Tommy Rees BC

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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For all the bellyaching that’s followed the Irish’s imperfect 16-14 victory over Boston College, a chaotic Saturday in the college football world should’ve given people plenty of reminders that no victory should be assumed and simply surviving is sometimes accomplishment enough.

That was No. 8 Virginia Tech surviving a fourth quarter rally by mediocre North Carolina to get the win on Thursday night, while No. 20 Southern Mississippi got beat by a 3-7 UAB team. Friday night brought another surprise as Iowa State — yes, Iowa State — took down mighty Oklahoma State, the No. 2 team in the country with the inside track to the BCS Championship game, in stunning fashion in double overtime.

In case that wasn’t enough for you, three other top ten teams tumbled on Saturday, with Oklahoma losing a shocker to Baylor 45-38, and Clemson getting drilled by 24-points to North Carolina State, a team that just a week ago lost to Frank Spaziani‘s Boston College club. And of course, who could have missed USC’s upset of Oregon in Eugene, where the Trojans withstood the Duck’s furious rally from down 24 points late in the third quarter to miss a 37-yard field goal attempt to force overtime as time expired. For those interested in burying the Irish for not doing the same to the visiting Eagles, the transitive property will put you back in your britches pretty quickly.

Still, there’s no doubt the Irish missed an opportunity to jump up the polls. But rest easy, grumbling Irish fans. The Irish will have all the chances in the world to make a statement this Saturday, when they’ll get their shot at Andrew Luck and the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal (who got all they could handle from the 6-5 Cal Bears last night, holding on for a not-so-impressive 31-28 victory.)

As Thanksgiving approaches and the season’s final regular season game awaits, let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly from the Irish’s 16-14 Senior Day win against Boston College.

THE GOOD

* The opening drive. Say what you want about the offensive performance the rest of the afternoon, but the game’s opening drive was a beauty. The Irish mixed the run and pass, with Jonas Gray carrying the load on the ground. The Eagles helped the cause with a personal foul penalty, but the Irish had success on first down, converted both third downs, including a 3rd and 1 for a 26-yard touchdown run by Gray.

* Tyler Eifert‘s one-handed catch. Just a play after Michael Floyd couldn’t come down with a one-hander that would’ve walked him into the end zone most likely untouched, Eifert made a ridiculous grab on a flag route thrown over his shoulder. The reception covered 37 yards and put the Irish in David Ruffer’s field goal range.

* David Ruffer was clutch. The fifth-year former walk-on finished his career at home in style, making three clutch field goals when the Irish needed them, and getting back on track as the season comes to an end.

* Robby Toma. His diving catch was of the one-handed circus variety, and dug the Irish out of a deep hole. He and Rees also connected for a big-time throw and catch on a 27-yard strike into a tight hole in the BC zone that dug the Irish out of their own end as well. (He also caught the cherry hop on BC’s onside kick attempt, all but icing the game.)

Toma’s play in the slot is giving Kelly a chance to explore the idea of Theo Riddick at tailback at Stanford, helping out a depth chart now in serious trouble with George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel the only options behind Cierre Wood.

“I think we’ll look at all of those possibilities,” Kelly said. “We’re into a one-game season, so to speak, when it comes to Stanford. We’ll sit down as a staff and first of all see what Theo is able to do physically and decide whether he can go into a running back position and help us out. We haven’t made that decision but we’ll certainly consider it.”

* Big sticks. Manti Te’o added another huge hit to his highlight reel, drilling a running back out of the backfield and planting him on his back in the first quarter. Jamoris Slaughter also came off the edge twice to deliver a few bone-crunching hits. First, Slaughter broke free on a blitz to stuff a third-and-one in the backfield. His next big hit on quarterback Chase Rettig didn’t count, with the refs whistling a false-start dead but the crowd noise covered the whistle. (Score one for pump-up music.) Even though Slaughter lost a strip-sack, a free shot like that and five free yards is a fair trade every time.

* Louis Nix. The sophomore played a very nice football game, making a lot of noise in the offensive backfield and chipping in five tackles from his nose guard spot. Nix is going to need to be a force against Stanford if the Irish want to contain the Cardinal offense.

* Troy Niklas. You want versatility? The freshman made a tackle on a kickoff, played linebacker, then filled in for Stephon Tuitt as the inside pass rusher down the stretch, laying out Rettig on a 4th down throw that fell incomplete.What a weapon Niklas will be in the years ahead.

* Here come the freshman. At the very least, the Irish look like they’ve found three potential impact defenders in this recruiting class with Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Niklas, with guys like Chase Hounshell and Ishaq Williams showing promise as well.

* Good Ben Turk. Give the kid credit — he kicked the Irish out of trouble more than a few times, booming both traditional and rugby punts for an average of 44 yards.

BAD

*Bad Ben Turk. Three touchbacks is just too many, and you can’t land a pooch punt in the end zone.

* Play-action pass defense. If you’ve got a pit in your stomach about this coming Saturday, it should be because of the Irish’s struggles defending the play-action pass. It’d be disingenuous to say that Chase Rettig had a successful day against the Irish, but when he did make throws, he did it with the linebackers heading downhill in pursuit.

The Irish linebackers — Manti Te’o included — need to do a better job in pass coverage, or Luck and the Cardinal will have a big day throwing at the holes in the Irish’s zone coverage.

* Come on, Tommy Rees. You can’t throw that screen pass interception. Credit Max Holloway for a very nice read and play, but the sophomore quarterback blindly threw a middle screen, always a recipe for disaster. While we’re picking out Rees’ shortcomings, here’s hoping Tommy has gotten in deep ball inaccuracy out of his system. If he’s got Michael Floyd streaking open down the sideline against Stanford, he’s got to hit him.

Rees got away with another interception when he rolled right and threw to a heavily covered Tyler Eifert around the goal line. It’s probably time to put the half-field reads away for the year in the red zone, as Rees has made some poor decisions on the move.

* The special out (or jerk pattern). Bobby Swigert just abused the Irish from the slot, beating linebackers, corners and safeties on pretty much the exact same pattern. When you’re playing an offense as remedial as the Eagles, you’ve got to do a better job taking away the things you’d expect them to run, especially with a receiver like Swigert in the slot.

* The punt return game. I give up. I just don’t get it. I can tell you for certain that Mike Elston is an excellent special teams coach. But I can also tell you that the punt return unit is an absolutely joke. Right now this unit is in plain old “don’t screw up” mode, but would it be too much to ask the Irish to block one or two of the gunners running down the field? Would it be too much to ask John Goodman to show just a shred of competency in determining whether or not to call a fair catch? Against Boston College, the return game killed the Irish, an equal collaborator with Eagles punter Ryan Quigley on putting the Irish in terrible starting field position.

This spring should be dedicated to fixing the return game. Sure, spread punts, rugby kicks, and all sorts of other rule tweaks have punt returns down around college football. But at this point, it’s just getting ridiculous.

* Kyle Brindza really struggled on kickoffs. The moment got too big for the freshman who got a sudden case of the snap hooks in the second half. After a solid season of kickoffs, Brindza has lost consistency in the second half of the year, and he inexplicably sent two kickoffs out of bounds — at a crucial point of the game — and had a third that would’ve gone out that would’ve given the Eagles three starts from the 40-yard line.

* The refs got hoodwinked by a fake injury when Eagles running back Rolandan Finch, saved his team a timeout with a well-timed case of a mysterious ailment.

* Gotta look for the ball Zeke Motta. Just because you’re beat in a one-on-one situation doesn’t mean you need to panic when chasing  Swigert near the goalline. The pass interference call set up the Eagles for their late touchdown.

UGLY

* The flu bug absolutely decimated the Irish this week, and it’s still lurking around. Brian Kelly and his staff are taking no chances.

“Our training staff is in the process of cleaning the meeting rooms, the weight room, talking to players about their roommates,” Kelly said. “We’re actually on full alert because we’ve had so many guys affected by it at this point.”

It’s the wrong time of year for the Irish to go into Palo Alto less than full strength, especially with the injuries that are limiting the roster right now.

* It’s just unfair to see Jonas Gray’s career end the way that it did. While Kelly tried to keep his hopes up last night, it’s clear the MRI results are just a formality that’ll tell the coaching staff just how badly Gray’s knee is hurt.

“We don’t have the MRI results, but it’s pretty apparent that he has a significant knee injury,” Kelly said. “The MRI would probably confirm what we know as to be, as I mentioned, a significant knee injury.

The horrible injury came on a swing pass to Gray near the Irish sideline. Rees hit Jonas in stride, but he was met by freshman Manny Asprilla, who put his helmet just below Gray’s knee.

There was no stoppage in play for the hit and Gray actually picked himself off the turf and walked off under his own power, working his way quickly to the bench before the extent of the injury became known. It’s a sad ending to a triumphant season. The knee injury won’t erase all the good that Jonas put on tape this year, but it’s certainly a setback for a senior that turned around his career this season.

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…)