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.

 

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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