Gary Gray

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

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Yep, that still happened.

Less than twenty-four hours after Notre Dame lost in remarkable fashion to Michigan 35-31, it’s back to the drawing board for the Irish as they look to rebound against a Michigan State team that’s better than either of the first two opponents on paper.

Of course, the Irish look plenty good on paper, if you take white-out to the turnovers column and the win-loss ledger. We’ll try and pick up the pieces here and give people a better idea of what just happened last night, but let’s get to the good, bad, and ugly of the Irish’s 35-31 loss to Michigan.

THE GOOD

Michael Floyd: Michigan defensive backs continually mugged the Irish’s best player, but Floyd still had his way — adding 13 catches for 159 yards. Floyd is tied with USC’s Robert Woods for the most catches in the country with 25 after two games, is third in the country in yardage with 313, and has done just about everything you could ask of the senior.

Theo Riddick: A week after wanting to bury his head in the sand, Riddick caught what should have been the game winning touchdown with thirty seconds left in the fourth quarter, his second score of the night. His six catches for 62 yards were solid contributions and a nice rebound.

Dan Fox: The junior linebacker made two nice plays behind the line of scrimmage, sacking Denard Robinson and adding another tackle-for-loss. As the Irish try and find a companion for Manti Te’o in the middle of the Irish defense, Fox was active all night.

Cierre Wood & Jonas Gray: Wood average 5.4 yards a carry and went for 134 yards, his second straight game with a 100 yard effort. Gray, a week after his nightmarish start, carried the ball six times for 66 yards, running hard and adding a nice complement to Wood. The Irish are getting production out of the running game, though Wood followed Gray’s lead and laid a tough fumble on the ground this week.

THE BAD

Turnovers: That’s Notre Dame all by its lonesome at 120th in the country — dead last — in turnover margin. Sure Notre Dame has moved the ball up and down the field, but fumbles and interceptions, most notably those in the red zone, have turned the Irish into an 0-2 team.

“I can see those things in the development of our players, but that chance to be a good team is everything,” Kelly said this morning. “It’s those turnovers, it’s the little detail things. And until we can clean up those detail things, we can’t be a good team.”

Tight end depth: A position that was once a strength of the roster is now precarious, as Mike Ragone has an MRI scheduled for his knee, Alex Welch is out with a foot injury, and Jake Golic has a broken arm.

That lack of depth forced Ben Koyack to play a lot of football last night, and he’s not a great substitute at the point of attack. Koyack is going to be a good football player, but you never want a true freshman helping making critical blocks in short yardage situations.

Michigan’s explosive plays: Even when the Irish had the game firmly in their grasp, they were still victimized by the big gainers the Wolverines managed to make. Denard Robinson had a 39 yard run. Junior Hemingway had a 77 yard catch. Jeremy Gallon had a critical 64-yard reception. Kelvin Grady and Vincent Smith had catches of over 20 yards. A week after not giving up a play longer than 17 yards, Notre Dame collapsed, leaking oil and big plays throughout the game until the defense completely collapsed in the fourth quarter.

Special teams: A big kickoff return was there for the taking last night, and Theo Riddick couldn’t take advantage. While John Goodman deserves credit for catching every punt he faced, he continues to make poor decisions in the return game, failing to fair catch a ball in traffic and then waving for safety when there wasn’t a defender within 20 yards. Goodman seems to have a misguided belief in his speed, and his negative return when he tried to go wide gave Michigan a huge jolt of energy. Lastly, Ben Turk deserves credit for booming his final punt of the evening, coming up large when the Irish needed it. He also deserves scorn for chunking his other kicks, averaging a measly 33.5 yards a kick even with a 52 yarder.

THE UGLY

The defensive collapse: You want to see how you lose a football game? Here’s a quick look at Michigan’s drive chart, starting with the Wolverines taking the ball into the game’s final quarter:

MICH     3rd M17  02:13  Kickoff       N00  14:54 *TOUCHDOWN      4-83   2:19#
MICH     4th N40  13:22  Punt          N00  10:47 *TOUCHDOWN      5-40   2:35#
MICH     4th M09  06:08  Fumble        N30  04:23  Interception   3-61   1:45
MICH     4th M42  02:16  Punt          N00  01:12 *TOUCHDOWN      5-58   1:04
MICH     4th M20  00:30  Kickoff       N00  00:00 *TOUCHDOWN      3-80   0:30#

After dominating Michigan for 45 minutes, the Irish defense simply fell apart, forgetting how to tackle, cover receivers, and play disciplined football when it needed to the most. Whether it was a blitz that didn’t quite get there or a cover scheme that broke down, the Irish defense’s 28 point fourth quarter was shocking in it’s ineptitude.

The aftermath: The internet is great for a lot of things, but it certainly isn’t the friend of an angst-filled sports fan. For those of you that took to the web to call for the head coach’s job, sent angry tweets to the team’s star middle linebacker, or picked fights with fellow fans sharing the same agony, do yourself a favor next time your favorite teams loses a close one: Turn off the computer and sleep on it.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

***

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.