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.

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Associated Press
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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

@NDFootball
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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line