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.   

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…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)