Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. UConn

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When UConn kicker Dave Teggart’s field goal hooked wide left as time expired, it looked as if the scene was set for a dramatic escape for the Irish and another heart-breaking loss for Randy Edsall’s hard luck Huskies. But the Huskies marched down the field in overtime, and on a critical 3rd and 7, former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer hit wide receiver Kashif Moore for a touchdown in the corner of the end zone, and the Huskies scored first to swing the momentum back in their favor.

Even though the Irish responded with a touchdown of their own, they settled for a field goal to start the second overtime, and gave the Huskies a chance to win with a touchdown. Five plays later, Andre Dixon rumbled off the left side of the fatigued Irish defensive line for a touchdown and the victory, leaving the Notre Dame stunned and a senior class heartbroken in their final game at home for the second time in as many seasons.

Here’s what we learned today:

1) Emotions and heart are an integral part of college football.

Say what you will about recruiting rankings, but today’s game showed that emotions and momentum are just as important as personnel in college football. Even after the Irish jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, it never felt safe, especially with the tidal wave of negativity surrounding the Irish. The tipping point of this game came early in the second quarter, when Sergio Brown inexplicably hit a wide receiver after the pass sailed out of bounds, giving UConn new life. On cue, Jordan Todman darted 43 yards for a touchdown, cutting the lead in half, and changing the complexity of the game.

As we’re seeing in Ann Arbor, once the ball starts rolling it’s tough to get things back in control. With two fanbases as entitled and accustomed to winning as the programs at Michigan and Notre Dame, tradition and past excellence no longer seems like assets, but harbingers of doom. At high profile schools like these, there’s enough pressure put on the players by the swarming national media, but when the grumbling festers and permeates from within the faithful, it’s easy to see why these two proud programs are cracking at the seams, regardless of the head coach.

2) Notre Dame was decimated by the run.

Both Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon ran for over 100 yards, and even with a quarterback that was lost, UConn won the football game.  Todman’s explosive day didn’t end at the line of scrimmage, he also returned a back-breaking kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown that knotted the game at 17. As I mentioned earlier in the week, the Irish’s lack of a veteran front-seven leaves them incredibly susceptible to a hard-nosed running attack, which has many Irish fans already walking the plank with Toby Gerhart and Stanford on deck.

3) Mistakes kill every team… especially the Irish.

No team is impervious to mistakes, and once again the Irish have themselves to blame for this loss. Even worse, Notre Dame has it’s best players to blame. Costly fumbles by two of the Notre Dame’s premiere skill players killed scoring drives. Missed tackles by everyone, even stalwart safety Kyle McCarthy killed the defense. And boneheaded decisions by veteran players like Sergio Brown were enough to cost the Irish the game.

Like I’ve said before, coaches coach and players play. While it’s going to be difficult for Irish players to look at their senior teammates and embattled coaching staff one last time in Notre Dame Stadium, it may be even tougher to look in the mirror.

4) We may have just seen the end of an era.

With a transition probably inevitable, we may have just seen the end of an offensive era at Notre Dame Stadium. It makes little sense for Jimmy Clausen or Golden Tate to stay through a coaching change, and combining that with the attrition along the offensive line, we may have seen the last of the most explosive offense in modern Notre Dame history. 

If that’s the case, let’s just take a moment and reflect upon how incredible this group of skill players are, and try to imagine what it would’ve been like if they could’ve all be healthy at the same time. Whether it was Michael Floyd’s broken collarbone, Jimmy Clausen’s turf toe, Armando Allen’s ankle, or Kyle Rudolph’s shoulder, this unit never had the chance to mold together, and that lack of cohesion showed up in the one area of the field where the offense just wasn’t dynamic: the red zone.

If this is the end, at the very least Charlie Weis disproved the myth that Notre Dame couldn’t run an explosive pro-style offense.

5) Coaching changes won’t solve all the Irish’s problems.

To all the Notre Dame fans so adamant about a coaching change, please realize that a switch won’t solve all the problems.

In fact, there may not be a less desirable job in all of college coaching. If Charlie Weis is fired, Notre Dame will have run its last four coaches out of town. (You can argue five with the situation that surrounded Lou Holtz’s “retirement.”) The terms “good will” and “growing pains” mean nothing to a fan base stuck in the past, and they will expect greatness immediately, as the cupboard is far from bare.

You’ll be installing a new offense with a quarterback sidelined with a torn ACL, and inheriting a defense that’s flopped between a 3-4 and a 4-3, and has failed to stop either the run or pass with any efficiency.

More over, you’ll run into all the roadblocks that the past head coach embraced. Academic standards, demanding alumni, and an administration that wants the glory of the past without sacrificing the aspirations of the future. Your home field advantage will be neutered by four-quadrant branding and over-the-top hospitality, and there’s a very large segment of college football fans and the national media that will immediately be rooting for you to fail.

Notre Dame has made the bold choice before, cutting ties with Tyrone Willingham after three seasons, and opening themselves up to the fair and unfair criticism that comes along with replacing the most high-profile African-American head coach in college football’s most high-profile position.

Now athletic director Jack Swarbrick and president Father Jenkins are saddled with an equally difficult decision, trying to find a coach that’s better suited for a job that the current coach seemingly fits perfectly.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”