MFUtah

Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Utah

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It was an analogy Brian Kelly didn’t want to use, but football is a lot like the game of life. Ebb and flow. Highs and lows. Good and bad. And after three solid weeks of nothing but negativity, Kelly’s Notre Dame squad went out on Senior Day and summarily dispatched Utah 28-3 on Saturday afternoon.

“Through the last three weeks, we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group,” Kelly said. “In those times, to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

After counter-punching much of the first quarter and spotting Utah a field goal on a failed fourth down gamble, the Irish got a big special teams play from cornerback Robert Blanton, who blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. From there, the Irish systematically beat down the No. 15 Utes, giving the Irish their biggest win over a ranked opponent since 2005.

Any hope Utah had of overcoming a 14-3 halftime deficit was eliminated thirteen seconds into the second half, when freshman Austin Collinsworth stripped Shaky Smithson on the opening kickoff and Tommy Rees found senior Duval Kamara in the corner of the endzone to push the score to 21-3. Kamara would add another touchdown catch in the third quarter to seal the deal.

After losing a plethora of starters and last minute games to Michigan, Michigan State and a shocking defeat to Tulsa, the Irish finally came unbridled, finding their stride.

“You saw today a football team that didn’t have on their shoulders the traditions and reputations and all the things that you have to worry about sometimes being a football player at Notre Dame, and they just flat out played,” Kelly said.

And for the first time since the gallows of 2007, the senior class walks away from Notre Dame Stadium with a win, celebrating with a student section that had no intent of leaving the field.

Here’s what we learned in Notre Dame’s commanding 28-3 victory over No. 15 Utah.

1) That’s a cathartic victory for Notre Dame.

As dark as the loss to Tulsa was for Notre Dame collectively, you can’t help but feel great for the players, coaches, students and staff at the university. Just a few weeks after a student mockingly suggested storming the field on Senior Day to celebrate the Class of 2010’s ineptitude after a near-certain loss to mighty Utah, students stormed the field in jubilance, unwilling to let go of the euphoric feeling that comes with winning a big game, “what though the odds be great or small.”

Brian Kelly spent the entire week talking about the foundation that this senior class was building for the football program, and after the game freshman quarterback Tommy Rees talked about how important it was to win a game for them.

“That was our number one goal,” Rees said. “Seniors have done an unbelievable job all year. Whether it be preparing us or keeping us focused, especially in the past two weeks. You know, to send them off with a win is truly special.”

2. That was the most important win for Brian Kelly of his career.

It’s easy to get caught up in hyperbole, but make no mistake — that’s the most important victory Brian Kelly’s ever had as a head coach. With the vultures circling his football program after the death of videographer Declan Sullivan, and his own fanbase openly questioning if Kelly and his staff were too “small-timey” or too hellbent on imposing his offensive system, Kelly and his lieutenants put together a flawless game plan.

“We wanted to get the game into the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “That was the most important. Our theme this week was get it to the fourth quarter and let’s put this nonsense to bed that you can’t win games in the fourth quarter.”

Thanks to excellence on special teams, an efficient offensive day, and a rabid defense, the only thing decided in the fourth quarter was when to let senior walk-on quarterback Matt Castello take some snaps.

A week after Tommy Rees threw the ball 54 times for 334 yards, the Irish ran it 29 times for 127 yards compared to just 20 throws for 129 yards. Even though the Irish were playing a Utah team that had been stout against the run and the Irish had shown no ability to move the ball with the run, Kelly made it clear that the offensive line was going to determine whether or not the Irish would win the football game.

“We had talked all week about there has to be a time and place where you win the game up front,” Kelly said about his offensive line. “It can’t be finesse football and fast break, and 30, 40 throws. There’s got to be time and place. This was a game where it had to be won up front. I think just putting it on their shoulders from that perspective, and committing to it and staying with it. This game was won up front.”

3. Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, two unsung seniors, led the day for the Irish.

With Carlo Calabrese and TJ Jones unable to answer the bell this afternoon, Brian Kelly turned to two reserve seniors that have drawn the ire of Notre Dame fans in the past, and the duo lead the team to victory. Both Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, playing in their final games in Notre Dame Stadium, played heroic football, large keys to the upset of Utah.

Smith’s 10 tackles playing out of position at inside linebacker led the defense in stops. Kamara’s two catches both resulted in touchdowns, capitalizing for an offense that was working at maximum efficiency. Kamara’s big day was a critical part of the Irish game plan.

“We told Duval for the last ten days, this is your game,” Kelly said. “You’re going to get matched up. You’re 6’4″, you’ve got to help us. You’ve got to be there for us. And he was huge.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Kamara led the Irish offense in receiving as a true freshman in 2007. After getting lost in the shuffle with the ascension of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, Kamara stuck with it and turned his final game in Notre Dame Stadium into one for the memories.

As for Smith, Kelly was incredibly candid earlier in the week about the linebacker he inherited from the previous regime. But one look at the emotion in the eyes of both Smith and his father as tears flowed during the pregame ceremony, and you know how important Irish football is to him.

4. Bob Diaco’s defense was astounding in every sense of the word.

If a coaches reputation can be made (or ruined) in one Saturday, Bob Diaco tested the theory during the Irish’s loss to Navy. Unable to solve even the most rudimentary elements of the Midshipmen offense, Diaco admitted that the 35-17 loss was his most frustrating as a defensive coordinator.

While Kelly caught some flack for keeping Diaco and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar away from the media this week, the move obviously paid dividends, as Diaco’s defense put together their most complete performance of the season, holding a Utah team that averaged 41 points a game to a single gimme field goal, one that was courtesy of an offense that turned the ball over on downs at midfield.

How dominating was the Irish defense’s performance? Consider that it was only after the score was 28-3 that Utah put together a drive that was over 24 yards. The front seven of the Irish defense completely dominated the line of scrimmage, holding a powerful Utah running game to 2.4 yards a carry and under 100 yards, even without interior stalwarts Ian Williams and Carlo Calabrese. The pass rush pressured Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn endlessly, and the secondary blanketed Utah receivers, with Harrison Smith making the best interception of his career and Gary Gray in the right place at the right time all day.

Diaco deserves all the credit in the world for dialing up a game plan that terrifically suited an Irish defense still incredibly thin due to injury. Even more impressive, the development of the defensive roster is incredibly apparent after 10 football games, with freshman like Prince Shembo and Kona Schwenke making big plays, and guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sean Cwynar rising to the occasion. It’s easy to see how defensive line coach Mike Elston, linebacker coaches Diaco and Kerry Cooks, and secondary coach Chuck Martin have put their fingerprints on this unit. Their performance might get lost in the shuffle, but it certainly shouldn’t tonight.

5. There’s plenty to like about this Notre Dame football team.

Brian Kelly was asked earlier in the year if he’d have been happy playing for bowl eligibility during the home stretch of the season, and it was clear then that he — like most fans — expected more from this football team. But this 5-5 Irish squad is certainly one that Notre Dame fans should be proud of.

Consider the decimation to the Irish roster. We’ve discussed it before, but the Irish beat their first ranked team in over five years without their starting quarterback, running back, tight end, two wide receivers, nose tackle, middle linebacker, outside linebacker and safety. That doesn’t happen with a football coach that doesn’t know what he’s doing.

While Kelly has been pointing at things that have been happening behind closed doors, he opened up a bit after the game about the process of transforming this football team.

“You’re still trying to lay the foundation of how you play this game,” Kelly said. “You play it hard for four quarters. You get it to the fourth quarter and you close. My career has been built on closing games out and building the mentality of that football team. That’s what we had to make sure we got done.”

Even more interesting, Kelly gave us a true look behind the curtain when he was asked if this was “the moment” that the Irish football team had been waiting for.

“You missed the point,” Kelly said. “It’s not a moment. It’s the culmination of what we’ve been working on since December. You don’t just pull these out of a hat. You don’t just wake up and go, ‘Let’s rise up today.’ It’s the consistency of an approach from a day to day basis and how we go to work every day. We’re not a finished product by any means, but we’re starting to develop the mental and physical toughness for the way you need to go and approach this game.”

That process continues next week as the Irish battle for bowl eligibility against an Army team that’s already earned its way to the postseason, the first time the Knights have done so n 14 years. Adding to the intrigue, Army runs the same triple option attack that absolutely flummoxed the Irish defense less than a month ago. This season may not have been the one Irish fans (or players and coaches) envisioned, but next Saturday’s date in Yankee Stadium, not to mention the upcoming clash in the Coliseum, remind us that there’s still plenty to play for this season.

What a difference 24 hours make.

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. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.