South Florida v Notre Dame

Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. South Florida

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There are statistics. Then there are statistics that matter.

Statistics: 508 yards of total offense. 391 passing yards. Cierre Wood — 21 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. Michael Floyd — 12 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

Statistics that matter: Turnovers — Notre Dame 5, South Florida 0. Red zone scoring — South Florida 3 for 3, Notre Dame 2 for 6. Notre Dame — four personal fouls.

Skip Holtz triumphantly returned to Notre Dame Stadium, where he both coached and played under his Hall of Fame father. But even Lou Holtz never saw a Saturday quite like this one, with Holtz’s Bulls triumphing 23-20 in a 5 hour, 59 minute game that had two weather delays totaling just under three hours.

The severe thunder and lightning that caused Notre Dame’s first ever weather delay might have been something out of the norm. But the 2011 Fighting Irish just learned a lesson as old as the sport. Regardless of how talented you think your football team is, your biggest opponent is yourself.

“We say this all the time,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “You can’t start winning until you stop losing. The things that we did today out there obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games. You lose football games because you turn the ball over. You lose football games because you miss field goals. You lose football games because you have four personal fouls penalties. The list is long.”

As Notre Dame tries to quickly turn the page after a shocking 23-20 loss, here are five things we learned.

Tommy Rees has to be the Irish’s starting quarterback.

When Brian Kelly named Dayne Crist his starting quarterback eleven days ago, there was so little that separated to two quarterbacks that Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar had to look past the statistics.

“The deeper we dug on numbers the cloudier it became,” Kelly said just two weeks ago. “I’ve been doing it a long time and sometimes it’s easy to just look at the numbers and they tell you who the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks are. We’re going to get into subjective things now as we move forward because the numbers are so equal.”

For those that watched the Irish run off four straight wins with Tommy Rees at the helm last year, they know that objectivity is not necessarily a friend of Rees.

Statistically speaking, a production comparison of both quarterbacks would be considered a toss-up. But those looking at NFL prototype Crist and the whispy, dorm-guy Rees would be wise to peer past the statistics and simply look at the way the offense moves when Rees is its pilot. After a half of football, Kelly had seen enough after sitting for over two hours with a 16-0 deficit.

“Production,” Kelly said of his rationale to switch to Rees. “We didn’t feel like we produced the way we should have.”

And while Rees’ numbers — 24 for 34, 296 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions — may objectively have some flaws, there’s no doubt that he’s got to be the quarterback that starts when Notre Dame plays Michigan next Saturday at night in Ann Arbor.

“He was 24 for 34 in a situation where they knew we were going to throw the football,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in that situation. I want him to have the luxury of a running game which we established when Dayne was in there.”

What happens with Crist will be a question the coaching staff didn’t want to have to answer going forward. When Rees lay dazed on the ground after a roughing the passer call, it was freshman Everett Golson running for his helmet, not Crist. (Rees got up and threw a touchdown pass to Michael Floyd, avoiding a bigger controversy.)

While Kelly was mum about what he’ll do for next week, the choice is no longer subjective. Tommy Rees needs to lead the team, even if it does throw the roster into upheaval.

2. The Irish need Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray to bounce back after disastrous debuts.

Both Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray learned about the burden of great expectations. Two of Notre Dame’s most important players spit the bit in their first game as mandatory contributor. Gray’s fumble as the Irish were pushing the ball into the end zone at the end of a surgical first drive flipped the game on its head, as USF safety Jerrell Young ripped the ball out and cornerback Kayvon Webster scooped it up and ran it in for a 96-yard touchdown to shock the home crowd.

Likewise, Riddick’s muffed punt late in the second quarter turned the game for the junior wide receiver, the Irish’s best chance for a game-breaking receiver opposite Michael Floyd. Riddick had a game he needs to forget, muffing two punts (and almost a third), and dropping three balls up the seam that erased potentially big receptions.

Riddick has never been a natural returning punts, but after not returning them last year, Brian Kelly isn’t giving himself any other options in the return game.

“He’s got to do it. I told him to get his butt back out there,” Kelly said after the game. “If we’re going to have the kind of playmakers we need at that position, we don’t have a waiver wire, we can’t trade for anybody. We’ve got to get him to that position.”

The Irish saw their weaknesses put to the test in the opening moments of 2011. How Riddick and Gray respond will go a long way towards determining the season.

3. You may not have noticed, but the Irish defense is as good as advertised.

The Irish might have lost the game 23-20, but the Irish defense only gave up 254 yards to USF, a number that would’ve been their best total in all of 2010.

No USF player rushed for 50 yards. The leading receiver for the Bulls, Sterli Griffin, had eight catches for 75 yards, and USF didn’t have a play go for explosive yardage, with their longest play from scrimmage going for a modest 18 yards. (In comparison, the Irish had nine plays go for 18 yards or more.)

While the Irish weren’t able to force any turnovers from B.J. Daniels, a player who had plenty of them in 2010, they showed a few more exotic packages in their first game of the season, with Bob Diaco rotating linebackers Steve Filer, Prince Shembo, Darius Fleming into hand-on-the-ground pass rusher while using freshman Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch liberally.

Major penalties against team leaders Harrison Smith (two facemasks) Gary Gray (a late hit and a pass interference) and Ethan Johnson (late hit) really hurt the Irish. But make no mistake, the Irish defense played well.

4. Like a chip off the old block, Skip Holtz pulled a rabbit from his hat.

If there was a recipe card spelling out how to beat Notre Dame, Holtz had been hiding it up his sleeve for the entire week. It might be difficult to practice getting turnovers, but Holtz had his defense ready with the perfect gameplan.

“Our whole mindset was bend, but don’t break,” Holtz said. “Our motto was, make them snap it again. Just don’t let them in the end zone, make them snap it again. They haven’t scored yet if they don’t cross that end zone.”

It was a mindset that worked against the Irish, who moved the ball at will between the twenty yard lines, but faltered repeatedly once it got into the red zone.

For Holtz, the victory was one that was well earned. Only in the post game press conference was he willing to address the game’s significance to him, and even then it was begrudgingly.

“I’ve got an incredible amount of memories in this stadium, at this university, as a student driving around campus,” Holtz said. “As soon as the buses got here, I took off and walked over to the grotto and lit a candle, just because that’s how I got through college. A lot of emotional moments for me.”

One more recent memory came in handy on Saturday afternoon. During the Bulls’ preseason training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, a severe storm rolled through town, putting a team scrimmage in an indefinite delay.

“That was the first thing I said to them when I walked into the locker room,” Holtz said. “Hey, we’ve been here before.”

They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Never was that more apparent than Saturday for the Bulls.

5. For the Irish, every Saturday is the season.

One loss won’t keep Notre Dame from achieving its goals. And to the credit of the players made available to the media, every one of them was already mentally turning the page and looking forward to a Michigan game that now takes on added importance. It was 2004 when the Irish were shocked in the season opener by Gary Crowton’s BYU team in Provo, only to come back the next Saturday and knock off a Michigan team ranked in the AP top ten 28-20.

After last season, both Kelly and his players know they can pick themselves up off the mat.

“You know, we’ve been down this road before,” Kelly said. “The disappointing thing is that we thought going into a year where we had some experience, we wouldn’t have to go through this. But it looks like we’re going to have to make sure that our players are understanding what it takes to win football games.”

If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s pretty clear what Notre Dame has to do to win.

You can’t turn the ball over three times inside your opponents five yard line. You can’t have one of your best players lay the football on the ground multiple times. You can’t commit eight penalties, the second most in the Kelly era. You can’t give a game away to a team that you doubled in yardage, like the Irish did 508 to 254.

But that’s what happened on Saturday, for five hours and 59 minutes. In a game that’ll go down as one of the most bizarre in Notre Dame’s history, the Irish lost the football game because of the oldest reasons in the book.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.