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Pregame Six Pack: Late night with Michigan

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So Lucy pulled the football out from under us last Saturday, adding a measure of cruelty to the loss that was incredibly difficult to see coming. (Unfortunately, part of me saw it coming.) With a painful first L in the opening ledger of the season, Notre Dame must turn the page to a team that’s provided plenty of gut-punches to Notre Dame fans lately.

With a prime-time start and ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance, Notre Dame is set to take on Michigan at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday night. We’ll be here with an old-fashioned, frantically paced live blog tomorrow night. Until then, here are are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Brian Kelly‘s Fighting Irish prepare to play Brady Hoke‘s Michigan Wolverines.

There’s been remarkable parity in the modern era between Michigan and Notre Dame.

Since the Irish and the Wolverines renewed their rivalry in 1978, the series has been close. 13-13-1 close.

Saturday night’s game will break a remarkably even record, with both teams sitting at 13 wins and a tie against the other. Michigan has won four of the last five against the Irish, starting with the runaway upset win against Brady Quinn and the Irish in 2006. The Wolverines drubbed the ’07 Irish that started off historically bad, before Notre Dame won an error plagued game against Rich Rodriguez‘s first team in 2008. We all remember 2009 and 2010, which had Michigan quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson taking turns putting on Superman’s cape.

Since 1978, Notre Dame and Michigan have played every year except 1983, ’84, ’95, ’96, 2000, and ’01. Prior to the ’07 game, either Notre Dame or Michigan have been ranked for 24 consecutive meetings. Notre Dame dropped out of the Top 25 after losing to USF, so neither team is ranked this Saturday. And with a point spread that’s hovering around three points, it seems we could be in for another close game, which might actually be good for the Irish. While it doesn’t feel that way, close games in this rivalry usually end up in Notre Dame’s favor, with Notre Dame 4-2-1 in games decided by three points or less.

For the Irish, stop Denard Robinson and win the football game.

Last year, Robinson accounted for an incredible 502 of Michigan’s 532 total yards, scoring the game’s winning touchdown with 27 seconds left to put Michigan ahead 28-24.

“He’s the most electrifying offensive player in the country,” Bob Diaco said earlier this week. “He was a year ago and he is again.”

That electricity was evident last year, when Robinson broke a 87 yard touchdown run with under two minutes to go in the first half, a back-breaking touchdown with the Irish against the ropes and hoping to go into halftime just down a score. But while the Irish’s performance against Robinson deserves no caveats, the Irish held their own when their starting unit was in the game, only to be gashed when Diaco and Kelly tried to work in reserves.

“It starts and ends with Denard Robinson,” Kelly said. “We’re well aware of his talent level. He is a difference maker. Clearly he’s the guy you’ve got to keep an eye on when it comes to Michigan.”

There are a few things working in Notre Dame’s favor when it comes to slowing down Robinson. First, they faced a similarly mobile quarterback in B.J. Daniels last week, and had decent success.

“We have to be able to contain him,” Kelly said. “Like we did with B.J. Daniels, I think his longest run was 17 yards. If we can keep his longest run into that 15-17 yard range, we’ll feel really good about the day’s work.”

One thing also working in the Irish’s favor is new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Borges surprised many by keeping Robinson in the shotgun and designing some running plays for his star quarterback, after an offseason dedicated to working in pro-style sets. Hoke praised Borges for fitting the offense to its personnel.

“He’s done a tremendous job in a lot of different places utilizing the personnel that you have and really showcasing the guys who are your playmakers,” Hoke said this morning on the Dan Patrick Radio Show.

Of course, while Borges engineers plays for Robinson to run, he won’t be able to replicate the system Rodriguez almost perfected, taking advantage of his running backs not as ball carriers, but as lead blockers for his 195-pound quarterback.

On Robinson’s 87-yard touchdown run, Rodriguez had two backs in the backfield next with Robinson in the shotgun, and those eight men in the box beat Diaco’s seven, thanks to some good downfield blocking and a great individual effort by the quarterback.

Again, Robinson is capable of breaking a big play any time. It’ll be up to Borges to be as creative as Rodriguez was at designing them.

Brady Hoke hasn’t faced Notre Dame, but he’s 0-3 against Brian Kelly.

Brian Kelly and Brady Hoke’s careers have taken similar paths, with both coaches getting their first shots in the MAC conference before climbing the ladder to Notre Dame and Michigan at their third D-I coaching stop. (Hell, both guys coached at Grand Valley State.)

While this will be Hoke’s first time facing the Irish as a head coach, he’s gone head-to-head with Kelly three times, with Hoke’s Ball State team falling to Kelly’s Central Michigan squad each time.

2004: Hoke’s Cardinals jumped out to a 27-0 lead in the first quarter before Kelly’s troops picked themselves off the mat, battling back to tie the game at halftime 27-27. The third quarter was all Ball State, who took a ten point lead into the fourth, only to give it up with under five minutes remaining to the Chippewas. Jerry Seymour of CMU ran for the winning touchdown, his third of the day to put a cap on a monstrous 217 yard rushing effort to go along with 35 yards receiving.

2005: Another heart-breaker for the Cardinals, as Ball State jumped out to a quick 14 point lead only to lose in overtime, with the Chippewas storming back for an unlikely win late in the game. Clinging to a four-point lead with two minutes left, Ball State had the ball in CMU territory ready to seal the victory. After an 11 yard sack by Dan Bazuin pushed Ball State back to their side of the 50, Chris Miller‘s punt was blocked and Ryan Strehl scooped it up for the score. The Cardinals would march down and kick a field goal to send the game to overtime, but the Chippewas would score a touchdown in four plays, then stymie Hoke’s offense on a 4th and one. The win gave Central their first winning season under Kelly.

2006: With quarterback Dan LeFevour leading the way, the Chippewas improved to 4-0 in conference play, winning a defensive struggle against Ball State 18-7. LeFevour ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns, threw for another 160 yards, and the Chippewas held Ball State to 213 total yards, forcing five turnovers against Nate Davis and the conference’s leading passing attack.

Saturday night’s game will obviously be on a much bigger stage, but there’s no way either coach has forgotten three games that were so hotly contested.

Like it is in every game, protecting the football is critical to success.

It’s pretty obvious, Notre Dame isn’t going to win many games if it coughs up the football five times again, especially doing it in such inopportune times. Right now, a lot of Irish fans are willing to give Notre Dame a mulligan for last week’s bizarre behavior, with some of the team’s most solid performers guilty of the most egregious mistakes.

How big of a play was Jonas Gray‘s fumble return for a touchdown? Well consider Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, who called it the most valuable play in football.

The Gray fumble occured on third-and-goal, but let’s imagine the same play occuring on a drive that starts with first-and-goal from the 1-yard-line. In this case, the expected scoring value of the offense’s drive is more than six points. The same play in this scenario is then worth the value of killing a six-point drive plus the value of the touchdown return. We might like to call it a 14-point play, but according to my unit value splits, it would officially be credited with a defensive value of 11.1 points. Remember that there is unearned value on every possession, so the defense doesn’t get the full credit for the 14-point swing, but a defensive score following a goal-to-go turnover is the most valuable single play in football.

Both Kelly and Gray are saying the right things this week and Gray took his session with the media like a man and answered every question asked of him. Jonas will be returning home to Michigan, ready to play in front of family and friends and a school that didn’t offer him a scholarship. And if the Irish are able to get Gray going along with Cierre Wood, they’ll be able to take advantage of one of Michigan defense’s weaknesses.

“We’ve got to be a much better defense versus the run,” Hoke told Dan Patrick. “I don’t think our front seven did the job that we need to have them do.”

Of course, the Irish need to clean up their own backyard first. And that means stopping the turnovers and cashing in on the opportunities that present themselves. Meanwhile, on the other sideline, Hoke’s team needs to build on their impressive debut forcing turnovers, starting +3 and turning two of them into defensive touchdowns.

“I think they’ve got some confidence because they scored on defense,” Kelly said. “Any time you score on defense you create an energy that can be contagious.”

The special teams need to be more special.

We’ll get to Notre Dame’s special teams play in a second. Brady Hoke’s unit has a lot of cleaning up to do as well.

“I think our guys know we didn’t perform like we should,” Hoke said. “We’ll look at some other guys in there a little.”

The Wolverines gave up good field position to Western Michigan multiple times on kickoff returns, with Dervon Wallace averaging better than 31 yards a return last Saturday. Making things worse, UM also had an extra point blocked, adding another headache to a laundry list of things that needed cleaning up.

With a large contingency of starters taking special teams snaps, Hoke and the Wolverines can’t afford any injuries, but also can’t afford to keep his best players off a unit that already strugged.

Speaking of struggling units, the Irish special teams played their worst game under Brian Kelly. Theo Riddick muffed punts, Ben Turk shanked them, and David Ruffer, Mr. Automatic last season, missed a crucial 30-yard chip shot from the left hashmark.

While turnovers might have been the fatal flaw of last week’s game, the Irish special teams weren’t far behind.

More from Fremeau:

South Florida’s special teams created another valuable single-play possession-change sequence by recovering a muffed punt in the second quarter. The turnover by Notre Dame’s Theo Riddick was worth 1.7 points in lost possession value, and the resulting field position for South Florida at the Irish 20-yard-line was worth an additional 3.4 points generated by the special teams play. The total value of the sequence (5.1 points) wasn’t quite as strong as the total value of the drive-turnover-return sequence that opened the game (6.3 points), but it was awfully close.

In the end, special teams account for the scoring margin of the game. South Florida earned a 12-point advantage through punt exchanges, turnovers, and place kicking success. Notre Dame’s second half offense actually erased the entire deficit generated by its red zone miscues by moving the ball and creating enough other scoring opportunities to win. And the defense held South Florida in check throughout the day, surrendering only one touchdown drive.

I’ll give Theo Riddick a one-game reprieve before calling the punt return experiment a huge bust, but he definitely struggled getting underneath the football on punts, rushing to the football late and making it harder on himself than he needs to. I’m tired of giving Turk mulligans, as the Irish punter can’t seem to kick the ball anywhere near as good on the big stage as he does practicing.

The Irish are going to be playing a team where a special teams victory is there for the taking. It’s up to Mike Elston‘s troops to straighten things out and take advantage of a potentially game changing opportunity.

Pressure vs. Pressure: How the Irish handle both sides of the ball will determine the game.

Offensively, Denard Robinson is able to put pressure on the Irish defense better than any other player in the country. Defensively, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will do his best to confuse and disrupt the Irish offense, relying on pressure from linebackers, safeties, and everyone in between.

For the Irish defense, the game plan focuses on simplicity.

“You’ve got to keep your players, those that can tackle and those that can chase him down,  in a position to do so,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to keep them in proximity to where Denard is going to be. You can’t have them in a position where they can’t run and hit. It’s very important structurally defensively that we put our guys in the right position.”

While the comment comes dangerously close to venturing into Ty Willingham territory, the Irish have to play assignment correct football and not fall prey to big plays in the playaction passing game or runs by Robinson. If Skip Holtz‘s attitude against Notre Dame was “make them run another play,” Diaco’s strategy should be the same. The Irish have too much skill to get beat on defense if they can successfully bend and not break.

The theme is similar on the offensive side of the ball. With a defense that struggled in high-tempo situations against Western Michigan, the Wolverines know they’ll likely face tempo and a variety of formations when facing the Irish. To counter that, they’ll also try to dictate terms by forcing Tommy Rees to make decisions faster than he wants to.

How the cat and mouse between Mattison and Kelly goes should determine Saturday night’s game.

“Certainly they’re going to want to bring pressure,” Kelly said yesterday. “But Tommy does a pretty good job getting the ball out of his hands. We do a pretty good job of protecting. That’s part of what he’ll do, but I don’t think it’s everything, because clearly they’re going to have to play some zone coverage, because if you let Michael Floyd out there, I like our chances.”

Kelly points to Michigan’s largest flaw: a defense that still doesn’t have the talent necessary to cover receivers without a pass rush, and a pass rush unable to get to the quarterback without bringing added pressure. Mattison learned from Rex Ryan and the Ravens the art of deception and scheme when bringing blitzers. Whether he’s able to get to the quarterback and create turnovers will likely determine who goes home happy Saturday night.

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

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

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.