And in that corner… the Purdue Boilermakers

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It was a tale of two seasons last year for Purdue. The first half heartbreak and despair, the second half hope for a better day. Maybe that’s overly dramatic, but the Boilermakers went on a nice run in the second half of the season, including an upset victory against Ohio State, finishing the season 4-2 and putting up a respectable 4-4 record during Big Ten play. Even though the season ended 5-7, Purdue fans had to believe that three or four of those games could’ve gone a different direction.

One of those was obviously against the Fighting Irish. Travis Miller was at Ross-Ade stadium that fateful night when Jimmy Clausen scored his “signature win” against the Boilermakers, marching the Irish down the field for a last minute touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. Miller runs the very entertaining Purdue website Hammer & Rails, and was kind enough to chat with me earlier this week as the Irish and the Boilermakers prepare to kick off the season.

I also answered some questions for him over at his blog, so check those out when you get a chance. I’m especially proud of his title for the blog: “Inside the Irish: Quality, sane Notre Dame discussion. I like that.” (Might put that on the book jacket…)

Inside the Irish: How bad did the loss last year feel?

H&R: I’ll admit, it stung. I sit in section 128 , so the play
happened right in front of my seats. Just deflating. I felt like we had the game,
but once again our defense failed to get stops on a long drive at the end. That
has been our MO forever. If we take a lead with more than five minutes left and
all we need is one stop we never get it.

ITI: Following up on that, was it the timeout that hurt the most? From Purdue’s
standpoint, did you feel like it was your game to win and you blew it or would
it have been a stolen W?

H&R: I think it was ours to win and I can’t believe we called the
timeout. At the very least you force either a hurried play or a spike to stop
the clock. They then have less time to call the fourth down play. Instead we
gifted the Irish time to script the two plays we wanted. To me, it was an
inexcusable decision, and the worst one Hope made all year.

ITI: You predicted Keith Smith last year. Who’s going to do it this year?

H&R: I am high on three guys: Al-Terek McBurse, O.J. Ross, and
Ricardo Allen. McBurse is the new guy at running back, but a four-star recruit
who has a ton of talent. I think he can have a big game if we commit to the run.
Ross and Allen were high school teammates at Daytona Mainland and the top two
guys in our recruiting class. Allen seems to be taking control of one of the open
cornerback slots immediately and may even be an upgrade over David Pender and
Brandon King. Ross. Is a speedy receiver that will see time in the slot. He is
a lot like Dorien Bryant, only with better hands. He could also be used on
kickoff returns.

ITI: What does an outsider think about the hiring of Brian Kelly? Would you
rather be facing a Charlie Weis team or does BK signify a dangerous precedent:
An above-average coach of the Irish?

H&R:  I’m not sold on him because we have heard the same thing for
a decade in South Bend. A new guy comes in, he’s the greatest coach in the
history of the sport, then loses a few and gets canned. Remember that Ty
Willingham was once fantastic after an 8-0 start. He could do no wrong at that
point, but was fired three years later. Charlie Weis came in, had success immediately,
but then started to struggle. The fans blamed it on “Ty’s players”, which was a
joke of an excuse because Weis was in his third year. He had his own players by
then and went 3-9. In fact, he nearly lost to Washington with “Ty’s Players”
playing for the Huskies last year.

Brian Kelly has won at Division II, Central Michigan, and
Cincinnati. That’s all good and well, but we all know that unless he brings a
national title, and soon, there will be grumbling. Notre Dame fans are far from
patient, and Kelly is the type of coach they need to be patient with. I have no
doubt that he is a good coach and can be successful, but the real question is
can he be successful to Notre Dame’s elevated standards? Weis had success that
would be phenomenal at many schools, but not in South Bend. Shoot, Bob Davie
even took the Irish to a BCS bowl without a quarterback for most of the year,
but was gone after the following season.

ITI: You went on the record saying you didn’t want Robert Marve last year. Are
you drinking the Kool-Aid yet?

H&R: Yes, I have changed my mind. I’ve been most impressed with the
maturity he has shown off the field. I got to meet him at Big Ten media Days
and he was calm, cool, and collected. I think this maturity, as well as the
fact that he is no longer sharing snaps with Jacory Harris, will help him most.
He always needed the maturity to go with his talent. That seems to have come
with the move to West Lafayette.

He also gives us a running element from the quarterback that
we haven’t had since Brandon Kirsch. Part of what made Purdue so good under
Drew Brees was his decision making. He ran for over 800 yards as a senior and
read defenses so well thathe knew exactly when he could take off for 10-15
yards. If Marve can utilize that skill it will make Purdue better fast. 

ITI: How bad do you think ND’s defense will be this year?

H&R: It is hard to say. On paper, there is a ton of talent, but
it hasn’t produced yet. I know you guys are changing schemes yet again, so
there will naturally be a learning curve. Against Purdue I can see them
struggling because we have talent and depth at a lot of skill positions. We can
through six solid receivers out there with Keith Smith, Cortez Smith, Justin
Siller, Ross, Antavian Edison, and Gary Bush. Siller and the Smiths are big
guys, while Bush, Ross, and Edison are speed guys. Siller and Keith smith are
also former QB’s, so we will very likely use trick plays (and have successfully
with Smith). Rob Henry, the backup quarterback, may play in the wildcat. Dan
Dierking, Jared Crank, Reggie Pegram, and Derek Jackson can help McBurse in the
run game. Basically, we have the talent to move the ball in a lot of creative
ways.

ITI: I know you like Michael Floyd. Anybody else on the Irish roster give you
anxiety?

H&R: Kyle Rudolph is a solid tight end that can exploit our
inability to cover the middle of the field. As far as other receivers, it is
hard to say. I am optimistic that we have so many guys emerging as possible
starters in the secondary, but most of them still have yet to play a game at
this level. I think they will be excellent and deep in time, but this is still
game one.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Purdue victory?

H&R: Hold on to the ball. Turnovers cost us at least three wins
last year. We can’t let that happen again. If we don’t turn the ball over we’re
a very good football team.

ITI: Gut feeling?

H&R: Strangely, I have been feeling like this game could turn out
like 2004 for some reason. I know that is very likely wishful thinking, but it
would be nice all the same. Last year I was in the minority predicting a win at
Oregon. Had we not handed them a pair of defensive touchdowns it would have
happened too. I think we’re going to see a high scoring game where the efficiency
of Notre Dame’s offense is the difference. I think these teams are nearly
equal, but my gut tells me Purdue wins.

*****

If you’d like to stroll back to Memory Lane, here’s what we had to say before the game last year. 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)