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.

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.