Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

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After a while, it begins to defy explanation.

That is the story of Michigan’s incredible 35-31 comeback victory versus Notre Dame. In front of a record 114,804 screaming fans, the Irish did everything they could to spring Denard Robinson‘s heroics, and Michigan’s quarterback happily obliged, throwing two touchdown passes in the final 1:12 of the game, including the winning  toss to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left, bringing the Wolverines back from the brink after Tommy Rees drove the Irish to a potential game-winning touchdown just 28 seconds earlier.

In a series marked by recent heroics by Michigan, Brady Hoke‘s troops pulled a rabbit out of their hat so incredible that even the last two editions of this game would bow in deference. While the Irish controlled the game for over 59 minutes, they were never able to put the Wolverines away, and thanks to five more Notre Dame turnovers, including three lost fumbles, the Irish kept Michigan hanging around.

Twenty-eight fourth quarter points helped the Wolverines pull out of a game they had been statistically dominated in, but like last week — or the previous two years in this series — Michigan had all the answers when they counted the most.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s 35-31 defeat to Michigan.

Notre Dame’s secondary is broken.

There is far too much talent playing in the back four of Notre Dame’s secondary to have a game like this. Gary Gray, who during the preseason could have been an All-American candidate, looked dismal, getting lost in coverage and beat on under thrown ball by Robinson throughout the night.

If the Irish’s game plan was to commit another defender to Robinson and leave Gray, Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith to cover, it certainly backfired, as Michigan’s touchdown passes exposed defensive backs that continually failed to look back for footballs that were underthrown and there for the taking.

For three quarters, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges did Bob Diaco‘s job, keeping Robinson back to pass and having him try and beat the Irish from the pocket. When that stopped working, the Wolverines begrudgingly took advantage of their star player, who created offense when the play broke down and he gave his receivers 50/50 match-ups.

That the Irish lost because of breakdowns in a veteran unit that was one of Notre Dame’s most promising is an absolute shock. But the cornerbacks have taken a huge step back in Year Two of the Kelly regime and it’s hard not to look at blown coverage and bad ball skills as the number one culprit for the loss.

A running game is only as good as its short yardage unit

When the Irish ran out Steve Filer, Carlo Calabrese and Ethan Johnson on the first drive of the season opener against USF, many assumed it was an exotic package for the Irish in goal-line situations. It turns out it was Brian Kelly self-diagnosing a glaring deficiency for the Irish run game, which was terrific throughout the night, but stalled out when it was needed most.

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray both had great evenings, with Wood carrying for 134 yards and a touchdown and Gray chipping in 66 yards on only six carries. But when the Irish offensive line needed to pick up a critical first down in the second half they just couldn’t do it.

In the second half, here’s the Irish running game in third and short:

At the Michigan 41 on 3rd and 1, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 2.
At the Irish 18 on 3rd and 3, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 3.
At the Irish 29 on 3rd and 1, Wood is stuffed for a loss of 2.

You can bark about the spread offense or bemoan the lack of power running in Kelly, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, and run game coordinator Ed Warinner‘s zone blocking system. But when it comes down to it, the Irish knew they were a team without a capable lead blocker, and after Calabrese and Filer failed to do their job in week one, Kelly tried to get it done with just his offensive line, and failed when it mattered most.

Stats are for losers.

The Irish are well on their way to becoming paper champions. Racking up 513 yards of total offense, a quick look at the box score shows a game Notre Dame dominated. But first downs and rushing yards only tell a portion of the story, and Michigan’s 4th quarter rally erased any feather in the cap of the Irish coaching staff, who did a great job limiting Robinson until the game’s final minutes.

Once again, the Irish turned the ball over an egregious five times. Up 14 points and marching in the second quarter, Tommy Rees locked on to Michael Floyd and threw a bad interception to Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs. Two players later, Gray was beat long for a Junior Hemingway touchdown. The next drive, with the Irish in the red zone and marching, Rees threw a worst interception, trying to force a ball to Floyd that had no business of being thrown. The second interception didn’t kill the Irish, but Notre Dame has made a habit of taking points off the board early in games, a very costly habit.

In the second half, it only got worse. Wood fumbled off the back of freshman tight end Ben Koyack, turning the ball over deep in Michigan territory. But the back-breaking turnover came when Rees looked to the corner of the end zone from the two-yard line, throwing for a game-sealing touchdown, only leaving the ball behind him on the turf. Michigan recovered inside its own ten yard line, keeping the game within three points and alive in the game.

As we dissect this game throughout the week, we’ll once again point to a lot of good things the Irish did in a losing effort. For the most part, stats will support those arguments. But in the end, stats are for losers. The only one that mattered had Michigan winning 35-31.

The (bad) luck of the Irish.

Maybe we had the wrong Peanuts character. The Irish aren’t Charlie Brown, they’re Pig Pen. And that’s not a cloud of dust, that’s a rain cloud. In a game where the Irish looked like they were on pace for an easy victory, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Murphy very well could be an Irish fan, but his law is rule of the land.

Want to see a team that’s snakebit? Check out the Irish games that ended within four points:

2011: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 – L
2011: USF 23, Notre Dame 20 – L
2010: Notre Dame 20, USC 16 – W
2010: Tulsa 28, Notre Dame 27 – L
2010: Michigan State 34, Notre Dame 31 – L
2010: Michigan 34, Notre Dame 24 – L
2009: UConn 33, Notre Dame 30 – L
2009: Navy 23, Notre Dame 21 – L

If you excuse Ronald Johnson‘s drop last November, you have to go back to Brian Smith‘s interception of Dave Shinskie with 98 seconds against Boston College in 2009 to find a close football game that the Irish won. Brian Kelly said last week that you can’t start winning before you stop losing, but expecting bad things to happen has permeated the entire culture of Notre Dame.

Whether it’s panicked fans in a live-blog with the Irish leading by two touchdowns or veteran defenders getting lost in four-deep coverage with less than 30 seconds remaining, doubt continues to creep into the Irish psyche at the most unfortunate of times. It’s spelled disaster recently, and it won’t stop until Notre Dame can start winning games at the end.

It’s a season on the brink.

In an 0-2 hole, the Irish need to find answers quickly or this season will be up in smoke quickly. We saw last year that this coaching staff won’t change their message when they reach adversity, but Kelly and his staff will look very closely at their philosophical tenants to make sure they’re doing everything they can to make sure the Irish stop beating themselves.

There’s no rational explanation for good players like Gary Gray making very bad plays. For those that look to blame coaching, Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks can’t go out there and cover themselves. It’s ultimately on a group of players that have seen plenty of dark times to fight through this to the light.

“We’re not good enough,” Kelly said after the game. “When we’re better as a football team, we’ll start winning.”

All the proof Notre Dame needs that they aren’t very good sits in the Win-Loss ledger. The offense is high-powered, the defense can play stout, but all the Irish are right now is a dangerous football team. Right now, they’re doing themselves more harm than good.

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”