Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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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 returns 15 starters in 2017; How many do its opponents?

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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In six months—180 days, to be even more precise—college football will return. Sure, spring practice might be only eight days away in South Bend, but those sessions will have no tangible effect on the national championship chase.

On Aug. 25, Stanford will face Rice in Sydney. According to AP Style, one does not need to notate Australia there, but some thoroughness can’t hurt, right? For that matter, South Florida will take on San Jose State, and Hawai’i will travel all the way to Foxboro, Mass. to take on Massachusetts.

Six months ago—well, again, 180 days to be exact—No. 19 Louisville introduced America to quarterback Lamar Jackson in a 70-14 rout of Charlotte, kicking off the 2016 season with an eight-touchdown performance from the eventual Heisman winner. No. 9 Tennessee topped Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, setting the stage for a Volunteers season full of dramatics.

A week after the Cardinal go down under to face the Owls, Notre Dame will open its season against Temple with 15 returning starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, pending any spring or summer departures or injuries. According to Phil Steele, 24 teams return more experience.

Offense: Offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey (12 starts in 2016), Quenton Nelson (12), Sam Mustipher (12) and Alex Bars (12); tight end Durham Smythe (12); receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (12); running back Josh Adams (nine) and C.J. Sanders (seven)
Defense: Safeties Drue Tranquill (12) and Devin Studstill (nine); cornerback Julian Love (eight); linebackers Nyles Morgan (12) and Te’von Coney (nine); and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (11) and Andrew Trumbetti (seven)

How does this Irish listing compare to Notre Dame’s opponents? Right about middle of the pack. (If a quarterback is not specifically mentioned, the team does not return a starter at that position.)

Sept. 2 — v. Temple, returns 10 starters; six on offense and four on defense
Sept. 9 — v. Georgia, returns 17 starters; seven on offense, including quarterback Jacob Eason, and 10 on defense
Sept. 16 — at Boston College, returns 15 starters; eight on offense and seven on defense
Sept. 23 — at Michigan State, returns nine starters; four on offense and five on defense
Sept. 30 — v. Miami (Ohio), returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Gus Ragland, and eight on defense
Oct. 7 — at North Carolina, returns 12 starters; five on offense and seven on defense
Oct. 21 — v. USC, returns 12 starters; five on offense, including quarterback and Heisman-threat Sam Darnold, and seven on defense
Oct. 28 — v. North Carolina State, returns 17 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, and eight on defense
Nov. 4 — v. Wake Forest, returns 15 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback John Wolford, and six on defense
Nov. 11 — at Miami (Fla.), returns 15 starters; seven on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 18 — v. Navy, returns 13 starters; five on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 25 — at Stanford, returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Ryan Burns, and eight on defense

Naturally, the number of returning starters is cyclical, and some might argue teams with lackluster records one season should not want to return many starters the next. Then again, those players started over others for a presumed reason in the first place

Acknowledging that cycle, it seems innate to take a look at how many starters Notre Dame might return in 2018. By no means is the intent here to look past 2017. Rather, consider this something of a scholarship chart cliff notes. As always, this does not factor in the inevitable injuries, transfers and departures otherwise inherent to the coming six months.

Of the above eight offensive returnees, McGlinchey and Smythe will both be out of eligibility following 2017, and Nelson will nearly-certainly depart for the first round of the NFL Draft. The other five, though, could all be back in blue-and-gold. One would think quarterback Brandon Wimbush—2017’s assumed starter—will return, as would whoever the third receiver is in 2017, considering there is no senior at the position aside from graduate transfer Freddy Canteen who has two years of eligibility remaining anyways. If a tight end such as freshman early enrollee Brock Wright or junior Alizé Mack were to usurp Smythe, then the Irish may have eight returning offensive starters again in 2018.

Of the above seven defensive returnees, only Morgan and Trumbetti will finish their eligibility this season. If Tranquill does indeed end up manning the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, that will open a starting spot for another safety. Whoever that is, he will have eligibility remaining, as will whatever cornerback lines up opposite Love. The defensive line remains a quandary, but it is distinctly possible Notre Dame returns eight defensive starters, as well, in 2018.

Fortunately, spring practice begins March 8, and some light can begin to shine on those questions regarding the defensive line and the overall defensive alignment. In addition to garnering excitement for 2017, they can also shed some insights into the seasons to come.

Oh, and in case you are curious, Stanford will fly 7,434 miles to get to Sydney while Hawai’i will travel a mere 5,083 to get to Gillette Stadium.

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…)