Opposition round-up

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With college football kicking off this weekend, Notre Dame wasn’t the only program that got to see what their team was made of. With a schedule that looked to be one of the most daunting slates in the country, I did my best to keep tabs on all the future Irish opponents.

Here’s a quick rundown of the opposition and how they looked in their respective season openers.

PURDUE — Just hours before the game, coach Danny Hope suspended quarterback Caleb TerBush for the game, citing a violation of team rules. That opened the door for sixth year quarterback Robert Marve, who overcame an early interception to breeze by Eastern Kentucky 48-6.

Purdue threw the ball 47 times against the Colonels, but also turned the ball over five times, something the Boilermakers will have to clean up as they move to a considerably more legitimate opponent.

Trending: They were what we thought they were, though the suspension of TerBush, who had just won the starting job, makes things interest.

MICHIGAN STATE — The Spartans probably had the most impressive performance of any team in the Big Ten, holding Boise State to only 206 yards of total offense as they rode running back Le’Veon Bell to a 17-13 victory.

If there’s a concern for Michigan State fans, it’s the passing game, with Andrew Maxwell throwing three interceptions in his first start after replacing Kirk Cousins. Linebacker Max Bullough led the defense in tackles and added 1.5 TFLs as the Spartans defense kept an entirely rebuilt Boise State roster in check.

Trending: The defense sounded to be as good as advertised, though they didn’t get a sack on the Broncos. If Mark Dantonio thinks he can give Le’Veon Bell 50 touches an afternoon, that might be saying more about his trust in the passing game than his love for Bell.

MICHIGAN — It appears one top-ten program in the state of Michigan has been exposed as paper lions. In what was supposed to be the premiere match-up of the college football weekend, Alabama absolutely dominated the Wolverines, neutralizing quarterback Denard Robinson while dominating the line of scrimmage.

Losing to Alabama is nothing to be ashamed of, but the 41-14 defeat never even seemed close. Making things more troubling is an injury to left tackle Taylor Lewan. Cornerback Blake Countess also was injured.

Trending: After a season where everything went right, the opening game couldn’t have gone more wrong for Michigan. The Wolverines will have a chance to right the ship with back-to-back dates with Air Force and Charley Molnar’s UMass squad before they head to South Bend.

MIAMI — After a slow start, the Hurricanes ran away from Boston College 41-32. Touted freshman Duke Johnson ran for 135 yards on just seven carries as Miami battled back from an early 14-point hole. Quarterback Shane Morris completed 28 of his 45 throws for 207 yards with both a TD and interception.

Trending: Eh. Not sure what to make of this game, though young Johnson, one of the most highly touted running backs to come out of Florida, could be worth keeping an eye on.

STANFORD — Life after Andrew Luck might not be so easy after all. Quarterback Josh Nunes played well enough in his debut, but a year after rolling over San Jose State by 54 points, the Cardinal needed to hold on and win 20-17. Stepfan Taylor ran for 116 yards in the win.

Trending: A win is a win. But this is far from impressive.

BYU — It was a pretty resounding victory for Bronco Mendenhall’s squad, spoiling Mike Leach’s debut at Washington State and rolling to an easy victory 30-6. Riley Nelson threw two touchdowns and for 285 yards and the the BYU defense held Wazzu to minus-five yards of rushing.

Trending: This will be an interesting test for the Irish, especially if the BYU passing attack is rounding into form.

OKLAHOMA — It was far from an impressive opening statement for the Sooners, who needed 14 fourth quarter points to pull away from UTEP. Landry Jones started slow before rallying his squad, but UTEP doomed itself after missing three field goals and failing on a fake punt.

Trending: The Sooners were a horrendous 5 of 16 on third down and struggling with efficiency. It’s certainly too soon to panic, but a mediocre debut for sure.

PITTSBURGH — It was a total calamity for new head coach Paul Chryst, who lost his debut to Youngstown State in rather convincing fashion 31-17. Ray Graham returned from an ACL injury, but had a critical fumble. Pitt also gave up over 200 yards on the ground and let the Penguins convert 11 of 16 third downs as Youngstown won their first game against a BCS school.

Trending: This could be an ugly season for Pitt, who might secretly be wishing they never fired Dave Wannstedt.

BOSTON COLLEGE — See above. Lost to Miami. That said, there were signs of life in the Eagles’ offense, a unit that’s been horrendous the past few seasons. Chase Rettig had a big day and hit Alex Amidon ten times for 149 yards.

Trending: Better than expected. But that’s not saying much.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons just barely scratched by Liberty, a FCS opponent that was tied with the Jim Grobe’s team heading into the fourth quarter. The offense struggled for much of the afternoon after replacing four starters up front. Tanner Price completed 16 of 28 passes, though the Deacs couldn’t reach 100 yards rushing.

Trending: Wake is going to go through some serious growing pains.

USC — The Trojans look every bit the offensive juggernaut expected as they raced off to a 35-point halftime lead over Hawaii and then cruised to a 49-10 win. Marquise Lee had a ridiculous 10 catches for 197 yards and also ran back a kickoff 100 yards for good measure. Matt Barkley completed 23 of 38 throws for 372 yards and four touchdowns.

Trending: Yikes. The Irish secondary has plenty of time to prepare for the dynamic passing offense of the Trojans. They’ll potentially be susceptible on defense but it might not matter with Barkley running the show.

 

 

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…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

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You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)