Jonas Gray Michael Floyd

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 16, Boston College 14

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Senior Day will always be bittersweet. But Saturday’s home finale was also cruel, with the Irish’s 16-14 victory over Boston College overshadowed by the loss of senior running back Jonas Gray. Gray — one of the great surprises of the 2011 season, coming from nowhere to becoming the Irish’s most dangerous rusher — was tackled low along the Irish sideline in the second half and suffered what’s believed to be a season-ending knee injury.

“It’s so disappointing that we lost such a great kid,” head coach Brian Kelly said from the field after the game. “The game of football sometimes is cruel.”

On a Saturday where the Irish hoped to win with style, they struggled to win at all, reminded throughout the game that while Boston College may have been 24-point underdogs, they’ll never come to Notre Dame Stadium and simply roll over.

But with fresh memories of Senior Day collapses against UConn and Syracuse, the Irish battled for a victory, their eight in nine games, as Notre Dame continues its undefeated stretch of November football under Kelly after going winless in Charlie Weis’ final two seasons.

“I just like the way our guys understand how to win games in November,” Kelly said.

That confidence certainly wasn’t shared by an anxious stadium that broke out in boos, and an ND faithful that all but sounded the alarm bells as the game drew closer. Those hoping to watch the Irish coast into Palo Alto next weekend on a roll will be afforded no such comfort.

Still, the Irish took home their final game in Notre Dame Stadium, by a margin that was all too close for everyone but the guys on the field and their proud head coach. Let’s find out what else we learned in Saturday’s 16-14 Irish victory.

***

When they’ll need it most, the Irish likely just lost the power in their power running game.

While he seemed resigned to the fact walking off the field, Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to concede the loss of Jonas Gray for the season. When pressed on Alex Flanagan‘s report that Gray suffered a torn ACL, Kelly said there’s no certainty until the doctors take a closer look.

“I was just in the training room with our doctors. They want to get an MRI and get a good look at that,” Kelly said.

After watching the replay of the tackle, there’s every reason to think that Gray, the heart of the Irish power running game, is lost for the year. The senior, who was joined in an emotional embrace on the field before the game with his coach and then his mother, addressed the team in the locker room after the game.

“He talked to the team after. He’s a great young man,” Kelly said. “It’s emotional when you don’t know if you’re going to be able to play your last game or not. It’s still uncertain until we get more medical information, but there’s a lot of emotions in that locker room.”

Last year, it was Robert Hughes who picked up the slack and provided the punch to the running game in November after Armando Allen went down. Without Gray, the Irish don’t have a physical option at tailback, with freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDanniel the only scholarship ball cariers behind Cierre Wood.

If this is it for Gray, he’s certainly done the miraculous in his senior season, and regardless of the extent of his knee injury, earned his way into an NFL training camp next year. His 26-yard touchdown run continued an impressive season and the senior became a touchdown machine, averaging a touchdown run every 9.5 carries this season, the third best ratio in the country this season.

***

Want to keep the Irish offense under wraps? Dominate the field position battle.

It wasn’t as if the Irish offense played terribly, putting up 417 yards of total offense on a windblown day that wreaked havoc all across the college football world on Saturday. But the Irish were constantly buried by the excellence of Boston College senior punter Ryan Quigley, who punted an astonishing nine times on Saturday (a season-high), with six being downed inside the Irish 20.

The Irish started with the ball inside their own 20 six times. On all six series, they punted the football. Combine that with a severe wind that limited the Irish’s ability to throw the ball and you’ve found a decent recipe for keeping points off the borad.

“The field position obviously was difficult to manage,” Kelly said. “The weather elements out there were difficult. It was very blustery. So we had to manage. We knew what kind of game this was going to end up being, and it certainly turned out this way.”

After struggling for the first half of the year, Ben Turk seemed at home in a punting battle, out-dueling Quigley on length as he averaged 44.0 yards a punt on a season-high eight attempts. Of course, the next step in Turk’s evolution will be distance control, as the junior kicked three touchbacks, two on critical pooch punts when the Irish needed a chance to down the football.

Sure, it made for an ugly day to some fans. But Kelly showed he’s willing to win football games by any means necessary.

***

The Irish defense rose to the occasion.

There was more than a little grumbling when Kelly eschewed a 4th and 1 attempt for a Turk punt early in the fourth quarter. But with the Irish clinging to a six-point lead, Kelly leaned on his defense to help him win the football game.

“What played into it mostly was that our defense was playing really really well and had been playing on a couple of short fields,” Kelly said. “I felt like we owed them the opportunity to play with a better field position situation.”

The defense rewarded the head coach, holding the Eagles to a three-and-out, before Quigley punted the ball back to the Irish. Then the offense rewarded Kelly by putting together their only scoring drive of the second half, a nine-play, 55-yard series that was capped by a clutch David Ruffer field goal. (Lining up on the same hash-mark and just three yards farther away from the critical field goal he missed against USF, Ruffer drilled this one down the middle.)

Boston College’s offense has been anemic all year, but the Irish still held the Eagles to just 250 total yards, limiting the Eagles running game to just 3.2 yards a carry while harassing Chase Rettig all afternoon. On a day when the Irish leaned on the unit to hold strong, they did just that, minus the two touchdown drives they yielded.

“I think two drives, you know, we got into two third down situations that they converted on the first score and the last score.  We got into some dime where they ran the ball and had a couple of plays.  But if you look at it, we kicked the ball out of play, started on the 40, got a 15-yard personal foul penalty, and that put them in a good position.”

Putting Bob Diaco‘s defense in a bad position is certainly nothing new. And with what seems like half the Irish defense in sick bay heading into the game — Stephon Tuitt missed the game from illness, Robert Blanton sat out two days this week with the flu, and Harrison Smith spent last night in the infirmary on an IV — the Irish did what they had to do, hold a struggling Eagles offense when the offense couldn’t get on track.

***

The Irish offense misses Braxston Cave.

True, the Irish are undefeated since Mike Golic stepped in for his good friend Braxston Cave at center. But if you’re looking for proof that the Irish offense misses their stalwart center, take a look at the Irish’s efficiency at the line of scrimmage since Cave left the lineup.

With Cave anchoring the line, the offense went sackless in the passing game throughout October and limited the negative plays, keeping opposing defenses out of the backfield.

Here’s a quick tally of opponents’ tackles-for-loss (with the score in parenthesis) since October 1st:

Purdue (38-10 — W): 4 TFLs — 7.2 YPC
Air Force (59-33 — W): 5 TFLs — 5.7 YPC
USC (17-31 — L): 1 TFL — 4.6 YPC
Navy (56-14 — W): 2 TFL — 5.2 YPC
Wake Forest (24-17 — W): 2 TFLs — 4.6 YPC
Maryland (45-21 — W): 10 TFLs — 4.6 YPC
Boston College (16-14 — W): 4 TFLs — 4.1 YPC

In the games Golic has taken snaps at center, the Irish have had three of their least efficient running games of the year, while allowing 14 tackles in the backfield, including three sacks against Maryland.

More importantly, the Irish consistently lost first down against the Eagles, a crippling offensive dilemma when you add it to bad field position.

Notre Dame had 34 first downs on the afternoon, running the ball 20 times and throwing it 14. But the tale of the offense’s struggles can be told on their second down opportunities. Only three times did the Irish have a second and short. They had six second and mediums and more troubling, an astonishing 16 second and longs.

Losing first down certainly isn’t on Golic’s head, but the Irish are going to need to get back to the drawing board before the regular season finale against Stanford.

***

With heavy hearts and emotions everywhere, there’s nothing wrong with a win.

Selective memory doesn’t just plague Notre Dame fans, but it bears mentioning that Notre Dame was a statistically dominant team in their two opening losses this year, and look where that got them. So for all those that spent more time complaining about what the Irish didn’t do on Senior Day than what they actually did do, take a second and enjoy a hard fought victory against one of the school’s most hated rivals.

“Give credit to Boston College now, they played well today,” Kelly said after the game. “Coming in 3-7, this was their bowl game and they played hard.”

There will be plenty of time to bemoan the things that went wrong, but there’s a pleasant evolution to this football team, finding ways to win tight games after only finding ways to lose in the season’s opening two weeks.

On a blustery day, questions arose about Tommy Rees‘ accuracy and decision making, with the sophomore forcing a few throws into coverage and struggling to find open men against an Eagles defense content to drop into coverage. But Kelly would hear none of it, unwilling to critique his quarterback on a difficult day to throw the football.

“We won again,” Kelly responded. “I think he’s 12-2 as a starter. That’s pretty good. I don’t know if you guys know that, 12-2, that’s pretty good as a starter.”

True, Rees missed a wide open Michael Floyd a step long as the senior streaked wide open down the sideline for a sure touchdown. Yet the Irish were able to overcome the emotions of the day, even with players clearly shook up on the sidelines after Gray’s injury, proving a lot about this team’s fortitude.

“Winning is hard in college football. You watch across the landscape there’s only a couple teams undefeated one team, maybe two. It’s hard to win.”

After starting the season 0-2, history wasn’t in the Irish’s corner. Since 1900 the Irish have done it five times, with the 1978 team the only one to rally to a winning record. Now the Irish head into Palo Alto looking to win their ninth game of the regular season, progress by any measure of the word and impressive when you consider the hole the team put itself in.

On a dreary November day with his fan base grumbling after an ugly win, the head coach was rightfully content.

“In November, it’s hard to win unless you’ve got a great mental outlook, and our guys do,” Kelly said. “That’s satisfying as a football coach.”

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)