Jonas Gray Air Force

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 59, Air Force 33

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On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in South Bend, the Irish offense sprinted out to an early lead and never looked back, scoring 59 points — 42 of them in the first half alone — as Notre Dame rolled to a 59-33 win over the Air Force Academy. On a Saturday where sunshine and blue skies provided a perfect setting for football, Brian Kelly‘s offensive juggernaut did its best to one-up the weather, no small feat in early October.

Just how impressive were the Irish offensively in the first half? Consider these six touchdown drives:

  • Eight plays for 81 yards in 2:47 on their first drive. Michael Floyd with the touchdown catch.
  • Nine plays for 59 yards in 3:33 on their second drive. Tyler Eifert with the touchdown catch.
  • Four plays for 51 yards in 1:41 on their third drive. Robby Toma with the touchdown catch.
  • Five plays for 38 yards in 2:02 on their fourth drive. Jonas Gray with the touchdown run.
  • Six plays for 44 yards in 2:21 on their fifth drive. Cierre Wood with the touchdown run.
  • Six plays for 7 yards in 1:06 on their sixth drive. Theo Riddick with the touchdown catch.

That’s six first half drives and six touchdowns, each capped off by six different players.

“We’ve got very good diversity within our offense,” Kelly said after the game. “We’re hard to defend right now.”

Hard to defend might be an understatement, as the Irish racked up 59 points, the most points scored by an Irish team since Lou Holtz‘s 62-0 blasting of Rutgers in his final game in Notre Dame Stadium.

Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 59-33 victory over Air Force.

1. The Irish have put together a devastating rushing attack.

With Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray giving the Irish their best one-two combination since Ryan Grant and Julius Jones, Notre Dame has balance on offense like they haven’t had in a very long time. The Irish racked up 266 rushing yards, continuing a string of impressive games. The Irish have run for 735 yards over the last three wins, their most in a three-game span since 2003. And the best thing about it? It was quarterback Andrew Hendrix that led the team in rushing, with 111 yards.

The Irish ran for a gaudy 9.2 yards per carry, numbers that would have been even better if the Irish didn’t run for just seven yards on their final seven carries of the afternoon. Take those runs out and the Irish ran for 259 yards on 22 carries, roughly 12 yards a carry. To put it into context, Julius Jones ran for 262 yards on 24 carries in his record-setting performance against Pitt in 2003. The Irish didn’t need to put the weight on one man’s back, and with Wood and Gray carrying the load, and Hendrix adding a zone-read wrinkle into the mix, the Irish’s offense — led by some incredible work up front by Ed Warinner‘s troops — did some devastating work.

“The pieces are starting to come together for us,” Kelly said of the offensive balance. “We’re getting there. It starts really with the running game and the ability to run the football.”

2. Andrew Hendrix adds a new dimension to the offense. And he makes Tommy Rees better.

Kelly hinted at it earlier this week, and sophomore Andrew Hendrix’s debut at quarterback was about as impressive as you could ask for. Hendrix was perfect throwing the football, operated from six different formations while running the ball with conviction, only stopping himself when he ran out of gas at the one-yard line on a 78-yard scamper.

Used as a change of pace quarterback while mixing in with Tommy Rees, Hendrix gave the Irish offense another running look while also keeping defenses honest with some efficient passing. It’s all part of a plan installed to evolve the offensive gameplan and use Hendrix’s skillset to make Rees even better.

“Andrew does not have all of the grasp on the offense that he needs,” Kelly said. “But he certainly is somebody that can go in the game and do good things.

“A lot of this has been crafted towards how do we make Tommy Rees a better quarterback, instead of Andrew Hendrix just being out there. Now there’s so much versatility in which you have to defend.”

Kelly made it clear that Dayne Crist is still the No. 2 quarterback for the Irish. But after five games of wondering whether or not the Irish would use a change of pace quarterback, they rolled out the blueprint for how they want to use Hendrix, and he executed perfectly.

3. With a near perfect day, the maturation of Tommy Rees continues.

After struggling to keep the ball in the offense’s hands, Rees continues a run of really impressive play. The sophomore quarterback completed 23 of 32 passes for 261 yards, throwing four touchdowns to four different receivers in the first half — joining Brady Quinn as the only other Irish quarterback to ever throw for four scores in the game’s first thirty minutes.

“He’s growing as he goes here,” Kelly said of his sophomore quarterback. “I keep reminding you guys and hopefully you’ll start listening to me. He’s 8-1 as a starter and he continues to grow and develop and we are seeing that maturity.”

For a second straight game, Rees wasn’t sacked. And with time in the pocket, he showed his ability to be the perfect distributor for Kelly’s passing offense, finding seven different receivers and moving the Irish close to flawlessly throughout the afternoon.

The Irish converted 8 of 11 third downs, a devastating stat for Air Force, and identified just about all of Air Force’s exotic attempts to bring pressure. More importantly, he took care of the football — forcing only one or two balls into tight windows and making proper reads when he had one-on-one opportunities.

Rees has done plenty to show that he’s a capable pilot for the Irish’s offensive attack, but nothing more important than eliminating mistakes when the Irish had chances to put points on the board, and being more efficient in the scoring zone.

“I think a lot of it was on me not finishing drives,” Rees said after the game. “I really took it upon myself, just to make sure we are limiting mistakes. We have been so good between the 20s, so for us to go out two weeks in a row and capitalize on opportunities is a good feeling.”

With USC on the horizon, Rees will now have two weeks to prepare for a defense that forced the then freshman into the worst game of his Irish career.

4. The Irish offense gave the USC coaching staff plenty to talk about.

If you’re wondering why it seemed like Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar all but emptied the playbook against Air Force, it might be because they’ve got a special opponent coming up in two Saturdays. With the Trojans off this Saturday, Lane Kiffin and company had all afternoon to watch Notre Dame run all over the field, establishing various weapons and give a leaky Trojan defense even more to think about.

While he didn’t get the opportunity to return one, we saw Michael Floyd back to receive punts. After not running the ball with Theo Riddick all season, we saw Riddick pick up a nice gain on a reverse, and lead the team with eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Empty set formations with five wide? Option pass plays? Kelly showed a variety of new looks, which stumped Air Force’s defense, but also added a few more hours to the next Trojan film session.

As the Irish reach the halfway point of the season, it’s clear they’ll head into a prime-time affair with USC armed with an offense that has multiple ways to hurt you and a second quarterback that will provide plenty of problems for defensive coordinators.

“I really couldn’t tell you,” Kelly responded when asked if Hendrix’s big game means more snaps in the weeks to come. “All I know is you’re going to have to defend him because he’s pretty good.”

Precisely why Kelly waited to reveal him this week.

5. There are still plenty of questions about Notre Dame’s ability to stop the option.

Now to the not-so-pretty part. The Irish really struggled defending Air Force’s offense. The Falcons came into Saturday with the No. 12 offense in the country, averaging just over 513 yards a game. They actually improved on that number, putting up 565 yards to the Irish’s 560, and ran the ball for a staggering 363 yards, nearly identical to their average total on the season.

Without Ethan Johnson, the Irish were forced to use a lot of Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch, and the duo combined for six tackles, with Lynch contributing just one assisted tackle on the afternoon, while also getting flagged for a major penalty and a major screw-up, jumping offside on a 4th down field goal attempt that gave the Falcons a first down and a touchdown on the ensuing play.

Bob Diaco‘s game plan consisted of moving Jamoris Slaughter down into the box, replacing Prince Shembo in the base defense. The move worked, and Slaughter played his best game in an Irish uniform. He made a highlight reel interception and forced a fumble on the first defensive play of the game, supplying just what the Irish needed with two huge turnovers in a game where turnover margin was the most important stat of the day.

Yet the Irish also got gashed by both the option and the zone read, with Asher Clark running for 102 yards on just 11 carries, and the Falcons averaging 6.1 yards a carry on 60 runs. Harrison Smith led the Irish with 12 tackles, but struggled to come up and play support on the option pitch, missing a number of tackles. Manti Te’o was the lone bright spot in the option game, playing under control, making 2.5 tackles-for-loss to go along with his ten stops and one pass breakup.

Sure, Air Force racked up a ton of yardage in the games final minutes when the score was long out of hand. But Air Force converted a ridiculous five of five on fourth-down gambles and Tim Jefferson looked good completing several big passes for first downs. The Falcons present a challenge even Navy can’t replicate, but Diaco’s troops haven’t shown the ability to stop an option attack consistently. While the gamble with Slaughter was a good one, keeping Prince Shembo on the sideline, limiting Sean Cwynar’s snaps and using freshman Chase Hounshell for the first time after burning Kona Schwenke’s eligibility just a week ago are decisions that some people might question.

But with the Irish moving to 4-2 and riding a four-game winning streak into an off-week, the Irish’s impressive drubbing of Air Force showed one thing quite clearly: The most effective defense against a great option attack is a good offense.

The Irish showed that in spades.

 

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

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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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.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.