Pregame Twelve Pack: Pitt edition

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We’re back with the Pitt Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Pitt game.

1. Feel good about the Irish this weekend? Feel good about October 9th.

If you’re looking for a reason to feel confident about the Irish this Saturday, just look at the calendar. Notre Dame plays some very good football on October 9th, having never lost a football game on the date in the program’s history.

The Irish have gone 13-0-1 all-time on the date, the lone tie coming back in 1937 when the Irish played a scoreless draw with Illinois.

Here’s a rundown of the Irish on Oct. 9:

     2004 — ND 23, Stanford 15
     1999 — ND 48, Arizona State 17
     1993 — ND 44, Pitt 0
     1982 — ND 16, Miami 14
     1971 — ND 17, Miami 0
     1965 — ND 17, Army 0
     1954 — ND 33, Pitt 0
     1948 — ND 26, Michigan State 7
     1943 — ND 35, Michigan 12
     1937 — ND 0, Illinois 0
     1926 — ND 20, Minnesota 7
     1915 — ND 34, Haskell 0
     1909 — ND 58, Olivet 0

The 1943 game between the Irish in the Wolverines featured the number one and two ranked teams in the country, with No. 1 Notre Dame coming out victorious.

2. Irish have the size advantage up front, Pitt holds the size advantage on the edges.

I was surprised to see Notre Dame have a fairly large advantage in the battle up front. On average, Notre Dame’s offense line out-weights Pitt’s defensive front by nearly 37 pounds, with Irish offensive linemen averaging 306 pounds and Pitt defensive linemen averaging 270. On the flip-side, Pitt’s offensive line only out-weighs the Irish front three of the Irish by a mere 8 pounds, stacking up at 299 pounds on the Panthers offensive front while the Irish d-line averages 291 pounds.

In the secondary, the advantage heavily skews in the favor of Pitt though, with the average Pitt WR/TE checking in at 6-foot-5, and the average Notre Dame DB measuring a shade above six-feet tall. Meanwhile, the average Notre Dame WR/TE stands a quarter-inch under 6-foot-2, while the Panthers secondary averages over 5-foot-11.

Last year, the size advantage of Pitt’s receivers and tight ends played a massive part in the game. We’ll see if the Irish can nullify that advantage with some smart pressure on raw quarterback Tino Sunseri.

3. How good was Ray Graham last week? Historically good.

Pitt tailback Ray Graham set the world on fire last week with a monster game, rushing for 277 yards on 29 carries for three TDs. Graham’s game was the best rushing performance of the season in FBS, out-gaining the day Denard Robinson had against Notre Dame by 19 yards, on just one more carry.

Graham’s game also went down in the Pitt record book as one of the best in school history. His 277 yards was shy only Tony Dorsett’s game in 1975 against Notre Dame where he ran for 303 yards on 23 carries and one touchown, averaging an astonishing 13.2 yards per carry.

Graham had 374 all-purpose yards against Florida International, gaining those yards on 34 plays, an average of 11 yards per touch.

4. Tausch takes Ruffer’s kickoff job, Ruffer could take Tausch’s record.

Brian Kelly announced that sophomore Nick Tausch will be taking over for David Ruffer on kickoffs, but Ruffer would continue to kick field goals.

“Tausch was pretty consistent with his kickoffs in terms of placement,” Kelly said about the switch.
“One of the big things in our kickoff is ball placement. And we weren’t
getting a consistent ball placement. He was kicking it, he was kicking
it hard. But we’d have a squeeze left on and he’d kick it to the right
and really compromise some of our coverages. This is really about ball
placement. Nick’s always been a little bit better at ball placement. He
hasn’t kicked it as deep. But we’re willing to take a little bit off to
ensure some better placement.”

Tausch will get to put his foot to the ball, but Ruffer still will be taking dead aim at the school record Tausch holds for consecutive field goals made with 14. Ruffer sits at 13, making every single kick he’s attempted since he saw the field last year.

5. Brian Kelly 2, Dave Wannstedt 1.

That’s the overall record when these two coaches get together, with Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats beating Wannstedt’s Panthers the last two times they’ve played. Last season’s loss might have been the most crushing defeat for Wannstedt’s troops, losing their second straight last-second defeat, after falling in the Backyard Brawl to an unranked West Virginia team on a field goal as time expired. Wannstedt’s loss to Kelly’s Bearcats was had the Panthers blowing a 31-10 first half lead, and losing on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Tony Pike to Armon Binns with 33 seconds remaining in the game, a loss made possible when holder Andrew Janocko mishandled a snap on an extra point with just 1:36 remaining.

In 2008, Kelly’s Bearcats survived a late charge by Pitt led by running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Dorrin Dickerson and held on for a 28-21 victory, the victory for the No. 19 rated Cincinnati squad clinching the Big East championship. In 2007, it was Wannstedt springing the surprise on Kelly, the Panthers winning just their third game of the season and holding a Ben Mauk led offense in check as the Bearcats lost just their second game in eight attempts.

“I think we both know that we have a good grasp of — they know what
we’re going to do offensively, and we kind of know what they’re going to
do defensively, so I think that’s a wash,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I still think this comes down to who’s better prepared and who executes
better on Saturday, because we know each other so well. They’re like a
conference opponent more than anything else, going into a conference
game.”

6. There’s another ugly home losing streak that the Irish would like to end this Saturday.

While it doesn’t match the streak Boston College had run up over the last decade, Pitt is playing for an unprecedented third straight road victory at Notre Dame Stadium. The Panthers have won their previous two stops in South Bend, including the quadruple overtime win over the Irish in 2008, where Pitt escaped with a 36-33 victory.

In all, Pitt has won three of the last four games against the Irish, including their 27-22 victory over Notre Dame last year. Over the last 31 games, Pitt is 22-9, their winningest stretch since the 2001-03 seasons. In contrast, over the last 31 games, Notre Dame is 11-14.

7. Stopping the run with be the key to Irish victory.

With Ray Graham and Dion Lewis the best one-two punch the Irish will see all season in the backfield, stopping the run will be the key to victory for Notre Dame. The Irish saw a statistical surge after their dominating performance last week at Boston College, having their rush defense go from near the bottom of the heap in FBS up to a much more respectable 68th against the run.

In fact, the Irish run defense was one of the best performances the Irish have had since the Lou Holtz era ended. The Eagles’ five yards of rushing was the best performance the Irish have had since they held Stanford to -11 rushing yards in 2005, and the second-best performance by an Irish defense since 1998. The Eagles two rushing first downs were the fewest allowed since Holtz’s Irish squad held Vanderbilt to just one rushing first down on September 5, 1996.

8. Both Pitt and the Irish have been on the wrong side of some very close losses.

Over the last two seasons, the Irish have lost an incredible amount of close football games. Even including the 23-point victory by Stanford, the Irish average loss over the past two years has been by 6.4 points — a combined 58 points in 9 defeats.

Pitt has also had its share of hard luck, with their five losses over the past two seasons coming by a combined 42 points, an average of 8.4 points per game. A pretty remarkable number when you consider that the Panthers lost by 28 points to Miami two weeks ago, skewing the numbers quite a bit. Throw the Miami game out, and Pitt’s average loss the past two seasons has been by 3.5 points. That’s nearly a mirror image of their three losses in 2009, games Pitt lost by a combined 11 points, with two of those losses coming in the game’s final minute.

9. The Irish need to play a better game of give and take.

Pouring through the weekly stats, one area that Notre Dame needs to improve is their give/take ratio. Notre Dame is -4 on turnovers, taking the ball away from opponents 8 times, but giving it away 12. The Irish have given up 30 points off turnovers, allowing three touchdowns and three field goals to the opposing team. Offensively, the Irish have only managed 10 points off opponent turnovers, with a touchdown against Purdue in the first quarter of the season and a field goal after Zeke Motta recovered a muffed punt against Stanford.

It’s interesting that seven of the eight turnovers the Irish have forced have come via the interception, and the defense has yet to force a fumble. Meanwhile, the Irish turnovers come equal parts fumble and interception, with the Irish already losing five fumbles.

For the Irish to play winning football down the stretch, they’ll need to capitalize on the turnovers they force and do a better job of holding onto the football.

10. Irish try to keep it in the family with the Martin brothers.

With Zack Martin one of the best surprises on the season, Notre Dame looked to make it a family affair by offering Zack’s younger brother Nick a scholarship this week. The younger Martin is a three-star recruit, and currently committed to Kentucky, where both of Martin’s parents went to college.

Martin has offers from Big Ten schools like Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern, and has been committed to Kentucky since August. Former Irish assistant and current Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips also was a teammate of Keith Martin, Zack and Nick’s father, so it might be a tough recruit to pull this late in the game. The Irish offer came in the last few days, so if Notre Dame is going to gain another recruit along the offensive line, they’ll likely have to make up quite a bit of ground.

11. The career starts leader on defense is probably not who you’d expect.

When you think of guys that have been a lynch-pin of the Irish defense for the past few years, you’re not likely to think of Kerry Neal. But it’s Neal that sits atop the career starts list on the Irish defense with 26 games, joined by safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Darrin Walls.

Neal winning the outside linebacker job over Brian Smith and Steve Filer was one of the surprises of fall camp. And while his 17 tackles over five starts this year aren’t going to bowl anyone over with his productivity, Neal is playing better as the season goes on.

You tend to forget that Kerry started five games as a true freshman in 2007, 11 games as a sophomore and five games at defensive end in 2009. Neal’s development as a player was likely stunted by the shifting between a 3-4 system and a 4-3 system, and while he isn’t the prototype of what Kelly and Bob Diaco look for in their defensive system, Neal has become a solid veteran player getting key minutes for the Irish defense.

12. Don’t blame John Goodman for all the fair catches.

I was especially hard on John Goodman last week for his inability to get anything going on punt returns after taking over for Armando Allen as the primary deep man. It seemed like Goodman was content to either fair catch the ball or he continued to let punts land and roll for an extra chunk of yardage, one of my biggest pet peeves for any return man. But Brian Kelly placed the blame on the erratic punts of Ryan Quigley, who kicked 11 times for an average of 40 yards, his worst day of the season.

“They sprayed the ball. They had about 60 yards of roll on the ground,” Kelly said.
“The kid came in as the top punter in the country and didn’t kick it 40
yards. So one of those things where, finally, he did kick a couple, and
it was just a fair catch situation.”

Pitt starts Dan Hutchins at both punter and kicker and he’s one of the best in the Big East, so Goodman is likely to get a chance at returning kicks from a punter that’s far more accurate this week.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy.