Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Army

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NEW YORK — As the Irish started their jog for the Yankee’s dugout after the game, strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo gave defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a very large bear hug. This was one of those jubilant celebratory embraces, the byproduct of both men’s work culminating in another absolutely dominant defensive performance and a 27-3 win for Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night.

It was Diaco’s defense that won the game for the Irish, stiffening after giving up a 17 play, 78-yard drive on Army’s opening drive that culminated in a field goal and a 3-0 lead for the Black Knights. But Diaco’s troops countered, playing inspired defense and answering any questions posed by the doubters who wondered if Diaco had the chops to stop an option attack that was similar to the one that carved up an Irish defense just 28 days ago.

While Diaco produced the scheme, it was Longo’s work that allowed the Irish to dominate the line of scrimmage and out-physical an undersized team that frankly should have been pushed around. This Irish defense, still missing missing two key cogs on the interior with nose tackle Ian Williams out and Carlo Calabrese incredibly limited, has given up only one touchdown in the last 13 quarters, none in the month of November, and came up with their own score for the first time since Robert Blanton ran back an interception against Purdue in 2008.  Here is the Irish defense that Brian Kelly promised Irish fans that Longo would deliver, a group that would physically win the battles and play better in November than they did in September, something Irish fans haven’t seen in a long time.

With six wins, the Irish have officially qualified for a post-season bowl game, and now head to Los Angeles for an intriguing finale against Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans. Before we turn the page to Southern Cal, let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s 27-3 victory.

1. Tommy Rees is the perfect triggerman for Brian Kelly’s offense.

Before the game, Irish quarterbacks Nate Montana, Andrew Hendrix, and Tommy Rees took turns throwing patterns to the Irish receiving corp. Montana spun relaxed spirals that reminded you who his father was. Hendrix looked like the impressive athlete with the quick release that Irish fans drooled over during last season’s recruiting. And Tommy Rees looked like an 18-year-old kid slinging the ball around North Quad with his roommates.

But the pride of Dillon Hall is the perfect fit for Brian Kelly’s spread attack. Since taking over the reins of the offense, Rees has piloted the Irish offense in a way that Dayne Crist couldn’t, and it’s a testament to Rees’ preternatural football IQ, not his physical prowess.

Rees throws a wobbly football with not a particularly strong throwing arm, but he’s quick with his decisions, calm in the pocket, and most often very smart with his reads. Throw out Rees’ interception on the game’s opening drive, and the true freshman played a wonderfully efficient game. He bought time in the pocket, opening up the crossing routes needed to beat Army’s man coverage. He showed touch on deep throws to Tyler Eifert, moving the offense vertically. He even showed savvy when things went wrong, eating the ball on a low snap and taking the occasional negative play instead of compounding the error trying to do too much.

Rees has a week to prepare for the two-headed monster of Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron, and skill and speed at defense that he hasn’t seen yet. But Rees seems truly like a freshman that won’t come unglued steering the Irish offense, even if you question if he’s old enough to legally drive it.

2. Bob Diaco has turned this defense around.

While his largest challenge will come next Saturday, it’s been nine quarters since Bob Diaco and the Irish have given up a touchdown. The last time that’s happened? The 1988 National Championship team. That’s a downright shocking statistic, and if you asked Irish fans if that was possible using personnel that remained largely unchanged from the S.S. Tenuta, they’ve have laughed at you.

But Diaco has turned this defense around stressing the simplicity of the message, and his defense has stopped thinking and started reacting.

After five first downs on their opening drive, Army was only able to get three more for the rest of the ballgame, with the Irish defense holding the Knights offense to less than 100 yards for the remaining three-plus quarters. The defense held Army fullback Jared Hassin to just 23 yards on eight carries and quarterback Trent Steelman to just 24 yards on 14 carries before knocking him out of the game. How dominant was the Irish’s performance stopping the run? Consider that the two longest plays on the ground for Army — a Steelman run of 16 yards and backup quarterback Max Jenkins’ 18-yard scamper — came on broken pass plays, with both quarterbacks forced to run away from a stout pass rush.

After going 1-8 the past two seasons in November, the Irish are 2-0 this month, playing their best football as the season comes to a close.

3. The Irish have guaranteed themselves that the season doesn’t end next Saturday.

It’s still far too difficult to determine where Notre Dame will be playing during bowl season, but the Irish have guaranteed that they’ll be playing somewhere, something that didn’t seem all that possible a few weeks ago when Irish fans wondered how Notre Dame would be able to win two of its final three football games.

(Consider that the Irish might also be facing USC without the services of quarterback Matt Barkley, who was carted off the field after suffering a high ankle sprain.)

Still, while a pre-New Years bowl game was hardly the goal, the Irish getting to the postseason guarantees something far more important: 15 more practices.

“As you continue to develop your program, those 15 practices are very important,” Kelly said after the game. “Now, if I brought that up in the locker room, my players don’t want to hear about 15 more practices. They want to hear about what’s the bowl destination. but as you continue to build and develop your program, those are important, but also getting to a bowl game and continuing to build off of the month of November.”

It’s not hard to see young talent developing before our very eyes as the season progresses and the Irish battle multiple injuries. Fifteen more practices — the equivalent of another spring season — will mean the world to the 2011 Fighting Irish.

4. Brian Kelly understands the importance of stability, depth and development.

Nobody should jump to conclusions after stirring victories over Utah and Army, but if Brian Kelly is going to succeed at Notre Dame, it’s because he understands that three critical facets of playing winning college football are stability, depth and development.

In a calendar year that’s seen incredible upheaval, consider the steady hand that Kelly has used to guide this program. While fans have questioned his gambling mentality and his refusal to change on Saturdays, Kelly and his staff have remained consistent.

“It’s a culmination of just the same message,” Kelly said after the game. “I know it’s boring and it’s not a great story for you. But it’s just a consistency in our approach every single day. Guys are really understanding where they fit and how to play the game.”

If stability is paramount, Kelly’s ability to develop depth is something that Irish fans should be very happy about. Consider Robby Toma. The proverbial Little Mac of the Irish roster, Toma made four catches for 63 yards, continuing to make big plays in place of injured slot receivers Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. Here’s a low-star player, a recruiting afterthought, putting together big games for the Irish, when it’s usually the Irish getting less with more talent than just about every major program in college football.

5. Another neutral site game, another success for Notre Dame.

There are still those that think giving up a home game is stupidity defined, but if tonight’s game in Yankee Stadium proved anything, it’s that these neutral site games are a huge positive for the University of Notre Dame. With thousands of Irish fans invading Manhattan, Notre Dame’s game in Yankee Stadium took on the  same barnstorming feel that helped create the Irish brand to begin with. While ESPN decided to focus its attention on a game being played in one end zone at Wrigley Field, tonight’s event at Yankee Stadium was electric.

“A night like tonight reinforces our goal of continuously bringing memorable, meaningful events to Yankee Stadium and the Bronx throughout the years to come,” Yankees managing partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “We want to thank and commend Notre Dame and Army for their dedication and desire in bringing a historic night of football to Yankee Stadium. We can think of no two finer educational institutions to christen our new home with the great game of football. Their impact on the landscape of our nation — scholastically, athletically and through service — cannot be overstated enough.”

While tonight’s game didn’t amount to much on the football field, the atmosphere surrounding Yankee Stadium reminds everyone that Notre Dame is still the premium brand in college football, and the 50th meeting between Army and the Irish was one to remember.

 

 

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.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)