Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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With the Notre Dame offense unable to play their top three receiving threats and with running back Armando Allen well below 100 percent, it’s not a complete surprise that the Irish offense struggled against Navy’s bend, but not break, defense.

What is a surprise is the complete collapse of the Irish defense, which was absolutely decimated by the Navy option attack, captained by quarterback Ricky Dobbs and driven by fullback Alexander Teich. Last year, fullback Vince Murray had a career day against defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s scheme. This year, against Bob Diaco’s 3-4 front, Teich (who lost his job last year to Murray when he was injured but regained it when Murray went down earlier this season) set a Navy record for a fullback with 210 yards on the ground, destroying the interior of the Irish defense and opening up things for Ricky Dobbs around the edge, where he scored three touchdowns and completed both official passing attempts for gigantic plays.

“You get what you deserve,” head coach Brian Kelly said immediately after the game. “Navy was the better team today. We had no answer for them.”

After 43 years of this match-up going solely in Notre Dame’s direction, Navy has now won three of the last four games against the Irish, turning this “rivalry,” not into a hotly contested game, but a seesaw leaning in Navy’s direction thanks to a precision option attack and a flawless game plan.

Here’s what we learned this afternoon.

1. If you can’t stop the fullback, you can’t beat Navy.

I mentioned it in the Navy preview, but had the wrong fullback listed. With Vince Murray out, Alexander Teich rammed the football down the Irish’s throat, completing obliterating any hope that the Irish had of beating the Midshipmen. If the Irish had to play “assignment correct football” to win, it was impossible after the dive play worked with such incredible success.

With Navy able to turn the dive play into a major weapon, they nullified any speed advantage the Irish defenders may have had, causing the Irish to read… then react, a dilemma that Ricky Dobbs was able to exploit to perfection for much of the game.

Watching tape earlier in the year, the Irish should have been able to notice Maryland using heavy A-gap blitzes into the teeth of Navy’s line to success, but the Irish steered clear of sending blitzers and deferred to a conservative game plan. But when Bob Diaco did dial up a blitz, Niumatalolo had the perfect play designed — a screen pass for a touchdown in the first quarter, and a deep throw that beat Gary Gray for Dobbs’ second completion.

Schematically the the game was lost on the dive play, with the middle of Notre Dame’s defense unable to stop the first piece of the triple option.

2. There isn’t a quarterback controversy… yet.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly told everyone that’d listen that the Irish needed a very good game out of quarterback Dayne Crist if the Irish were going to win.

“The quarterback has to put the ball on guys,” Kelly said. “He’s got to be on his game. If he’s on his game, you know, we’ll be fine. But if he’s not efficient throwing the football, obviously we’ll have to struggle at times.”

The Irish offense was stuck in neutral because there continue to be growing pains for the Irish on the offensive side of the ball when Crist hits a cold patch. Crist’s two interceptions were both critical mistakes, the first an absolute back-breaker at the end of the first half, throwing into a heavy zone from deep in his own territory with under two minutes to go. The second interception Crist looked off an easy completion on a drag route to TJ Jones and instead threw to a well-covered Duval Kamara, with Navy cornerback Kwesi Mitchell stepping in front for an easy pick.

It’s clear that Dayne Crist is the most talented quarterback on the Irish roster. What’s also clear is that Crist is struggling to make the right decisions, something you just can’t do in a QB-friendly spread offense.

Credit Kelly for bringing in freshman Tommy Rees, and credit Rees for leading the Irish down the field for an impressive touchdown drive, albeit against a vanilla scheme. Rees took the underneath throw because it was available and a high-percentage play. While Rees didn’t take the shots down the field that Crist does, he still managed to complete six of his seven throws for an average of 11.3 yards per throw. Crist checked away from the shorter attempts, choosing downfield receivers, and averaged less than six yards per throw, made even worse with two interceptions.

It’s only Crist’s eight start at quarterback, but he’s got to start showing better touch on short patterns and better recognition of what defenses are trying to do.

3. Different year, same result for the Irish secondary.

Even with the Irish cornerbacks playing some of their best football coming into the game, Notre Dame was victimized all three times Navy dropped back to pass. The Irish knew they needed to avoid giving up the big play when Navy decided to put the ball in the air, and instead they gave up three big ones on all three attempts.

Credit a great play call on Dobbs’ first attempt, and credit Teich for a wonderful one-handed catch on a screen pass where he weaved through Irish defenders before rumbling to the end zone. But the Irish secondary looked terrible on the next two throws Dobbs made, with safety Harrison Smith panicking and taking a 15 yard interference penalty when he was in good enough position to simply turn and look for the football on a reverse pass. On a 2nd and 12, the Irish defense should have been prepared for something a bit off balance, and Smith’s played too much football to make the same mistakes repeatedly.

On 3rd and 6 on Navy’s first drive of the second half, the Irish also got beat one-on-one with Gary Gray tripping on himself, tugging his way back into position, then stumbling again as Dobbs lofted a pass high in the air for receiver Greg Jones to run under. Gray had no help over the top, but the Irish came up empty all three times Navy threw the ball — in situations where the Irish could have been expecting a pass.

4. The Irish might have lost the heart of their defense.

While Brian Kelly didn’t have a medical update yet, the Irish are likely bracing for the worst case scenario with nose tackle Ian Williams. Williams was seen on the sidelines with tears in his eyes and his leg in an aircast after an injury in the third quarter took him off the field.Early indications pointed to a knee injury, not a promising thing for a 315-pound defensive tackle.

Williams has been the heart of the defensive line and a true run-stuffer up the middle for the Irish, putting together a terrific senior season that had moved Williams up the draft boards of many NFL teams, and turned him into a team leader.

The loss to Navy likely weighs heavy on Williams, who had an added chip on his shoulder this week after Williams landed in the doghouse last year after the Navy game when he openly commenting that the Irish were “out-schemed” in the 23-21 defeat. According to Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune, Williams was banned from defensive meetings by then coordinator Jon Tentua for insubordination. (A decision that likely didn’t help as the team folded down the stretch.)

5. The Irish will need tunnel vision for the rest of the season after this loss.

There’s nothing quite like a loss to Navy to turn people against a football team, and this one brings the collective back down to the low-water mark of the 2010 season. For the Irish to keep trending upwards, they’ll need to plug their ears, get back to work, and ignore just about everything that’ll be said about them for the next 48 hours.

The defense that had made great progress throughout the year didn’t turn into a bunch of bums this weekend. An offense that was shy its best three receivers and playing with its starting running back well-below 100 percent didn’t turn into an abomination. Take the name off the front of the jersey and the Irish just lost to a 5-2 team that had lost its two games by a total of 11 points and has a quarterback that was a preseason Heisman contender. The Irish turned the ball over twice, got stuffed inside the one-yard line in the red zone, and couldn’t get a defensive stop when they absolutely needed to get one. That’s a recipe for defeat, service academy or not.

Still, the Irish loss shows that Notre Dame has a long way to go within its transformation.

“I like where we’re going,” Kelly said. “I don’t like losing football games along the way.”

For the Irish to stop losing, they’ll need to shake off some remnants that still cling to this team. Those remnants include too many finesse offensive linemen, a group of safeties that don’t play either the pass or the run very well, and a linebacking corp devoid of play-makers.

 

 

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.