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.

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”