And in that corner… the Michigan State Spartans

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Looking to catch a good football game? Your best bet is to buy a ticket to Notre Dame vs. Michigan State, because this series usually guarantees something dramatic is going to happen, and for some reason the ticket is never as in demand as other Irish rivalries.

Last year’s high-wire escape win for the Irish pretty much encapsulated the last decade of games with the Spartans. Both teams had a chance to win, both nearly gave it away, and this time — the Irish walked away with the victory.

As we did last year, we caught up with LVS of the Spartan blog The Only Colors, who has been paying plenty of attention to Mark Dantonio’s troops in their two opening victories against Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic. He was kind enough to give us all a scouting report, something Irish fans will need as they shake off the hangover from a tough loss last week.

(I also crossed the tracks and answered some questions for him on the Irish, so if you’re interested, give that a read as well.)

Inside the Irish: Assess the Spartans’
season so far. Two wins against underwhelming competition and an offense that
seems to have transitioned to a ground attack. Has anything surprised you after
two weeks?

LVS: The main surprise for me has been the running game.  I expected that MSU would run the ball better
than last season, but the results so far have been above and beyond what even
the most optimistic Spartan fan could have hoped for.  The offensive line is blocking very well, and
Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell have looked superb.  A third option at running back, Larry Caper,
will be making his season debut this weekend, and should make a good situation
better.  Caper was MSU’s best running
back for most of last season, and yet, amazingly, it seems that he’ll be
struggling for carries simply because Baker and Bell have been so good.

 Unfortunately, while the rushing attack has emerged, the
passing game–which, as you implied, was the strength of the entire team last
year–has struggled.  In the first game,
those struggles were at least partially a result of drops.  (5, by my count.)  But that wasn’t the case last week, when Kirk
Cousins was relatively inaccurate, and threw a really poor interception from Florida Atlantic’s 1-yard line.  I’m convinced that
the passing game is going to come around; Cousins proved how good he was last
season, and we still have a horde of talented receivers.  Personally, I think Cousins is going to be
motivated by how this game ended last year, and put together a good performance
on Saturday night.

Earlier in the year,
you guys ranked the ND game as the 4th toughest on your schedule, and thought
ND’s chances hinged on Brian Kelly. Still feel the same way?

Having now seen the messiah-like substance that is Denard
Robinson, I might be inclined to put our game in Ann Arbor ahead of Saturday’s
game, in terms of difficulty.  But, yeah,
I’ve seen both of the Irish games so far, and they seem to be roughly what I
thought they’d be: a talented group that occasionally makes mistakes due to
inexperience.  With that in mind, I’m
glad we’re playing early in the season, and happier still that this will be ND’s
first road game.

I think that Brian Kelly was a very good hire and will
probably have a lot of success in South Bend. 
It’s simply a question of how quickly that success will come.  After beating a Purdue team that looks worse
than advertised, and losing to a Michigan team which is probably good but not
great, I think it’s too early to tell if ND’s big jump will come this
season.  I’d guess that it’ll take at
least another year or so, but this weekend could reveal a lot about that.

Last year you called Blair White’s
breakout game. Anyone you see having a dynamic day this Saturday night?

I’ll choose Edwin Baker; while he’s been great the past two
weeks, playing like that in front of a national TV audience would be a truer
breakout.  Anyway, he’s a powerful runner
who nonetheless has the speed to get to the outside.  And if he gets to the outside, given the
problems ND’s had at OLB, he could very well turn those runs into big gains.  MSU’s offensive line has been outstanding so
far, and if they can give Baker some lanes, he’ll take them.

 I’ll also hedge a bit by nominating Keshawn Martin as well.  He’s an incredible punt returner, and, if ND
kicks to him, I think he’ll do a lot of damage. 
You might see him gain big chunks on end-arounds or trap handoffs, too. 

It’s the first road game of the year for
the Irish. How difficult of an atmosphere will it be to play in this year?

Spartan Stadium gets particularly loud and nasty during
night games, and this Saturday won’t be any different.  Our stadium isn’t the biggest one in the
world (although at 75,000+ capacity, it’s certainly not tiny), but the
double-deck design traps sound and makes for a particularly loud
atmosphere.  I’m sure the Irish players
are expecting a hostile atmosphere, and they’ll get it.


Last year’s team seemed to get away from
the traditional Spartan offensive attack, and the first two games seem like MSU
is trying to turn the offense into a physical football team. What can Irish
fans expect from head coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on defense?

You can expect a defensive line that’s solid against the run
and middling in pass rush, one of the best linebacking corps in the country,
and a secondary that’s better than it was last year, but is still probably
sub-par.

 Briefly: Colin Neely had an excellent game at defensive end
last week, and Jerel Worthy is a very solid defensive tackle.  You may see a bit of William Gholston at
defensive end.  He was one of the top
defensive recruits in the country last year; he’s 6’7″, strong, very quick, and
has looked excellent in limited playing time so far this year.  I have a feeling that the coaching staff
might take the wraps off him on Saturday.

 Greg Jones leads the linebackers, and is quite simply one of
the best defensive players in college football. 
Eric Gordon and Chris Norman are the outside linebackers and they aren’t
bad, either.  As a group, they’re
excellent against the run and are deadly on the blitz.  They’re weaker in pass coverage, and I fear
that Kyle Rudolph may be able to exploit them.

 The secondary was a trainwreck of unbelievable proportions
last year, and pass defense (or really lack thereof) destroyed MSU’s season.  I think they’re better this year.  Chris L. Rucker is still vulnerable, but
Johnny Adams has looked fairly good at the other corner, and the safeties
(Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde) have made some nice pass breakups.  That’s not to say that Notre Dame won’t have
success throwing the ball, but I feel better about the secondary than I did
last year.

 The coaching staff has used a very, very basic 4-3 in the
first two games, with very few blitzes and no exotic stuff.  I suspect that we’ll see more variation
against ND; the talk all through the off-season was about how MSU will play a
lot of 3-4 this year.  We haven’t seen
that yet, but this could very well be the week.

Obviously, Notre Dame won a close one
last year. The past eight years of this game have been filled with tight games,
tough defeats for both squads, and a growing intensity to the rivalry. Where
does this game stand for Michigan State?

Firmly behind the Michigan game in the Spartan
consciousness, but very important nonetheless. 
It’s Notre Dame, so whether the game is home or away, it’s a nationally
televised game and a headline-grabber. 
If the 2006 meltdown had come against almost any other team, people
would have forgotten about it after a few weeks.  But it was against Notre Dame, so everyone
remembers.  (Mike Valenti didn’t help in
that regard.  Thanks a lot, pal.)  Each year there are conference games that
mean more to me than this one; for instance, this year the Iowa and Wisconsin
games will be huge.  But this one is always near the top.  The fact that they’ve been very, very good
games in recent years (and also that we’ve won plenty of them) certainly doesn’t
hurt.

What’s your gut feeling for Saturday
night?

I’m usually pretty manic-depressive about predicting MSU
games, so the fact that I’m reasonably optimistic about this one disturbs me
some.  I love the way we’ve run the ball
so far, I think that Kirk Cousins will be highly motivated to atone for his
interception last season, and while I don’t think our defense is going to
dominate Notre Dame, I certainly don’t think they’ll be steamrolled,
either.  It’s always risky to count on a
quarterback playing well in his first road start, and I think we’ll have some
success blitzing Crist and rattling him. 
There are plenty of ways MSU could lose this game: Michael Floyd could
go off, as could Kyle Rudolph (and the latter is more likely, in my opinion), we
could turn the ball over a ton, we could have horrific defensive breakdowns,
and so on.

 But I think the first two games have been perfect for MSU:
challenging enough to keep the team interested, but not challenging enough to
force the coaches to open up the playbook or for the players to be tired/banged
up heading into this game.  Furthermore, playing
this game in East Lansing will make a difference.  From the beginning of spring practice, there’s
been a terrific vibe surrounding this MSU team; they’re talented and ready, and
I think they’ll pass their first big test of the year.  30-24 MSU, or something like that.

    

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.