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.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.