Floyd Riddick

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Purdue

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It’s tough to be too picky this afternoon, a day after the Irish manhandled Purdue 38-10. Sure, the Irish left some points on the board. But even Brian Kelly knows there was too much good to try and complain.

“We missed some opportunities,” Kelly said last night. “In close games, missing an easy field goal and not being able to score seven. I think we had a 76-yard drive and came up with no points. We’ve had a couple of those. Those concern me. But we played well today. I’m not going to sound like sour milk, but we have to put more points on the board when we have those opportunities.”

That quote encapsulates a pretty wonderful Saturday night for the Irish. It wasn’t perfect, but the Irish played stingy defense, moved the chains at will, and got a bunch of reserves playing time against a Big Ten team that had two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame.

Let’s get after it:

THE GOOD

Here are some of the things you had to like when watching the Irish play on Saturday night:

* Cierre Wood — He’s on track to be the best Irish running back since Julius Jones. Wood is on pace to run for 1,400 yards this season, a number that would make plenty of Notre Dame fans happy. Even more importantly, if Wood does put up those kind of numbers, expect the Irish to be 9-2 when they head to Palo Alto for a very exciting Saturday night against Stanford.

* Manti Te’o — He only made 8 official tackles, but they were all solo stops. That’s pretty impressive. More importantly, he’s starting to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage, with his three tackles-for-loss, including one sack, all being impact plays. Te’o didn’t knock anybody’s head off, but he didn’t swing and miss either, a sign of progress for the Irish’s star linebacker.

* Overthrows — For everyone complaining about Tommy Rees and the under thrown ball, Tommy showed plenty of arm strength when he went vertical, overthrowing Floyd on a deep ball down the near sideline. It’s tough to say a quarterback’s inaccuracy is a good thing, but Rees missed his throws to the proper side of his receiver, progress for those who have been complaining about Rees’ supposed noodle-arm.

* Jonas Gray — He’s averaging 8.1 yards a carry. That’s quite a 1-2 punch right now, and Gray is looking so much more confident with the ball in space.

* The offensive line — A nice day at the office for the men up front. The Irish ran the ball for 7.2 yards per carry, against a pretty impressive defensive front. Rees had all day to throw the football, never being sacked.

“They’ve done a great job of protecting the quarterback, and it’s something that we take a lot of pride in,” Kelly said.

* Michael Floyd — The Irish’s senior wide receiver was a man on fire last night. On short passes, he was the aggressor, delivering the hits, instead of just getting tackled. Floyd reminded Ricardo Allen that he’s not quite ready for primetime, dominating the undersized but talented cornerback all evening. Floyd stretched the field, made plays in possession, and was the catalyst for the offense.

“Michael Floyd is just a guy that can’t be denied, whether you throw the ball 35 yards down the field or you throw it five,” Kelly said. “It’s just the individual Michael Floyd more than anything else making things happen after he catches the ball.”

Saturday night was Floyd’s 16th 100-yard game of his career, adding another Notre Dame record to the senior’s accomplishments.

* Charley Molnar & Brian Kelly — A week after Pitt took Floyd out of the game, Molnar and Kelly decided that wouldn’t happen again.

“The only guy that’s got to get touches outside the realm of the offense, in other words, that it doesn’t come to, is Michael Floyd,” Kelly said this afternoon.

About time. Back about a decade ago, when Randy Moss was at his most dominant, former Vikings head coach Mike Tice took a lot of heat for announcing “The Randy Ratio.” Basically — Tice said that regardless of what other defenses were going to do, Moss was going to touch the ball a dozen times.

I’m not comparing Floyd to Moss, but in many ways, Floyd is an easier player to get the football to, because he’s able to take a short possession throw and physically overpower players in the secondary. Playing within the confines of the offense is fine, but you’ve only got Michael Floyd for eight more games. Give the man the rock.

* No turnovers — There were mistakes: a poor Rees throw almost intercepted, a fumble by Floyd that he recovered, and a bad handoff between Rees and Gray. But the Irish managed to keep the ball to themselves this afternoon, a big step in the right direction, and something that’s going to be critical next Saturday.

* Dayne Crist — Some Irish fans were clamoring for a look at Andrew Hendrix, but I’m happy that Crist got in for the Irish’s final drive of the evening. On his only throw, Crist did a great time setting up the Purdue rush and then lobbed a nifty screen pass to freshman George Atkinson, who was just a shoestring tackle away from breaking a monster.

Everybody has all but decided that Crist is gone after this season, but I’m hoping Dayne gets another shot to make a contribution to this team. Bizarre as it seems, I felt better about Crist coming in as a reliever after seeing him play in garbage time.

THE BAD

* Red Zone Offense — Going 4 of 5 in the red zone is definitely an improvement, but the Irish weren’t sharp in Purdue’s red zone and didn’t have a very efficient evening when it got into the scoring zone.

Rees only completely 4 of 12 throws in the red zone, just missing long on more than a few attempts. The Irish ran 18 plays in the red zone, leaning heavier on the pass than the run in the early going, and struggled to run the ball, with plays of -1 and -5 in the first half when Wood had the ball, and six carries for only five yards.

It’s better for Rees to miss a throw than to try and shove it into a window that isn’t there, but if the Irish wonder why they only scored 38 points when they had 34 first downs and 550 yards of offense, here’s the reason.

* Ethan Johnson’s ankle — The senior defensive end is questionable for this Saturday after spraining his ankle in the first half and not returning.

“We’ll immobilize him for the next few days and then get him moving and see,” Kelly said today. “It’s one of those things where it’s such an individual case-by-case situation when it comes to ankles, so he’ll be immobilized. Last night he was in a boot. He’ll stay in that until probably midweek, and then we’ll start moving him and see what he looks like.”

As a 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior defensive end, Johnson is one of those key players along the defensive front that makes everyone else better because he allows them to be much fresher. Against an option team like Air Force, Johnson is a real luxury, because he can slide both inside and out and has experience playing against an option attack, something Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch will be seeing for the first time.

Kelly says there’s a chance Johnson plays Saturday, but I’m guessing they’ll keep him booted and rested with hopes of getting him back before USC comes to South Bend in three weeks.

* Kyle Brindza’s kickoffs — After spoiling the Irish with four touchbacks in the first four games, Brindza had one of his worst nights on a chilly evening in West Lafayette.

“We didn’t kick the ball off very well,” Kelly said. “Kicking the ball from where we are, we have to do better than averaging the 15-yard line when we kick the ball. That really puts your kickoff team in a compromising situation. So that starts with Kyle. He’s got to kick the ball better.”

As the weather cools down, it’ll be up to Brindza to still power through his kicks, especially with some dangerous opponents still on the schedule.

* Too many penalties — The Irish were flagged for eight penalties. That’s still too many mistakes, though the referees seemed to be happy dropping laundry for just about everything yesterday evening.

* Punt returns — Another game, another John Goodman game with negative yardage. It certainly isn’t all on Goodman, but he doesn’t seem to have the make-you-miss quality you want in a return specialist. Too often his first move is sideways. (Maybe the video staff can queue up some Tom Zbikowski returns to remind him what north and south look like.)

* David Ruffer’s field goal tries — Bad snaps, good snaps, whatever. Ruffer has only made 3 of his 7 field goal attempts. He’s too good of a kicker for those stats to continue, but he needs to get out of his funk.

THE UGLY

* Jordan Cowart’s broken hand — It was bad enough that Cowart struggled with snaps and got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in a scrum. Cowart also suffered a hand injury during the melee.

“We have not been consistent at that position, and last night our long snapper broke his hand, so that put us in a situation with a backup in the game,” Kelly said, explaining why Braxston Cave was in on Ruffer’s final field goal attempt.

Kelly announced that the Irish have stabilized Cowart’s hand and he’ll try to battle through the injury. Cowart is the Irish’s only scholarship long snapper on the roster, though Cave has shown himself able on field goals. This is certainly a situation worth monitoring.

* Purdue’s defensive game plan — When asked why Theo Riddick had a quiet game, Kelly mentioned the Purdue game plan, which seemed awfully worried about No. 6 instead of No. 3.

“The configuration that we saw Purdue employ put Theo in a very difficult position to get a lot of touches,” Kelly said. “They played man-to-man on Theo with a nickel the whole game. I mean, press man with a quarter safety over the top, so it just opens up other things for us.”

The Purdue staff had two weeks to prepare for the Irish. In doing so, it’s pretty clear they noticed just how dangerous Michael Floyd is. Yet they seemed content with the one-on-one match-up between Floyd and Ricardo Allen, while employing help to stop Riddick, who still hasn’t gotten on track this season.

If that’s the case, the Boilermakers coaching staff outsmarted itself.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)