be spotted at the 25-yard line. Kelly does not expect the rule change to effect games very often, considering most Division I kickers can already send the ball out the back of the end zone if they want to minimize a return threat. In that respect, this rule may help to prevent more injuries at the Division II or III level.

Notre Dame will need to have a conversation with its kick returners, whoever ends up winning that role, about where to fair catch from and where to return from, similar to punt returns.

— There is often a debate/discussion about scheduling weddings in the fall. In most of the world, it is a non-issue, but obviously anyone finding this space on a Monday in April understands the inherent conflict.

In that vein, consider this a nod of acknowledgement to the friends who recognize the under-discussed corollary of also not scheduling bachelor parties in the fall. Slotting one for the mid-Atlantic in mid-April may have led to some time in a very cold river and a quiet weekend in this space, but the 14-inning whiffle ball game would have been even more out of place in November.

If anyone is wondering, this scribe went 6-for-9 with four RBIs and three runs while making only two errors at second base in a 20-19 victory.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame turns to two juniors with Hayes’ transfer; new indoor field announced
Crawford’s health and Pride’s progress strengthen Notre Dame’s cornerbacks beyond Love
An unlikely, and young, candidate enters the Notre Dame safety fray

OUTSIDE READING:
Notre Dame to construct new indoor facility
Alteration to football kickoff rule approved
After years of mom carrying the load, Boston College’s AJ Dillion is eager to reciprocate ($)
Due to the aforementioned weekend out of pocket, this last link is an unread reference, but given the topic matter concerns Dillion, it may be wise to educate oneself on 2017’s breakout rusher, 2018’s dark-horse Heisman contender and 2019’s most-obvious storyline of an Irish opponent arriving at Notre Dame Stadium.

An unlikely, and young, candidate enters the Notre Dame safety fray

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An early-enrolled freshman has a lot on his plate. From getting up to speed in collegiate coursework to being exposed to a genuine strength and conditioning program, much of the challenge comes away from the field. It is to be expected. In the case of receiver Micah Jones, Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander argued the early-enrollment is actually 10 times harder football-wise than it is to arrive in the summer.

“When you come in as a freshman and you have the numbers in your favor as far as a group, we’re probably going 100 miles an hour,” Alexander said at the end of March. “Right now it’s going at 1,000 miles an hour for Micah. He’s at a disadvantage coming in the spring.”

Jones has had to learn only one position. How fast must it be going for cornerback-turned-safety Houston Griffith?

Apparently, not faster than he can handle.

After about half a dozen practices, the Irish coaching staff opted to move Griffith to safety from corner, to a position devoid of a single established starter from a position stockpiled with proven and experienced talent. In doing so, Notre Dame gifted Griffith with an immediate opportunity to contribute, rather than spend a year learning from the likes of second-team All-American rising-junior cornerback Julian Love.

“In the week that he has been [at safety], he has done a great job as far as picking it up,” safeties coach Terry Joseph said last week. “He’s a smart kid. Really happy how he has progressed so far.”

Joseph was not unfamiliar with Griffith before the move, but even on February’s National Signing Day, the safeties coach outright said, “He’s a guy that is going to play corner for us. We’ll see what he can do outside on the perimeter.”

When looking at Griffith’s high school tape, in which he spends time at both positions, the Irish coaching staff clearly came to the conclusion his talents would best serve at cornerback. Seeing those skills in person, though, changed that opinion.

“We think he’s a guy that has a combination of playing away from the ball and having a good sense when the ball is in the air,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday.

“We do a tackling drill virtually every day, and through our circuit tackling and live tackling, he really stood out as a good tackler. At the safety position, obviously that’s crucial.”

RELATED READING: The letter is in — Houston Griffith, consensus four-star safety
Notre Dame’s assistant coaches on December’s signed defensive recruits

That tackling has been a bit of a problem for the Irish in the last two seasons, though quantifying its struggles is a difficult task. When a team’s top-four tacklers are linebackers, as Notre Dame’s were in 2017, that will immediately limit some of the chances for safeties to rack up their stats. The top tacklers at the position last year were rising-senior Nick Coleman and rising-junior Jalen Elliott with 44 and 43, respectively.

Their ball in the air abilities — or, if being harsh, lack thereof — can be decently-measured. Last offseason the critical statistic of choice was the zero sacks among returning defensive linemen. This offseason, it is the zero interceptions notched by Irish safeties. Arguably even more incriminating, they recorded only five pass breakups, three by Coleman and two by Elliott.

Hence, the competition now, and the insertion of a new candidate despite his complete and utter youth.

Griffith’s time at cornerback may help him in the position competition that should be more closely watched than even the one at quarterback.

“You like that he has the coverage skills,” Joseph said. “Because when you play a quarter system, you want a guy at safety who can have those coverage skills.

“… With how deep we are at corner, it’s one of those situations where we want to try to get the best guys on the field.”

One position’s riches may yield another position’s saving grace.

Crawford’s health and Pride’s progress strengthen Notre Dame’s cornerbacks beyond Love

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Todd Lyght’s, and Notre Dame’s, embarrassment of riches forces him to downplay a second-team All-American. Lyght must convince himself, the Irish cornerbacks and the media paying excessive attention to the April depth chart that both the field and the boundary coverage positions are up for grabs. If rising-junior Julian Love has already secured the latter, then others may begin to lose interest or focus.

That would defeat the purpose of having up to five starting-quality cornerbacks on the roster, not to mention an early-enrolled freshman who already moved to safety and another four incoming freshmen arriving this summer.

“What I want our guys to understand is even though only two guys can come out if we’re in base or three if we’re in nickel, I want them all to see themselves as if they’re a starter,” the cornerbacks coach said last week. “I like to rotate them with the first- and the second-team, so they get the feel of being a starter. I want them all to think that they’re starters, and I want them all to approach the game like they’re starters.”

When Julian Love jumped a route against North Carolina State and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown in October, he not only all-but sealed the Wolfpack’s fate, but he was the first person to intercept NC State quarterback Ryan Finley all season. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Inevitably — well, as inevitably as a sport rife with injuries will allow — Love will start against Michigan on Sept. 1. (144 days, if anyone is counting.) He will take the majority of the 80-100 defensive snaps, as well, but throughout the season, up-tempo offenses will look to stress the cornerbacks both in coverage and in pace. At that point, having an actively-engaged Troy Pride will bear needed results.

A few weeks ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly pointed out specific scenarios where Pride was in the wrong coverage or had the wrong position a season ago. That criticism stood out amid Kelly’s compliments of the rising-junior.

Past mental errors have put Julian Love in costly positions, specifically against Stanford in November. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“Another spring gives [Pride] more of an opportunity to gain that knowledge which you need to be smart and savvy,” Kelly said March 20. “I don’t think there’s anything from a skill piece that he’s missing. It’s experience, knowledge, film study and then a little more strength to continue to build that within his tackling.”

Through eight spring practices (a ninth was held two days after Lyght’s availability), Pride has shown improvements with those understandings.  Lyght pointed to Pride and rising-senior Shaun Crawford (pictured at top) as the two most-consistent cornerbacks.

The absence of Love from that list may be a coaching tactic, or it may be the natural human reaction to spring practice following a truly-excellent sophomore season, one which only built upon a surprisingly-strong freshman campaign. When asked who was competing with Love for the other starting position, Lyght mentioned each of the other four veteran cornerbacks has been named as one of the top 10 percent of defenders this spring, a motivational tactic employed by new defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Perhaps Love has been, too, but he was not included in Lyght’s listing.

“For Julian, his key to success and his key to getting to the next level is going to be focus and attention-to-detail,” Lyght said. “Sometimes when he gets out there, he can get to autopilot mode.”

Again, that coaching observation is not a cause for any alarm whatsoever. The odds are 50-50 at worst it is nothing more than a coach refraining from overly praising his best player for 12 months a year. Coming off a season with three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns and the third within five yards of the same result, and 68 tackles, good for No. 5 on the team, Love’s status as both a starter and a vital defensive cog is not in question.

Who starts opposite him remains such, because of Pride’s surge and Crawford’s versatility. When healthy, Crawford has spent his career at nickelback. Last season it took until mid-October, by Lyght’s estimate, before Crawford was back to 100 percent after suffering an Achilles injury in September of 2016. Being that fraction of a step slow and the inherent endurance questions related to it played a part in keeping Crawford at nickelback. Without those concerns, he may move to the field position moving forward.

“Shaun is an extremely smart player,” Kelly said Saturday. “He makes up for his size with football intelligence. What I’ve noticed more than anything else this spring is he has some suddenness to him, change of direction, closing on the football.

“Things of that nature where he was healthy last year but he still didn’t have that ‘snap’ that you require. He’s going to be a guy we can play at the field corner position and he’s going to be an immense help to us on all special teams.”

Frankly, the combination of a fully-healthy Crawford and an engaged Love would qualify as a guilty pleasure of cornerback talent on its own. That is merely a fact. Adding in a maturing Love, an adjective offered by Lyght, creates both depth and a dangerous nickel package.

Lyght said rising-junior Donte Vaughn moves between field and boundary, just like fifth-year Nick Watkins does. Watkins does such largely out of institutional knowledge, it would seem. Vaughn’s moves come from the exact opposite. Lyght is readying Vaughn for a full-time commitment to the field position.

“I want him to get more reps into the field because I think he’s more comfortable in the field, even though he’s such a good press corner,” Lyght said. “The game is a little slow and he’s able to see things a little bit better out into the field.”

Even with those five, Lyght made it clear he expects to play at least a few of incoming-freshmen Noah Boykin, DJ Brown, Tariq Bracy and Joe Wilkins. Boykin’s athleticism or Bracy’s speed would make them the most-likely candidates.

Editor’s Note: If confused by field and boundary designations, they take the place of left and right in Notre Dame’s defensive scheme. Whenever the ball is snapped from a hashmark, rather than the exact middle of the field, the narrower side of the field is the boundary.