Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State


Very rarely can you summarize a football game in one sentence, but head coach Brian Kelly did in his post-game press conference, just minutes after a fake field goal attempt in overtime won the football game for Michigan State 34-31:

“It came down to one play,” Kelly said. “Michigan State executed the play. We did not.”

While many will argue a picture is worth a thousand words, the shocking conclusion to another classic Notre Dame-Michigan State game underscores the things that took place the other 63 minutes on the football field. There will be years to debate the clipping call on Lo Wood at the end of regulation and the expired play-clock before the Spartans pulled their miraculous “Little Giants” fake field goal. Until then, let’s take a look at the five things we learned during Notre Dame’s 34-31 overtime loss to Michigan State in East Lansing.

1. Championship football teams play consistent football. Notre Dame does not.

Dayne Crist completed 60 percent of his passes for 369 yards and four touchdown passes. Those numbers are good enough to win for most football teams, but the Irish’s offensive miscues are what cost Notre Dame the game. In year one of both the Brian Kelly spread offense and the Dayne Crist era, the no-huddle, hurry-up offense is going through phases of boom and bust, capable of looking other-worldly on some drives and incompetent on others. With thirty-three seconds on the clock and Dayne Crist already sailing a pass dangerously high through the secondary, Brian Kelly decided to play for overtime. While a clipping call nullified the great field position the Irish had, Kelly’s decision to play for OT said all that was needed about Notre Dame’s offense. They’re too dangerous to trust right now.

Defensively, the Irish stop the run and cover the pass wonderfully on some series, and on others they look like they’re wearing roller skates. Manti Te’o’s play personified the Irish’s struggles with consistency. Even though he made double-digit tackles for the second consecutive game, Te’o’s missed tackle in the Spartans’ backfield on a screen pass to Le’Veon Bell crushed the Irish, turning a 3rd and long into a touchdown on the very next play. There are moments when the Irish play BCS caliber football. Unfortunately, the moments when they don’t have cost the Irish two football games.

2. Brian Kelly is a riverboat gambler.

Many expected Brian Kelly to coach football games the way he handles himself with the media — measured, politically savvy, and deftly able to steer clear of anything that’d be examined or second-guessed. But on the sidelines, Kelly operates on the other end of the spectrum, playing his gut and taking chances that make him an easy-target for those looking to question his coaching choices. The decision to play for the touchdown at the end of the first half against Michigan was just the first hint that Kelly’s a different man roaming the sidelines than he is in front of a microphone.

Staring at a 4th and 1 with just over six minutes remaining, Kelly opened himself up for ridicule, opting to go for it from the Irish 42-yard line, instead of playing safe and punting the ball away. Dayne Crist didn’t get it — he fumbled the ball off his own blocker as he cut north for first down yardage — and the Spartans recovered, taking over at the Notre Dame 44. The Irish defense picked up the slack and forced a punt, but Kelly’s shown in the first three games of his tenure that he’s willing to take risks that leave him open to questioning.

3. The lack of depth in the secondary is killing the Irish defense.

With Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy still hobbled, the Irish are forced to play Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta as deep-cover safeties. This is not a winning combination for the Irish. While Smith made a nice play on a deep-out, Motta just isn’t the type of guy that is comfortable in open space yet, and the long pass interference call is a perfect example of what can happen when you have an in-the-box strong safety type playing sky coverage over the top.

Darrin Walls and Gary Gray might be the most talented cornerbacking duo the Irish have had since Shane Walton and Vontez Duff, but taking 95-percent of the defensive snaps for an Irish team that has no desire to possess the football is a recipe for disaster. To his credit, Kelly understands the predicament he’s putting his defensive backs in.

“Those kids are warriors. We had three defensive backs that played through some significant injuries,” Kelly said after the game. “We’re so thin back there, with out being able to get Slaughter on the field. That put Blanton in a lot more of the corner position which took a little gas out of his tank. We’re just really thin there. They’re battling. I’m proud of the way they battled, and they were banged up pretty good.”

Newsflash to the Irish secondary: it doesn’t get any easier next week. The best quarterback on Notre Dame’s schedule, Andrew Luck of Stanford, is coming to South Bend.

4. Theo Riddick and Darius Fleming answered the bell.

If the Irish are going to play winning football, they’ll need Theo Riddick on offense and Darius Fleming on defense. For two weeks, neither player did much, failing to make an impact on the field or in the stat ledger. But that all changed today. While the Irish didn’t win, two essential playmakers found their stride, and for the Irish’s sake, it better be here to stay.

With the spotlight on him all week, Theo Riddick stepped up big, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown. He was elusive in the open field, turning multiple short passes into big gains.
“He broke out. He’s an exciting player,” Kelly said. “We knew that he was going to be
able to add to our offense, it was just a matter of time. And now he
gives us that third weapon that we had been looking for to balance off Rudolph and Floyd.”

It’ll likely be forgotten because of the fake field goal, but Fleming’s sack in overtime, to go along with his fourth quarter sack, where gigantic plays for an Irish defense that held its ground late. Fleming was one of the only pass-rushers to get consistent pressure on Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins, and while it’s in a losing effort, he got pressure from the Cat linebacker position, something critical for a Bob Diaco defense.

5. Different coach, same team.

For those that say the Irish can’t get it done at the end of the ballgame, rewind your DVRs and watch the first half of the football game. The Irish lost to Michigan State not because of a fake field goal, but because they failed to capitalize when they had the other team on the ropes. Two costly red zone turnovers (by two of Notre Dame’s best offensive players) stalled out drives when the Irish needed to get points on the board.

Even though it’s only three games into the Brian Kelly era, the vultures are once again circling the Irish football program. Staring at a home-date against Jim Harbaugh’s high-powered Stanford team, there’s a realistic chance the Irish are looking at a 1-3 record, with games against Boston College and Pitt still ahead. All in all, if you’re looking for negativity, there’s plenty to be found. (Just take a look at the comments around here.) After the game, Kelly said there’s a simply way to combat that.

“This is about belief. What do you believe in, after a loss as difficult
as this, what do you believe in?” Kelly said. “Do you believe in your teammates? Do
you believe in your coaches? Do you believe in the preparation? If you
do, you’ll come back and we’ll work harder and we’ll continue to work to
get better. If you don’t believe, then these are times when you start
to see teams pull apart. It’s all about belief at this point.”

While Kelly used a Van Halen reference earlier this week to talk about how important Mike Elston’s return to the football team is, he’d be better off referencing another 80s hair-band to get his point across this week.

To quote the ubiquitous Journey anthem: “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Notre Dame’s Pro Day showcases Nelson, Adams and Smythe, among others

In just 4.48 seconds, former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams took a step or 40 closer to hearing his name called during the NFL draft in late April. Adams’ 40-yard dash time would have been the fifth-best among running backs at the NFL combine in Indianapolis last month.

Then again, a foot injury that may require surgery could stymie Adams’ draft hopes. Both Irish Illustrated and ND Insider reported Adams vaguely confirmed the injury during Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday, but he would not offer much in the way of specifics.

“Overall, I felt like everything went well,” Adams told Irish Illustrated. “I wanted to run low 4.4s, but to me it was all about how I felt. It was strong. I know the numbers may be all over the place, but I felt strong and to me, that’s good. I know it was fast. It wasn’t slow.”

One of nine former Notre Dame players to take part to varying extents in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams, Adams’ numbers best compared to the results from his positional competition at the combine. His 60-yard shuttle time would have been No. 2 among running backs, his three-cone time would have been the best and his broad jump would have slotted fifth. Those may not be the end-all, be-all metrics when it comes to evaluating running backs, but they certainly helped Adams’ cause.

Only four others partook in the 40-yard dash: Linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan each ran a 4.78; defensive end Andrew Trumbetti ran a 4.83, and quarterback Malik Zaire ran a 4.93.

A surgery will also hamper Morgan before he commences his NFL career. Morgan silently fought through a shoulder injury much of his senior season and underwent labrum surgery soon after the Irish victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.

“I still can’t bench press, and I was only cleared to run two or three weeks ago,” Morgan told ND Insider. “I think I showed them I’m an explosive player. I hope I showed them I can fit in any system. I’m going to keep working hard every day to prove it.”

While he did not showcase himself in any of the timed exercises, instead relying on his performance at the combine, tight end Durham Smythe continued his push onto draft boards this offseason. Considering his final and arguably his best season consisted of only 15 catches for 244 yards and one touchdown, Smythe began these draft preparations a bit of an unheralded possibility. By now, though, he is in many a draft conversation.

Pro Day: Nelson impresses, Smythe surprises

On the exact opposite end of that spectrum, left guard Quenton Nelson was a distinct reason for many of the 58 NFL front office personnel attending at all. The Indianapolis Colts, for example, hold the No. 6 pick in the draft. Nelson may fall to the Colts, at which point they will want to be sure of such a decision.

“You can see his natural power,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard told The Indianapolis Star. “He’s a big, strong man. He’s got quick feet, good agility and balance, so you see about everything you wanted to see. You saw it on tape, too. So it’s just reconfirming it.”

Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and left tackle Mike McGlinchey also partook in the pro day.

Full results here

A few current Notre Dame players hung around, as well, with one standing out due to his water boy duties. Of course, given the protection offered by Nelson and McGlinchey last season, offering them water for an afternoon was the least Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush could do.

Love’s press coverage hinges on Notre Dame’s safeties

Associated Press

It will likely be a dichotomy all year. At least, that is the expectation. Every praise of Notre Dame’s secondary will be followed by a clarification that the applause applies specifically to the Irish cornerbacks. At times that will be an implied criticism of Notre Dame’s safeties, but even more often it will probably be an acknowledgement of an Irish strength. Of the choices ahead for defensive coordinator Clark Lea, settling on a rotation among cornerbacks is the only one created by a plethora of proven contributors.

With a trio of rising juniors in Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn along with rising senior Shaun Crawford and fifth-year Nick Watkins, Lea has five viable options for two starting roles. That excess will allow Notre Dame to rely on its nickel package at length this fall, and never hesitate about slipping a fourth cornerback onto the field in dime situations.

For now, the springtime emphasis is as much on improving the group as it is about settling on a pecking order.

“We’re really working on the competition end of things,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Add [early-enrolled freshman] Houston Griffith to that mix and we have what we feel is really good depth and competition. We want to take our game to a new level, and that new level is we have to be much more efficient on driving on some of the more intermediate and short routes and getting off the field on third down.”

In the past, the Irish focused on keeping everything in front of the secondary, often at the expense of giving up short-to-medium gains while limiting big-play mistakes.

“We’re probably a little bit over the top in terms of staying on our (backpedal) on some quick game things that didn’t allow us to close,” Kelly said. “The emphasis for our corners is to tighten up on some of the quick game.”

An optimistic reading between the lines could see that change in approach as evidence of a step forward from Notre Dame’s safeties. The risk of limiting the quick passing game is it would allow a receiver to get past the coverage with a simple double-move. If a safety can be relied on to provide over-the-top relief, that concern is mitigated.

Such a role may befit rising junior Alohi Gilman well. Gilman is best-known for his 76 tackles as a freshman at Navy, compared to five pass breakups and no interceptions. A dozen of those tackles came against the Irish, furthering his reputation as a physical force ready to provide run support. Kelly has seen a different side of Gilman this spring.

“He’s on the ball and somebody that can play the ball in the air,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if we had an interception from a safety last year. [Gilman is] a guy that will get his hands on the ball.”

Note: Notre Dame’s safeties recorded zero interceptions and a combined total of five pass breakups in 2017.

Julian Love came five yards away from returning a third interception for a touchdown in 2017 when he could not quite elude Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Whoever ends up as the starting safeties, they will rely on the standard set by the cornerbacks to make their lives easier. In particular, third-year starter Love will have more opportunities with a shift toward a pressing defense. He has already shown a knack for jumping routes with great results, after all. Three times in 2017 Love correctly read quick routes and stepped in for an interception, returning two interceptions for touchdowns and coming yards away from a third.

“We’re going to be doing some things that are going to accentuate his ability to play press coverage,” Kelly said. “We want to play some press. It’s something we haven’t done much here, but it’s something he brings to our football team, and when you can press some guys and have the physicality that he has, it elevates his game.”

Imagining Love playing better than he did in 2017 — a season that saw him earn second-team All-American honors from — will strike fear into opposing quarterbacks, but if the Irish safeties are not up for the task of providing back-end support, a pressing defense could also gift those passers big-play opportunities.

Kelly on Notre Dame’s break in spring practices & linebacker options

Associated Press

Notre Dame restarted spring practice Tuesday, not much worse for the wear from spring break, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly and the conditioning tests tied to the return to campus.

“I’m sure they got a chance to be college students on break, but they also understood how important it was to come back in good physical condition,” Kelly said.

Much like it has frequently in the past, Notre Dame intentionally scheduled a few practices before taking more than a week off for the mid-semester break. In doing so, the Irish do not gain additional practice time, but they do stretch the time spent engaged in football activities during the spring, nonetheless. The NCAA allows only 15 spring practices, all to be held within 28 days, but when school is not in session, that clock pauses.

Thus, Kelly and his coaching staff spent the two practices preceding break focusing on scheme implementation. Worst-case scenario, Notre Dame gets its 15 practices with a slight bit less fatigue. Best-case scenario, the conversations before break mill around in players’ heads a bit for an additional week. It also helps allay some of the mid-semester academic burdens.

Whether as a result of that strategy or simply due to spending a second season within the same scheme, Kelly saw a more consistent performance from the Irish defense in Tuesday’s practice, the spring’s third and first in pads.

“You don’t see a lot of the miscues that maybe we had at other times, relative to the number of guys that have experience,” he said. “I don’t think you see it in a transformational sense as much as you see it in small areas that look to be really clean.”

That defense may go as far as its linebackers carry it this fall. The defensive line looks to be a strength both in terms of talent and depth. An array of skilled cornerbacks will hold up a secondary likely still plagued by average safety play. The linebackers, however, are not as clear an image yet. Fifth-year rover-turned-linebacker Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney will lead the way, leaving a question mark at rover.

Kelly spoke well of rising senior Asmar Bilal at the position, but only against more physical opponents. Against a spread offense, a different option may be needed at the safety/linebacker hybrid position.

“We have some other options there,” Kelly said. “I don’t think it needs to come to, ‘Alright, this has to happen in the spring.’

“I think the nickel position will help us decide the rover positon. We know what we have in Asmar against the tight end there, and then we just keep working some young guys.”

One particular “young guy” in the mix is rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, who has shown all the physical gifts necessary, but has yet to experience collegiate competition.

“It is strictly about his ability not to [make mistakes], and that’s just going to take time,” Kelly said. “He has traits, there’s no question about that from a physical standpoint. He has to get the traits from the other side of it, understanding the game and what we’re doing.”

In addition to rover, Notre Dame needs to find a backup linebacker to give Tranquill and Coney some rest when needed. At least at rover, situational packages can offer a breather to anyone who takes the majority of reps there.

While rising junior Jonathan Jones is the front-runner for that responsibility, three early-enrolled freshmen are in the mix, as well, although only to various degrees. Kelly indicated Bo Bauer may be the most game-ready of him, Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo.

“[Bauer’s] physicality is really good,” Kelly said. “He’s capable of probably playing right away. Smart and physical.

“Of the three guys, he’s a little bit ahead of them, but each one of them has some interesting and unique traits that are going to allow them to be very successful for us.”

Kelly praised Oghoufo’s athleticism and football intellect, while hoping he will see gains in strength and conditioning this offseason. Lamb, meanwhile, is possibly athletically ready to see action, but may not yet be prepared for the wear-and-tear of playing as an interior linebacker.

The greatest play of Miles Boykin’s career to date may have come on a pass from Ian Book, but his chemistry with quarterback Brandon Wimbush has drawn attention already this spring. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

On Brandon Wimbush and Miles Boykin
Recapping every step forward or backward of every position this spring would become a repetitive and aimless exercise. One day rising sophomore receiver Michael Young will look like a rapidly-developing weapon, and a week later rising junior Javon McKinley may have replaced him as the flavor of the day.

But the competition at quarterback will be the topic paid most attention to, so when a pertinent bit is offered, it should be included. With that in mind, the only mention of either rising senior Brandon Wimbush or rising junior Ian Book on Tuesday was Kelly’s highlighting of the chemistry between Wimbush and classmate Miles Boykin.

“Wimbush and Miles have a great relationship out there,” Kelly said. “You can see that they’re going to connect on some big plays for us.”

Furthering the conversation on Boykin: “He’s playing with a lot of confidence, now with [former Irish receiver Equanimeous St. Brown] moving on, [Boykin] has that opportunity to really shine and he’s had three really good practices. I think that’s a guy now that ascends.”

Monday’s Leftovers: A worst-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring, with links to read

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Notre Dame will return from spring break today and get back to practice tomorrow, presumably breaking out pads for the first time this spring. Obviously, Irish nightmares of spring practice focus on injuries. Aside from those, though, …

Continuing quarterback confusion throughout the spring would not please anybody, especially if the issue becomes even cloudier than it already is. Of course, there is a not-so-bad version of this: Both rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book perform well, making Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s decision heading into the fall a difficult one because he actually has multiple worthwhile options.

Then, there is the worst-case scenario: Both Wimbush and Book flail away this spring, culminating with them turning over the ball multiple times apiece in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21. Such disappointments could lead to incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec arriving this summer an immediate and genuine piece of the starting quarterback competition. That would speak worse of Wimbush’s and Book’s next month than it would inherently speak well of Jurkovec’s 2018 potential.

If rising junior Ian Book does not perform ably this spring, Notre Dame would be one step closer to a summer spent discussing a lack of options at quarterback. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

No receivers emerge, either.
After the Irish receivers appeared to be a strength last spring, the season brought only inconsistency and little production. If that trend continues this spring, it may not matter who is throwing the ball in the fall.

This might not keep Long or Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly up at night, though, with three more incoming freshmen arriving this summer to shore up the receiving corps, a bandage not available to fix if …

No fourth linebacker provides peace of mind.
With both early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer already practicing, an absence of a strong backup linebacker would have no likely solution this fall. If those two were not around, and both rising junior Jonathan Jones and rising senior Asmar Bilal — not to mention rising sophomores David White and Drew Adams — failed to impress this spring, then the hope could be Lamb or Bauer would arrive in the summer and be an immediate fix.

With them on-campus, a lack of a worthwhile linebacker exiting this spring would foreshadow a lack of rest and injury relief for fifth-year Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney.

Lastly, and with the broadest view, 89 stays 89.
When the spring ends, the conversation will return to how the Irish roster will get down to the NCAA maximum-allowed 85 scholarships, four fewer than currently anticipated this fall. This would be extremely unlikely, although within a discussion of a worst-case scenario, but if summer begins and no outgoing transfers surface, then that scholarship crunch could quickly create unnecessary drama and suspense.

Right now, four spots of attrition is entirely reasonable and even usual. If that is still the number to be lost in late May, those adjectives may shift to avoidable and stressful.

— Last week’s “Leftovers” asked who should be Notre Dame’s fourth captain, a position to be filled by player vote at the end of spring practice.  The results tilted heavily toward the defense.

Coney: 37.27 percent
Rising junior cornerback Julian Love: 24.62 percent
Rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery: 15.34 percent

From there, Wimbush, fifth-year right guard Alex Bars and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar all fell between 5 and 9 percent.

— With spring break over, a quick piece of scheduling housekeeping: Notre Dame will fit in 12 more practices before the spring sessions conclude with the Blue-Gold Game. That will entail practices on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with a brief break for Easter.

— The biggest free agent of the NFL offseason signed with the Minnesota Vikings over the weekend. Kirk Cousins may elicit poor memories for Irish fans, being the former Michigan State quarterback who authored much of the Spartans’ 34-31 victory in 2010, a game more commonly referred to simply as “Little Giants.”

After just reaching his second Pro Bowl, former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph should be primed for an even better 2018 thanks to the Vikings’ signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

But Cousins’ payday should bode well for someone else from that game. Tight end Kyle Rudolph reached the Pro Bowl this past season thanks to 57 catches for 532 yards and eight touchdowns. With Cousins throwing passes, Washington’s tight ends have put up stat lines dwarfing that the last few seasons. In looking at those stats, the last two years need to include two tight ends, since Jordan Reed has yet to stay healthy through an entire season.

2017: Reed and Vernon Davis combined for 70 catches for 859 yards and five touchdowns.
2016: Reed and Davis combined for 130 catches for 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns.
2015: Reed’s breakout campaign consisted of 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 14 games.

Rudolph could, even should, enjoy a career year catching passes from his former nemesis next season.

— Only one program can claim both a Sweet Sixteen entrant in the men’s basketball tournament and a top-25 football team. Who is it? (Answer at the bottom.)

Who should Notre Dame’s fourth captain be? And DeShone Kizer heads to the Green Bay Packers
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions
A best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring

Bengals re-sign Tyler Eifert
Bob Diaco reportedly heads to Oklahoma as a defensive analyst
Michigan unlikely to have answer on Shea Patterson before practice begins

ANSWER TO THE ABOVE TRIVIA: Clemson, though even if the Tigers had lost Sunday, one program would still have been able to make that claim, considering Clemson beat another Tiger in Auburn.