Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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A win is a win is a win. It wasn’t particularly good looking, but Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish got back on the right side of the ledger this evening in Boston, coasting to a 31-13 win over Boston College, a team searching even harder for an identity than Notre Dame.

While the rivalry between Notre Dame and Boston College always seems to end up in down-to-the-wire finishes, the Irish exploded for three early touchdowns before coasting in for the victory, showing Irish fans what the offense is capable of when executed properly, but also frustrating those same fans with self-inflicted mistakes that almost let the Eagles climb off the mat and back into the game.

But behind quarterbacks Chase Rettig and Mike Marscovetra the Eagles couldn’t find a rhythm on offense, gaining only five total yards on the ground and relying completely on a passing game that was far too inconsistent to be dangerous.

In a Holy War rivalry that’s been hotly contested the past decade, this game had many similarities to the 2008 match-up, only this time it was Boston College’s offense that was held in check by the opposition’s defense and Notre Dame that did enough to coast to a victory.

In the end, Notre Dame gets an easy victory at night in Chestnut Hill, something that should never be discounted. While they won’t get any style points, the Irish improve to 2-3, and now head home with a chance to get back to .500 against Pitt.

Here’s what we learned during Notre Dame’s 31-13 win.

1. The Irish offense was ready for the opening bell.

With most of the fan base worried, the Irish offense opened quickly in the first quarter, putting together three touchdown drives in their opening four possessions and putting the game essentially out of reach in the first eleven minutes of the evening.

The decision to move Bennett Jackson into the kick return game was immediately rewarded when the lanky freshman scampered for 43 yards on the opening kickoff and gave Notre Dame great field position. Behind solid running from Armando Allen, and a zone-read keeper for Dayne Crist, the Irish got out of the blocks perfectly, starting quickly and getting a much-needed red zone touchdown.

Of the Irish’s three touchdown drives, the longest was 3:38, and they were the product of the Irish offense taking care of business and the Irish defense overwhelming a absolutely mediocre Eagles offense.

2. The Irish offensive line rallied after last week’s disappointing performance.

While the number don’t necessarily reflect it, the offensive line did a nice job establishing a running game. From the opening kickoff, the linemen cleared the way, with Armando Allen’s 90 yards on 19 carries a pretty good day at the office. And while Dayne Crist never really truly got on track in the pocket, the offensive line protected him well, giving up only one sack the entire evening. The line handled the crowd noise in Alumni Stadium flawlessly and also only committed one penalty, a declined holding call on Chris Stewart.

If defenses are going to continue to try and drop players into coverage to take away the Irish passing game, it’ll be up to the offensive line to create running lanes for the backs and protect Crist long enough to find open receivers.

3. Carlo Calabrese is becoming a very good football player.

Brian Kelly discussed it earlier in the week, but Carlo Calabrese probably played his best game in a Notre Dame uniform this evening. Calabrese led the Irish in tackles and also in tackles for loss with 3.5, and chipped in a sack for good measure. At a position that looked completely unstable during preseason camp, Calabrese has become a rock on the inside — a run-stuffing battering ram that plays incredibly tough on the interior of the defense while also playing more than good enough defense against the pass. It’s the work of Calabrese, Manti Te’o, and defensive tackle Ian Williams that held Montel Harris and the Boston College rushing attack to single-digit yardage, quite an achievement for a team that came into the evening ranked 98th in the country against the run.

4. The Irish won the game by being good at the little things.

The easy answer to the Irish win might be Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani’s refusal to put Dave Shinskie into the game after both Chase Rettig and Mike Marscovetra struggled, but if you’re looking for two key statistics on why the Irish won easily, look at penalties and third downs.

The Irish only committed two penalties for 22 yards while Boston College was hit with 12 penalties for 120 yards. In a game where Notre Dame only had 315 total yards and BC was held to 270, spotting a team an extra 25 percent of their total yardage is a very good way to give away a football game, something Boston College did by committing multiple personal foul infractions. While the three Notre Dame turnovers makes you forget that the Irish avoided the mistakes that have plagued them over the first month of the season, committing only two penalties — one that came on the final drive of the game — is a very nice sign for Kelly’s Irish.

The other key stat that has to have people feeling better about the Irish, is their margin of victory on third down conversions. The Irish converted 8 of 19 third down attempts, not an entirely great night on 3rd down, but excellent when you compare it to what Boston College did. The Irish held BC to just four of 19 on their third downs, forcing the Eagles to punt 11 times, and the Irish D consistently got off the field on third down, something that was a complete problem area for the Irish last week.

5. The Irish are poised to build on this victory.

It’s easy to downplay this victory because of the ebbs and flows of the evening, but there were plenty of good things for the Irish to build on Saturday night. With the Irish’s back against the wall, Notre Dame came out swinging and effectively knocked Boston College out of the game in the opening minutes of the evening. Those three quick strikes remind Irish fans that Notre Dame is picking up the elements of the offense, and with explosive downfield passes to Theo Riddick and Michael Floyd, the offense is slowly but surely coming around.

Defensively, holding any team to 0.2 yards per carry is a victory that has to have the Irish feeling better about their run defense as they prepare to face a Pitt team that features one of the more dangerous running backs in the country. And other than Gary Gray’s blown-coverage on Bobby Swigert’s double-move, the Irish intercepted two passes and held BC quarterbacks to an incredibly inefficient night passing. (On his Twitter page this evening, Gray apologized for the touchdown pass: “My bad on the double move. Fool me once shame on them, fool me twice shame on me.”) Robert Blanton played another excellent game, coming up with a great deflection and interception, and the Irish coaches should feel like they have three rock-solid cornerbacks. Safety Dan McCarthy showed up around the ball plenty in the second half in his first extended tour of duty in the secondary, a welcome site for those that are worried that Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta could be running out of gas. (Even Harrison Smith had an interception…) Irish fans also might have gotten a look at their pass rusher of the future, when Prince Shembo came off the edge twice to sack Boston College quarterbacks, providing two of the five Irish sacks that the defense put together.

More important that any individual effort, the Irish came away with a much needed win in a rivalry game, and did so in an incredibly comfortable fashion. There was no heart-burn tonight, only a quick flurry to open the evening and the Irish controlling the tempo of the game until the very end. With 2-2 Pitt coming to town, the Irish should be favored as they try to get back to level par on the year before a much needed week off. While
3-3 wasn’t what many of us
projected, removing the possibility of 1-4 was all that anybody could’ve asked for tonight.   

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.