Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Purdue

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It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win.

Brian Kelly’s debut at Notre Dame was a successful one, as the Fighting Irish beat a very able Purdue team 23-12 at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Irish were in control for much of the afternoon and looked to be cruising to an easy win when Michael Floyd fumbled heading into the end zone. Instead of pushing the score to 27-3 with an Irish touchdown, Purdue seized the momentum with a gigantic 15-play drive, a safety, and a Robert Marve touchdown run to pull within one score at the beginning of the final quarter.

With the game dangerously close to turning into another fourth quarter barn-burner, the defense stepped up, the running game ate up clock, and David Ruffer booted a clutch field goal to put the game out of reach. While the Irish would’ve gladly taken a run-away win, grinding out a fourth quarter win is a great way to start a season, and a great way to erase the bad memories of 2009 that might have snuck back into a few heads after Robert Marve somersaulted Purdue back into the football game.

For the first time since last October, the Irish won a football game. Here’s what we learned this afternoon.

1. The Notre Dame running attack paced the offense.

Spread offense? Try smash-mouth football, with the Irish running the ball 58 percent of the time. Armando Allen did most of the heavy lifting, with 93 yards on 18 attempts while Cierre Wood showed flashes of that explosiveness we saw in the spring, with 58 yards on only seven carries. The Irish had nine carries of 10 or more yards, eating up chunks of field quickly and effectively. Kelly told anyone that would listen that the Irish would run the ball, and even with three new starters along the offensive line, the Boilermakers had no answer for the Irish run game. Breaking in a new quarterback is always a challenge, but the most effective recipe for quarterbacking success is a vibrant running game, and almost exclusively out of the shotgun, the offensive line created great running lanes for Allen and Wood. Dogged for most of his career for not breaking long touchdown runs, Armando Allen’s 22-yard touchdown scamper was the longest of his career, a sign of big things to come as the offensive line gels.

2. Notre Dame’s defense won the game.

One of the season’s biggest questions was answered this afternoon when the Irish defense held an explosive Purdue offense to just 322 yards on 74 plays. A unit plagued by explosive plays last year only gave up one this afternoon, the 23 yard touchdown scamper by Robert Marve. Bob Diaco’s unit limited the Boilermaker offense to just 10 points, the most impressive defensive performance since last season’s shutout of Nevada on opening day. While many expected the Irish offense to power the engine, it was the defense that stepped up and won the football game.

“We talked on the sideline that, look, we put you in a bad situation here,” Kelly said after the game. “We are putting it on your shoulders.”

And those shoulders handled the weight well, coming up with big plays at all three levels: great interceptions by Darrin Walls and another aided by Gary Gray, active linebacking play by Kerry Neal, Carlo Calabrese, and Manti Te’o, and vastly improved line play, including sacks by Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, and Ian Williams. The decision to switch to the 3-4 defense paid off immediately, with Irish cornerbacks playing stellar run support defense (Gary Gray led the team in tackles) and disguised pressure that had Robert Marve running for his life. It was far from a perfect game, but the Irish walk away knowing that the personnel they have on the defensive side of the ball is more than good enough.

3. Brian Kelly is very good at winning football games.

Veering dangerously close to Herm Edwards territory, Kelly showed today that he played to win the game. Too often, Notre Dame outsmarted itself the last few years, over-processing situations and getting away from the fundamental things that help you actually win football games. Kelly avoided the temptation of making a “statement,” and instead chose to do it on the scoreboard. When finally given the keys to his shiny new car, give Kelly credit for skipping the joy ride and instead keeping it between the lines and guided her home. New quarterback? Ease him in with easy throws over the middle of the field and a strong running game. Dangerous receivers and a mobile quarter? Concede the short throw to take away the long one. Up eight points playing into the wind in the 4th quarter? Trust your kicker to make a 37-yard field goal. While style points would’ve been nice, having a coach stay within his means brings confidence to a team that might have been having flashbacks to a few fourth quarters from last year.

4. The Irish will win football games with excellent special teams.

There’s no overstating David Ruffer’s clutch performance this afternoon, kicking a career long 47-yard field goal as well as icing the game with a 37-yard boot in the fourth. Ruffer is an interesting story, having never even played in a football game until he went to William & Mary for college. A transfer student that came to Notre Dame as a sophomore after not getting accepted out of high school, he gave walking-on a shot, and the legend was born. Ruffer has made all eight field goals in his Notre Dame career, and none were bigger than the two he made this afternoon. There won’t be many non-scholarship athletes in college football that have a better story than Ruffer’s and today he was a great weapon for the Irish. Another weapon was freshman Bennett Jackson, who has already filled Mike Anello’s shoes as a special teams ace. Jackson was all over the field, finishing with four tackles on coverage teams, utilizing his blazing speed. With returners Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and Armando Allen, the Irish are going to be incredibly dangerous on special teams, and will win a football game this year because of it.

5. The Irish are still looking for that killer instinct.

While it didn’t bite them this afternoon, Notre Dame still is in search of a killer instinct. And Brian Kelly knows it.

“I still think it’s about developing a mentality,” Kelly said after the game. “Call it what you want. Just the instinct of a champion senses that he’s got his opponent on the ropes. We have not acquired that yet but we will. Today, obviously, was a pretty clear case that when we had our opponent in a position to put him away, we didn’t execute when we needed to.”

A champion’s mentality is something that Kelly’s been drilling since day one at Notre Dame, and part of me thinks that the coaching staff is almost happy that they have a built-in teaching point as they prepare to take on a dangerous Michigan team. At various points last season, the Irish looked as if they could run away from an opponent, only to find themselves letting the other team back into the game. Kelly’s frenetic tempo and coaching philosophy takes away any of the hesitation in players, and now it’s a matter of the Irish going out and playing with the mentality of a champion.

Regardless, champions aren’t made in week one of the college football season. That’ll take time. But after one Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, step one of the season’s goal was accomplished. Win every Saturday. Next weekend against Michigan, they’ll tackle step two.

 

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…)