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.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

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

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

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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.