Five Things We Learned: Notre Dame vs. Tulsa

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For those looking to bury Brian Kelly after nine games at Notre Dame, they were given the opportunity late in the fourth quarter. After calling a timeout with 42 seconds left, Kelly decided against putting the game on the leg of his field goal kicker David Ruffer, and instead bet on the arm of freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, who dropped back from the Tulsa 19 yard line and targeted wide receiver Michael Floyd, running down the sideline in one-on-one coverage.

Floyd had a step on the undersized defensive back, but Rees’ back foot throw kited into a strong wind, helping 5-foot-9 cornerback John Flanders come down with an unlikely interception, sealing Tulsa’s 28-27 victory on a somber Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.

“We knew we had a one-on-one match up with Mike Floyd, and certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there,” Kelly said after the game. “We took a timeout there to talk about it. But I think we all saw what happened.”

What happened was a heart-wrenching interception that put an ugly ending onto an otherwise great performance by Rees, who became the first Notre Dame freshman to throw four touchdown passes in a game. It also dropped Notre Dame to 4-5 on the season, putting the Irish in the difficult position of needing a win against either Utah or USC to have a chance to play in the postseason.

Let’s take a look at five things we learned during Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Tulsa.

1. The new goal for Notre Dame? Win two out of the next three.

Even before the tragic events of this week, Brian Kelly acknowledged that today’s game was one of the most important of his career. Needing two wins to clinch a bowl birth in the final four games, anybody could point to games against Tulsa and Army as must-have wins for the Irish.

But with the Irish losing today, they’ll now need to beat either Utah or USC, as well as an upstart Army team that’s 5-3 for the first time in over a decade.

“The most important thing still is for us to get to six wins,” Kelly said emphatically. “We’ve got to win two out of three now. That’s the number one goal, to win two out of three games minimally to get to six wins.”

The Irish will have a much needed weekend off before playing Utah, undefeated and ranked No. 8 team in the country. The Utes battle an upstart Air Force squad today and No. 4 TCU next Saturday, so they’ll be coming off two physical opponents before facing the Irish.

After that the Irish face another triple-option attack when Army joins Notre Dame for the first ever football game in the new Yankee Stadium, before finishing the season against rival USC, who likely will view the Irish as part one of their two-game postseason, against rivals Notre Dame and UCLA.

It’s an uphill road for the Irish, especially in light of their injury problems, but far from impossible.

2. Bob Diaco’s defense did their job.

After a wobbly first two series, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco slowed down a Tulsa attack that had great speed and a quarterback proficient at running the zone read.

Tulsa averaged just under 7.5 yards per play on their first two offensive possessions, but the Irish defense stood strong after that, holding Tulsa to only 272 total yards on 56 plays, below five yards a touch — impressive work considering Tulsa averaged 491 yards a game and 6.3 yards a play entering the game.

Diaco’s mixed a nice blend of pressure and zone coverage, sacking Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne five times, but ultimately the unit came up empty on Tulsa final offensive drive, when the Irish gave up a crucial 3rd and 26 in deep zone coverage.

Diaco and his defense took a lot of heat this week, but playing without starting nose tackle Ian Williams and insider linebacker Carlo Calabrese, the unit deserves a ton of credit for putting together a gritty performance, giving up only 13 of the 28 points the Golden Hurricanes scored.

3. Special Teams and the big play killed the Irish.

On a day where Notre Dame came up with a big fake punt that extended a drive and led to a Notre Dame touchdown, the Irish special teams killed them, with Tulsa’s two points on a critical returned extra-point attempt the swing in their one-point victory. David Ruffer’s only two misses on the season have come on blocked extra points, and the Irish offensive line gave up the block right off the center, with linebacker Curnelius Arnick scooping it up and returning it to for a touchdown.

Electric return man Damaris Johnson also returned a punt for a touchdown, bringing Tulsa back from a nine-point deficit, thanks to a low punt from Ben Turk, the lack of hang-time all that Johnson needed to weave his way through the Irish gunners.

And finally, the Irish were victimized by the big play, courtesy of linebacker Shawn Jackson, who caught a deflected Tommy Rees screen pass and closed the half with a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown, putting Tulsa back in the football game when it looked like the Irish were capable of marching down the field and extending the lead into double-digits. Some terrible luck for the Irish on a high-percentage play call that looked like a big gainer for Notre Dame, only to have the ball pin-ball its way into the arms of a Tulsa defender and pull the Hurricane within two points.

4. Tragedy for Dayne Crist turns into opportunity for Tommy Rees.

After starting the game slowly, Dayne Crist stepped up from Tulsa’s pressure rush and darted for the Notre Dame sideline, picking up the first down and then tight-roping along the sideline for a 29-yard gain. But Crist was hit high and hard, came down awkwardly on his left knee, and possibly ended his season with what’s been reported as a ruptured patellar tendon.

“It seems every medical report I get, it ends with, Done for the season,” Kelly said after the game. “The first report I got was a bruised knee, and then it was some with his patellar tendon. It’s a severe injury, I can tell you that, just seeing Dayne briefly.”

Heartbreaking news for Crist, who worked his way back quickly from a torn ACL suffered one year to the day last season in mop-up time against Washington State.

With Crist gone, Kelly turned to true freshman Tommy Rees, who was the lone bright spot in the Irish loss to Navy last week. And Rees responded right out of the gate, going 15 of his first 18 with three touchdown passes.

When asked to assess Rees’ play, Kelly was emphatic.

“Awesome. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more happy for the kid,” Kelly said. “True freshman goes out there, hasn’t played. He just competes.”

Still, Rees’ recording setting day with be remembered for his final throw, the back-breaking interception that sealed the game for Tulsa. Kelly walked through his thought process, putting the game in the hands of his freshman quarterback with the Irish in field goal range.

“Why not try to get Michael Floyd one-on-one against a 5-9 corner? We called a timeout and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. Second down, take a shot here. If we don’t like it, let’s throw the thing away.’ Tommy wanted to do all those things. Tommy is a gamer. He knows the deal. He’s the quarterback.”

Pressed on his thought process, Kelly defending the decision to try and throw for the win instead of relying on kicker David Ruffer to make a field goal in a tricky wind.

“This is how we play. We’re going to play aggressive,” Kelly said. “We’re going to play smart… I would make the call again and I would hope that the process of learning would have a different outcome.”

Rees finished the afternoon 33 for 54 with four touchdowns and three interceptions, cementing his role as the starting quarterback against Utah after the off-week and putting the 2011 quarterback position into murky water, something nobody thought would happen entering the season.

5. Football isn’t always fair.

There’s no way to put today’s loss in true context after what the Notre Dame community suffered through this week. While the loss of Declan Sullivan puts the football game in perspective, walking off the field after losing a game like this rings about as hollow as it possibly can for an Irish team that had so much on their plates this week.

“As a football coach, there’s been more difficult weeks relative to the game itself,” Kelly said. “But in terms of the tragedy that occurred, there’s never been a more difficult time in my life.”

On the football field, life won’t get any easier for the Irish. Brian Kelly revealed that the Irish will likely be without leading running back Armando Allen for the rest of the season.

“It’s not a good situation. He may have played his last down here at Notre Dame because of the injury,” Kelly said about Allen’s injured hip. “He wanted to dress and run through the tunnel in case it was his last time playing at Notre Dame.”

The loss of Allen just adds to the nightmare scenario for Kelly’s offense, and is a terrible way for the team’s most consistent offensive player to end his career. Allen walked onto campus tantalizing Irish fans with breakaway speed, but an ankle injury suffered during his senior year of high school seemed to limit Allen’s ability to break the explosive plays many thought he’d bring to South Bend.

Instead, Allen turned into a renaissance man, an all-around performer that ran for the tough yards between tackles as well as possessing receiving skills while excelling in the return game. When asked to transition to the spread running attack, Allen responded with an 514 yards rushing, just shy of five-yards a carry, and great all-around play. Though his career was marred with various injury setbacks during his junior and senior seasons, Allen will go down as one of the top total-yardage player in Notre Dame history.

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.