Five things we learned: Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14

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If you could boil down one game to encapsulate a season, you might have something that looks like the Champs Sports Bowl. During Notre Dame’s 18-14 loss, the Irish turned just about every conceivable emotion for a football fan on its head– ecstasy to agony, confidence to frustration, bravado to helplessness.

At times, the Irish looked like the BCS contender many thought they were entering the season. The defense absolutely overwhelmed Florida State’s offensive line, beating quarterback E.J. Manuel to a pulp while limiting the Seminoles to single-digit rushing yards for much of the game. Offensively, the Irish cobbled together just enough in the second quarter to control the line of scrimmage, running Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, targeting Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, even mixing in the running of Andrew Hendrix with the passing of Tommy Rees.

Then the game flipped, and as it did too often this season, the snowball built, and the Irish tumbled out of control. The Irish weren’t able to overcome three interceptions, two coming in the Florida State endzone. The secondary that played so well swarming to the football failed to do its job when the throw went over its head. And after having what looked like a comfortable 14-0 lead, the Irish gave up the final 18 points of the game, turning a potential ninth victory against an impressive opponent into a logic-defying fifth loss of the season.

“The turnovers were again a large reason for us not to be able to win this football game,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “It’s been the case all year. It started at South Florida, and continued to show itself throughout the entire year.”

This football team showed us what it was all season, and then proved it one last time on Thursday night, making the same mistakes that doomed the Irish all year. Let’s find out what we learned during the Champs Sports Bowl, the crushing finale to one of the most frustrating seasons the Irish have played in a very long time.

***

The Irish will never be a successful team if they can’t solve the quarterbacking situation.

There aren’t many teams good enough to turn the ball over three times and beat a good football team. Notre Dame proved that, one-upping themselves by having Rees throw two of the interceptions in the end zone while Hendrix set up the Seminoles deep in Irish territory when he hit Florida State linebacker Nigel Bradham in the chest. Any aspirations the Irish had to be an elite football team went down the drain with the team’s quarterback play, and three crucial interceptions against the Seminoles put the focus straight on that issue for head coach Brian Kelly.

“It’s nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame football team that plays championship defense, because they did that today,” Kelly said. “Now we’ve got to get our offense to obviously play at that level as well. That will be the next step for our football program. Getting our offense to play at the same level that our defense is evolving to.”

Even if Rees went out and threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, the competition at quarterback would’ve been open heading into spring practice, and Rees’ struggles against another elite defense adds yet another data-point for those who don’t believe the sophomore quarterback has what it takes to lead the Irish back into the elite of college football.

Kelly sticking with Rees for much of the bowl game shows you that while Tommy still makes maddeningly bad decisions interspersed with some impressive throws, Kelly thought he was the best guy to protect a fourteen point second half lead. But for those thinking that just because Rees was the guy for the Irish throughout the 2011 season he’s the guy for next year, fear not.

“I’m going to evaluate everything that I do and how we do it,” Kelly said. “Because the offense just has to get better.”

Expect all three quarterbacks on the roster to get a shot at running this offense. And while Andrew Hendrix certainly has a skill-set that uniquely qualifies him to take over, the guy that has the most potential still hasn’t taken a snap. In Everett Golson, Kelly has the prototype triggerman for what he needs to run his optimal offense. Whether he’s ready to run the show or not remains to be seen.

The quarterback position got derailed in the season’s opening minutes, and ironically Dayne Crist’s undoing initially wasn’t his own, but rather Jonas Gray’s goalline fumble. From there, the senior quarterback was tentative, missing more throws than he made, and making a critical red zone mistake before going scoreless and into halftime down 16 points in his one half of football.

We’ll never know what Dayne Crist would’ve done if he came back out after halftime. But there’s good reason to believe that whoever was playing quarterback was gap filling for Golson or Hendrix, two guys better suited to run the offense. Even with an Irish win and flawless quarterback play, this would’ve been the top story of the spring. But the Irish collapse behind center tonight all but assured it.

***

After playing aggressively for most of the first half, calling off the dogs killed the Irish defense.

When Lou Holtz questions your strategy, you know you’ve got reason to be second-guessed. But even Dr. Lou was wondering why the Irish stopped blitzing in the second half, giving E.J. Manuel time to throw the ball and an overwhelmed offensive line time to catch its breath.

After spending much of the first half running for his life, Manuel settled down and had a nice second half, completing a few deep circus catches over Irish cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, pulling the Seminoles back in a game that they were dominated in for much of the evening.

After going up two touchdowns, it seems that the Irish were content to go back to their base defense, forcing the Seminoles to earn their yards and they guarded against the big play in zone coverage. But by allowing Manuel time to breathe, they enabled the FSU offense to make the big play, with wide receivers Bert Reed and Rashad Greene catching touchdowns to lead the Seminoles back and Kenny Shaw giving the secondary fits as well.

It’ll be lost in the shuffle, but safety Jamoris Slaughter played his best game in an Irish uniform from a hybrid linebacker position, racking up two sacks as the Irish pass rush pressured FSU relentlessly. Aaron Lynch also dominated the team he almost played for, adding 1.5 sacks and spending much of the evening chasing Manuel down in the backfield. Stephon Tuitt rallied back from an illness that derailed the end of his season to play another excellent game, giving the Irish front seven some really impressive building blocks for next year.

Holding the Seminoles to under 250 yards is a good day at the office and placing the blame for this loss on the defense is particularly foolish, especially considering that Bob Diaco‘s troops put up half the team’s points with a forced fumble by Manti Te’o and scoop and score by safety Zeke Motta. But after two seasons at the helm of the Irish defense, Diaco will need to evolve this defense next season, taking advantage of the horses he has up front, especially when he won’t be able to lean on a veteran secondary.

***

With Michael Floyd departing, the Irish are going to have to find offense from somewhere.

After making a circus catch on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone for his 37th career touchdown catch, Michael Floyd‘s Irish career ended on the sideline when his teammates needed him the most, unable to get back into the game after suffering an injury securing the ball after beating talented FSU cornerback Greg Reid for a ball that seemed destined for Reid’s hands.

The senior wide receiver, who broke the game’s first big play with an early 41 yard punt return that set the Irish up in FSU territory, seemed dinged up before the touchdown catch, after a big collision on the Seminoles sideline with safety Lamarcus Joyner, who collided with Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, sending his teammate out for the game with an apparent knee injury.

“He’s just an incredible competitor,” Kelly said of his star receiver. “This is my 22nd year and I’ve had great players, guys that have gone on to have great careers in the NFL or doctors and lawyers, you remember the guys that overcome. The guys that compete and battle. He did that today.”

Floyd didn’t play the best game of his career, limited to just five catches for 41 yards, dropping a deep ball that could’ve gone all the way early in the game and being overthrown on another deep throw where he had his man beat. But Floyd’s departure from the field in the game’s final quarter gave Irish fans a grim look at what this offense will look like without it’s star receiver.

It might be hard to recognize for Irish fans, but Floyd is the only receiver on the roster that keeps defenses honest. The Seminoles secondary didn’t seem concerned with anybody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert, with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver the number one priority for a secondary that suffered multiple injuries in the game. Yet without Floyd in the game, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of the depleted secondary, and it was John Goodman acting as the deep threat for Rees, targeted in the endzone on the game’s defining interception.

Reinforcements are coming, with Deontay Greenberry one of the most important commitments on the Irish board right now and the Irish still in the hunt for some blue-chip, college ready talent. But after watching four years of the Irish’s most dominant wide receiver in school history, the Irish offense will need to find someone to fill the very large hole Floyd leaves behind.

***

Tyler Eifert has a tough decision to make.

With Floyd graduated and heading to the NFL, the spotlight is now on tight end Tyler Eifert to decide whether or not he’ll return for his senior season at Notre Dame or follow in the footsteps of Kyle Rudolph and exit Notre Dame after three seasons and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft.

Eifert led the Irish with six catches and 90 yards in a losing effort, taking a few bruising hits while making tough catches for big gains from both Rees and Hendrix. The solid performance capped off a season with 63 catches — and Irish record for tight ends and the best season in the NCAA — while also being named a Mackey Award finalist. Reports say Eifert has heard he’s graded out as a second or third round player, not as good of an assessment Rudolph received last year, but good enough to make the decision difficult for Eifert and his family.

Talking to the Chicago Tribune after the game, Eifert knows he’s got a choice to make.

“I mean, there’s not much more information I can get to make a decision,” Eifert told the Tribune. “I think I have pretty much everything I need. It’s just a matter of what I personally want to do and figuring it out.”

If Eifert returns for just his third season of competition, the Irish will have a proven offensive weapon to build around, and someone to keep defenses honest. He’ll also have a chance to work on his physicality, the area of his game that likely drags his draft grade down a round or so. If he doesn’t, the Irish might look to see if Mike Ragone‘s eligible for an injury hardship waiver and a sixth year, or work quickly to get freshman Ben Koyack and sophomore Alex Welch ready for action, with no tight end currently on the recruiting radar.

Unwilling to make any proclamations after a difficult loss, Eifert has to make a decision before the January 15 deadline.

“I’d like to figure out what I’m doing as soon as I can,” Eifert told the Tribune, “but it’s not really a decision to rush.”

***

After rolling into last offseason with momentum, it’s time to batten down the hatches and get to work.

The unprecedented forward momentum the Irish took into last year’s offseason didn’t propell the Irish to 2011 greatness. So perhaps a stinging ending to a frustrating season will help refocus a football team that absolutely needs to do better at the little things that differentiate a 8-5 football team from one that finds itself in a BCS bowl.

Fans will always grumble and question whether the men in charge are the right ones for the job. Back-to-back 8-5 seasons likely add members to that bandwagon, a group that always has strength in numbers among the Notre Dame faithful. But Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are going nowhere, and while they’ll face lower approval ratings than they had last offseason, they need to continue their dogged chase to transform this football team.

“We know what we need to do,” Kelly said. “We’ve already talked about it. The players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done.”

After transforming a defense that destroyed Charlie Weis’ career at Notre Dame, Kelly will look at the flaws of his offense. Hired as an offensive innovator, Kelly will now look to improve a unit that played the bowl game short its offensive coordinator and will likely be filling the hole from within.

“We have to get our offense better,” Kelly stated. “When I say better, I’m not talking about the way our guys compete, I’m talking about, we turn the ball over. And we cannot win football games at the highest level if we continue to turn the ball over. The coaches have to get better. The players have to get better. And we need to solve this issue if we’re going to be an elite football team.”

While the next three months will be dedicated to fixing problems that doomed this football team, the next 35 days will be dedicated to finishing strong on the recruiting trail. After identifying the frailty of his defensive front seven, Kelly’s built a unit that can stack up with the rest of the BCS contenders.  Now it’s time to upgrade the deteriorating skill positions on the team, bulking up both the wide receiving and defensive back coffers with hopes that the staff has identified game-ready talent that’s able to step in and compete.

Once again the vultures will swirl above the football program, wondering if Brian Kelly is the right man for the toughest job in college football. That’s what happens when you lose football games the way this team did, and give away a bowl game to a traditional rival like Florida State. But after getting ahead of themselves in a season lost to maddening inconsistencies, the Irish will have five perfect examples (USF, Michigan, USC, Stanford, and Florida State) of why they need to keep focusing on the task ahead instead of what’s behind them. It may be hard for those of us watching on television or the stands, but for a football program with a singular goal, the frustration of 2011 will likely power this group into 2012.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)