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.

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?