The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USF

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In the end, the final score is all that matters. South Florida 23, Notre Dame 20. But the Cliff Notes version of this game wouldn’t begin to tell the whole story, and while there’s plenty of bellyaching around ND Nation today, there’s only one single-sentence argument that I’ll listen to if you’re pinning this game on a sole issue: Turnovers.

One of the many reasons football is a great game is because it’s an inherently fair one. Notre Dame may be a great football team. One game won’t cement my opinion either way. But there aren’t many teams — or any in today’s college football world — that can lose the turnover margin 5-0 and the Irish got zero points in their first four possessions inside the Bulls ten yard-line.

There was a lot of good, plenty of bad, and unfortunately, too much ugly in the Irish’s opening 23-20 loss to South Florida.

Let’s get it over with.

THE GOOD

When you go back and look at the tape of this game, there’ll be an annoying amount of good in this game. That’s what happens when the offense moves the ball for 508 yards, Notre Dame gets a 100 yard rusher, a 100-yard receiver, and a great game from Tyler Eifert.

It’ll happen when the defense holds an offense to chip shot field goals and one touchdown and only 254 yards. So here are three good things from the loss.

Michael Floyd. A season after Brian Kelly and Charley Molnar struggled to take advantage of their best offensive player, the coaching staff found new ways to get the ball to Floyd, who became Notre Dame’s all-time catch leader with 12 receptions yesterday — a career high — along with 154 yards and two touchdowns. He’s now only 14 yards behind Golden Tate for most in school history and needs one more 100 yard game to tie Tate’s record of 15.

“I think Michael Floyd is a great player on film,” Skip Holtz said after the game. “I think he’s a lot better live than he is on film. I think he is one of the special players in college football.”

Floyd might not put up the gawdy yards-per-catch numbers that he did in Charlie Weis‘ offense as the vertical threat opposite Tate, but he’s become a more complete receiver, and he showed it yesterday.

Cierre Wood. For those worried about Wood, fear not. The junior averaged just under five yards per carry, running for 104 yards on 21 attempts, and had 44 yards through the air, including a nifty catch and run to open the game. Against a defense known for its speed, Wood still looked electric, and his 100 yard game was the first of the Brian Kelly era.

Louis Nix. In his first game as a college football player, Nix had seven tackles from his defensive tackle position and looked every bit as immovable as many Irish fans thought he was. I’ll have to go back and watch the tape, but the defensive line looked good.

THE BAD

Let’s just rip the band-aid off and do this quick and dirty.

* Jonas Gray’s fumble. With both Steve Filer and Carlo Calabrese on the field as jumbo-package blocking backs, the 230-pound senior just can’t lay the ball on the turf. The error was a surgical strike to the psyche of the team.

* Ben Turk’s punting. In warmups, Turk boomed the ball, launching high spirals into the humid air. During the game? Well, the opposite.

* Dayne Crist’s decision making. I try to limit my Top Gun references to every day life, but Dayne Crist is Cougar. He’s just holding on too tight. Credit Kelly for making the tough call and sending Rees to Miramar.

* Personal Fouls. There’s a thin line out there on defense, but team leaders like Gary Gray, Ethan Johnson and Harrison Smith can’t be the ones making stupid plays.

* TJ Jones’s header. If you’re running a crossing route, you’ve got to be looking at the quarterback when you clear past the linebackers. Jones’ helmet deflection into the arms of a Bulls’ defender ranks up there with Jimmy Clausen‘s back-breaking interception that bounced off the No. 3 on Michael Floyd’s back.

* David Ruffer’s missed chip shot. The fifth-year senior was the epitome of clutch last year. Then he misses his a 30-yard field goal that ended up being the difference in the ballgame.

* Notre Dame’s Public Address team. With the play-clock running and the Irish looking at a 3rd-and-one, PA announcer Mike Collins decided to warn the entire stadium of a severe storm that would eventually evacuate the stadium. Not surprisingly, the Notre Dame offense didn’t get the snap off in time, and a delay of game pushed the Irish back five yards, and Crist sailed a pass high over Floyd, causing the Irish to punt.

On a day where Declan Sullivan‘s parents helped present the flag before the game, Notre Dame did plenty of good things, and it was an impressive feat clearing an 81,000 person stadium twice. But there are times to make serious announcements — not when a team — let alone the home team — has the ball and the game is live and in action.

THE UGLY

Notre Dame’s quarterback situation. It took exactly 30 minutes for Brian Kelly to blow up his preseason plans, and while Kelly didn’t hesitate to make the decision, he didn’t take the decision lightly.

“We didn’t expect to have to make this move obviously,” Kelly said. “So it’s going to require us to obviously evaluate the quarterback situation and make another decision. This was a step back for us as it relates to where we thought we were going. We certainly did not believe or think that we would have to make the decision that we made today.”

I said it yesterday, but the Irish can’t go back to Crist, not after Rees took the offense and moved it down the field. But with Crist as the starter, the four-man positional chart makes sense. With Rees at the helm, it doesn’t.

There’s a very real chance that Dayne Crist has taken his last snap at Notre Dame. It’s a shame because by all reports, he’s a wonderful leader, a great kid, and a perfect ambassador for Notre Dame. He’s also a senior that’s still struggling to see and register things at the speed they need to be done. Even when Crist thinks he’s making a smart play — sliding safely instead of taking a big hit — he does it before he crosses the first down marker.

Crist didn’t play terribly, but his interception in the end zone, a feathered underthrow to Theo Riddick into coverage, is the reason why Kelly can’t keep Crist in there. If you can’t trust your senior quarterback to make good decisions in the red zone, you can’t trust him.

 

 

 

 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)