South Florida v Notre Dame

Crist vs. Rees: Breaking down all of Dayne’s throws

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One week into the season, if you looked at the NCAA leaderboard, you’d say Brian Kelly‘s team is making the strides you’d expect from a program expecting big things this year.

— Fifth in passing offense  with 391 yards
— 15th in total offense, with 508 yards.
— 25th in total defense, allowing only 254 yards
— 21st in passing defense, allowing only 128 yards

But if you scroll way down to the bottom of the official NCAA stats for turnover margin, you’ll find Notre Dame occupying 116th place — dead last — all by itself. (Crazily enough, one spot ahead of Alabama, who was minus-four in its opening win over Kent State.)

Kelly gave senior quarterback Dayne Crist the quick hook Saturday afternoon, after a first half that saw Crist put up modest numbers: 7 of 15 for 95 yards, with a critical red zone interception. On paper, Crist’s performance didn’t look bad enough to blow up the depth chart after 30 minutes. But when Tommy Rees threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, it exposed Crist’s inability to make big plays in Kelly’s offense.

Kelly said he needed to go back to the tape to truly evaluate both quarterbacks. We’ll hear who Kelly picks during Tuesday’s noon press conference. But before we get there, here’s a look at each throw Crist made, with a breakdown of his thought process on every throw.

DAYNE CRIST’S PASSING PLAYS

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Throw 1: 1st and 10 at ND 20

Crist pass complete to Cierre Wood for a 31 yard gain. 

The opening play of the 2011 season looks like a designed dump off to Wood. Crist did a nice job buying time, then Cierre did the rest.

Throw 2: 2nd and 9 at USF 48

Crist pass complete to Michael Floyd for 26 yards. 

An interesting play. It looks like the USF corner actually jumped the slant, but Crist waited for Floyd to clear and then put a good throw on him anyway. A high percentage toss and a nice catch and run by Floyd.

Throw 3: 3rd and 9 at ND 46

Crist pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 4 yards. 

Bad decision number one. A third down with an empty set, five wide receivers. Jonas Gray and TJ Jones, both split left, clear half the field. Floyd drags low across the middle with his corner chasing him, letting Crist know early its man coverage. With no pass rush in sight, Crist simply needs to wait for Theo Riddickto flash open after Floyd clears the middle. But instead of showing patience and letting the play develop, Crist takes the early throw, even though the pass rush isn’t on him, as he dumps it off to Eifert, who is tackled well short of the first down.

Riddick’s reaction tells it all, as the play was set up perfectly for a big gainer. Riddick was isolated with a linebacker and was just clearing open, a perfectly designed play. Even though it goes down in the stat sheet for a completion, it’s a huge missed opportunity and it forced the Irish to punt.

Throw 4: 2nd and 1 at ND 42

Crist pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

From the angle we have, it doesn’t look like Crist had much to work with, though on the TV broadcast Mike Mayock seemed to think if Crist pulled the trigger sooner he’d have had someone on the intermediate crossing route, which looked to be Floyd. On 2nd and 1, I’ve got no problem taking a shot down the field, but it wasn’t a particularly accurate throw.

Third and short wouldn’t have been a terrible situation, but Crist then went on to take a delay of game call. Whether it was Crist’s fault for not keeping an eye on the clock, the Irish sideline for not getting the play in on time, or the Notre Dame PA team for the timing of the announcement, it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Throw 5: 3rd and 6 at ND 37

Crist pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

Just a really bad miss. Floyd was wide open on a slant route, the defensive back had all but conceded the first down, but Crist sailed a throw high. It happens sometimes, but it’s a crucial throw with the Irish already down ten points.

Throw 6: 1st and 10 at ND 32

Crist pass complete to TJ Jones for 13 yards. 

Both outside receivers, Jones and Floyd, were running hooks, while inside receivers, Eifert and Riddick, ran stutter moves. With the inside receivers covered pretty well, Crist checks down and hits a wide open Jones, who runs for the first down. A good read.

Throw 7: 1st and 10 at USF 37

Crist pass complete to Michael Floyd for 11 yards. 

With the corner showing blitz too early, Crist switched plays, calling for a quick hitch to Floyd, which he completed on time. Floyd did the rest and put a nice move on the safety to get a first down to end the first quarter.

Throw 8: 1st and 10 at USF 26

Crist complete to Mike Ragone for 10 yards. 

A half field read for Crist, who had Tyler Eifert running to the flag before Crist dumped the pass off to Ragone. Riddick and Floyd were on the field side, but Crist never looked left. A productive play and a first down into the Bulls’ red zone.

Throw 9: 2nd and Goal at USF 7

Crist pass incomplete to TJ Jones. 

A ball that should’ve been a touchdown pass, but the USF defensive back hit Jones perfectly, and the ball fell out of his arms on the slant. You could argue that Crist should’ve thrown the ball down and in instead of a bit behind Jones, but it’s a ball that TJ needs to catch for the touchdown.

Throw 10: 3rd and Goal at USF 7

Crist pass intercepted by DeDe Lattimore in the end zone, returned for no gain and a touchback.

A real head-scratcher. It looks like the primary read on this play should be Michael Floyd, who was coming underneath a Tyler Eifert out route (also known as a pick). If Crist hits the throw immediately, Floyd would’ve had to slide around a linebacker and dive for the end zone, a match-up I’d call Floyd the winner of every time. But Crist was locked on Riddick from the start of the play. (If you watch the broadcast, they give you a reverse angle that tracks Crist’s eyes the entire time.) Riddick was ridden — you could argue held — by Lattimore, but either way it was a bad ball, on top of a bad read, in a really bad place on the field to make that decision.

As Mayock said at the time, “You can’t make a worse throw than that.” Agreed.

Throw 11: 2nd and 5 at ND 40

Crist pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert.

A designed roll to Crist’s left, he had Jones running a smash, Riddick running a flag, and Eifert running an out. Jones was wide open early, but Crist waited to throw, and was forced to go to Eifert, who had the ball broken up on a nice play by the linebacker. Riddick was well covered and not an option, but Jones was open early and throughout, and even Eifert would’ve been available had Crist pulled the trigger early enough. This is a play you need your starting quarterback to make.

Throw 12: 3rd and 5 at ND 40

Crist pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

The beginning of Theo Riddick’s very bad day. There’s nothing to blame on Crist here, who waited for Riddick to get open as he streaked across the middle and put a bullet on him over the middle. Theo dropped it, and proceeded to muff the next ball that came his way, misplaying a punt that gave USF the ball on the Irish twenty. Crist got on Riddick after the play with some tough love, a good display of leadership.

Throw 13: 3rd and 11 at ND 25

Crist pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert.

This ball should’ve been caught by Eifert too, but Crist’s throw was a little behind him. With Michael Floyd running the square in beneath him, Eifert was open for the first down but just didn’t make the catch. It’s an easy throw that Crist didn’t quite make, but his teammate needs to pick him up here, too.

Throw 14: 1st and 10 at ND 14

Crist pass complete to Theo Riddick. 

As the Irish begin the two-minute drill, Crist dumps the ball off to Riddick on a shallow crossing pattern for no gain. It’s hard to tell from this angle, but it looks as if Floyd was wide open on a hitch route on the outside, but Crist chose the safe underneath throw, not a particularly good decision when you need to keep the clock from running and move the ball down the field.

Throw 15: 2nd and 10 at ND 14

Crist pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert

A designed roll left, Crist misses a short but throw to Eifert, putting the Irish in a 3rd and long from deep in their own territory. Instead of putting the ball in Crist’s hand in the rain after missing the throw to Eifert, Kelly opts for a draw play, forcing USF to use a timeout before Ben Turk’s punt.

ADDITIONAL ANALYSIS

Here’s a receiver-by-receiver breakdown of Crist’s targets:

Passes to Cierre Wood: 1 of 1 for 31 yards
Passes to Michael Floyd: 2 of 3 for 37 yards
Passes to  Tyler Eifert: 1 of 4 for 4 yards
Passes to Theo Riddick: 1 of 4 for 0 yards, 1 interception
Passes to TJ Jones: 1 of 2 for 13 yards
Passes to Mike Ragone: 1 of 1 for 10 yards

If you want an easy way for Crist to be more productive, simply throw the ball to Floyd more. He’s by far the Irish’s best offensive player, yet in breaking down the tape, there were multiple times when Crist simply didn’t look to Floyd, a baffling thought process that I put more on Crist than the coaching staff, especially after watching the first half almost a dozen times. If you’re looking for a reason to give the starting job to Tommy Rees, look at this damning stat line:

Michael Floyd with Crist: 2 catches, 37 yards
Michael Floyd with Tommy Rees: 10 catches, 117 yards, 2 touchdowns

There isn’t much of a question that Rees outplayed Crist on Saturday. We can break down every one of Rees’ throws (and I will), but all it’ll tell you is that Rees did a much better job taking advantage of the opportunities the Irish offense offered. That’s what a starting quarterback should do.

But when Kelly pulled Crist in favor of Rees after seeing only one half of the quarterback he anointed his starter for the season, he kicked a beehive that won’t stop swarming unless the Irish defeat Michigan next Saturday night in Ann Arbor. If the season depends on it, Kelly might have to concede he made the wrong decision two weeks ago.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)