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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.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.