It is not quite an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, but when Notre Dame travels to Michigan State this weekend, the focus will be on what success the Irish can have running the football against a staunch Spartans defense.
Michigan State has hosted Bowling Green and Western Michigan thus far this season, holding the two to a combined 220 rushing yards on 55 attempts (when adjusting for the Spartans’ five sacks for a loss of 37 yards), an average of 4.0 yards per carry.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, has gained 1,023 yards on 127 carries, an average of 8.06 yards per rush.
Something will have to give.
“They do what they do. They’re stingy against the run,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “They’re very physical in the back end. They play tight man coverage. They mix it up very good with their pressure package.
“Led by coach [Mark] Dantonio’s philosophy, they’ve always been really good defensively.”
That “tight man coverage” thought may seem an outlier when discussing Michigan State’s penchant for stopping the run, but it is that man-to-man coverage allowing Dantonio to devote an increased number of bodies to stopping the run. It could also be the item allowing Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to break loose at times.
When those defensive backs, and perhaps even linebackers covering tight ends or running backs, turn to cover a route, they lose site of the quarterback. With a mobile passer such as Wimbush, the backs of those helmets can turn a run-pass option play into a quick run for a worthwhile gain.
“If teams are feeling as though playing man-to-man and turning their back on the quarterback is the way they want to defend us, he’s going to run a lot,” Kelly said. “I know I wouldn’t want to be in man-to-man versus option offenses. It’s the last thing that you want to do, turn your back on an option quarterback and give him all the field to run.
“Teams are starting to figure out how to defend us, too. … If we see more zone coverages, he’s going to have to be able to throw the football. We’ve got to continue to grow as an offense in both those phases.”
The aerial phase of the offense will be determined by any improved accuracy from Wimbush and the emergence of more reliable receivers, an unavoidable topic following a game where that combination managed a meager 96 passing yards.
While Kelly did not excuse the extent of that struggle, he did indicate a slow start to the season might have been expected of Wimbush. This is, after all, his first collegiate action.
“We’re three games into this, he’s only going to feel more comfortable each and every week,” Kelly said. “These conversations that we’re having right now are totally natural for a first-year starter. He’s had a clipboard and a headset, that’s it. Now he’s in the middle of it.
“You’ll continue to see progress from him from week to week.”
That progress notwithstanding, look for the Irish to rely on the run as much as possible this weekend. Along with that will come zone reads, counters, and the rest of the ground game gamut.
“We can’t appease people in terms of what looks good as much as we’re were going to be good at,” Kelly said. “If running the football is what is going to be the common denominator for wins, then that’s what we’re doing. Efficiency is the most important thing.”
Resting Josh Adams six days a week
Wimbush may have scored four rushing touchdowns last week, but junior running back Josh Adams absorbs more of the physical toll of the ground game than any other Notre Dame ballcarrier. To date, Adams has taken 56 attempts for 443 yards.
To keep the bell cow fresh, the Irish coaching staff has reduced some of his workload during the week.
“We’re very cognizant of how we practice him, making sure that he gets the proper work, that he’s sharp when we get to Saturday,” Kelly said. “We let our best players play.
“It’s really incumbent upon us to do a great job of preparing him, but understanding that he’s got to feel really good when we get to Saturdays.”
The return of Cam Smith
Fifth year receiver Cam Smith missed the Boston College game due to a sprained ankle suffered in practice last week. Kelly said he expects Smith to be 100 percent this week.
A recruiting conversation about the NBA
In recent conversations, Kelly has praised the football intelligence of a few players, most notably junior cornerback Shawn Crawford and freshman receiver Michael Young. That may seem a difficult quality to gauge when recruiting 17-year-olds. So, Kelly doesn’t. Instead, he focuses on their broader understanding of and interest in sports.
“I actually like to talk about other sports,” Kelly said. “If they don’t know anything about Kyrie Irving and the trade with the Celtics, I get a little nervous.”
Typically, whenever Kelly mentions a Boston professional sports team, it is meant in jest as a reminder of his fandom allegiances. In this instance, it was an accurate acknowledgement of the biggest non-football sports story of the summer. At least, the biggest in this country.
“Those that understand sports, whether it be basketball, football, whatever they follow, other sports other than football itself, they generally have an understanding of the games,” Kelly said. “There are so many carryovers with other sports.
“I get a little nervous when somebody doesn’t know anything about any other sport.”
Last week, Notre Dame’s opponents enjoyed a 6-2 record, not counting Boston College’s loss to the Irish. This coming week, however, will prove a much more difficult slate. Exactly half of the dozen are favored with none facing each other.
Temple (2-1): The Owls needed a 13-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Logan Marchi to sophomore receiver Isaiah Wright with only 3:48 remaining to make it a two-score game against Massachusetts this weekend. The Minutemen got another score, but thanks to Marchi’s consistency, the last-minutes touchdown was not enough to catch Temple. The Owls prevailed 29-21, and Marchi continued his interception-less streak to start the season.
That streak will be tested Thursday at South Florida (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Bulls are favored by a mere 20.5 points with a combined points total over/under of 61. A 41-20 trouncing would not bode well for Temple in the American Athletic Conference this fall.
On a somewhat unrelated note, it was recently posited to your definitely-not-too-focused-on-gambling-lines scribe that favorites of 20 points or more win outright more than 98 percent of the time. Logically, that makes sense, but a spreadsheet now exists to quietly track that for the remainder of the season to gauge just how secure those endeavors may be.
Georgia (3-0): Georgia beat up on FCS-level Samford 42-14. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm went 8-for-13 passing for 165 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Nonetheless, sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason reportedly returned to practice Monday, though in a limited role.
The Bulldogs used a 21-0 third quarter to end any Samford dreams.
Whoever starts at quarterback this week will have a tough task. Georgia hosts Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET on ESPN). The Bulldogs are favored by 6.5 as of this Tuesday a.m. writing with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math and some rounding hint at a 27-21 final.
Boston College (1-2): The Eagles lost to Notre Dame 49-20. You knew that, right?
The sledding will get much rougher for Boston College now, heading to defending national champion Clemson (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2). A 34-point margin is predicted with an over/under of merely 51.5. Suffice it to say, losing 43-8 would not do any good for Eagles head coach Steve Addazio’s future no matter who the opponent may be.
Michigan State (2-0): The Spartans enjoyed a bye week and now host, who is it again, hmmm, oh! Right! Michigan State faces Notre Dame at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. The spread is up to five, favoring the Irish, with an over/under of 54, indicating something along the lines of 30-24.
Miami (OH) (1-2): Chuck Martin has officially lost momentum. A 21-17 loss to Cincinnati at home will do that. The defeat was even more spirit-crushing than usual. The RedHawks led 14-3 entering the fourth quarter. They led 17-6 with fewer than three minutes remaining. A touchdown followed by a two-point conversion cut the lead to 17-14 and then an interception returned for a touchdown 70 seconds later gifted the Bearcats a victory.
Miami did not exactly play stellar football, though. The RedHawks converted only three of 14 third downs and gained a whopping 70 rushing yards on 32 attempts, a 2.2 yards per carry average.
Martin and Miami will look to right the ship this weekend on a trip to Central Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET on Watch ESPN). Despite the road venue, the RedHawks are only two-point underdogs with an over/under of 53.5. Another close loss, perhaps 28-25, would be all-too deflating for Martin’s reclamation efforts.
North Carolina (1-2): Congratulations Tar Heels, you found a win. Sure, it was a 53-23 delight at FCS-level Old Dominion, but a win is a win is a [four-beat pause] win. After giving up 72 points combined in your first two games, you gave up only 23 to the Monarchs, with seven of those coming from a kickoff return for a touchdown.
North Carolina next hosts Duke (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU). Those not too familiar with some of the norms of gambling spreads should remember home-field advantage is usually good for a three-point swing in the projected margin. With that in mind, raise an eyebrow at the Tar Heels being three-point underdogs to the Blue Devils with an over/under of 63.5, indicating a 34-30 type of afternoon.
That spread seems about right. That point total seems a bit low, especially when considering North Carolina’s defensive performances thus far this season.
USC (3-0): The Trojans found their way to a 27-24 double overtime win against Texas. It was dramatic and entertaining and, if being honest, somewhat underwhelming.
If anything was learned, USC now knows it has a calm and confident kicker in freshman walk-on Chase McGrath.
He should not have too much to worry about this weekend. The Trojans head up to Cal (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC) to face the overmatched Bears. A 16.5-point spread and an over/under of 63 points results in a guess of 40-24, advantage USC.
North Carolina State (2-1): The Wolfpack enjoyed a 49-16 victory over FCS-level Furman, otherwise known as the Paladins, a truly exemplar team nickname, and fitting they had to travel to Raleigh.
North Carolina State now has to do the traveling, all the way down to Tallahassee to try and prove wrong an 11-point spread in favor of Florida State. The 51 point over/under implies a 31-20 finale. It may be a bit bold to predict the Wolfpack to win outright, but a cover and an under would go hand-in-hand.
Wake Forest (3-0): Three years ago, the Demon Deacons lost to Utah State 36-24. This past weekend, Wake Forest beat the Aggies 46-10.
By no means is that a sign of Utah State’s fall. It is, rather, a distinct note of the Deacons’ improvement.
That will be tested at Appalachian State this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET on Watch ESPN). This line opened at Wake Forest by three, but it has already moved up to 4.5, indicating the world is onto the Deacons rising. An over/under of 46 leads to considerations of a 25-21 finale. That would certainly be entertaining, but figure Wake Forest’s roll will continue with a bit more ease than that.
Miami (FL) (1-0): Hurricane Irma postponed Miami’s date at Florida State until Oct. 7. Having played all of one game this year, the Hurricanes will be eager to host Toledo (3:30 p.m. ET on ACC Network). They may be too eager to cover a 13.5-spread in their favor with an over/under of 57.5. That 35-22 final simply seems too wide.
Navy (2-0): The Midshipmen relished a bye week. Navy will now host Cincinnati. As 11.5-point favorites, the Midshipmen’s performance will provide a barometer of Miami (OH) as much as anything else. A 31-20 victory would indicate the RedHawks may be in for a long year while the Midshipmen get ready to challenge for the American Athletic title once again.
Stanford (1-2): The Cardinal fell for the second week in a row, this time at San Diego State by the score of 20-17 after the lights literally went out. This should not be seen as the end of times for head coach David Shaw’s Stanford. IT may be a tough loss, but they have set up too strong a program to let two-consecutive losses halt progress forward.
UCLA visits the Cardinal late Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). There is no way that 63-point total is not threatened, though Stanford remains favored by 7.5 points.
As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …
Will Cam Smith be healthy enough to get back on the field?
The fifth-year receiver suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week, limiting his reps throughout the week and keeping him from playing Saturday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That absence may have held more of an effect than was anticipated by anyone.
Certainly, Notre Dame’s receivers totaling three catches for 11 yards is not solely a reflection of Smith not being on the field. It is a sign of bigger issues, but that does not mean Smith would not have aided the cause. With his institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from their days together at Arizona State, Smith has been consistent. His seven catches for 54 yards come from running clean, disciplined routes.
Getting him back onto the field could alleviate a slight bit of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues. By no means would this eradicate the concern entirely, but even a small step in the right direction would be a welcome trend for the Irish at this point.
If Smith remains sidelined, did Chase Claypool do enough to maintain his spot as a starter?
Kelly answered this question Sunday, but it had already been worked into this concept’s draft and emphasizing it seems a valid decision.
Claypool will continue to see time, though more so at the boundary receiver position than the slot spot he worked at throughout spring and preseason practices. Of those three catches for 11 yards the receivers managed against Boston College, Claypool accounted for two receptions and eight yards.
“He was assignment correct,” Kelly said. “We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”
Along with Claypool, there was also some Michael Young innuendo last week. Will the depth chart now reflect that?
When Kelly discussed coming changes at receiver before the trip out east, he mentioned Claypool by name. He also seemed to imply another unexpected option could emerge.
“Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position,” Kelly said Thursday. “But we really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all the experience but have a higher ceiling.”
At that point, Kelly knew Smith was injured, though perhaps he was still questionable to play. Kelly also presumably knew senior Freddy Canteen would need season-ending shoulder surgery this week. Those two bits could explain the first half of that paragraph.
The second half suggests Claypool would have company in the inexperienced with a “higher ceiling” category. With sophomore Javon McKinley intended to preserve a year of eligibility this season, freshman Michael Young is the most-likely candidate.
That presumption could be quickly confirmed in the Notre Dame depth chart this week.
How badly is Tony Jones’ ankle sprained?
Exactly a week ago, this piece wondered, “Through two games, are the Irish really still this healthy?” Through three games, the answer has become no.
Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College, only x-rays confirmed no further damage. As a running back, that injury can obviously be more than a nuisance and waiting for Jones to return to full health before playing him makes sense. If that takes longer than a week, it should lead to a bit more playing time for junior Dexter Williams. (more…)
Notre Dame and Boston College combined to punt 15 times this weekend and the Irish never attempted a field goal, while the Eagles attempted and made two. At least two other possessions could have ended with boots of some variety, though it could easily be argued fewer should have.
This space will never adapt the “don’t kick” ethos advised by analytics. The math makes sense and the approach theoretically pays off in the long-run, but it is simply not going to come to be practiced, so arguing for it wholesale is nothing but a waste of time and keystrokes. Football coaches cannot afford to think about the long-run in an era when one poor season leads to billboards calling for firings. More on Mike Riley’s future below.
This space will, however, advocate going for a fourth-and-five from the opponent’s 35-yard line as Notre Dame did in Saturday’s second quarter. Yes, coverage forced junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to scramble for the needed gain, falling one yard short and handing possession to the Eagles. But when a game stands 10-7 long before halftime, looking toward the higher ceiling is simply smart maneuvering.
On the flipside, and this should be remembered moving forward, that decision may have also been a reflection on junior kicker Justin Yoon’s leg, or at least how the Irish coaching staff feels about his leg. From the 35-yard line, a field goal would have been a 53-yard* attempt. Yoon’s career long is 52 yards with room to spare, but that was two years ago.
The odds are, this particular fourth-down decision was made with an aggressor’s mindset, not out of doubts about Yoon’s maximum length.
If that was indeed the case, good for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly. Boston College could have used that approach — the Eagles punted four different times from the Irish side of midfield, going for fourth downs only on a fourth-and-inches at the 30-yard line and on a fourth-and-goal after desperation had set in.
Here’s to fewer punts, fewer field goals and more make-it-or-take-it fourth downs.
*Traditionally, a field goal attempt’s length is the line of scrimmage plus 17 yards: 10 accounting for the end zone and seven more for the distance behind the line of scrimmage where the holder spots the ball. In recent years, that latter number has grown to eight on longer kicks, allowing the kicker the ability to get the ball over the defensive line’s outstretched hands while also utilizing a lower kick angle, theoretically elongating the kick’s reach.
For example, Yoon kicked a 42-yard field goal in the second quarter against Georgia. The line of scrimmage before that kick was the 24-yard line.
One more note on Georgia and ticket sales, or lack thereof
Round-trip, non-stop flight from Atlanta to South Bend: $500 per person, give or take.
Hotel room within 30 miles of Notre Dame on a home game weekend: $300 per night, $600 total.
Tickets to see Georgia beat the Irish: Another $500 each, give or take.
Total for a party of two: $2,600, but that doesn’t mean the tickets will actually show up.
Such a fate befell hundreds of Bulldogs fans last week. No matter how any Notre Dame fans may have felt about the thousands of Georgia fans in the stands, they can certainly sympathize with the misery of a ticket broker reneging on his promised tickets.
In this instance, apparently some justice has been served. The Putnam County Sheriff down in Georgia arrested Jeff Cook for selling sports tickets without a license and advertising sports tickets for sale without posting a license number.
Per the local NBC-affiliate, the sheriff was well aware of Cook’s business and was largely okay with it until he failed to deliver on promised tickets to so many fans.
The Bob Diaco watch has become the Mike Riley ticking clock.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, thee of former Irish stardom, may have felt the heat after giving up 78 points in the season’s first two weeks, his first two games with the Cornhuskers.
This past weekend, Diaco’s defense allowed only seven points, but his job may now be in more jeopardy than ever. (The Huskies returned two interceptions for touchdowns.) That is, with the 17-21 loss to Northern Illinois, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley’s job appears tenuous, at best, in only his third season in Lincoln.
How tenuous? It is never a promising sign when your boss says something to this effect.
Continuing the offensive line vs. defensive line theory
Exactly a week ago, this piece posited, “defensive lines beat offensive lines of equal talent in college football.” Continuing with that thought process, this Ringer piece on the NFL’s league-wide struggles on offense delves into the trend, though arguing there simply may not be equal talent any longer.
“The lack of game-ready offensive linemen coming through the draft remains a real issue teams must deal with, especially with a parallel surge of highly athletic defensive linemen.”
Whether agreeing or not, the premise is one to keep in mind while watching football this season and the next few to come.
So, Wake Forest might be, uhhh, good. [Insert question marks here]
The Demon Deacons had no trouble with Boston College a week ago, dispatching the Eagles 34-10. Hosting Utah State this weekend, Wake Forest again cruised, this time to the tune of 46-10. Admittedly, this year’s Aggies are not the frustrating opponent they have been in recent past, but they are still a better-than-average Group of Five team. In the recent past, the Deacons have been a much worse-than-average Power Five team.
That would normally be an at least somewhat competitive dynamic. This wasn’t, even aside from the score. Wake Forest outgained Utah State 588 yards to 267, holding the Aggies to 1.4 yards per rush and forcing 10 punts.
This week the Deacons travel to Appalachian State. If you know anyone who might have predicted Wake Forest would fall short of 5.5 wins before the season, perhaps advise that scribe to consider whether the Deacons can beat the Mountaineers by more than a field goal Saturday.
What in the Jayhawk is that offensive line?
Ohio didn’t even consider bringing extra rushers on this snafu.
Around Kansas football, that really may be situation normal …
It bears repeating: Notre Dame was 3-of-9 on third downs at halftime at Boston College, then leading only 14-10.
The Irish converted 6-of-9 third downs in the second half on their way to the 49-20 win.
Illegal kicks are enforced similarly to illegal batting of the ball.
This unique clip started making the rounds Saturday night. Athletically, it is quite impressive. By the rules, though, it is not allowed.
Per two referees who dabble as drinking buddies, that would have been called an illegal kick, leading to a 10-yard penalty and a loss of down.
Every so often a player intentionally knocks a ball out of the back of the end zone or forward toward another player. There is always a debate about the actual intention. If deemed purposeful, it is an illegal bat. An illegal kick is similar in all manners except it is done, you know, with a foot.
Lastly, when is it going to be publicly acceptable for all of us to start sporting mullets a la Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy? The Cowboys are that good — it may be time for us all to emulate that man.