Five things we learned: Notre Dame 56, Navy 14

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With a tip of the cap to Mark Twain, perhaps the reports of Notre Dame’s internal revolt were greatly exaggerated. With much of the last 36 hours dedicated to rumors of a potential implosion inside the Irish locker room, the squad united quickly, putting together their most complete performance of the year as they demolished Navy 56-14 on Saturday afternoon.

“You saw a team that played together,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “I told our team that’s the best collection of plays relative to all 11 players playing together.”

A week after Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood combined for only nine carries, the Irish ran for a staggering seven touchdowns on Saturday afternoon, with Gray running for three and Wood rushing for two.

After losing the past two years to Navy, the Irish put up an astounding 56 points against the Midshipmen while holding them to only 229 yards of total offense. It was the most points for the Irish against Navy since 1994 and the 42 point win was the largest margin of victory since 1987.

Thanks to a dominant performance on both sides of the ball, the Irish righted a ship that seemed to be teetering this week. Let’s find out what else we learned during Notre Dame’s dominant 56-14 victory over Navy.

After an embarrassing Saturday, the Irish just needed to get back on the field.

Nobody inside the Notre Dame football program felt good about last weekend’s performance against USC. After spending a week beating themselves up, they took out their frustrations on Navy.

“They whipped our butts today,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the Irish’ 42 point victory. “Not going to make any excuses. That’s my 14th team playing Notre Dame, and that’s the most full butt-whipping. Coach Kelly did a great job getting his guys ready, bouncing back after the USC game. They cam prepared and focused and they got after us in all three phases. They got after us offensively, defensively and special teams. Just a total butt whipping.”

We’ll find out what this afternoon’s performance means, but if it’s any indication, a difficult week of practice and some harsh realities simply put this football team in a bad mood and very eager to prove some doubters wrong.

From the opening series of the game, it was clear the Irish brought incredible intensity to the field, and after stopping a 12-play Navy drive to start the game, the Irish opened the flood gates, jumping to a quick 14 point lead and never looking back.

“Today was a great example of the kind of football — everybody together, everybody playing hard for each other — that’s what we expect,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to just do it for four weeks. We want to do it for eight, ten, 12.”

Bob Diaco has officially exorcised his Navy demons. 

It might get lost amidst the off the field soap opera, but Bob Diaco dialed up the most impressive game plan of his career, shutting down a Navy offense that undressed the young defensive coordinator last year.

Without starting defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, Diaco spent the majority of the game in a four-man front, putting Prince Shembo and Darius Fleming at end, with Stephon Tuitt, Sean Cwynar, and Louis Nix anchoring the inside.

The front four was key to shutting down a Navy running attack that averaged 325 yards a game and 5.7 yards a carry. The Irish held the Midshipmen to just 196 yards on the ground, and only 3.9 yards a carry on 50 attempts.

“We couldn’t move the ball,” Niumatalolo said. “They stopped us. We couldn’t move the ball which compounded things for our defense because they kept coming on the field and we couldn’t get any conversions.”

Like he did against Air Force, Jamoris Slaughter slid down to outside linebacker, joined by Dan Fox on the other side. While Te’o’s play was excellent, the trio of Tuitt, Nix and Cwynar was really impressive.

“Our front was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Our two inside guys didn’t give much. You’re not going to talk a lot about them, Tuitt and Cwynar, they were really good inside. They took the fullback away and forced the ball out on the perimeter. Those two guys played really well.”

While Aaron Lynch stole most of the preseason publicity, Tuitt has quietly emerged as one of the Irish’s most versatile defensive weapons. His seven tackles from the inside of the defensive line were incredibly impressive, and the freshman has quickly adding another difference-maker to a front seven in need of someone ready to step up.

After taking a lot of heat after last season’s loss, Diaco deserves a ton of credit — showing some great versatility with his defensive structure, and quieting the critics that blasted him last year. The Irish shut down Navy like no other team has done this year, the only team to keep the Midshipmen below 300 yards.

“I think we can put that to rest, about our ability to defend a very, very good football team,” Kelly said.

A week after disappointing, the Irish’s two star players came to play.

It didn’t take long to notice Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o. A week after quiet performances by the Irish’s two star players, both leaders stepped up with dominating performances.

Floyd led Irish receivers with six catches for 121 yards, including a 56 yard touchdown catch on a deep post thrown perfectly by Tommy Rees. He also contributed another score, running a tightrope up the sideline on a quick pass deemed a lateral for a second touchdown. It took just one play to realize that Floyd would present big problems for Navy, with the senior wide receiver beating two tacklers on the first play from scrimmage for 25 easy yards.

“The guy was unbelievable,” Niumatalolo said. “The kid is a complete player. The guy played well. What he did wasn’t a surprise. We knew we had to try to find a way to stop him, but we couldn’t get it done.”

On the other side of the ball, Te’o played one of the most complete games of his career. He led the Irish with 13 tackles, three behind the line of scrimmage, and his nearly error-free performance anchored everything Diaco’s unit did to stop Navy.

“We could not block Manti,” Niumatalolo said. “We have been doing this for a long time. We tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him, but the kid played phenomenal.”

The best way for veteran to lead his team is on the football field. Saturday afternoon, the Irish leaned on their two most important veterans and got everything they needed.

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray are officially 1A and 1B.

Brian Kelly didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it was Jonas Gray that started in the backfield against Navy, not Cierre Wood. Gray embraced the role, setting the offensive tone with bruising runs of nine, eleven, and six yards, before charging into the endzone on a four-yard run. Four carries, 30 yards, and a touchdown for Gray on the tone-setting drive, numbers that actually hurt his season average.

“He was what we wanted him to be when we talked about how important he was to us when we started the year,” Kelly said of Gray. “He ran physical. He’s got burst, he’s got speed. He breaks tackles. He’s a valuable player, as well as Cierre Wood. Him getting off to a good start — he sets a physical presence for us.”

While neither back busted a long run, Gray and Wood put up almost identical numbers with the duo combining for 23 carries for 135 yards and five rushing touchdowns. More importantly, Gray’s emergence has helped keep Wood fresh, with both backs feeding off each other.

A solid running game is a recipe for red zone success, and Saturday’s seven for seven performance inside the Navy red zone was made possible by a stout running game.

“I think we probably ran the ball a little bit more effectively in those situations,” Kelly said of his teams performance inside the Navy 20. “We put more emphasis on the run game in that area, and i think that is a direction we want to keep moving.”

A week after forgetting about the ground game, everybody in the stadium was reminded that the Irish have a potent rushing attack, something that’ll serve the Irish well as they move into November football.

Brian Kelly has his finger on the pulse of this team better than anybody else.

Brian Kelly wasn’t in the mood to rehash what was said on Friday when he and his football team discussed his controversial comments from Thursday.

“I can tell you that as a family, we all have good days and bad days,” Kelly said after the game. “And you work through that as a family. And we had to work through some things this week. But in the end, like all families, if there’s a disagreement, if there’s any kind of need to communicate, it needs to get done and we did that. We communicated with each other as a team and as a family, and you saw it today. You saw a team that played together.”

While Kelly was mum about what happened behind closed doors, offensive tackle Zack Martin gave a succinct summary of Friday’s events.

“Coach Kelly apologized to us. We took his apology and we were fine with it,” Marin told the Chicago Tribune‘s Brian Hamilton. “He’s our leader.”

It certainly doesn’t pay for a head coach to differentiate between his guys and the previous regimes’ players, the only dicey thing Kelly said in my opinion. But Kelly — one of college football’s most media savvy head coaches — didn’t become stupid over night. Anything he said on Thursday was said for a reason, and it looks to have paid off, as the Irish went out and blew out a Navy team that’s turned one of college football’s most one-sided rivalries on its head in recent years.

While you may not agree with his tactics, Kelly inherited a senior class that was one of the most heralded recruiting groups in the country, yet has played below .500 football up until this point of their career. After replacing a coach that had different rules for different players, Kelly would much rather play bad cop and let a group of assistants he knows and trusts keep the team together, than except mediocrity when pressure is at its highest.

Nowhere in Brian Kelly’s job description does it say he needs to be a players’ coach. After watching his team play undisciplined and lackadaisical football for seven games, Kelly decided to use the media to send a message to the leadership of his football team. The press obliged and the veterans took the bait. Using one of the oldest tricks in the book, Kelly galvanized his team as they head into November.

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.