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.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)