Theo Riddick Michigan State

Pregame Six Pack: Bring on Sparty

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If you canvassed a group of Notre Dame fans, not many saw a 0-2 start coming. In fact, if you look at NDNation.com’s annual probability poll, there’s a bunch of statistical stuff that I’m sure I’ll mangle when explaining, but the gist of it is that most people had the Irish beating USF and a majority of people had the Irish beating Michigan. Barely anyone had them losing both games. But as they say, that’s why you play the games, right?

There’s plenty of reasons to still believe the Irish will rally and turn this season into a successful year. But if Notre Dame wants to cling to their slim hopes of a BCS game, then this is a must win football game. After picking themselves off the canvas after two heart-wrenching losses where the Irish did more to beat themselves than either USF of Michigan, the Irish welcome the No. 15 Michigan State Spartans to town, with the co-defending champions of the Big Ten sitting at 2-0 after cupcake games against Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic.

Here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to take on Michigan State at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

1. If you’re looking for history to tell you it’ll all be okay, well — look for something else.

If you’re looking for stats to support the Irish in their quest to dig themselves out from the 0-2 hole, skip ahead to point two of the six-pack. Only one Irish team since 1900 has managed their way to a winning record after losing their first two games.

The dean of South Bend sports, WNDU’s Jeff Jeffers, tracked down the quarterback that lead that 1978 charge, a guy named Joe Montana.

“It was just one of those interesting years,” Montana told Jeffers. “Unfortunately you’d like to win every game but it doesn’t always pan out that way. Right now the Irish find themselves in a tough situation — they’ve got another tough team that they’re playing this week — but it’s not impossible to turn around. You’ve just got to get back to doing things and not making big mistakes when it counts.”

When Jeffers asked Montana what he’d tell this 0-2 Irish team, he leaned on some impressive advice from Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.

“It’s one of those things that Bill Walsh taught us a long time ago, it’s the fundamentals that carry you,” Montana said. “And when your fundamentals are strong, you’re usually winning. When you find yourself behind, you can look back on it. Those are the things that you’ve usually left behind a little bit.”

That 1978 team lost to Missouri out of the gates 3-0, then to Michigan 28-14, putting a pretty big dent in the hopes of a Notre Dame squad coming off of a national championship. But the Irish snuck by Purdue 10-6, beat Michigan State 29-25, and rattled off eight straight victories before a crushing 27-25 loss to the USC Trojans, a game the Irish almost came back and stole when Montana led Notre Dame on a furious fourth quarter comeback. The Irish finished that season with a win for the ages, beating No. 4 Houston in the famous chicken soup game.

That season wouldn’t have been salvaged if the Irish didn’t get past a tough Purdue team, who only lost two games and tied another before finishing with a win in the Peach Bowl over Georgia Tech.

2. Even former All-American Shane Walton knows how Gary Gray is feeling this week.

Sure, he never had a game like Gary Gray did last Saturday, but if the senior cornerback that’s played a lot of good football is looking for advice, there’s no one better to give it than former All-American cornerback Shane Walton.

Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune caught up with Walton, who relayed a story of redemption on the football field that I remember vividly from the student section:

Walton doesn’t recall ever going through an entire game with the same level of frustration that Gray faced, but he does remember an instance when his resiliency was tested.

Purdue, Sept. 16, 2000. Drew Brees was under center for the Boilermakers. Brees had a couple of early connections with Vinny Sutherland. With about four minutes left in the first quarter, the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Walton picked off a Brees pass and took it 60 yards to the house.

“I had just gotten beat for 20 or 30 yards (by Sutherland) on a fade,” Walton remembered.

He was pretty riled up.

“I thrived on adversity,” said Walton, who is back in his hometown of San Diego now. “That really made the juices start flowing. Struggle on a couple plays, but don’t let it bother you on the next play.”

The Irish beat Purdue that day, 23-21.

If Gray has gotten himself into trouble in one-on-one coverage, it hasn’t been because he’s been beat. His pass interference penalty against USF, and the trouble he had against Michigan was more a product of getting lost and not getting his head around in coverage, something a lot easier to correct than getting toasted by four steps.

Walton said it best when talking to Lesar:

“Any corner who has a game like that can’t wait for the next game,” Walton said. “It’s not like he’s the only one out there making mistakes. He’s just the one everybody notices. That’s the nature of the position. If a lineman goes the wrong way and doesn’t get to the quarterback, do many people notice?”

3. Brian Kelly giving his players an earful of advice isn’t anything new.

First, let me get this back on the record: I don’t care that Brian Kelly screams at his players. It’s also not anything new.

George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press caught up with some of Kelly’s old players at Grand Valley State to see how the coach handled an 0-3 start back in 2000.

“I can remember frustration,” quarterback Curt Anes told Sipple. “We were a very talented Grand Valley team at that point, that had high expectations. We were not meeting our expectations, and it was due to a lack of focus, not doing the right things in crunch time and trying to find our way through.”

(Sound familiar?)

That Lakers team that started 0-3 and then 1-4, but ended the year 7-4, so for those wondering if Kelly’s verbal stylings were phased out by his players, the answer is a resounding no. The 2001 team went 13-1 and was the D-II runner-up and the 2002 team went 14-0, led by Ames, who won the D-II version of the Heisman Trophy. It seems tough love on his quarterback worked pretty well.

“He’s a fiery guy,” Anes said of Kelly. “He’s got a lot of passion. Sometimes he lets some of that get to him, (and) he’s in the fish bowl at Notre Dame.

“Unfortunately, I think his emotions did get to him more than usual, but there’s a lot of pressure on this guy. I do know this: He’s looking for those guys that are able to withstand those verbal encounters that he gives. The guys that he really respects are the guys that can take it. He’s looking for guys to step up.”

Kelly’s histrionics only worry me if they get in the way of a player improving on the fly, and while I’d say the USF game was close, TJ Jones, the guy who received the brunt of the yelling, had a good fourth quarter and obviously stepped up and made a play in a similar circumstance the next week against Michigan.

It may be good fodder for opponents, Desmond Howard and ESPN, but fear not people, the Irish players can take it.

4. The Notre Dame secondary better be ready for B.J. Cunningham.

The key to the game tomorrow will be the battle between the Irish defensive line and the Spartans’ rebuilt offensive line. But if you’re looking for one guy the Irish need to stop, it’s Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham.

The guys over at TheOnlyColors.com did a nice breakdown looking at Cunningham’s numbers versus Floyd’s this year.

Michael Floyd in 2011
Catches Targets Catch % Target % Yards Yards Per Catch Yards Per Target TDs
Tommy Rees 23 28 82.14% 38.36% 276 12 9.86 2
Dayne Crist 2 3 66.67% 20.00% 37 18.5 12.33 0
Total 25 31 80.65% 35.23% 313 12.52 10.1 2
B.J. Cunningham in 2011
Catches Targets Catch % Target % Yards Yards Per Catch Yards Per Target TDs
Cousins 14 14 100.00% 32.56% 173 12.36 12.36 1
Maxwell 0 1 0.00% 10.00% 0 0 0 0
Total 14 15 93.33% 28.30% 173 12.36 11.53 1

 

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Floyd put up his numbers against a talented USF secondary and Michigan, while Cunningham did it against a I-AA team and Florida Atlantic. Still, Cunningham hit the Irish for 7 catches, 101 yards and a touchdown last year, and he and Cousins will only be better this year.

5. Kirk Cousins comes back to the stadium that helped shape his career.

We talked about it yesterday, but Kirk Cousins returns to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since throwing an interception that cost Michigan State a shot at winning against the Irish in 2009, one of the toughest lessons of his young football career.

It’s a lesson he heeded last year, when Cousins wanted to make a play in overtime, but instead took a sack.

Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News explains:

“I’m someone who wants to go back there and get a better result,” he said. “But the focus has to be that I can’t do it alone. Part of playing there is that it is about the team and about 11 guys on the field working together as one unit. I can’t try to do too much by myself and have to rely on my teammates.”

A year ago, Cousins was back leading the Spartans against the Irish, only this time it was in East Lansing.

The game did, however, show how much Cousins had learned, not only from that play the year before, but from an entire season as a starting quarterback.

In overtime, with Notre Dame leading and one play before the now-famous call of “Little Giants,” Cousins proved how far he had come — by taking a sack.

It was third-and-5, and instead of forcing the ball, Cousins ate the ball at the 29-yard line.

“The protection broke down and I didn’t have a whole lot to do, so my best decision there was to take a sack,” Cousins said. “I was really frustrated coming off the field saying, ‘Man, you want to be the guy that makes the play in overtime and we end up taking a sack.'”

The next play was the fake field goal, and what Cousins described as “bedlam” followed.

Another ill-advised throw could have prevented the final play from every happening, but to Cousins and the Spartans, it was an example of just how far their quarterback had come.

Making Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket will be one of the keys to the Irish’s gameplan. If he’s given time, the Spartans quarterback is one of the best in the country, especially working off a solid running game in play-action. They Irish will need to be disruptive in the Spartans backfield.

6. It’s as simple as turnovers and takeaways. Both in 2011 and 2010.

For everyone that’s wondered whether or not the Irish have worked harder at practice on preventing turnovers, don’t worry. Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are well aware of the issue.

“For us, we’re 120th in the country in turnover-takeaways. That number is pretty stark. The numbers are clear. We’ve got to take care of the football,” Kelly said again this week.

The story of the 2011 season is pretty obvious. Turnovers = 0-2. But FunkDoctorSpock, he of the Irish web-o-sphere, looked back at the 2010 season, where the results were just as stark.

2010 NOTRE DAME SEASON

Games One thru Four
Turnovers Lost: 9
Turnovers Gained: 6
Turnover Margin: -3
Record: 1-3

Games Five thru Seven
Turnovers Lost: 4
Turnovers Gained: 8
Turnover Margin: +4
Record: 3-0
Games Eight thru Nine
Turnovers Lost: 6
Turnovers Gained: 2
Turnover Margin: -4
Record: 0-2

Games Ten thru Thirteen
Turnovers Lost: 5
Turnovers Gained: 9
Turnover Margin: +4
Record: 4-0

In the EIGHT wins: 10 Turnovers Lost, 19 Turnovers Gained (+9)
In the FIVE losses: 14 Turovers Lost, 6 Turnovers Gained (-8)

The message is what it always is. Hold on to the football and take it away.

Now it’s up to the players to do it.

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.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

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

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.