Five things we learned: The 82nd Blue-Gold game

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The good news? Notre Dame won, with the Gold beating the Blue 17-14. The better news? Nobody got hurt. The best news? The kids are going to be alright.

If you were looking to draw conclusions after the spring game, you might be out of luck. Like last year, the Irish didn’t play a defensive front that they planned on using this fall. Incumbent quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees spend more time with rain panchos on than helmets. And walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin nearly led both the Blue and Gold teams in carries, swapping jerseys early and often, a sign that the coaching staff wasn’t willing to take a chance getting either Cierre Wood or Jonas Gray injured.

Still, there’s plenty to be gained from the rain-soaked 82nd playing of the Blue-Gold game, which gave audiences a good look behind the curtain of a Notre Dame football program on the rise, thanks to the open-microphone Brian Kelly wore for Versus.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in the Gold team’s 17-14 victory, in front of 27,863 rain-soaked, die-hard Notre Dame fans.

1. Freshman Aaron Lynch might be the best pass rushing recruit the Irish have brought in… ever?

Don’t laugh. Sure, the talented freshman is a long way from going down in the Irish record books, and somewhere Beano Cook is chuckling about a preposterous statement like this. But looking back at the modern era of recruiting, there hasn’t been another player like Lynch to sign with the Irish.

Manti Te’o was a five-star everything, but he was a middle linebacker. Victor Abiamiri was a top-ten, blue-chip recruit, but he always profiled as a power defensive end. Nobody knew Justin Tuck would become one of the NFL’s most dangerous players when he signed as a long and lanky three-star linebacker out of Kellyton, Alabama.

Lynch dominated the Blue-Gold game, taking advantage of freshman like Christian Lombard and seniors like Trevor Robinson alike. He led the game with seven tackles, led the game with 1.5 tackles-for-loss, and certainly led the game in quarterback hurries, planting Andrew Hendrix on his back early and often.

Understanding that the expectations could get out of control, Lynch wasn’t made available to the media after the game. But the blogosphere is already abuzz about the 18-year-old’s performance, and even Brian Kelly struggled to temper his enthusiasm.

“He’s a good football player,” Kelly said. “The one thing that he did today is he went against our first offensive linemen, he went against Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever, and we thought that would tamp down the expectations, too. But I’d also like to give him credit for what he did.”

Quarterback Andrew Hendrix, the receiver of Lynch’s torment, was a little less diplomatic.

“I told him after the game that I can’t wait to see him do that to other quarterbacks,” Hendrix said. “It was pretty painful.”

What Lynch did was raise a bar that already started sky high. Something Irish fans (not to mention the coaching staff) have to be very happy about.

2. The Irish defense will be dynamic on the edge.

Taking away what Aaron Lynch did, it was a very good day for the edge of the defense. With Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Darius Fleming all but taking the day off, the defense built depth at defensive end, but more importantly had great performances from nearly every outside linebacker that took the field.

Danny Spond and Prince Shembo, both fighting for the starting ‘Dog’ linebacker position, had seven and six tackles respectively. Shembo did a nice job playing in space while Spond looked fluid in coverage and also made a tackle for a loss. Ishaq Williams made five tackles in his Irish “debut,” working effectively at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position with Fleming watching. And while Steve Filer didn’t fill up the stat sheet, he came off the edge hard as a pass-rusher, nearly notching a few sacks on some very mobile quarterbacks.

It’s remarkable to think that in one calendar year Kelly and his staff have taken one of the biggest liabilities on the roster and turned it into a strength. Again, we weren’t going to see anything Diaco and Kelly didn’t want us to see, but expect some dynamic rush packages on the field come autumn with guys like Lynch, Shembo, Fleming, Williams and Filer getting after the quarterback, maybe at the same time.

3. The Irish rushing attack will evolve in season two.

It’s no surprise that the leading rusher for both teams was a freshman quarterback. Andrew Hendrix bulldozed his way to two touchdowns, running for 42 yards on five carries while Everett Golson had a game-high 74 yards on 11 carries, dazzling fans with a highlight reel 23-yard scamper that evoked shades of Fran Tarkenton.

Kelly kept both young quarterbacks live, and each defense took its turn teeing off on the signal-callers. While the passing game for each was a work-in-progress, the Irish showed their ability to incorporate the quarterback into the spread-option game, something Kelly didn’t have the luxury of doing last year.

“Obviously for me, and what I’m used to, it’s a comfort level in terms of play-calling,” Kelly said. “But we’re going to make it work whoever the quarterback is. I think it’s pretty clear that we saw that they had the ability to do both, and that’s pretty exciting when you’re in the spread offense.”

On a windy and wet day, it’s hard to judge where any quarterback is throwing the football. But both Golson and Hendrix had flashes of rock-solid play, with Hendrix’s two-minute drill at the end of the first half giving him the opportunity to unleash a couple of big-time throws. Golson had a sloppy fumble and turnover, but he also showed a comfort level in the pocket and in the spread that most early-enrollees couldn’t imagine.

Running the ball with the quarterback — regardless of what quarterback is on the field — will be an added element in the Irish offense. But also expect to see a big jump in production from Cierre Wood, who took great strides in his first spring as the starting tailback.

“I like the way Cierre looked,” Kelly said of his running back. “Confident in running the football is the way I would describe him. He was confident and decisive in his decisions. If he couldn’t hit it at the front door, he was going to bend it back.”

Wood only had seven carries, but his 39 yards came in chunks. Expect bigger things out of the running game both from Wood and No. 2 Jonas Gray.

4. The Irish defense finally has the physicality of a BCS-caliber defense. 

If you were looking for big collisions, I offer you Louis Nix’s tackle of walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin. Working through multiple blocks, the 345-pound freshman defensive tackle put a very large shoulder into Coughlin, popping the backs helmet off his head and knocking him into next week.

Nix is an abnormally large defensive tackle and looks the part of an NFL’er right now. Keeping him in the game continues to be the biggest challenge for the coaching staff.

“Louis Nix, our concern is how long can he play at that level?” Kelly said. “Because when he’s out there, he’s a pretty good football player. He was today. We’ve just got to continue to develop his work volume.”

If it looks like Notre Dame’s defense is bigger than seasons past, it’s because it is. Consider that the projected starting 2011 defense, even with one less defensive lineman, is 205 pounds heavier than the 2006 defense. (Numbers courtesy of JRT)

2011 (3-4 alignment)          2006 (4-3 alignment)
Louis Nix, 345                           Trevor Laws, 283
Ethan Johnson, 300                 Derek Landri, 277
Kapron Lewis-Moore, 295        Victor Abiamiri, 270
Darius Fleming, 250                Chris Frome, 262
Prince Shembo, 250                Joe Brockington, 220
Manti Te’o 255                          Maurice Crum, 220
Carlo Calabrese, 245               Travis Thomas, 209
Zeke Motta, 215                       Chinedum Ndukwe 210
Harrison Smith, 214                Tommy Zbikowski, 210
Robert Blanton, 196                Ambrose Wooden, 193
Gary Gray, 195                         Mike Richardson, 188

Total: 2,755 lbs.                       Total: 2,550 lbs.

If you’re looking for a reason to believe that the Irish can play dominant defense, here it is. Three NFL sized defensive linemen? Check. Big, strong, physical linebackers? Yep. In the past, it was the front-seven of the Irish defense that didn’t physically stack up. Not anymore.

5. After a few quiet weeks, the Irish struck gold in recruiting.

Even with weather most elite recruits would run from, the Irish coaching staff got a major commitment from Maryland’s Ronald Darby, who some are calling the fastest recruit Notre Dame has signed since Raghib Ismail. Darby was joined by commitments Nicky Baratti and long-snapper Scott Daly, all three priorities for the Irish coaching staff.

Both Darby and Baratti are listed as athletes by the major recruiting websites, but Darby walks in as a cornerback and Baratti as a safety. Daly is a 6-4, 230-pound long snapper, a position the Irish almost brought in last recruiting cycle, even with tight numbers.

Darby spent most of his time on the sidelines with fellow Irish commitment Tee Shepard, giving the Irish a cornerback duo that any college would take. With more than a dozen other prospects on campus this weekend, recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and player development head Dave Peloquin continue to bring in elite recruits, with Darby having offers from Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan (among others) while Shepard turned down USC, Miami, Auburn and Alabama for the Irish.

If last year’s position of need was defensive end, this year’s roster needs an infusion in the secondary, and Shepard, Darby and Baratti are three great additions.

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Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)