The Good, the bad the ugly: Michigan State

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It’s hard to envision two endings more painful than the last two Saturdays for Notre Dame. Against two familiar rivals, the Irish came out on the wrong end of two last-minute finishes, and in the process ripped open old wounds and forced plenty of repressed memories to the forefront.

For players and fans alike, there’s suddenly a feeling of “we’ve been here before,” and head coach Brian Kelly is learning that the Notre Dame job is unlike anything he’s experienced before. The Irish loss on Saturday night dropped Notre Dame to 1-2 on the season, and now stare at three of the hardest games on the schedule, and a Saturday date with one of the country’s hottest teams this Saturday afternoon.

There will be plenty of time to talk about Jim Harbaugh and his Stanford Cardinal. For now, let’s close the book on Michigan State and take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s 34-31 defeat at the hands of the Spartans.

THE GOOD

Any talk of good needs to start with the play of Theo Riddick. Playing in his third game as a wide receiver, Riddick put up monster numbers from the slot, making 10 catches for 128 yards and adding a touchdown. He broke tackles on short throws, showed nuance in his route-running, and gave the Irish a slot presence to balance pressure against Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

While I don’t expect him to win the Biletnikoff Award next season, it’s interesting to compare Riddick’s progress at this point in his career to what Golden Tate did through three games of his sophomore season.

      FRESHMAN SEASONS

      Golden Tate: 6 catches, 131 yards, 1 TD
      Highlight: Purdue — 3 catches, 104 yards, 1 TD

      Theo Riddick: 29 carries, 160 yards. 6 catches, 43 yards.
      Highlight: Washington State — 9 carries, 51 yards, 3 catches, 24 yards.

      SOPHOMORE SEASON (Through three games)
    
      Golden Tate: 15 catches, 303 yards, 2 TDs
      Highlight: Michigan — 4 catches, 127 yards, 1 TD

      Theo Riddick: 14 catches, 180 yards, 1 TD
      Highlight: 10 catches, 128 yards, 1 TD.

Consider that Riddick is playing with a first-year quarterback in a completely new system while transitioning to a new position, and Saturday’s breakthrough performance looks even more impressive.

THE BAD

The Irish defense struggled stopping Michigan State’s running attack. If you subtract Kirk Cousins from the running game, Spartan backs ran for 208 yards on 35 carries, a robust 5.9 yards per attempt. Even if you take out Edwin Baker’s 56 yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, the defense gave up 4.5 yards a carry — just too many yards to be successful.

The Irish also struggled in the short passing game, giving up big plays on high-percentage throws like quick screens to wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. While the Irish made half-time adjustments, there were too many times where Zeke Motta had to come up and make a tackle on a short throw at full-speed and he failed to do so. It’s an incredibly daunting task to play any football game with only two healthy scholarship safeties, and both Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta played good football games, considering the circumstances.

The defense gave up 477 yards a week after giving up over 500 to Michigan and quarterback Denard Robinson. While they forced one turnover on a terrible decision by Cousins, the defense needs to do a better job for the Irish to win.

THE UGLY

The aftermath of the game’s final play seems to extend to both teams. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio suffered a heart attack after the victory, and his timetable to return to the Spartans is unknown.

For the Irish, the fake field goal unleashed ugly torrents of fan backlash — it only took three games for people to call for the resignation of Brian Kelly on popular website NDNation.com — and once again Notre Dame fans are the ones leading the charge against the team they support.

(Just a reminder: It’s far too early to anoint or discredit Brian Kelly, and making any decision after two heartbreaking losses makes you sound foolish.) 

Looking closer at the fake field goal and the circumstances under which it was called make you applaud the guts of Dantonio and also understand why it was the perfect call. Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy had attempted five career field goals, none close to having the amount of pressure as an overtime 46-yarder. Dantonio also knew the Irish were short their special teams coach, with Mike Elston relegated to the role of spectator after being hospitalized with a viral infection. More so, even if the Spartan’s converted the field goal, Notre Dame would be on offense last during the second overtime, and Dantonio wouldn’t get another chance to play for the win.

Linebacker Manti Te’o admitted that the thought of fake went through his head after the game, and the Irish seemed to be ready for it with two of the Spartan’s passing options covered. But Harrison Smith fell after being run over by tight end Charlie Gantt, and the bruising tight end rumbled into the end zone. The rest is history.

 

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.