State of the Irish program

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(Color me in a patriotic mood after watching last night’s State of the Union and Republican Response…)

Brian Kelly had about a week on Barack Obama, giving his “State of the Program” speech last Friday, officially putting the 2010 season in the books, while turning his gaze forward to finalizing recruiting as well as preparing for the 2011 season.

With next week surely to be focused on the finalization of a Top 10 recruiting class (not to mention the best defensive end haul since Rivals started keeping tabs), I thought it appropriate to piggy back on the President’s address to the nation last night, and take stock in where the Irish football program is 13 months after Brian Kelly took it over.

OFFENSE

Many assumed the Irish offense would be the strong suit of the 2010 squad, even with the loss of two All-American caliber players in Jimmy Clausen and Biletnikoff winner Golden Tate, not to mention both starting tackles and center Eric Olsen. Whether or not it was blind faith in Kelly’s reputation as an offensive innovator, Dayne Crist waiting in the wings, or returning front-line players like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Armando Allen, the fact that the Irish took a step back offensively seemed to surprise more people than it should have.

From a trend perspective, the Irish offense regressed in several key categories, not surprising considering the Irish offense in 2009 was one of the top units in the country, with a third-year starter at quarterback at the trigger. That said, it’s interesting to note that Kelly’s squad had more success running the football, gave up less sacks, and scored more touchdowns in the red zone. Statistically, the improvement was moderate, but it’s amazing to think that an offensive line replacing three starters and subbing Braxston Cave in for Dan Wenger, while running almost exclusively out of the shotgun, could have a better season rushing the football than an offensive with the 4th best passing efficiency in the country. While you can say that the high-tempo spread offense is less conducive to sacks than Weis’ pro-style attack, it’s hard to understand why the Irish offensive line, behind one of college football’s most veteran units, gave up 25 sacks last season, six more than the Irish did in 2010, who finished a respectable 34th in the nation while starting three first-time starters.

More incomprehensible is the (albeit slight) improvement in the red zone. The fact that Kelly’s squad, quarterbacked by Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, and missing Kyle Rudolph and Golden Tate, could do better in the red zone scoring touchdowns defies logic. Whether it be better play-calling or just better execution, there’s no reason for Jimmy Clausen’s 2009 offense to struggle in the red zone more than the 2010 edition.

Looking to 2011, there’s every reason to believe that Kelly’s offense will take fairly large steps improving in nearly every facet. Year To do that, they’ll need a better effort on the front line from Ed Warinner’s troops running the ball, who will only replace Chris Stewart from an offensive line that improved as the season went along. They’ll also need to do better on 3rd downs, improving their conversion rate from the 38-percent clip they hit on last year. Kelly’s teams have never been great third down teams (neither have the last three Oregon teams), but if they want to play at the frenetic pace that Kelly desires, they’ll need to be able to keep drives moving. Most importantly, regardless of who wins the quarterback job, there’s a huge leap in production for quarterbacks in Year Two of a Brian Kelly system. Expect that trend to continue.

DEFENSE

The improvements the Irish defense made in Kelly’s first season are hard to understate. The Irish improved in virtually every major defensive statistic, outside of opponent completion percentage and red zone defense (though in the latter’s case the Irish were far stouter limiting opponents to field goals, finishing 7th in the country in red zone touchdown defense). The Irish were a Top 30 defense in six major categories in 2010, they were a Top 30 defense in only one in 2009.

While the alignment changed, there weren’t many personnel changes to the defense Bob Diaco coordinated. If anything, the Irish lost their most consistent performer when Kyle McCarthy graduated. Yet playing with virtually the same players, the Irish defense transformed itself in Diaco’s multiple 3-4 system, playing its best football down the home stretch, when past Notre Dame defenses fell apart. Stepping back from statistical analysis and just relying on the eyeball test, it’s shocking to consider that Notre Dame played USC and Miami, two of college football’s most athletic programs, and dominated both teams with their defense at the end of the year.

As we look to 2011, the Irish will need to replace Ian Williams from the center of their defense, something they did successfully after Williams went down with a knee injury versus Navy. At linebacker, they’ll need to find a new starter at ‘Dog,’ where both Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduate. Smith also doubled as a replacement in the middle, where he stepped into Carlo Calabrese spots after injuries hampered the sophomore’s ability to play. In the secondary, the Irish will lose Darrin Walls at cornerback, but have Robert Blanton ready to slide back outside after spending much of the year playing at nickel back. All three major safety contributors, Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter return, with Smith leading the secondary after a breakthrough season.

The Irish played winning defense not by doing any one thing dominantly, but by having no weak link. In 2009, the Irish had the toxic combination of the 112th ranked yards-per-completion passing defense and the 101st rated run defense, basically historic ineptitude on one-side of the football for ND. (To put it in perspective, it’s nearly a mirror-image of the 2007 Irish offense.) With players like Darius Fleming, Harrison Smith, Ethan Johnson and Manti Te’o poised for breakthrough seasons, there’s every reason to believe that the 2011 Irish defense has the chance to be something very special.

SPECIAL TEAMS

David Ruffer’s season kicking field goals was record-setting, but surprisingly it wasn’t that much better than the 19 for 22 that Ruffer and Nick Tausch combined for in 2009. But as expected, Mike Elston’s special teams statically improved in 2010, with a few major exceptions.

One of the things John Goodman isn’t is Golden Tate. That’s the best way to describe the drop in punt returns from 2009 to 2010, where the Irish went from 19th in the country to 101st, averaging an abysmal 4.9 yards per return in the punt game. The Irish also struggled in the kick return game, ranking 74th in the nation and a half-yard shorter per return than the 2009 edition, something that had to befuddle Brian Kelly, especially with some of the talented players he had on the roster. But in many cases, Kelly was limited in the return game by a rash of injuries to skill guys primed to thrive in the return game. Armando Allen battled through injuries until he was shutdown, limiting his impact on the return game. Ditto for Theo Riddick, who could’ve brought some excitement bringing back kicks and punts if not for an ankle injury. Whether it’s Bennett Jackson or not, the Irish can expect to improve in 2011, at the very least having more options to choose from.

Even though Kelly will have Ruffer and Tausch on the roster next season, Notre Dame accepted Kyle Brindza in early enrollment, bringing another powerful leg to campus. While he’s mostly thought of as a kicker, he’ll immediately challenge Ben Turk at punter, a place where the Irish know they need to do better. While Turk’s 36.3 yard net average is an improvement over last year, he struggled getting air under the ball and was the beneficiary of quite a few nice rolls, bumping that average up quite a bit.

COACHING STAFF

When Kelly assembled his first staff at Notre Dame, he did it with coaches he had relationships with, something that was helpful from a familiarity perspective, but didn’t move anybody’s star-meter when judging the coaches coming to Notre Dame. Keeping Tony Alford on the staff and bringing back Mike Denbrock, Kelly made two strategic moves. Alford brought great continuity, while Denbrock gave Kelly a long-time confidante who could show him the ropes around South Bend while also bringing his ties to the West Coast.

Kelly’s decision to bring Bob Diaco in as his defensive coordinator while Chuck Martin, his successful successor at Grand Valley State coached the secondary, had people questioning the move, but 13 games later it looks like a success. Diaco, preaching principles and discipline, improved the defense, while Martin transformed a secondary while leading the charge as recruiting coordinator.

While both Martin and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s names swirled around some head coaching vacancies, no coach left Kelly’s inaugural staff, keeping a unit that worked very well together intact. More importantly, both Kerry Cooks’ transition to outside linebackers coach (after spending most of his career as a secondary coach) and Alford’s transition to wide receivers seemed to take, as neither unit suffered from first time position coaches.

We’ll know for sure next Wednesday, but the major concern with this unit was their recruiting prowess, something that will officially be alleviated when Notre Dame inks the most impressive defensive recruiting class of the modern era. Many already knew that Alford was dynamic on the recruiting trail, but Mike Elston, Bob Diaco, and Chuck Martin pulled some major talent, with guys like Kerry Cooks getting players out of Texas, a major priority for Kelly.

As the staff transitions into Year Two, expect more of the same — coordinators preaching the same principles, a staff completely in sync with their head coach, and player development that’s been a hallmark of Brian Kelly football teams.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia & N.C. St. surge; Boston College & UNC fade

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Going 8-3 last week, Notre Dame’s opponents are expected to do just that again this coming week. (Those numbers do not count either the immediately prior or the imminently coming Irish games.)

Temple (2-2): South Florida finally looked like the team the preseason expected, routing the Owls 43-7 on Thursday. It is distinctly possible the Bulls are just that good, but they had not yet shown it this year. They held Temple to a total of 85 yards, including negative-four rushing yards, and Owls junior quarterback Logan Marchi went from not throwing an interception in his first three games as a starter to throwing four against South Florida.

Life does not get easier for Temple, now hosting Houston at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Owls are two-touchdown underdogs with a point total over/under of 47.5, making for a projection of 31-17.

Georgia (4-0): A 31-3 victory over No. 17 Mississippi State puts the Bulldogs in position to cruise to the SEC title game. Admittedly, Mississippi State is not in the SEC East, but the rout established Georgia as the only genuine team in the division. Furthermore, the Bulldogs held Mississippi State to 103 passing yards.

Georgia showcased a balanced offense, taking 42 rushing attempts for 203 yards and throwing 12 passes for 201 yards.

This week, the Bulldogs head to Tennessee for a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff on CBS. The spread favors Georgia by a touchdown with an over/under of 47.5, making for a theoretical 27-20 conclusion. As tensions flare in Knoxville, that one-possession score seems slim.

Boston College (1-3): For the second consecutive week, the Eagles played a superior opponent even for the majority of the game before getting blown out. Boston College entered the fourth quarter at Clemson tied at seven. Then, the Tigers mimicked the Irish from a week ago, using big plays to spark quite a rout. Three touchdowns in the final six minutes put the Eagles away 34-7.

In many respects, Boston College played Clemson grittily, but the Eagles were outgained 482 yards to 238 and the time of possession favored the Tigers 34:56 to 25:04.

Boston College has a chance at its first win since the season opener in hosting Central Michigan this weekend at 1 p.m. on the ACC Network. The Eagles are favored by nine points with an over/under of 49, indicating a 29-20 final.

Michigan State (2-1): After the 38-18 loss to Notre Dame, the Spartans host Iowa at 4 p.m. ET on Fox on Saturday. Despite the Hawkeyes’ excellent performance against Penn State in primetime, Michigan State is favored by 3.5 with an over/under of 45. Quick math points to a 24-21 result. Based solely on Iowa’s showing against the Nittany Lions, perhaps that spread should point the other direction.

Miami (OH) (2-2): Senior quarterback Gus Ragland led the RedHawks to a 31-14 victory at Central Michigan, completing 11 of 19 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

Ragland will need to be at his finest to overcome a 22.5-point spread against the Irish at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The 53.5 over/under leads one to surmise a 38-16 final.

North Carolina (1-3): The season continues to get away from the Tar Heels. Losing 27-17 at home against rival Duke will only further frustrations, especially considering North Carolina entered the fourth quarter with a 17-13 lead. The Tar Heels converted only three of 16 third downs and averaged a mere 3.6 yards on 33 rushes.

Heading to Georgia Tech, North Carolina is a 9.5-point underdog with a hefty over/under of 60. The 12 p.m. matchup on ESPN2 could end with such a scoreboard appearance as 35-25 in favor of the option-dependent team.

USC (4-0): Much like Notre Dame’s win over Michigan State, turnovers were the key in the Trojans’ 30-20 win at Cal. USC forced six turnovers, otherwise outgaining the Golden Bears by only 60 yards, 416 to 356.

The game stood tied entering the fourth quarter before the Trojans relied on a strip sack to set up a two-play, four-yard touchdown drive to take a decisive 23-13 lead. Despite the close nature up until that point, Cal attempted 52 passes.

USC now faces the stiffest challenge of its season to date. No. 16 Washington State awaits on Friday for a 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPN. The Trojans are four-point favorites for the end of the short week with an over/under of 64.5. Do not be surprised at all if the Cougars win outright, let alone fare better than a theoretical 34-30 conclusion.

North Carolina State’s Jaylen Samuels celebrates as he scores against Florida State on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

North Carolina State (3-1): The Wolfpack earned its third straight win. More than that, North Carolina State notched its biggest win of the year, a 27-21 victory at Florida State. The Wolfpack benefited from 11 Seminoles penalties and a turnover, but overall North Carolina State just played a solid game.

To keep that momentum going, the Wolfpack will host Syracuse at 12:20 p.m. ET on the ACC Network. North Carolina State will not need to win by two touchdowns, but a bookmaker’s spread expects the margin to tilt toward the Wolfpack by about 13.5 points with an over/under of 63. Expecting the Orange to score 24 points to fulfill a 38-24 result seems ambitious, and North Carolina State is not exactly an offensive juggernaut. Seems like 63 is a larger number than may be appropriate.

Wake Forest celebrates its game-saving field goal block at Appalachian State on Saturday. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Wake Forest (4-0): The Demon Deacons needed to block a 39-yard field goal with five seconds remaining to win 20-19 at Appalachian State, but a win is a win is a [insert four-beat pause] win. Frankly, the Mountaineers played better. They outgained Wake Forest by 150 yards and possessed the ball by a wide margin of 35:44 to 24:16.

The Deacons can get back to better football by continuing what North Carolina State started. Florida State visits Winston-Salem at 3:30 p.m. ET (on ABC) and is favored by 7.5 points with an over/under of 46.5 points. This all may be odd considering Wake Forest is undefeated and the Seminoles have yet to find a win, but such is the case with preseason expectations and college football. If the book holds, Florida State would win 27-20.

The Deacons may be a trendy pick for an upset this week, but it just seems too obvious.

Miami (FL) (2-0): The Hurricanes overcame a 16-10 halftime deficit against Toledo to win 52-30, even though Miami went only 3-for-9 on third downs. As concerning as a 33 percent third down conversion rate may be, having to attempt only nine third downs speaks to an overall offensive efficiency, further emphasized by 254 rushing yards. The Hurricanes defense allowed only 81 rushes on 35 carries.

The next question will be what are Miami’s ACC intentions? Can they fare better than North Carolina? The Hurricanes travel to Duke on Friday for a 7 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPN, favored by six points with a 57-point over/under. Miami would undoubtedly be okay with a  31-26 victory.

Navy (3-0): The Midshipmen jumped out to a 14-0 lead on Cincinnati and never looked back en route to a 42-32 victory. Navy rushed for 569 yards, as Navy will do, while giving up only 58 yards on the ground on 23 attempts.

Navy now heads to Tulsa to feature that running game on ESPNU at 3:30 p.m. ET. Favored by 5.5 points, the Midshipmen could be looking at the topside of a 38-33 shootout.

Stanford (2-2): Get used to hearing about Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love in this space. It is going to happen all fall. It will probably continue into the fall of 2018.

Bryce Love cannot actually fly. It just sometimes seems like he can. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Love took 30 carries for 263 yards and a touchdown to lead Stanford to a 58-34 win over UCLA. It really was Love leading the way after junior quarterback Keller Chryst was injured in the first quarter. Sophomore K.J. Costello replaced him, completing 13 of 19 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

The Cardinal host Arizona State at 4 p.m. ET on the Pac-12 Network. Favored by 16 points with an over/under of 63.5, this theoretical 40-24 result should be finished before any #Pac12AfterDark swings into action.

Questions for the Week: Ankles, Stepherson and NBC Sports Network at 5 p.m. ET

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As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …

Will either, or even both, Josh Adams and Tony Jones be healthy enough to play?
Even if they are, will they?
This past weekend, ankle “stiffness” caught junior running back Josh Adams’ attention during halftime. An immediate X-ray showed nothing of greater concern, but Notre Dame still took the precaution of limiting Adams in the second half of the 38-18 victory at Michigan State.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College on Sept. 16 and did not dress against the Spartans.

The Irish would obviously always prefer to have a full stable of running backs. No Division One FBS opponent warrants a weekend so casual the second-string can comfortably start the game. That said, even if Adams and Jones are healthy enough to compete Saturday, Notre Dame may opt to give them an additional week’s rest, lest those ankle instabilities linger longer than necessary.

Junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Deon McIntosh should be able to bear the load against the RedHawks, especially with the Irish offensive line in front of them.

All this is to say: If Adams and/or Jones do not play this weekend, it is most likely a precautionary measure as much as anything else, but it would still be a notable step forward to see them at least dressed in pads for the occasion.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has yet to see the field this season after a freshman debut of 25 catches, 462 yards and five touchdowns. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Is this the week of Kevin Stepherson’s return?
A recap: The week before his freshman season, Stepherson was one of five Notre Dame players arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession.

A week later Stepherson did not catch a pass against Texas, but he did see action. In last year’s second week, Stepherson caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown, launching into a freshman season in which he caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns. The first two marks were third among Irish pass-catchers (behind then-sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown and senior Torii Hunter, Jr.). Only St. Brown scored more touchdowns.

Stepherson has not seen the field this season.

Now that you’re caught up, one must wonder, could that final sentence change this week?

Who is handling kickoffs, Justin Yoon or Jonathan Doerer?
Freshman Jonathan Doerer was recruited by the Irish with the immediate intention of turning over kickoff duties to the newcomer, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus entirely on placekicking duties. When Doerer fatigued a bit toward the end of preseason practice, Yoon retained the kickoff job for the first two weeks of the season.

On his second career kickoff, Doerer knocked it out of bounds, giving Boston College a boost in field position. His next attempt reached the Eagles 17-yard line, then returned for eight yards. Yoon handled the next five kickoffs.

This past weekend, Yoon sent the opening kickoff out of bounds, granting Michigan State a start at the 35-yard line.

Whoever handles kickoffs, gifting 10-15 yards of field possession by booting the ball out of bounds is rather inexcusable. Even if trying to kick to the corner of the end zone to avoid a particular return threat, that job needs to be executed.

Now in his fourth year at Miami (OH), former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin (left) has the RedHawks at 2-2 and ready to contend in the MAC. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Will Chuck Martin say only good things about Notre Dame?
Spoiler: Yes.

The Miami head coach, and former Irish assistant and longtime close friend of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, has already started with the lauding of his former employer. Some samples from Monday morning alone:

“I’m almost 50 years old and I have not rooted against Notre Dame a day in my life.”

“[Kelly] is the best off-field coach in the world.”

More will assuredly come.

Why in the world is Notre Dame playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network?
First of all, yes, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN will be repeated throughout the week as an incessant reminder. Consider this explanation a minion’s attempt at understanding the time and television slot, not a word from anyone corporate.

The President’s Cup is held domestically only once every four years. When it is, its broadcast value increases dramatically due to obvious time zone alignments. This is one of those years. Thus, NBC is not likely to move the golf property from its flagship station. That explains the NBCSN decision.

Why at 5 p.m. ET rather than the usual time, or even a primetime airing? First, to the latter question, Notre Dame will continue to limit the primetime games to no more than two home contests a year. Moving Miami (OH) into one of those slots would remove Georgia or USC from the high-profile position. That would make no sense whatsoever.

As for earlier in the afternoon, NASCAR XFINITY drops a green flag at Dover International Speedway (Delaware) at 2:30 p.m. ET. Moving the Irish back 90 minutes is a far simpler solution than adjusting a long-scheduled race with 95,000 in attendance.

Will USC’s national title dreams take a bit hit Friday night?
The Trojans travel to Washington State for a 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff. The Cougars are four-point underdogs. Given USC’s struggles at home against Texas earlier in the year, it is not unreasonable to think this matchup could prove to be too much for Sam Darnold & Co.

Just how good is Wake Forest?
The Demon Deacons host Florida State at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Wake Forest is undefeated and exceeding expectations. The Seminoles are winless and desperate.

If the Demon Deacons can find a win (currently 7.5-point underdogs), they will both turn the ACC upside and establish themselves as 2017’s darling upstart.

Monday Morning Leftovers: The long-term effects of Crawford’s punch, limited roster turnover & Yoon’s record approach

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Notre Dame is 3-1. Let’s rephrase that.

Notre Dame is only 3-1. This season could still go multiple directions. But if — IF — it continues to trend upward, one moment from this weekend may stand the test of time as the demarcation point between a successful 2017 and a new Irish head coach in 2018. When junior cornerback Shaun Crawford peanut-punched the ball away from Spartans junior running back LJ Scott at the goal line in Saturday night’s second quarter, Crawford certainly altered the game.

That is the very smallest effect of that heads-up play.

It may have altered the trajectory of the entire program. Until coming weeks play out, that claim needs to remain in the conditional verb tense. If the time comes where removing that particular phrasing is appropriate, the statement will not be one of exaggeration. It was that big of a play.

If granting that premise, and acknowledging the usage of “program” implies its reach could extend past this season, a look at Notre Dame’s travel roster from this weekend raises an eyebrow.

The listing included 72 names, complete with a number of walk-ons. If looking at the scholarship players, the strictest of readings finds only 11 names whom the Irish should not plan on having around in 2018.

The obvious, players currently in their last year of eligibility: linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, tight end Durham Smythe, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and receiver Cam Smith.

The almost-assuredly headed to the NFL: left guard Quenton Nelson.

The very-unlikely to be asked back for a fifth year: offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne, receiver Austin Webster and quarterback Montgomery VanGorder.

Of those 11, only seven contributed to the 38-18 victory over Michigan State.

Obviously there will be other departures, either due to transfer or early entry into the NFL Draft or perhaps injury, but the point is: Much of this team will be back in a year. Even more pertinently, the rout of the Spartans was done with youth, as contrary to the norm as that may be. It seems safe to assume that youth has yet to reach the ceiling on its potential.

Among those contributors, it is time to start a Justin Yoon record watch. It is preemptive, but the junior kicker has reached a point where any week he could essentially set the Notre Dame career field goal percentage record, though he remains a bit further from the mark being recognized.

Entering the season, Yoon had made 28-of-34 field goal attempts. Thus far this year, he has added 5-of-7 to the ledger, making for an 80.49 percent career rate. John Carney (1984-1986) holds the Irish record at 73.9 percent. If Yoon makes four of his next nine attempts, he will break that mark. Technically speaking, he will not set the record until he has indeed taken nine more attempts, notching the minimum requirement of 50.

Notre Dame has turned 19 trips into the red zone into 17 touchdowns to date. By no means has the Irish offense needed to rely on Yoon. By no means is this mention a subtle expectation of that changing. It is simply comprehensibly feasible to think Yoon might make four field goals in one weekend. After all, he has twice made three in one game.

It seems distinctly possible Notre Dame will not face the most-talented opposing running back on its schedule until the season’s finale week at Stanford. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

One of those occasions came against Stanford in 2015. Taking a look at this year’s Cardinal, it held on for a win against UCLA late Saturday night. The 58-34 shootout sparked two thoughts. First of all, junior running back Bryce Love is really good. Let’s skip finding creative adjective and memorable phrasing and instead get straight to that point. He is really, really good.

In four games this year, Love has taken 73 carries for 787 yards, averaging 196.75 yards per game and 10.8 yards per rush.

Those numbers are absurd.

Secondly, Stanford is already almost certain to fall short of preseason projections. The over/under win total number for the Cardinal was nine. At 2-2 currently, the over is still within reach if Stanford wins out, but that would require beating winning all of, in chronological order, vs. Oregon, at Washington State, vs. Washington and vs. Notre Dame.

On the other side of that spectrum, Wake Forest is poised to surpass expectations. The Demon Deacons are 4-0 after blocking a potentially game-winning field goal by Appalachian State on Saturday. Wake Forest has gotten off to the strong start in large part thanks to its defense, allowing only 11.5 points per game.

Notre Dame fans can take that to mean Irish first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, formerly in that same role with the Demon Deacons, did not have much of a determining effect on that defense’s success, or they can see that stifling unit’s continued growth as a sign of Elko’s developmental contributions to the individual players.

Anyway, the over/under win total of Wake Forest was 5.5. The Deacons could still fall short of that, but they would need to manage only one win from trips to Georgia Tech and Syracuse as well as a visit from Duke, while also not pulling off any surprises.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Kelly on Wimbush’s accuracy, receivers’ hands & needed secondary improvements

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Notre Dame’s greatest successes this season have come when relying on its running game. It would stand to reason the Irish would turn to their ground attack to set the tone from the outset of a pivotal matchup against a physical opponent. Instead, Notre Dame opened with the pass in its 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. The first five plays from scrimmage were passing attempts from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, completing four of them for 62 yards.

This was all very intentional, especially a week after Wimbush struggled with accuracy.

“Getting the quarterback off with some quick throws, some easy throws to get into a rhythm was important,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “I wanted to make sure [offensive coordinator Chip Long] got some openers for [Wimbush] in his first nine plays that were high percentage completions for him to get into a rhythm, which he did.

“… It was orchestrated or planned or constructed that way, whatever word you want to use.”

Wimbush finished 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown, a marked improvement from his 11-of-24 for 96 yards at Boston College.

“It’s not uncommon when you go through the volume you do in preseason camp and all the throwing that sometimes the ball drops a little bit,” Kelly said. “… [Wimbush] is throwing the ball perfectly.

“We wanted to get him some completions, no question, and we set him up that way.”

A few of Wimbush’s completions were aided by excellent catches by his targets. Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, junior running back Dexter Williams and sophomore receiver Chase Claypool all made difficult catches. Following the 49-20 victory over the Eagles last week, Kelly had been critical of both Wimbush’s accuracy and the lack of playmaking from the receiver corps.

“I knew that we needed to step up our play in supporting [Wimbush],” Kelly said. “He had to throw it better. We had to catch it better.”

With that in mind, Kelly and the coaching staff made it a point in this week’s practices to remind the receivers a pass needs two participants. The onus was not on only Wimbush to improve.

“There wasn’t a time where if a ball was not caught there was not a comment about how important it is for us to focus on the football and catch that football,” Kelly said.

“… We’ve got some guys that are gaining some confidence out there. I think you’ll see a better rapport as the season goes on here between Brandon and the receivers and confidence grow in that regard.”

Josh Adams & ankle ‘stiffness’
Notre Dame was already without sophomore running back Tony Jones due to a sprained ankle suffered a week ago. In the second half Saturday, junior running back Josh Adams took some time off, as well. Kelly said Adams felt “some stiffness” in his ankle at halftime, which led to a precautionary X-ray. The X-ray did not reveal any issues, but the Irish were content to rely on Williams unless it was “absolutely necessary” to reinsert Adams. With a three-possession Notre Dame lead, that situation never arose.

Adams handled a total of two rushes in the second half, one for a loss of a yard and the second for a three-yard gain. He finished with nine carries for 56 yards.

Room to improve
Michigan State attempted 53 passes, 12 more than the most the Irish had seen yet this year. This was in part due to Notre Dame’s quick and sizable lead, and it was in part the Spartans’ game plan, expecting the Irish to be ready for a known running focus.

Despite limiting the Spartans to only 6.51 yards per pass attempt, the influx of opportunities to defend the pass showed Kelly and his staff improvements waiting to be made in the secondary.

“We have to play with a little bit more of a sense of urgency in terms of down-and-distance, recognizing game situations,” Kelly said. “There is some improvement there for us.

“We have to do a better job with understanding passing off routes, underneath coverage, inside-out on slant routes in terms of down-and-distance.”

In other words, the Notre Dame secondary has yet to genuinely need to know where the first-down line is on a given down. On a second-and-seven, the concern is as much about a 15-yard route as it is a six-yard route. On a third-and-seven, the defensive back needs to be prepared for the seven-yard route more than anything else, expecting the pass to come in that area, while still protecting against the big play.

Exposure to those situations helps build that awareness. Saturday night provided some of that exposure, and now the Irish will set to developing those instincts.

“[It] gave us a real good snapshot of the things we have to focus in on and work to improve this week.”

On Miami of Ohio
If Notre Dame does not make those improvements, Redhawks senior quarterback Gus Ragland is the type of passer who can reap the rewards. Before the season, Kelly often described the first four Irish opponents as physical foes, ground-oriented. Now through those four, the focus will shift somewhat toward defending the pass. Ragland will be the first test.

To date, he has completed 52.1 percent of his passes this season for 881 yards and eight touchdowns compared to two interceptions. Ragland has averaged 7.53 yards per passing attempt.

In a 31-14 win over Central Michigan this weekend, Ragland threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns on only 11-of-19 passing.

The Redhawks are led by former Notre Dame assistant and longtime Kelly confidante Chuck Martin.

“We have a lot of respect for Chuck,” Kelly said. “Obviously I know him quite well. He’ll have his team ready.”