Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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It seemed a little too easy going into halftime for the Irish. Maybe that explains why Notre Dame seemed to backpedal their way to the finish, holding on for a six-point victory over Pitt 23-17 on a beautiful afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium.

“As we’ve shown, we’re really good at stubbing our toes,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that’s us. I’m trying to get used to it or it’s going to make me look really old, really quick.”

Welcome to the life of those that care about Notre Dame football, Coach Kelly. The past dozen years have been an exercise in inconsistency, with the Irish looking like world beaters in some instances and a sinking ship in others, often on the same afternoon. That was the case Saturday for the Irish, who managed to win a football game they were outgained in by playing excellent special teams and winning the turnover battle.

In the end, only the “W” is important, as the Irish get back to .500 after losing three of their first four games. With games against Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming before a much needed week off, the Irish have a chance to put together a run before their November 13th date with Utah.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned:

1. Notre Dame won that football game thanks to excellent special teams.

If there was any question about Mike Elston’s troops, it was answered this afternoon with a resounding performance in special teams leading the Irish to victory.

“We flipped the field position today,” Kelly said. “Ben Turk was outstanding punting the football. They’re dangerous, one of the best S.T. teams we’ll see this year was Pittsburgh. Well coached.”

Punter Ben Turk rebounded from a terrible start to the season by launching punts all afternoon. He averaged over 46 yards per punt and pinned the Panthers inside their 20 three times in the fourth quarter as Pitt tried unsuccessfully to rally. That field position was critical as the Irish offense sputtered down the stretch, falling to turn drives into touchdowns.

The Irish also benefited from some unlikely miscues by Pitt. Once again, Brian Kelly benefited from the miscue of Pitt holder Andrew Janocko, as the backup quarterback muffed a hold on a short field goal attempt that took three points off the board for the Panthers. It was Janocko that couldn’t handle a snap late in last season’s Pitt-Cincinnati game that ended up creating the one point difference in the Bearcat’s 45-44 victory. Janocko’s struggles weren’t the only ones in the kicking game, as kicker Dan Hutchins missed his first field goal attempt shorter than 30 yards in his career, keeping Pitt off the scoreboard in the second quarter.

More importantly, fifth-year senior Barry Gallup came up with a great individual effort, thwarting Pitt’s fake punt attempt by making a shoe-string tackle when he was the last man to beat. After giving up the fake field goal to Michigan State in overtime, it’s great for morale to successfully stop a fake, especially one that was as well-designed as the play Pitt ran.

2. David Ruffer is the next walk-on Notre Dame hero.

In the line of Rudy Ruettiger, Reggie Ho, and Mike Anello, David Ruffer’s walk-on story shouldn’t take a backseat to anyone. A scatch high school golfer, Ruffer never played football until he joined the team at William & Mary during his freshman year, a school he attended after he failed to get into Notre Dame. Ruffer worked hard on his grades as a freshman, successfully transferred into Notre Dame, and was plucked off the interhall squad of Siegfried Hall during the bye week of the 2008 season. Ruffer made it into a game that year, missing his only kick of the year, an extra-point attempt against Washington.

Since then, Ruffer has been nearly perfect, connecting on every field goal he’s attempted since filling in for Nick Tausch when he went down with a leg injury last season. Winning the kicking job outright at the start of the year, Ruffer’s done nothing to let go of it, entering today’s game one field goal shy of tying Tausch’s all-time record for consecutive kicks made at 14. Ruffer knocked through his first attempt today — a 32-yard chip shot to tie Tausch, but stared down a 50-yard field goal attempt to grab Notre Dame history to himself. Even though the snap was low, Ruffer absolutely drilled the kick, splitting the uprights with almost 10 yards to spare, and putting his name into the record books with an exclamation point.

“He kicked that thing into the net. I had to look twice that it was 50 yards,” Kelly said. “Ruffer is doing things that obviously many people, including myself, thought he couldn’t do. Nobody would have thought 50 yards was like automatic.”

Ruffer has a year of eligibility remaining if Kelly and company want to bring him back (they should), it’ll have to be on scholarship, a worthy reward for a true student-athlete and a success story.

3. Kyle Rudolph is far from full strength and needs to sit a week out.

As much as Dayne Crist needs his safety valve, Kyle Rudolph is far from healthy. The tight end is battling a nagging hamstring injury, and it’s robbed one of Notre Dame’s best offensive weapons of his explosiveness.

“It’s probably at the point where you have to make a decision to shut him down for a week or keep playing through it,” Kelly said, without mentioning that the Irish play Western Michigan next week. “But you can’t tell Kyle Rudolph you’re shutting him down. He wants to play and he wants to compete. At the end of the day he played pretty good for us. He’s a pretty good tight end at 75 percent right now. So that’s one that we’ll have to continue to have a conversation about.”

Rudolph caught five ball for 38 yards, but it was the ones that he didn’t catch that helped you recognize he was hobbled. On a wheel route in the second half, Crist laid a ball out that looked perfect for Kyle, but Rudolph was unable to catch up to the throw and it fell incomplete. Rudolph also dropped a first down throw late in the game, fighting a ball high above his head as he struggled to get liftoff.

The decision would be a lot easier if backup Mike Ragone would’ve held onto a pass that should have iced the football game late in the fourth quarter. But if the Irish are going to run the table, they’ll need a healthy Rudolph. And with Western Michigan coming to South Bend, expect to see No. 9 in street clothes.

4. The Irish beat the Pitt pass rush with a high-tempo offense.

With Taylor Dever unable to go, the Irish were forced to shift Zack Martin to right tackle and slide senior Matt Romine into the starting lineup at left tackle. Even without standout Greg Romeus, Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar recognized that the Pitt pass rush would be the Irish’s biggest obstacle offensively. So Kelly decided to use the Irish’s conditioning and pace of play to wear out the defensive front.

“We were a little concerned that the math-up could be an issue, so we definitely wanted to try and tire out that front four of Pittsburgh,” Kelly said. “So we decided to move Romine and flip Zack Martin over and I thought tempo would be the best way to slow down that pass rush.”

It seems like the strategy worked, with Pitt getting two sacks early and struggling to get much of a pass rush for most of the second half. In turning up the pressure, for the first time this season, we caught a glimpse of what Kelly’s hurry-up offense can do, breaking off large chunks of yardage quickly. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt admitted after the game that the speed and tempo took the Panthers by surprise.

“We changed a few things, but the biggest adjustment was getting used to the tempo and getting into their type of fast rhythm,” Wannstedt said after the game.

If you’re looking for a sign of what this offense can be, consider what it almost was today. Crist’s 24 of 39
passing for 242 yards looks
rather pedestrian, but consider that two gigantic plays worth over 100 yards of passing where taken off the board by penalties. (Not to mention two poor throws by Crist in the red zone.) And while the box score shows Jonathan Baldwin getting the better of the match-up between he and Michael Floyd, Floyd lost over a 100 yards and two touchdowns on self-inflicted errors, with an assist to an iffy call by a Big East officiating crew. And questions out there about Floyd’s willingness to play hard and play for Kelly should’ve been silenced today. 

Kelly admits that while they’re making progress, he’s still holding back the offense, unwilling to unleash the true fast-paced attack he’d like to run.

“It’s hold on and try to get it down the field,” Kelly said when describing the current offense. “We’re really micro-managing in a sense the offense until we can let it go. We can’t turn it over yet and just let it go because we’d make too many mistakes. We’re trying to manage it, until we get to the point where we can rip it and let it go.”

The next three games are critical for offensive development. Expect the Irish to push the tempo on the next three Saturdays and to overwhelm inferior opponents.

5. Losing in the box score but winning on the scoreboard a good thing for the Irish.

Looking for a reason to believe in the new direction of the Irish football program? Try this: Notre Dame won the football game while being outgained by over 50 yards. Pitt’s 382 yards versus Notre Dame’s 329 yards weren’t enough to swing the balance of the game, a credit to the coaching staff and the small battles won that often mean the difference between victory and defeat.

During the Charlie Weis era, the Irish only won three games where they were outgained by more than 50 yards, and two of those games came when the opposition absolutely imploded. In Notre Dame’s win over Michigan in 2008, the Wolverines turned the ball over six times. In Notre Dame’s victory over UCLA in 2007, the Bruins played even worse — coughing it up seven times to the Irish. If you’re looking for the last game that Notre Dame lost the yardage margin by over 50 yards, and played a team that turned the ball over two times or less, it was against Chad Henne’s 2005 Michigan squad, Charlie Weis’ second game at Notre Dame.

This isn’t a referendum against Weis, merely pointing out that while the Irish are a work in progress, they have the makings of a better overall team, doing things that help win games instead of making mistakes that make you lose them. The Irish made plenty of errors today — broken coverage on Jonathan Baldwin and Mike Ragone’s crucial drop come immediately to mind — but they’ve also started doing the things that let you steal a victory.

To Kelly’s credit, he understands this is all part of the development of a football team.

“They have a belief that they’re going to win football games,” Kelly said. “I just told them, ‘Enjoy the win.’ We’ll micro-manage this and talk about what we could have done and should have done on Monday. Enjoy the victory. It’s a good win.”

And while it wasn’t pretty, the Irish stop Pitt’s winning streak at Notre Dame Stadium and pull to 3-3 on the year. With the first lopsided match-up of the year coming with Western Michigan coming to town, the Irish are in a great position to start the run Kelly hinted at after losing to Stanford.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said then. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8 or 9-3.”

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…)