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.”

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.