Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10

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It took roughly 30 seconds to realize that this Saturday might be slightly different for the Irish.

Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush locked onto a crossing route on the game’s first play from scrimmage. He failed to see Gary Gray (let alone Harrison Smith) who locked onto TerBush’s ill-fated throw. Gray stepped in front of the pass around midfield and returned it to the Purdue 35, and just like that the Irish defense was off to a start even Brian Kelly couldn’t have scripted.

From there, it was Tommy Rees‘ turn. Rees dropped back to pass on his second snap of the night, looking to both silence his doubters and find Michael Floyd, running deep on a post route, answering any question Purdue might have had about Ricardo Allen‘s chances to cover the Irish’s best offensive player one-on-one.

Three plays, two big ones. Seven points for the Irish.

The Fighting Irish many people expected in 2011 finally showed up to play, cruising to a convincing 38-10 victory over Purdue on Saturday night. In doing so, they crossed off a laundry list of items that coaches, players, and fans have been waiting to see.

“We got off to a good start obviously on the road against a Big Ten team, which was a key for us,” Kelly said after the game. “Getting Mike Floyd the ball early on really gave us a lot of confidence offensively. Defensively it’s been very similar week after week: making it difficult for teams to run the football.”

Powered by Cierre Wood‘s best game in an Irish uniform, Floyd’s dominating performance, and a defensive attack that held the nation’s No. 11 rushing attack to just 84 yards on 27 carries, the Irish improved to 3-2 on the season, heading into a tricky home date with Air Force before a much needed bye week.

Here’s what we learned:

The Irish threw for show, but ran for dough.

So maybe I’m misappropriating an old golfing axiom, but Rees’ best night of the season wasn’t the story of the game. It was the absolutely dominating performances by Wood and Jonas Gray, each of whom had their best games in an Irish uniform.

“Our running game set up everything that we did today,” Kelly said. “When you can run the game effectively you can be a good play-caller.”

Wood put on a show Saturday night, torching Purdue from the get go, and averaging about 10 yards a touch from scrimmage, an absolutely dominant stat line that was accentuated by a thrilling 55-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Wood looked electric in the open field, ran tough between the tackles, and continued his maturation into a complete running back — having the Irish’s biggest rushing game from scrimmage since Julius Jones ran for 218 yards against Stanford in 2003.

Wood has run for 584 yards on the season, averaging over 5.5 yards a carry. Many Irish fans suspected Wood was ready for a breakout season. What they didn’t see was his back-up statistically out-performing him.

Gray ran for 94 yards and a touchdown tonight, averaging over six yards a carry against Purdue. (If you saw this season coming after Gray coughed the ball up on the season’s opening drive against South Florida, you’re lying.) Gray has looked powerful on short yardage runs, confident in space, and continues to demand a bigger role in the offense. After getting only three carries against Pitt, Gray totted the ball 15 times against Purdue, averaging 6.3 yards per carry on the night. Gray’s season statistics are even gaudier than Wood’s, with Jonas running for 326 yards so far this year, and doing it at over 8.1 yards per carry.

If the Irish have aspirations to have a high-powered offense, they’ll need to continue to run the ball with impunity, opening up a play-action passing game and more vertical threats. If Kelly’s attack is known for its flashy aerial numbers, tonight reminded everyone that the engine that drives the Irish offense should be the ground attack.

2. Another vaunted running attack, another impressive outing by the Irish defense.

We mentioned the Irish’s ability to shut down opponent’s running attack on Friday. Well, it’s time to update the chart:

USF                                             Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               126.0                                                       262.7
Average Per Rush                      3.0                                                           6.1

Michigan                                    Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               114.0                                                       348.0
Average Per Rush                      4.4                                                           7.3

Michigan State                          Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               29.0                                                        181.3
Average Per Rush                      1.3                                                           4.1

Pittsburgh                                   Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               103.0                                                       192.6
Average Per Rush                      2.7                                                           4.4

Purdue                                        Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               84.0                                                       258.7
Average Per Rush                      3.1                                                           5.6

The Irish shut down Purdue’s running attack, limiting Ralph Bolden to just 17 yards and forcing TerBush and Robert Marve to throw the football, something they struggled to do successfully. In fact, Purdue’s 84 rushing yards actually look much better than the Boilermakers actually played, with 40 yards on six carries coming in Purdue’s final drive against Irish reserves. Count that series out and Purdue is looking at an even more anemic 2.09 yards per carry.

3. After some up and down performances, Tommy Rees took a step in the right direction.

We all know that a great running attack is a passing game’s best complement. But Rees also showed how important it was for the Irish to take shots down the field, with the Irish offense adding another vertical element to its attack as Rees threw for 254 yards, three touchdowns, and better yet — no interceptions.

From the game’s opening drive, you saw the Irish stretch Purdue’s defense vertically, with Floyd’s deep post pattern for a touchdown a sign of things to come. Rees didn’t have his most accurate game throwing down field — for the first time this year, he actually over-threw his wide receivers — but the deep throws opened up the underneath routes, where Rees did plenty of damage.

More importantly for the Irish, Rees also showed some progress in his decision making. Rees spread the ball around, throwing touchdown passes to Floyd, Tyler Eifert and TJ Jones, while looking more comfortable in his progressions.

“I saw some really good things. The last touchdown that he threw, where he started his progression with Mike Floyd on an individual route and worked his way back to his fourth receiver, I told him coming off, those are the signs that I’m looking for.”

As the offensive stats show, Rees seemed to do a good job putting the Irish in the right run/pass call, and for the first time this season, the Irish didn’t turn the football over. Rees still wasn’t perfect, and he got away with a few ball throws. While the Irish left some points on the field in the first half, the sophomore quarterback moved the Irish to 551 yards and 34 first downs, easily their best performance of the Kelly era.

Not cashing in on those opportunities in some of the games coming up on the schedule could spell disaster for the Irish. But credit Rees for taking a big step forward with this offense.

4. It’s time for the special teams to pick their game up.

With John Goodman returning punts, it appears Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston are conceding a return game instead of risking another muffed return. But the Irish absolutely need to improve the other facets of their special teams play, which were once again shoddy.

David Ruffer missed two more field goals tonight, with one being blocked in the first half. While Ruffer’s struggling, his holder and snapper aren’t doing him any favors, with long-snapper Jordan Cowart again playing poorly. Cowart has struggled snapping on both punts and field goals, and was replaced by Braxston Cave late in the game on Ruffer’s lone make of the evening. Cowart also found himself deeper inside Kelly’s doghouse after drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He’s got to have his poise and composure,” Kelly said walking off the field at halftime to Holly Rowe. Then he got off one of his best zingers of the year. “He’s got to walk away. He’s a long snapper!”

One-liners aside, the Irish’s special teams has taken a step back this season, even taking into account George Atkinson‘s touchdown return two weeks ago. With Air Force, a bye week, then Southern Cal, expect the Irish to put a few wrinkles into their special teams game. More importantly, expect an added emphasis put on discipline and assignments, two things that go along way in the game’s third phase.

5. Keep a close eye on the Irish’s defensive ends this week.

The Irish quickly found themselves short-handed at defensive end this week. With freshman Stephon Tuitt kept home from Purdue for a class-attendance team policy violation, the Irish found themselves in a sticky spot when senior defensive end Ethan Johnson hobbled off the field in the first half. Down to Kapron Lewis-Moore and Aaron Lynch as regular contributors, Kelly called on Hafis Williams and Kona Schwenke to play some important minutes.

“They needed to come through. We were a little short-handed, so consequently we needed Kona to come in and play for us and he did a good job.”

Johnson’s ankle injury and Tuitt’s one-game suspension forced a plan B on Kelly, who had hinted previously that he was toying with the idea of saving a year of Schwenke’s eligibility by not playing him at all this year if things went well. But Schwenke was forced into the fold with Williams, with Hafis chipping in a tackle-for-loss and two tackles in limited time.

Aaron Lynch got another sack for the Irish, but seemed to tire with the added reps on the field. With Johnson in a walking boot on the sidelines and day-to-day this week, getting stout defensive line play on the edges of this defense will be more important than ever with Air Force’s option attack stressing the fundamentals of the Irish defense.

The Irish were lucky that Lewis-Moore and Johnson survived last season, when there was little depth behind the two starters. Johnson’s injury and Tuitt’s suspension thinned out a position that had just finally developed consistent depth, and Williams, Schwenke, Lynch and Lewis-Moore picked up the slack. But if the Irish want to continue dominating at the point of attack, they’ll need their full allotment of assets.

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.