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.

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.