And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers

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It’s that time of year. The Purdue game. An annual tradition that’s not entirely appreciated by one-side of the in-state “rivalry,” a term that alone makes some Notre Dame fans bristle. (Memo to those fans: Be careful about getting too uppity about rivalries. Just look at what’s happened with Navy lately.)

Anyway, if Michigan and USC constitute big calendar days like Memorial Day and Labor Day, slot Purdue in as a good solid floating holiday, ranking somewhere between Arbor Day or Columbus Day. Notre Dame fans may not get as excited about it, but it’s a annual rite nonetheless, and that in and of itself is pretty respectable. (Be wary, Irish fans. Should enough disrespect to a holiday like Columbus Day and pretty soon your bosses will stop giving you the day off. Then we all lose.)

Moving beyond mediocre analogies, there’s a football game this Saturday with Purdue. And while it hasn’t been exactly the glory days of this match-up like it was in the Joe Tiller/Drew Brees era, the Irish and Purdue have played some intriguing games lately, with the 2009 comeback victory by the Irish still eating at Purdue fans upset with head coach Danny Hope spotting Notre Dame a timeout before Jimmy Clausen hit Kyle Rudolph in the endzone for the game winning touchdown.

Purdue has been a tough team to track this season. A game with Middle Tennessee, a disheartening loss to Rice, and a cupcake against Southeast Missouri State haven’t given the Boilermakers much of a body of work. Thankfully, we’re joined by Travis Miller of the blog Hammer & Rails, who has been all over the Purdue scene for years.

I asked the questions and he answered them. Here goes:

Inside the Irish: This is our third time doing this. (2009. 2010.) Can you assess for me the direction this program is going under Danny Hope?

Hammer & Rails: A lot of people are not happy with the MTSU result and the Rice loss. Middle Tennessee State has not looked good sense the opener, but Logan Kilgore and the Blue Raiders really outplayed us in week one. Even after we took a late lead, the familiar prevent defense allowed them to get in field goal range very quickly before a block saved us. Most people are very upset about the way Hope handled the final minutes of the Rice game. He blew our last timeout (sound familiar?) then went away from what was working (three Bolden runs for 30+ yards to get us close) in order to settle for a field goal.

These are the types of decisions that have added up and have people going against Hope. The kids are playing hard, but there have been several decisions, like the infamous timeout against Notre Dame two years ago, that have left us questioning what the heck he is thinking at times. The loss at Rice was really a turning point. The offense generated little to nothing in the second half and the blocked field goal at the end was a special teams blocking breakdown. With normal blocking Wiggs makes the field goal and we’re 3-0.

ITI: Let’s talk about this team. Here’s what I’ve seen on paper. (Admittedly, I’ve seen little of the Boilers this year, thanks to sparse TV coverage.) A frantic comeback against Middle Tennessee that needed special teams heroics. An ugly loss to Rice, a team that was thought to be one of the worst in D-I. Then a curb-stomping against Southeast Missouri State, a sub-division team that lost 14 starters from last year’s squad. Give me a 1/4 of the way letter grade?

H&R: I would give it a C-, only because against SEMO we finally did what we were supposed to do. I have been very pleased with the play of Caleb TerBush in his first three starts. He hasn’t set the world on fire, but he has been consistent and has not turned the ball over. Mostly I have been concerned about playcalling and our defense on 3rd and long. If Notre Dame wants success they should get to 3rd and 15 or more, then throw to Tyler Eifert over the middle. This has been a gaping hole for at least six years, but we still refuse to fix it. Do not be surprised if Eifert has 15 catches for 122 yards and two scores because he will be open over the middle on every 34rd down. The sad thing is that everyone sees this except the coaching staff.

I have long said this team’s strength is running the ball on offense and it gives us the best chance of winning. We need to have success against Notre Dame in this area for two reasons. One, we have multiple backs who give different looks. Two, it keeps the ND offense off the field. We ran the ball extremely well against SEMO, but didn’t even try to exert our will with the ground game against Rice and MTSU. When we ran against them, we had success, so I don’t understand why we went away from it.

ITI: Robert Marve could be a character in a Greek tragedy he’s been through so much. As a guy that watched him at Miami, flipped his opinion on him a few times, and now sees him back and potentially healthy, is he the right guy to lead Purdue?

H&R: I think he is this year. He looked good against SEMO, and I think he gives us the best chance to win through the air. TerBush has been solid, but Marve is simply a better player. I think TerBush is a guy that can build on his experience this year to have a solid senior season next year. Marve doesn’t have the mobility he had at Miami, but he has a good arm and he reads the field better. He doesn’t overthrow guys like TerBush has at times either. If we’re going to win four more games and get to a bowl, I think Marve is the guy to do it.

ITI: This will be the toughest run defense Purdue has faced this year. You think highly of the Boilermakers talent at tailback. Can they run against an Irish team that hasn’t given up a 100 yard tailback in a full calendar year?

H&R: I think we can mostly because we saw some new options at tailback against SEMO. Akeem Shavers has been a big play guy this year, while Ralph Bolden is our steady ballcarrier that he was two years ago. Reggie Pegram has shown he can get some tough yards if needed. Two true freshmen, Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom, saw their first action against SEMO and combined for over 140 yards and two scores. Hunt is a small, shifty runner, while Cottom is a big, bruising back that could see some time at fullback. Cottom is 6’4” and 255 pounds of beef coming up the middle. He reminds me a little of Mike Alstott.

ITI: Give me one player on offense and one on defense that Irish fans don’t know now, but will after Saturday night?

H&R: Antavian Edison has been our best big-play receiver so far in the slot. He caught the winning TD pass against MTSU and is averaging almost 23 yards per catch. He also lines up in the backfield on occasion and had a rushing touchdown vs. SEMO.

On defense, meet Ricardo Allen. The true sophomore has four career interceptions in 15 games and has returned two for touchdowns. The few times we have stopped teams on third and long have seen him line up as a nickel back covering the slot receiver. He will likely draw the assignment on Floyd, and that will be fascinating. SEMO decided to challenge him deep on the game’s first play and he physically ripped the ball away from a much bigger receiver for an interception. Obviously Floyd is a much better player, but if there is one guy on our team that can single cover him, it is Allen.

ITI: The line is 14 points. It should be a pretty electric atmosphere (even if you guys can’t sell it out), and the Irish didn’t exactly set the world in their first two road games. How does Purdue pull the upset? What kind of odds would you need to put your money on it?

H&R: I think Purdue has a chance if Notre Dame continues to turn the ball over. We need the Irish to keep making the mistakes they have made in the first four games. We also need to keep taking care of the ball. Turnovers absolutely killed us in the 1-5 start two years ago, as they cost us at least three games (Oregon, Northwestern, and Northern Illinois) So far we have only turned it over three times this year. If we can run the ball with some success, keep the Notre Dame offense off the field, and take advantage of some Tommy Rees mistakes we have a chance. If Rees takes care of the ball the Irish should be fine.

Also, we had better not call timeout with the clock running on third down when the Irish are trying to score in the last 20 seconds again. It may cause me to have a stroke and I am way too young for that.

***

Special thanks to Travis for taking the time with my extensive questioning. Check out the Hammer & Rails blog later today for my mediocre answers to his much better questions. You can also follow him on Twitter @HammerAndRails.

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…)