Gang tackle Pitt

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12

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The recipe for disaster was there. Eight penalties for 85 yards. Another lost turnover battle, 2-0. Drive killing mistakes. But Saturday turned out differently, with Notre Dame beating Pittsburgh 15-12 thanks to a great fourth quarter drive by Tommy Rees, who up until that point was held captive by a blitzing Panthers defense.

It was the ugliest win of the Brian Kelly era, and a victory that wasn’t official until Kelly made a gutsy call on 4th and 1 at the Pitt 35, opting to put the proverbial dagger in the Panthers instead of putting Ben Turk on the field to punt. The gamble paid off, Rees got the first down by half a football, and the Irish escaped Pittsburgh with a 2-2 record.

“Any time you’re on the road, you need to find a way to get the win,” Kelly said walking off the field.

It wasn’t pretty, but the Irish escaped disaster and did it with another solid defensive performance, limiting Pitt to under 300 yards on the afternoon and getting a great pass rush from the front seven. With their offensive bravado blown but their postseason hopes still in tact, let’s find out what we learned in the Irish’s ugly 15-12 win over Pitt.

The Irish were one drive away from an ugly quarterback situation.

Even if you watched the game alone, you probably heard the grumbling about Tommy Rees on Saturday afternoon. Rees turned the ball over twice on Saturday, losing a fumble on a sack and throwing late to Tyler Eifert after evading the Pitt rush, turning an open receiver into another interception deep in the opponent’s territory.

At Notre Dame, the back-up quarterback is always among the most popular players on the team, and with Dayne Crist, the sentiment is understandable. Crist only got one half of football as starting quarterback before Kelly pulled him for Rees, and Crist passes every conceivable eyeball test known to man.

Yet Kelly’s patience with Rees says all we need to know. He still believes that the sophomore quarterback with a weaker arm, slower legs and a troubling turnover habit is the guy that gives the Irish the best chance to win. And Rees proved his head coach right once again with a clutch drive to win the game, going eight for eight as he drove the Irish from their own 15 yard line, connecting with Eifert five times, including the go-ahead touchdown and two-point conversion.

You can say it 100 times, but it doesn’t make Irish fans feel any better. Young quarterbacks make mistakes. Brady Quinn did it, Jimmy Clausen did it, and Heisman Trophy winners like Carson Palmer did it. It’s not just happening at Notre Dame. (Check out BYU’s Jake Heaps, the No. 1 recruited quarterback in Rees’ class. He’s thrown five interceptions against just three touchdowns.)

Against a defense that was hellbent on taking away Michael Floyd, Rees struggled to find his rhythm, made a few dangerous throws, and showed why he’s not a perfect fit in Brian Kelly’s offense. But he also marched coolly down the field with the game on the line and pulled out the win.

That’s why he’s the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.

Even with Darius Fleming answering the bell, the Irish are struggling with their linebacker personnel.

Darius Fleming played maybe the best game of his career, answering his critics and coming up with two sacks, three tackles-for-loss and a great play at the goal line to stop Pitt. But Fleming’s production doesn’t hide the personnel imbalance that the Irish are fighing with, specifically at the Dog linebacker position, where Prince Shembo is struggling with the intricacies of playing the field-side linebacker position.

Shembo is on the field because he’s the best option the Irish have, especially with Danny Spond battling a hamstring injury. But the sophomore linebacker, recruited to Notre Dame as a defensive end and used last year as a designated pass rusher, doesn’t look all that comfortable in space, and Pitt consistently picked on Shembo in coverage, gaining easy yardage in front of him when they chose to roll the pocket and throw to the big side of the field. Troy Niklas, a talented but raw freshman, got some time in place of Shembo, but the Irish will need to get Spond healthy to see what he can do if they want to play better pass defense. With Spond available on passing downs, Shembo can do what he did when he played well this afternoon, filling the box score with six tackles and a sack.

Once again, Manti Te’o led the Irish in tackles, making ten total with eight solo stops, also chipping in a sack on Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. But neither Carlo Calabrese nor Dan Fox have stepped up and seized the position next to him, and both guys had some ugly missed tackles this afternoon.

It’s hard to be too tough on the Irish defense after a nice day at the office, which included hold Pitt to a net of 103 yards on 38 carries. But with four games in the books, opposing offenses are seeing ways to pick on the Irish defense, and Pitt provided more tape this afternoon.

Battling back from adversity, Jonas Gray is making himself a valuable part of the Irish offense.

When Jonas Gray fumbled the ball inside South Florida’s one yard-line, more than a few people wondered if Gray would ever get into the endzone. But the senior running back bounced back from that early season failure, played solid football the past two weeks, and broke loose this afternoon, his 79-yard touchdown run supplying the game’s biggest play, and a highlight reel first touchdown of the senior’s career.

Kelly’s continued faith in Gray has given a huge boost to the offense and adds a second legitimate runner to the Irish backfield, with Cierre Wood going over 90 yards for the fourth straight Saturday. While most reporters will look back at a summer-time conversation Gray had with former Irish running back Jerome Bettis, Kelly’s preseason goals for Gray have actually been what the Irish needed most out of the senior from Michigan: Simply be a faster Robert Hughes.

Gray has done that plus more, utilizing his speed to notch the Irish’s longest run since Terrence Howard‘s 80-yard touchdown against West Virginia back in 2000.  At 6.7 yards-per carry this season, Gray is doing more than just complement Wood, who’s averaging over 99 yards an afternoon at five yards per carry, he’s making an argument to get more touches, something that’ll come in handy as the season wears on.

After a rough opening drive to the season, Gray’s turned around his season.

The Irish played a dominant football game at the line of scrimmage.

The Irish’s defensive line didn’t get the double-digit sack numbers that Aaron Lynch hoped, but they did come up with six sacks, the most in the Kelly era, and their eight tackles-for-loss was the team’s most prolific day behind the line of scrimmage since the Irish’s 2008 bowl victory in Hawaii.

Darius Fleming paced the Irish effort behind the line of scrimmage, getting two sacks of Sunseri and making another play behind the line of scrimmage, continuing a trend of good play Kelly hoped to see from his senior linebacker. More impressively, the Irish’s pass rush took over the game when it was needed, with Lynch and Shembo getting two drive-killing sacks on Sunseri on Pitt’s last possession of the game.

Their play is likely getting lost behind all the turnovers and Irish miscues, but the Notre Dame defense has allowed one offensive touchdown or less in seven of their last nine games. (And the Miami touchdowns came in mop-up time.) More impressively, the Irish defense is a place where runningbacks go to die, and Graham’s 89 yards on 21 carries — largely buoyed by his 42-yard scamper after Rees’ interception — was one of the best days an opposing running back has had against Notre Dame in the Kelly era. You have to go all the way back to last September to find a 100-yard rushing running back, when both Stepfan Taylor of Stanford and Le’Veon Bell had 100 yard days against the the Irish. That’s an impressive run by Bob Diaco’s troops, and part of why the Irish don’t seem too worried when they give up short completions.

Brian Kelly doesn’t lack belief.

If you were looking for another reason to doubt Brian Kelly, he gave you a very large one with less than a minute left in the ballgame, choosing to go for it on fourth and one at the Pitt 35, putting the game on the back of his offensive line instead of on a defense that had played rock solid football.

How difficult was the decision? Consider that Urban Meyer flip-flopped on it, and he was in the press box.

Kelly’s decision to sneak Rees essentially ended the football game, and shows that the head coach has plenty of confidence in his football team, and certainly a lot more than the members of ND Nation have, many of whom were apoplectic when Rees and the offense stayed on the field after the Irish called a timeout, not to mention throughout a football game where not a lot went right for the Irish. But the decision showed Kelly’s belief in his team, and more importantly, gave the Irish a huge positive to take away on an afternoon that wasn’t filled with them.

“I like the way our guys battled,” Kelly said after the game. “I’m really pleased with our resilience and toughness. We’re playing the kind of football I want our teams to play. It’s not going to be an instant classic, but it certainly is from a football standpoint — games that you have to win on the road. You’re going to be presented with some of these kinds of closely fought, last drive, come up with a big stop or a big conversion, and that’s what we saw today.”

By every account, this was an ugly win for Notre Dame. And while the flaws that cost the Irish their first two games of the season still popped up more times than anyone would like. While the team is trending in the right direction, it feels like they’re running uphill in quicksand while they do it.

At 2-2 with Purdue and Air Force on the horizon, the Irish have a chance to be 4-2 going into bye week and a home date with Southern Cal. Kelly’s squad has proven incapable of looking past any opponent, but if the Irish want to put together a good run, they’re well positioned to do so.

It might not have looked good, but it bears repeating that substance outweighs style every day of the week, especially on Saturday. A solid defensive performance and a gutsy drive by Tommy Rees proved it this afternoon.

Irish A-to-Z: Dexter Williams

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (34) breaks away from Josh Barajas, left, and Max Redfield on a touchdown run during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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A third-string running back with home run potential, Dexter Williammade waves for the wrong reasons last week when he was one of five players in the infamous Ford Focus. The sophomore—thrown into the fire last season and ready to emerge in 2016—had been dazzling in camp, capable of breaking long runs, returning kickoffs and stepping into a small-but-important role in the offense.

With university discipline to be determined, Williams’ availability is still in question. So are his opportunities, running behind Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. But there’s no question the staff believes they have a big-time player in Williams, who’ll need to run his way out of the dog house and through the depth chart to carve out anything more than a supporting role this season.

 

Dexter Williams
5’11”, 210 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 2, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Notre Dame beat out Miami on Signing Day and held off Florida, Ohio State and USC as well. He came to South Bend in mid-January, the last recruiting win for Tony Alford before he left for Columbus.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in seven games in a reserve role, getting 21 carries for 81 yards, scoring one touchdown.  Biggest afternoon came in a reserve role against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Was right that he was running behind Adams. And also right that he’s going to be a good one.

One freshman running back looks like he’s going to play this season. And while a single day of practice reps hardly tells a story, Williams is running behind Josh Adams so far in training camp. And while Josh Anderson earning a scholarship doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to get onto the field, Anderson was also taking major practice reps, a veteran who could show young guys (Brent included) how things are supposed to look.

At this point, you can make a valuable argument for saving a year of eligibility or getting some part-time experience. Notre Dame’s redshirt running backs haven’t utilized that fifth year, with neither George Atkinson or Cierre Wood sticking around for it. (Of course, Atkinson and Wood made moves that weren’t necessarily based on what was best for their future from an on-field perspective.)

Life has to be quite a whirlwind for Williams right now. New places, classes starting soon and a playbook that looks quite different than high school. But working with new position coach Autry Denson, he’ll be able to make what he wants from his freshman season. Right now, I’d be surprised if that’s a role that’s on field, though Williams will dictate that by his work on the practice field.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s a frontline back here, though he’ll need to find opportunities to show that. The last time we watched Notre Dame juggle three (healthy) runners, they carved out specific roles for Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson. Only Folston remains of that trio, and Adams and Williams are better backs than the other two already.

Williams has good long speed, and while it might not be quite as good as Atkinson’s, he might be used in a similar role in 2016. But he’s capable of doing more. And with two more seasons in South Bend, he’s capable of becoming the rare “feature back” in a Brian Kelly offense, though he’ll likely be the part of a future 1-2 punch with Adams in 2017 and beyond.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

The prediction here is still hazy thanks to Williams’ part in the preseason escapades. But Williams can play—and if he’s not marooned by the university’s disciplinary arm, it appears Kelly is willing to handle this internally while the four young players stay in the mix. I expect Williams to make some big plays this season, and with those plays will come more opportunities.

Josh Adams has been plagued by some training camp issues, namely a balky hamstring that’s limited Williams’ classmate all fall. Normally I’d view that as an open window for Williams, though if he’s sitting out more than a game or two, Adams will have his chance to get healthy and rolling first.

All of this is a long way towards getting to a prediction. I’ll go with this one: Williams will be third on the team in attempts, but lead the Irish in yards per carry. I think he gets around 50 carries and will turn those into a half-dozen touchdowns.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar
Ashton White

McGovern set to start at right guard

Colin McGovern 247
Irish247
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Lost amongst captains, suspensions and quarterbacks, Brian Kelly named senior Colin McGovern Notre Dame’s starting right guard. He won out over fellow senior Hunter Bivin and sophomore Tristen Hoge.

McGovern’s strong camp helped solidify the starting five two weeks before the team heads to Austin, where 100,000 fans will present the most hostile environment the Irish will see this season. His ascent also turned around a situation that had the Illinois native running third this spring after a concussion kept him out of multiple practices.

As camp continued, McGovern ended up winning Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand’s trust, a veteran who the staff believes is better equipped for the interior job than Bivin and has more strength at the point of attack than Hoge.

Kelly talked a bit about the positives McGovern brought to the job earlier in camp, while also explaining some of the evolutionary changes the offense has made in the past few seasons, a key to McGovern emerging as the starter.

This offense requires more of a puller, a guy that is more a guy that can get out in space and Tristen can do that, Colin can do that,” Kelly explained earlier in August. “You know even Hunter can do that, he’s pretty athletic. So we’ve changed the nature of the guard position if you will. He’s got to be a guy can get out and run.”

With McGovern winning the job, it appears that Hoge will now serve as the first man in at any of the three interior positions while Bivin will back up both tackle spots. Mark Harrell will also be a safety net, hopefully allowing the staff to redshirt Tommy Kraemer unless major attrition hits.

McGovern played in eight games last season, seeing the majority of his time on special teams while getting extended time in the home victory against UMass. He’ll be making the first start of his career against Texas.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ashton White

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Tom Loy, Irish 247
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A solid spring and a nice training camp were lost in the shuffle when Ashton White was pulled over in Fulton County, Indiana on Friday evening. Along with four teammates, White’s future with the Irish football team was thrown into question, charged on suspicion of marijuana in an incident that already cost Max Redfield his place on Notre Dame’s roster.

Even with his punishment to be handled internally by his head coach, legal charges and university discipline are still being decided. And until then, those questions will overwhelm any role White could’ve had in the Irish secondary, competing for a spot in the two-deep among a talented group of cornerbacks.

 

ASHTON WHITE
5’11”, 195 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 26, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

White didn’t necessarily have the highest recruiting ranking, but the three-star prospect was an early target of the Irish staff, flipping his commitment from Virginia Tech to Notre Dame over the summer.

White had offers from Ohio State, West Virginia, Iowa and many more.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Hit this one on the head, though saving that year of eligibility seems fairly minor now.

While I think that Coleman and Crawford are going to play this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if White redshirted. With the depth at cornerback, White would need to do something impressive to jump in front of Devin Butler or Nick Watkins (not to mention his classmates) and you’ve got to wonder if there are snaps available to make that worth it.

That’s not to say that White isn’t competing. He earned an ear-full from Brian VanGorder when he didn’t step out of the way in a seven-on-seven passing drill after blitzing untouched at the quarterback, but he’s fully involved in one-on-ones  and mixing and matching with a large group of moving pieces.

Ultimately, saving a year now and learning could be what’s best. Especially when looking at the turnover in the secondary come 2016 and 2017.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s every reason to believe that one mistake won’t doom White’s career—especially if Brian Kelly has anything to say about it. But any forward momentum he had during camp was thrown away when he found himself square in Kelly’s crosshairs after one of the more head-scratchingly stupid off-field messes we’ve seen.

Setting aside all of that, White’s got plenty of things to appreciate. He’s a solid cover man, a competitive player, and even if he wasn’t going to get a ton of playing time, he was expected to be a key component of Scott Booker’s special teams units.

As long as Notre Dame keeps recruiting talented cornerbacks, it’s going to be tough to get on the field. But White’s part of a reloaded position group that has already turned a depth chart deficiency into a strength—even with the understanding that his murky future eliminates some of that wiggle room.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect White and the other three guys in the car to serve a suspension that’s give or take two games. And from there, I expect him to fight his way back into the rotation—starting outside the two-deep at cornerback but immediately in the mix on special teams game.

White plays with a brashness and confidence that you have to appreciate. If he can survive the boneheaded decision he made, I think he’ll take advantage of the second chance and become a situational contributor. But it’s certainly a black mark on his record, and one that makes you wonder about his decision-making skills.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar

 

Kelly and Irish do their best to move forward

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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Available to the media for the first time since the Friday night that did its best to rock the foundation of his football program, Brian Kelly acknowledged what he was thinking and feeling as the news came in.

Kelly said the emotions came in three waves.

“My first one was disappointment. Then that disappointment kind of moved on to embarrassment—for the university,” Kelly said Wednesday evening. “And then I was mad as hell. I think those are the three stages that I went through.”

And so the Irish football program moves on, trying to get the egg out of its collective faces before they head to Austin to battle Texas in the season opener. They took their best step forward, naming four team captains yesterday—with hopes that Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter, James Onwualu, and Isaac Rochell could self-police a group of young players that clearly need more than what the coaches are already doing.

So while guns and drugs and bar brawls with cops feel like something out of an SEC program gone rogue, it’s a single night in August for a team that believes it’s competing for a national championship. Even with dueling quarterbacks, inexperience across the roster, and now a true freshman making his debut at free safety in front of 100,000 at Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.

But Kelly has to move on. So a head coach seven years into his tenure in South Bend, having lived through more than a few rough moments already, has to find the silver lining in perhaps the most embarrassing incident of his career.

“They’re life lessons,” Kelly said, when asked how he addresses his young team. “It’s more than just you.

“So we talk about selfish decisions. We talk about representing more than just yourself. You represent the university, you represent a program, you represent an entire fanbase. Those are the things we talk about more than anything else. It’s just not about you.”