Notre Dame in 2011: What makes this year different?

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It was almost odd seeing it. Six years ago, a roster filled with the same guys that were trampled by USC and Purdue (Purdue!), edged by BYU, Boston College and Pittsburgh, and looked rudderless at the Insight Bowl after head coach Tyrone Willingham was dismissed, came out of the locker room eight months later transformed.

In an opening day grudge match between Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt, both fresh from the AFC East, the Irish ran the former Dolphins head coach out of his own stadium, as both coaches led their alma maters in decidedly different directions. Brady Quinn, a junior that looked the part his first two seasons but hadn’t delivered, transformed into a leading man. On the ground, an offensive line that was soft turned into a steamroller up front, leading an Irish cavalcade — five guys averaged more than five-yards a carry. Little used wide receiver Jeff Samardzija snatched a tricky touchdown pass in the end zone with six minutes left in the first half. As the Irish went to halftime, they had scored 35 first half points. It might as well have been raining manna from heaven.

The entire 2005 season still feels like a blur. Even when the Irish lost, it was memorable; storming back from a twenty-one point second-half deficit, the Irish lost a stunner in overtime to Michigan State 44-41. Then, an electric Saturday with the underdog Irish in green jerseys on a crisp October afternoon. When the numbness of USC’s improbable comeback wore off, Irish fans would never admit it, but the loss didn’t really matter: Notre Dame was back.

For a school that made a habit of waking up the echoes, the upcoming 2006 season felt different. It wasn’t just Irish fans that thought it could be the year. Sports Illustrated had bought in. So did ESPN. So did the entire AP Poll. That was Notre Dame sitting at No. 2 in the preseason, narrowly behind Ohio State and garnering 10 first place votes.

With 17 starters and 36 monogram winners returning, the banner Weis hung in the weight room that claimed “9-3 isn’t good enough,” didn’t feel like over-confidence from one of college football’s brashest coaches. The offensive backfield returned. Rhema McKnight replaced Maurice Stovall as All-American Jeff Samardzija’s partner-in-crime, protected by an offensive line with three returning starters. Even better, the defense returned nine starters and eight of the top ten tacklers. All four starters returned on the defensive line. The secondary was completely intact. Weis even inserted tailback Travis Thomas in at weakside linebacker (a move right out of Belicheck’s playbook), and an immediate athletic upgrade to a defense that looked a step slow against USC.

As Brian Kelly looked to build off the first winning season Central Michigan had completed in nearly a decade, Charlie Weis was set to return Notre Dame to college football’s promise land.

***

EXT. OPEN FIELD – DAY

Leaves scatter on a football field on a glorious autumn afternoon. CHARLIE BROWN stands with his faithful companion SNOOPY. His friend LUCY approaches carrying a football.

LUCY
Say Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football.
How about practicing a few place kicks?
I’ll hold the ball and you come running
and kick it.

CHARLIE
Oh, brother. I don’t mind the dishonesty
half as much as I mind your opinion of me.
You must think I’m stupid.

LUCY
Oh, come on, Charlie Brown. I’ll hold it steady.

Charlie is immediately distrustful of his friend in the blue dress.

CHARLIE
You just want me to come running up to kick that ball
so you can pull it away and see me land flat on my
back and kill myself.

LUCY
This time you can trust me.

Charlie seems skeptical until Lucy produces a DOCUMENT out of thin air.

LUCY
Here’s a signed document. Testifying that I promise not to pull it away.

Lucy hands him the document. Charlie marvels at the development as he peruses the contract.

CHARLIE
It is signed… It’s a signed document! I guess if you have a signed
document in your possession, you can’t go wrong. This year,
I’m really going to kick that football.

Filled with belief, Charlie looks down at the document. He’s convinced. With a running start, he charges toward Lucy, who holds the ball for his kick. Charlie SWINGS HIS LEG, ready for the triumphant strike when… THE BALL DISAPPEARS.

Lucy has done it again, pulling the ball out from under an unsuspecting Charlie Brown. Charlie SCREAMS in agony as he LANDS FLAT ON HIS BACK.

The signed document floats into Lucy’s hands.

LUCY
Peculiar thing about this document. It was never notarized.

FADE TO BLACK.

***

Charles Schulz got it wrong when he chose yellow and black for Charlie’s shirt colors. Our favorite optimistic lad might have felt far more comfortable wearing blue and gold, surrounded by the thousands of alumni and subway domers gearing up to once again take the leap after five seasons of frustration.

While two BCS appearances since 2005 is hardly grounds for a eulogy, it’s been a winding road filled with plenty of detours that’s led Notre Dame back to this not-quite familiar place. The rug was pulled out from beneath the program in 2007. A year later, a 5-2 start was erased by a humbling conclusion. While Weis seemed to have the Irish building for the future after a much-needed bowl victory, 2009 was a different version of the same song. After a four game swoon ended the regular season in dramatic fashion, an expensive plug was pulled on a Charlie Weis era that started with a bang but went out like a whisper.

Brian Kelly didn’t come out of the gates swinging. He won his debut in unimpressive fashion, but the Irish limped out of the gate, starting 1-3. Steadfast in his 20 years of experience as a head coach, Kelly didn’t panic.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said after the Irish were beaten soundly by Stanford 37-14. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8- or 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out. There’s going to be success down the road for them if they stay with it, and I’m certain that they will.”

It got worse before it got better, with the Irish losing in humiliating and shocking fashion to Navy and Tulsa respectively. But with a bye week to regroup, a funny thing happened. Notre Dame started playing good football. November had been particularly unkind to Weis’ Irish squads (1-8 record the past two seasons), but last season’s Irish vanquished demons of seasons past, ending the year on a four-game winning streak that included wins over Utah, Army, USC and a convincing defeat of Miami in the Sun Bowl.

An 8-5 finish doesn’t get you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but there are plenty of people that see big things in store for the 2011 campaign. While it may be hard for some to dust themselves off and get ready to kick off another season, here are four reasons why this season will be different.*

1. The Irish have the size in their defensive front seven.

There aren’t many football teams that have the sheer size of the Irish in their front seven. When LSU pushed Notre Dame all over the football field in the Sugar Bowl ending the 2006 season, it was obvious the Irish were undermanned physically.

Let’s take a quick look at the front seven of both the 2006 defense and the 2011 Irish, and you’ll quickly get the picture.

2006 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Victor Abiamiri: 6-4, 270 – Sr.
DT: Trevor Laws, 6-1, 283 – Sr.
DT: Derek Landri, 6-3, 277 – Sr.
DE: Ronald Talley, 6-4, 262 – Jr.
OLB: Travis Thomas, 6-0, 215 – Sr.
MLB: Maurice Crum, 6-0, 220 – Jr.
OLB: Mitchell Thomas, 6-3, 232 – Sr.
Key Reserves:
DL: Chris Frome, 6-5, 262 – Sr.
DL: Dwight Stephenson, 6-2, 248

2011 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Kapron Lewis-Moore: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
DT: Sean Cwynar: 6-4, 285 – Sr.
DE: Ethan Johnson: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
OLB: Darius Fleming: 6-2, 255 – Sr.
ILB: Manti Te’o: 6-2, 255 – Jr.
ILB: Dan Fox: 6-3, 240 – Jr.
OLB: Prince Shembo: 6-2, 250 – So.
Key Reserves:
NT: Louis Nix: 6-3, 326 – So.
LB: Carlo Calabrese: 6-1, 245 – Jr.
DE: Aaron Lynch: 6-6, 265 – Fr.
DE: Stephon Tuitt: 6-6.5, 295 – Fr.

If you’re looking for mathematical proof that the Irish are stronger up front than they have been in a long time, take a look at the difference in sheer size between the 2006 front seven and the unit from this year. Even with Sean Cwynar playing as an undersized defensive tackle, he’d still be the largest guy on the 2006 roster.

With proper weight training and physical conditioning, this isn’t a team you’re likely to see on rollerskates at the end of the season, like you did with Irish team’s of the past. Size may not be the only determining factor, but for the first time in a very long while, the Irish can control — and dominate — the point of attack at the line of scrimmage.

2. The Irish will be better balanced and more productive on offense.

It’s hard to believe it, but even with the Irish breaking in an entirely new system, losing their starting quarterback, All-American tight end, two different starting wide receivers and a starting right tackle, the Irish offense wasn’t all that bad.

In fact, it was essentially a mirror image of the 2006 unit.

Looking back at the stat-line for both squads, it’s shocking to see how similar the offensive outputs were between the ’06 squad many saw as one of the most high-octane in college football, and Kelly’s ’10 team that was learning the ropes with Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees.

Here’s a breakdown of the run/pass ratio for both teams, along with their scoring average.

2006 per game output

36 passing attempts, 7.3 yards per pass. (11.8 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 3.9 yards per carry.
Points per game: 31.0

2010 per game output

37 passing attempts, 6.8 per attempt (11.5 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 4.0 yards per rush
Points per game: 26.3

If you’re looking for the major difference between the two teams, look at the red zone efficiency. Weis’ 2006 squad cashed in 90 percent of their chances, scoring touchdowns on 76 percent. Kelly’s first squad only scored in 82 percent, with touchdowns coming at only a 58 percent clip.

With another year in the system for Crist (and Tommy Rees), a running game that’s got four returning starters along the offensive line, and a team that showed an offensive identity in the final month of last season, if the Irish can build in their second year under Kelly and stay reasonable healthy, the offense will be in great shape.

3. Consistency in coaching a system and fundamentals fuels player development.

If there was a knock on Charlie Weis, it was his strident belief that he could out-scheme anybody. That “decided schematic advantage” became a punch-line to detractors when Weis was under fire, but also went a long way towards explaining why player development stalled out, as Weis consistently tweaked his coaching staff, schemes, and base knowledge for players in hopes of gaining an edge.

“I’ve had three different defensive coordinators, three different position coaches,” Ethan Johnson said. “This is the first time I’ve gone into a system for two consecutive years and known what to expect. In that respect, we’re going to have a much more productive year because we’re not dealing with a new coaching staff and a new system.”

Many questioned Kelly’s approach to hiring a staff when he brought with him a handful of coaches from Cincinnati and a group that was low on Q-rating but high on familiarity with Kelly’s system.

The “one-voice” approach was a stark contrast to Weis’ hiring philosophy. When the Irish defense struggled, Weis replaced coordinator Rick Minter‘s 4-3 defense with Corwin Brown‘s 3-4 system, only to bring in Jon Tenuta and go back to a four-man front. A roster already assembled for a system it was no longer running was forced to add another level of complexity to it, and the results on the defensive side of the ball were self-explanatory.

Kelly’s name hasn’t been too far away from the “genius” moniker, but the brilliance in his system is also in its simplicity. It’s that simplicity, both on offense and defense, that allows players to develop quickly on his rosters, fueling growth and improvement throughout the season.

4. Momentum.

For the first time since this football team enrolled in school, the Irish had an offseason where they were able to build off of an impressive finish and continue developing. Where as Weis’ last two rosters collapsed at the first sign of adversity, Kelly’s 2010 team picked itself off the mat twice, ending the season on a high note.

With a healthy spring practice session, an incredible recruiting haul on the defensive side of the ball, and the return of Michael Floyd from disciplinary purgatory, the Irish are poised to build on a season that had every player and coach on the roster doing an awful lot of self-examination.

***

There will always be questions on a roster. Can Dayne Crist carry the offense? Will Cierre Wood be able to last the season? Can the Irish secondary stay healthy? We’ll find all that out over the next three months.

But as the days get shorter, summer turns to fall, and Saturdays become a communal exercise in hope, there’s plenty of reason to think this year might be better than the last. And while all of this could be shot to hell by the time the calendar hits October, Notre Dame is once again poised to make a run in college football.

Now come on, Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football. Let’s practice a few kicks.

* These reasons were not notarized.

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

Associated Press
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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.”