Stepping up… The offensive line

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We’re starting a feature here that should get everybody ready for Spring Practice. “Stepping Up” (not to be confused with the Channing Tatum/Jenna Dewan tour-de-force dance movie) looks at the holes on the depth chart and who is likely to fill them. I hope everybody enjoys…

If one position’s inconsistency defined the Charlie Weis era, it was the offensive line. While the defense was the unit that ultimately led to Weis’ ouster after five seasons, the offensive line’s volatility and inconsistency — sometimes expected, sometimes mind-boggling — mirrored the struggles of Charlie Weis as a coach and the Irish during his tenure.

While Weis’ 3-9 2007 team is a reflection on the recruiting failures of Tyrone Willingham, the staggering inefficiency of the offensive line also showed how difficult Weis’ pro-style scheme was to pick up for a group of lineman thrown into action after last playing significant minutes at the high school level. 2008’s up-and-down season along the offensive line resulted in the departure of offensive line coach John Latina, and Frank Verducci was brought in to get better results out of a finally veteran group.

While last season’s offensive line saw vast improvements, and Verducci did a impressive job, there was rarely a time where the offensive line dominated an opponent. Whether it was inopportune penalties, inconsistent run-blocking, or ill-timed sacks, it never felt like the offensive line became the veteran force that the Irish needed.

Entering the Brian Kelly era, let’s take a look at who the offensive line loses, who’s returning, and the key lineman that need to step up.

KEY LOSSES:

With the departure of Paul Duncan, Eric Olsen, and Sam Young, the Irish arguably lose the three most important starters along the offensive line. While Duncan was hardly considered an elite left tackle, he did a service able job covering Jimmy Clausen’s blindside. As an offensive captain, Olsen supplied leadership and spearheaded the line, successfully shifting to center to open up playing time for sophomore Trevor Robinson. And while Sam Young may never have become the Outland candidate that many thought the Irish signed when he committed to the Irish from St. Thomas Aquinas, he ended up starting every game of his collegiate career, a pretty miraculous feat in this era of college football.

RETURNING STARTERS:

Chris Stewart returns at guard for the Irish as a fifth year player, where he’s expect to thrive in his final year of eligibility. Stewart’s redshirt should pay dividends, and I expect him to be a force on the interior of the Irish line. Trevor Robinson also returns to the starting lineup, though he might not be lining up on the interior of the offensive line if the Irish can’t find proper tackles to fill the open voids. Robinson battled some injuries last season, but played impressive football for a sophomore and hopefully will take the leap from good to great during his third season. Dan Wenger also comes back for his fifth year, likely returning to center and anchoring the inside of the offensive line. Wenger was the odd-man-out after Olsen shifted to center, but was a valuable reserve that picked up the slack when Robinson was hobbled.

STEPPING UP:

The battle for the two tackle positions is the key to next season’s offensive front. Replacing three starters puts the Irish in a none too envious position of having to replace the majority of minutes along the front line. Our friends over at Blue-Gray Sky point to an ominous statistic, comparing the 43 percent of returning playing time to the 42 percent that returned to the dreadful 2007 offensive line. 

Nobody expects the offensive to nose-dive like it did in 2007, and Brian Kelly’s spread attack doesn’t put nearly the same pressure on lineman that Weis’ offense did. But for the Irish to be an elite offense again, they’ll need some of the following guys to step up and win a job.

Matt Romine, Left Tackle: Romine was a highly-touted recruit, and long expected to challenge for a starting tackle position. Yet injuries, bad luck, and the depth chart have combined to get in the way of Romine playing a significant part of the offense. I expect the coaching change to benefit Romine greatly, as a fresh start and a new scheme will finally put Romine in a position to succeed.

Taylor Dever, Right Tackle: Dever found himself stuck behind Sam Young, which relegated him to only special teams duty the last two seasons. Yet all reports say Dever has the size and athleticism to play on the edge of the offensive front, where he’ll likely be given the first opportunity to win a job.

Dark Horses: Don’t count out guys like Andrew Nuss, who don’t necessarily have an open job to compete for, but will be given every chance to win a starting position. I also expect to hear from athletic tackle Lane Clelland, who profiles nicely into this offense. It’ll be interesting to see how freshman Chris Watt acquits himself this spring, fresh off a redshirt year where he reportedly impressed the former coaching staff. If Dan Wenger doesn’t get it done at center, both Braxton Cave and Mike Golic Jr. will look to challenge at the position.  

Turnovers tip toward Notre Dame in a 38-18 victory at Michigan State

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Statistically, Notre Dame did not outplay Michigan State in the 38-18 Irish victory Saturday night. After all, the Spartans outgained Notre Dame by 142 yards. Even if ignoring the fourth quarter when the Irish had the game in hand, Michigan State matched Notre Dame.

One thing made the difference.

Rather, three things, as in two fumble recoveries and an interception.

“The story here is defensively we were taking the football away,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “… Rushing yards don’t really matter much, passing yards don’t matter much when you can take the football away and capitalize on it in the red zone.”

Indeed.

Notre Dame averaged 4.79 yards per carry on 39 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Irish converted eight of 14 third downs, a season-high rate of 57.1 percent. They reached the red zone four times and scored four touchdowns on those drives.

But the game hinged entirely on those three turnovers.

“Obviously, with those turnovers, being minus three [in turnover margin] in the first half createda b ig 14-point swing, number one,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “… Ultimately, the turnovers are what crushes you.”

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3), preventing a Spartans touchdown in Saturday’s second quarter. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame led only 21-7 with Michigan State driving. This was still a genuine contest as Spartans junior running back L.J. Scott headed toward the end zone with 6:23 remaining in the second quarter.

Instead, Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford caught Scott at the end of his 15-yard rumble for the goal line. Inches before he crossed it, Crawford punched the ball loose, a move he later directly attributed to studying film of former Chicago Bears defensive back Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Crawford tracked down the ball in the end zone, turning a touchdown into a touchback.

He quite literally prevented a touchdown. Notre Dame got the ball back. Five plays later Irish junior running back Dexter Williams scored from 14 yards out, opening up the margin to 28-7. Michigan State would not get within two possessions the rest of the night.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Obviously, the play of the game is Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble. Rarely is one single play worth six points. Other moments lead up to it or a subsequent success could have replicated the effect. In this instance, however, Crawford’s savvy was worth exactly six points all on its own. Not to mention, it then led to an Irish scoring drive.

Honorable mention should certainly go to sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s 59-yard interception return for a touchdown. Love jumped Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke’s throw so cleanly there was never any doubt about his arrival in the end zone once he secured the ball. Thanks to the defensive highlight, Notre Dame led 14-0 before even five minutes of the game had passed.

To be sure to mention the third turnover of the evening, pictured above, senior linebacker Greer Martini chased Lewerke to the sideline, popping the ball loose as he tackled the quarterback. Irish sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes landed on the fumble at Michigan State’s 24-yard line. It took all of six plays for Notre Dame to gain the 24 yards, culminating with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush finding Williams in the end zone from eight yards out, bringing the score to the aforementioned 21-7.

Crawford’s stellar defensive play came on the ensuing Spartans drive.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Michigan State received the kickoff to start the second half. Trailing 28-7, a definitive touchdown drive would have returned some intrigue to the evening. The Spartans alternated three Scott rushes for a methodical 17 yards with Lewerke darts downfield, completing an 18-yarder to junior tight end Matt Sokol and a 20-yard pass to sophomore receiver Trishton Jackson, Michigan State did not need much time to reach the red zone.

On a third-and-six from the 20-yard line, Lewerke had some time to find a receiver. Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara made sure it was not too much time, notching a two-yard sack.

The yardage of the loss was not important. Ending the drive shy of the end zone was. The Spartans opted for a 40-yard field goal, but cutting the Notre Dame lead to 18 did not have much of an effect on anyone’s urgency.

Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s sole passing touchdown Saturday night came when he found junior running back Dexter Williams along the sideline after Wimbush evaded pressure. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
A week ago, this space would not give this nod to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush despite his rushing for 207 yards and four touchdowns. To be fair, that was primarily a credit to junior running back Josh Adams’ work against Boston College.

Today, Wimbush gets it. He rushed for only 57 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, but out of the gates he attacked the Spartans with his arm. Finishing 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown through the air may not sound like much, but it was enough of a threat to keep Michigan State’s defense on its heels.

“We can probably move on about he can’t throw it,” Kelly said. “He’s just got the ability to do a lot at that position.”

The first play from scrimmage was a 10-yard completion to sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. Every play of the 78-yard drive was a pass attempt until the final two plays, both Wimbush carries, the latter a 16-yard touchdown run on a designed draw.

A week ago Wimbush managed only 96 passing yards. On the opening drive at Michigan State, he threw for 62. Any plans the Spartans had of forcing him to beat them with his arm went out the window. Wimbush clearly was up to the task.

STAT OF THE GAME
More accurately, it is a stat of the season.

Through four games, Notre Dame is allowing 18.25 points per game. No matter who the opponents have been, that is a promising number for 2017 through four games.

Last season that mark was 27.83. To provide more context, consider some of last year’s “better” performances. For outlying purposes and weather acknowledgements, discard the six points the Irish allowed Army and the 10 scored by North Carolina State in a literal hurricane. Notre Dame’s next best four defensive performances by points allowed were against Nevada (10 points), Stanford (10), Miami (27) and Navy (28). Those average to 20.5 points per game.

UNEXPECTED FACT OF THE NIGHT
Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh led Notre Dame in carries with 12, gaining 35 yards and scoring a touchdown. His increase in workload was a result of the Irish enjoying a comfortable lead and sophomore running back Tony Jones spending the evening in street clothes due to a sprained ankle.

Adams took nine rushes for 56 yards. Williams needed eight carries to gain 40 yards and a score. By no means did either struggle, but neither will complain at a night light on bumps and bruises yet complete with a victory.

“[Adams] is our bell cow, if you will, and we’re going to continue to utilize his physicality at the position,” Kelly said. “We think Dexter Williams is a great complementary back in terms of what he can do, and you saw what Deon was capable of. He runs hard. He’s a tough kid with a burst. [Jones] wasn’t able to go but we’ll get him back most likely next week.

“We think we’re very fortunate that we’ve got some depth at that position.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Statistics can lie to you.” — Dantonio.

He is not wrong.

SCORING SUMMARY

First Quarter
13:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush 16-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan State 0. (7 plays, 78 yards, 1:55)
10:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Julian Love 59-yard interception return. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 0.
6:33 — Michigan State touchdown. Darrell Stewart four-yard reception from Brian Lewerke. Matt Coghlin PAT good.  Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 4:00)

Second Quarter
9:32 —Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams eight-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan State 7. (6 plays, 24 yards, 2:23)
4:47 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 7. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:34)

Third Quarter
11:13 — Michigan State field goal. Coghlin from 40 yards. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 10. (9 plays, 53 yards, 3:38)
7:46 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh nine-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Michigan State 10. (8 plays, 62 yards, 3:19)

Fourth Quarter
4:51 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 46 yards. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 10. (10 plays, 66 yards, 5:01)
3:09 — Michigan State touchdown. Gerald Holmes 25-yard reception from Lewerke. Two-point conversion good, Cody White reception from Lewerke. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 18. (7 plays, 71 yards, 1:35)

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”