Five things we learned: Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17

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The short story out of South Bend is that No. 22 Notre Dame outlasted a scrappy Purdue team 20-17, with back-up kicker Kyle Brindza icing the game on a 27-yard field goal with just seven seconds left on the clock. The longer version? Well… it’s not quite that simple.

With six minutes left in tight ball game, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson was cementing his status as Notre Dame’s quarterback of the future. A week after playing the role of game manager in the Irish’s 50-10 dismantling of Navy, the sophomore was heroic for three-and-a-half quarters as he willed the Irish to victory.

With the Irish ground game largely neutralized, head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin put the game on Golson’s shoulders, and the talented youngster delivered. Completing 21 of 31 throws for 289 yards, Golson accounted for both of Notre Dame’s touchdowns, throwing one to TJ Jones and scoring another on acrobatic run. So with just over six minutes left in the game and the Irish clinging to a seven point lead, Kelly called on Golson to get the Irish out of South Bend alive.

With Tyler Eifert and Davaris Daniels out, the Irish relied on their run game. As the clock rolled, the Irish went to work. Theo Riddick churned out an important first down getting the Irish outside their own 20. But then Kelly put the game in Golson’s hands, and things took a drastic turn for the worse. With nowhere to go with the football, Golson took a back-breaking sack, eschewing an easy throw away for a 10 yard loss. Saddled with a 2nd and 20, Kelly once again kept the ball in Golson’s hands. Until the sophomore was stripped of the ball on the Irish 15, setting Purdue up perfectly for a game tying score.

On 4th and 10, Purdue’s Caleb TerBush hit Antavian Edison for a 15 yard touchdown pass, beating linebacker Carlo Calabrese on a double move. With just over two minutes left and the Irish without any timeouts, the Irish turned improbably to Tommy Rees, and the much maligned junior lead the Irish down the field 55 yards for the game winning field goal.

“Any time you come back and show the resolve that our team did, you can imagine it was a pretty excited locker room,” Brian Kelly said after the game, throwing in his contender for understatement of the year.

Nearly 12 years to the day after Irish kicker Nick Setta sunk Drew Brees‘ Rose Bowl bound Boilermakers, Brian Kelly pulled a rabbit out of his hat in a move that could’ve changed the course of his career.

Let’s find out what else we learned during No. 22 Notre Dame’s heart-stopping 20-17 victory over Purdue.

***

With all the chips on the table, Brian Kelly turned to quarterback Tommy Rees for the victory. And the embattled quarterback came through in the clutch.

Notre Dame fans have already made up their minds on Rees. When the junior quarterback took the field with just over two minutes to go, a cascade of boos echoed through Notre Dame Stadium. But with no timeouts left, a field filled with back-up offensive skill players, and an offensive line that was leaking oil, Rees gutted out one of the more improbable drives in recent Irish memory.

Utilizing a mostly vertical passing game, Rees attacked the alleys of the Purdue defense, throwing early and decisively as he calmly marched the Irish down the field. Rees converted two crucial third downs — the first to fifth-year senior John Goodman just as the play clock expired. The second to senior Robby Toma, hitting him perfectly on the break as Toma scampered into field goal range. From there, the Irish worked the ball into the middle of the field, where Kyle Brindza drilled the game winning kick.

When asked if he expected his most experienced quarterback to deliver in the clutch, Kelly talked about what made him confident in the embattled junior.

“It’s what I knew about him, and his make up and moxie and mental toughness,” Kelly said of Rees. “Does he have all of the elite skills? No. But he’s a gamer. And he’ll do anything. Those guys in that locker room will go to the wall for him. They’ll do anything. Because he’s a great teammate.

“He’s the consummate teammate and that’s why those guys in the locker room are pretty happy.”

That Rees was able to march the Irish down the field in crunch time was made even more incredible when you consider he didn’t take a snap with the team until earlier this week, kept out of 11-on-11 drills while the staff got Golson and junior Andrew Hendrix up to speed.

And while Kelly said he wasn’t certain who the No. 2 quarterback would be heading into this game, Rees took every single snap with the team’s second unit this week, making up for lost time just in case the Irish needed to call on their veteran.

After the game, Rees had the opportunity to prove his naysayers wrong, but stayed incredible humble.

“We’ve got to win this game,” Rees told NBC’s Alex Flanagan about his mindset. “I wasn’t too caught up in the moment. Find a way to win this game and not let it get to overtime.

The junior also didn’t bite when asked about a brewing quarterback controversy.

“I try to be as positive of a role model as I can and help Everett out when I can,” Rees said. “Everett played a great game today. He’s a great player and he’ll continue to get better.”

The majority of ND Nation didn’t want to see Tommy Rees on the football field. But when his number was called, he got the job done, solidifying the respect and belief his teammates and coaches had in him.

***

Perhaps the superlatives lavished on the Irish offensive line were a bit premature.

It didn’t take long for fifth-year senior Mike Golic Jr. to realize that the Irish weren’t playing Navy anymore. Golic was treated like a rodeo clown early and often by Purdue’s All-American Kawann Short, as the Purdue defense controlled the line of scrimmage against the Irish for much of the game, forcing Notre Dame to rely on the quick passing game to muster any offense.

“I assumed they wouldn’t come out and try and just run the ball at us, because I think we’re too big and strong for someone to just run the ball at us,” Purdue head coach Danny Hope said after the game.

After cruising for almost 300 yards on the ground in week one, and a year after torching the Boilermakers for 287 yards, the Irish couldn’t run the ball at all, held to just 52 yards on 36 carries. After looking like a line filled with All-Americans, the front five all made their share of mistakes, with captain Zack Martin getting flagged three times and every starter showing up on the wrong side of a Purdue highlight, as the Boilermakers racked up five sacks and eight tackles-for-loss.

“Purdue made up their mind that they were going to have a loaded box today,” Kelly said. “That was it. You’re not going to run the football. We’re going to make it so difficult. We had to manage it by throwing the football.”

Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar put together a perfect game plan against the Irish, bolstered by the fact that his game-calling was a mystery, having spent the past three years in the Canadian Football League. He also gave teams like Michigan State a blueprint, stacking the line of scrimmage and relying on his talented front to control the line of scrimmage.

It’ll be back to the drawing board for Harry Hiestand‘s troops, who took a large step back in their second game of the season.

***

With their backs against the wall, Notre Dame showed a resolve that was absent in 2011.

It was all hands on deck for the Irish as six starters and seven major contributors were lost during the game with injuries. Defensive captain Kapron Lewis-Moore was lost early with a calf injury. Safety Jamoris Slaughter left the game early after a bone-crushing hit injured his shoulder. All-American Tyler Eifert suffered a mild concussion, watching crunch time from the sideline. Davaris Daniels, on his way to an impressive afternoon, rolled an ankle in the end zone. Ishaq Williams was lost for a large chunk of the game with an elbow injury. Sheldon Day went down with dehydration. And 48 hours before kickoff, Nick Tausch aggravated his groin.

“The story for me as the head coach is our mantra: Next Man In,” Kelly said. “We had seven guys go down today. We had two captains go down. A leader in our secondary. And our guys kept fighting, the next guy came in and battled.”

It’s hard to pinpoint areas that could’ve hurt the Irish worse. Lewis-Moore’s injury turned the defensive end position into another youthful experiment, with Tony Springmann logging heavy minutes after both Lewis-Moore and Day went down.

In the secondary, the Irish depth at safety was already precariously thin, yet the secondary put together a nice game as it mixed and matched youth around Zeke Motta while holding the Boilermakers two quarterbacks to just 19 of 37 for 198 yards. (Navy threw for 197 yards the week before.) Offensively, losing your two top receiving threats is never enviable, but it was veterans Goodman and Toma coming up big down the stretch to help the Irish.

Kelly doesn’t expect any of the injuries to be major, with no surgeries expected and a week in the training room to cure most ills. Yet the injuries weren’t as painful as the self-inflicted mistakes that came with the Irish home opener. After a remarkably clean debut, Notre Dame committed eight penalties, including personal fouls on both Martin and All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. Yet the Irish still overcame all of that, picking themselves off the mat and winning a game that might have gone the other way a year ago.

“A few years before this, the game wouldn’t have gone down like this. We wouldn’t have won,” Martin said after the game. “The resilience of those guys when their number was called, it was a full team effort.”

***

Even with Tommy Rees coming in as the closer, Everett Golson is still the Irish’s starting quarterback.

Rightfully so, Brian Kelly killed any quarterback controversy early, telling NBC’s Alex Flanagan that Golson would be starting against Michigan State and echoing those sentiments to the assembled media.

“There is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State,” Kelly said.

With Golson at quarterback, the Irish have an athletic runner who can make defenders miss and also make big plays with his arm. That confidence was obvious when the staff’s offensive game plan put the ball in Golson’s hands for much of the first quarter. But they’ve also got a young quarterback that is learning the game of football as he goes. Notre Dame burned their final timeout with 11:21 left in the fourth quarter.

And while Kelly said the decision to pull Golson was influenced by an injury to the quarterback’s hand, a source tells me that Golson suffered no ill effects from the tackle that caused his fumble.

While a large portion of the fans in the stands didn’t agree with the decision to go with Rees in crunch time, Purdue coach Danny Hope applauded the decision.

“It was a really good decision by their head coach. It was a pressure situation and it would’ve been a tough assignment for a rookie quarterback,” Hope said. “I was kind of excited about the idea of having a rookie quarterback in there on the last drive. I thought that may have given us an opportunity to get after him some. I thought it was a good coaching decision. Tommy Rees is a good player, he’s a heckuva quarterback, too.”

***

With a job-defining decision on the line, Brian Kelly doubles down on his gut instinct and is rewarded appropriately.

Last week, it seemed like Brian Kelly was miles away from the guy who told Irish fans to “get used to it,” after his decision to eschew a winning field goal and throw for the end zone resulted in an interception and a back-breaking loss to Tulsa. But here Brian Kelly was, rolling the dice once again on Tommy Rees, a quarterback that just about everyone within a hemisphere of South Bend had given up on except for the head coach.

After a second consecutive 8-5 season forced many Irish fans to reconsider if Kelly was the right man for the head coaching job, the Irish coach said and did all the right things. He reshuffled his coaching staff, putting the offense in the hands of his most trusted assistant. He looked inward, evaluating his priorities and putting a focus back on football after spending too much time playing ambassador to the Notre Dame brand. He even holstered his attack on changes to the establishment, leaving decisions on field turf, a Jumbotron, and crowd noise to others while he focused on the football.

For a week, it looked like Kelly had learned his lesson. Against Navy, he played to win — bludgeoning the Midshipmen with a running attack that was impossible to defend. But this afternoon, Kelly reminded everyone that he was still the impulsive coach that marched to his own drummer, throwing himself in the crosshairs of Irish contrarians everywhere when he turning his back on the future and put Rees into the game as he lay all his chips on the table.

That Kelly believed in a quarterback that hadn’t taken a true practice snap until this week says quite a bit about the head coach, and perhaps just as much about this team. While outsiders worry that Kelly’s decision could fracture the locker room, there was nobody that believed in Rees more than the guys wearing the blue and gold. That Kelly was able to double-down and win after exposing himself to as much backlash as possibly imaginable shows that the Notre Dame coaching job — and the pressure cooker that comes along with it — hasn’t broken him.

In a season where victories will be hard fought and tough to come by, the head coach played every card in his hand to gut out a win and keep the Irish undefeated.

“It’s a great feeling,” Martin said after the game. “A tough win today, but we’ll take it. We’re on to Michigan State now.”

The Irish may be on to Michigan State, heading to East Lansing for a primetime showdown of ranked teams. But they can thank a head coach that didn’t flinch for the undefeated journey continuing.

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.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“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, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

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

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)