Jonas Gray Pitt

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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A second viewing of Notre Dame’s 15-12 victory doesn’t add new perspective to Saturday’s win. The maddening inconsistencies that have plagued this football team still exist, rearing their ugly heads when you’d least expect it. Two turnovers, a missed field goal, and too many penalties all combine to give you a squad that has understandably driven Irish fans nuts.

At one moment, Notre Dame looks like a BCS-level team, capable of moving the ball by air or ground in big chunks, shut down quarterbacks and running backs with an impressive group of defensive players. At others, the offense is a turnover machine, the special teams are horrendous, and the secondary needs a trip back to Football 101, where covering receivers and looking for the football aren’t mutually exclusive exercises.

But that’s life at 2-2. And after two head-scratching losses, the Irish’s two least impressive offensive outputs are wins that Notre Dame absolutely had to have. Like it or not, that’s progress. And while it certainly hasn’t been pretty, Brian Kelly‘s job isn’t to win games with style points, it’s to win games. With a proven track record of getting his teams to improve throughout the year  — seen last year with the Irish’s November to remember — there’s every reason to believe that this team will work through the troubles that ail them.

A winning streak is a winning streak, and the Irish’s win in Pittsburgh was a must have. Let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly of Notre Dame’s 15-12 victory.

GOOD

After struggling in short yardage situations, the Irish offensive line came up huge. In a game where the Irish needed to dominate the line of scrimmage, Ed Warinner‘s guys up front did some serious work in the trenches, winning every short-yardage battle they were presented with.

The Irish were 8 for 8 in third or fourth and short (three yards or less):

1st Quarter

3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 2 yards.
3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 2 yards.
3rd and 3 — Rees hits Michael Floyd for 5 yards (Defensive holding call accepted).

2nd Quarter

3rd and 3 — Rees hits Tyler Eifert for 6 yards.

3rd Quarter

3rd and 3 — Jonas Gray runs for 4 yards.
4th and 1 — Tommy Rees runs for 1 yard.

4th Quarter

3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 3 yards
4th and 1 — Tommy Rees sneaks for 1 yard.

While Irish fans watching on TV weren’t as confident, Kelly paid his offensive lineman the ultimate compliment when he trusted them to end the game on Tommy Rees‘ sneak. Interior linemen Braxston CaveChris Watt and Trevor Robinson came through, even if they only made it by half a football.

A few other things to file under the good category:

*Jonas Gray‘s burst around the corner, and confidence in the open field. I can’t say enough about the 79-yard touchdown, and after a tough first carry where Gray made a poor read on a well set-up run play, Gray turned the game on its head with his game-breaking touchdown.

* Punter Ben Turk also had his best ballgame of the season, putting three punts inside the Pitt 20 and launching another ball 47 yards. It’s hard to get too excited about a 37.2 yard punting average, but Turk did his job, and for the first time didn’t mis-kick any of his punts.

* While he didn’t break it for a touchdown, George Atkinson had another nice day returning kickoffs. His 36-yard return helped the Irish start with good field position in the second quarter.

* Repeating yesterday’s thoughts, Darius Fleming played a dominant football game at the line of scrimmage.

THE BAD

If you’re wondering what life looks like after Michael Floyd, it might not be all that pretty. With Pitt putting two men on Floyd, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of a defense that came into the game ranked 119th against the pass. Credit the defensive game plan put together by Todd Graham and his coaching staff, but if the Irish are going to keep winning football games, they’re going to need to get more out of Theo Riddick and TJ Jones.

Riddick had a quiet six catches yesterday and Jones was held to three catches for 31 yards. Whether it means giving Robby Toma more snaps or forcing the ball into Riddick earlier to get him involved, the Irish need to get production from somebody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert. It was a disheartening step back for the Irish offense, especially against a group that had shown serious coverage lapses when they were tested.

More importantly, the Irish have to decide what kind of offense they want to be. With Rees at the helm, they aren’t able to run zone read plays where the quarterback is a running option. But that doesn’t mean they need to be a read and react offense that assesses what the defense gives and counter-punches. The Irish have already shown that while that works in spurts, it also puts way too much pressure on a young quarterback, and taking what the defense gives you only works when you don’t have a penchant for throwing interceptions.

The Irish have one of their most potent rushing attacks in nearly a decade. They also have a wide receiving corps that goes as many as five or six deep. That sets up perfectly for a push-the-pace offense that dictates terms to the defense, not the other way around. The Irish aren’t going to be an explosive offense if they play horizontal football, dinking and dunking their way down the field. And while Rees can’t beat you with a QB keeper, he throws a great ball up the seam, showing more than enough arm strength and timing to eat up chunks of field vertically.

THE UGLY

This football team still makes too many head-scratching mistakes. This week’s culprits were on special teams, where the Irish nearly cost themselves a football game with a roughing the punter penalty on sophomore Austin Collinsworth, giving Pitt a much needed first down on the Panthers’ only touchdown drive of the afternoon.

Kicking from their own end zone, Collinsworth tried to make a big play with a punt block up the middle, but dove straight into the legs of punter Matt Yoklic, who sold the refs on a 15-yard personal foul call. Whether you disagree with the refs call or not (Collinsworth barely touched the punter), the Irish haven’t shown themselves capable of making game-changing plays that require sound execution, and Mike Elston‘s unit would’ve been better served setting up for an easy return, especially considering Pitt’s mediocre kickers. Collinsworth is one of the Irish’s best special teamers, but coming right up the middle he made the cardinal sin of diving straight at the kicker and instead of the Irish starting with the ball at midfield, Tino Sunseri drove his team for their only score.

While the punt return game continues to be mediocre with John Goodman handling returns, the Irish field goal unit missed its second kick in three attempts, this one pushed wide right by David Ruffer after long-snapper Jordan Cowart‘s snap came back as a knuckleball. Cowart’s only job is to snap, and he’s been erratic this season on both punts and kicks, a real area of concern for the Irish, who need more certainty from all their special teams units.

***

Possibly the best part of this column is that the Irish come up with a win in the ugly category. The Irish were able to win a football game without playing anywhere near their best. It’s certainly not the kind of thing people were expecting four games into the season, but after starting 0-2, the Irish simply need to keep picking up Ws, regardless of how maddening it can be.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

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

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

 

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

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

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

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

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

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

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

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

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

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

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

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

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

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

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

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

 

The quarterback battle.

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

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

 

The offensive line should be good again.

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

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

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

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

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

 

The Defense?

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

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

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

 

Good play in tight games

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

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

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

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

 

The Schedule

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

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

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

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

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

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

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

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

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

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