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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”