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.

Questions for the Week: Ankles, Stepherson and NBC Sports Network at 5 p.m. ET

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As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …

Will either, or even both, Josh Adams and Tony Jones be healthy enough to play?
Even if they are, will they?
This past weekend, ankle “stiffness” caught junior running back Josh Adams’ attention during halftime. An immediate X-ray showed nothing of greater concern, but Notre Dame still took the precaution of limiting Adams in the second half of the 38-18 victory at Michigan State.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College on Sept. 16 and did not dress against the Spartans.

The Irish would obviously always prefer to have a full stable of running backs. No Division One FBS opponent warrants a weekend so casual the second-string can comfortably start the game. That said, even if Adams and Jones are healthy enough to compete Saturday, Notre Dame may opt to give them an additional week’s rest, lest those ankle instabilities linger longer than necessary.

Junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Deon McIntosh should be able to bear the load against the RedHawks, especially with the Irish offensive line in front of them.

All this is to say: If Adams and/or Jones do not play this weekend, it is most likely a precautionary measure as much as anything else, but it would still be a notable step forward to see them at least dressed in pads for the occasion.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has yet to see the field this season after a freshman debut of 25 catches, 462 yards and five touchdowns. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Is this the week of Kevin Stepherson’s return?
A recap: The week before his freshman season, Stepherson was one of five Notre Dame players arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession.

A week later Stepherson did not catch a pass against Texas, but he did see action. In last year’s second week, Stepherson caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown, launching into a freshman season in which he caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns. The first two marks were third among Irish pass-catchers (behind then-sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown and senior Torii Hunter, Jr.). Only St. Brown scored more touchdowns.

Stepherson has not seen the field this season.

Now that you’re caught up, one must wonder, could that final sentence change this week?

Who is handling kickoffs, Justin Yoon or Jonathan Doerer?
Freshman Jonathan Doerer was recruited by the Irish with the immediate intention of turning over kickoff duties to the newcomer, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus entirely on placekicking duties. When Doerer fatigued a bit toward the end of preseason practice, Yoon retained the kickoff job for the first two weeks of the season.

On his second career kickoff, Doerer knocked it out of bounds, giving Boston College a boost in field position. His next attempt reached the Eagles 17-yard line, then returned for eight yards. Yoon handled the next five kickoffs.

This past weekend, Yoon sent the opening kickoff out of bounds, granting Michigan State a start at the 35-yard line.

Whoever handles kickoffs, gifting 10-15 yards of field possession by booting the ball out of bounds is rather inexcusable. Even if trying to kick to the corner of the end zone to avoid a particular return threat, that job needs to be executed.

Now in his fourth year at Miami (OH), former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin (left) has the RedHawks at 2-2 and ready to contend in the MAC. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Will Chuck Martin say only good things about Notre Dame?
Spoiler: Yes.

The Miami head coach, and former Irish assistant and longtime close friend of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, has already started with the lauding of his former employer. Some samples from Monday morning alone:

“I’m almost 50 years old and I have not rooted against Notre Dame a day in my life.”

“[Kelly] is the best off-field coach in the world.”

More will assuredly come.

Why in the world is Notre Dame playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network?
First of all, yes, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN will be repeated throughout the week as an incessant reminder. Consider this explanation a minion’s attempt at understanding the time and television slot, not a word from anyone corporate.

The President’s Cup is held domestically only once every four years. When it is, its broadcast value increases dramatically due to obvious time zone alignments. This is one of those years. Thus, NBC is not likely to move the golf property from its flagship station. That explains the NBCSN decision.

Why at 5 p.m. ET rather than the usual time, or even a primetime airing? First, to the latter question, Notre Dame will continue to limit the primetime games to no more than two home contests a year. Moving Miami (OH) into one of those slots would remove Georgia or USC from the high-profile position. That would make no sense whatsoever.

As for earlier in the afternoon, NASCAR XFINITY drops a green flag at Dover International Speedway (Delaware) at 2:30 p.m. ET. Moving the Irish back 90 minutes is a far simpler solution than adjusting a long-scheduled race with 95,000 in attendance.

Will USC’s national title dreams take a bit hit Friday night?
The Trojans travel to Washington State for a 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff. The Cougars are four-point underdogs. Given USC’s struggles at home against Texas earlier in the year, it is not unreasonable to think this matchup could prove to be too much for Sam Darnold & Co.

Just how good is Wake Forest?
The Demon Deacons host Florida State at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Wake Forest is undefeated and exceeding expectations. The Seminoles are winless and desperate.

If the Demon Deacons can find a win (currently 7.5-point underdogs), they will both turn the ACC upside and establish themselves as 2017’s darling upstart.

Monday Morning Leftovers: The long-term effects of Crawford’s punch, limited roster turnover & Yoon’s record approach

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Notre Dame is 3-1. Let’s rephrase that.

Notre Dame is only 3-1. This season could still go multiple directions. But if — IF — it continues to trend upward, one moment from this weekend may stand the test of time as the demarcation point between a successful 2017 and a new Irish head coach in 2018. When junior cornerback Shaun Crawford peanut-punched the ball away from Spartans junior running back LJ Scott at the goal line in Saturday night’s second quarter, Crawford certainly altered the game.

That is the very smallest effect of that heads-up play.

It may have altered the trajectory of the entire program. Until coming weeks play out, that claim needs to remain in the conditional verb tense. If the time comes where removing that particular phrasing is appropriate, the statement will not be one of exaggeration. It was that big of a play.

If granting that premise, and acknowledging the usage of “program” implies its reach could extend past this season, a look at Notre Dame’s travel roster from this weekend raises an eyebrow.

The listing included 72 names, complete with a number of walk-ons. If looking at the scholarship players, the strictest of readings finds only 11 names whom the Irish should not plan on having around in 2018.

The obvious, players currently in their last year of eligibility: linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, tight end Durham Smythe, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and receiver Cam Smith.

The almost-assuredly headed to the NFL: left guard Quenton Nelson.

The very-unlikely to be asked back for a fifth year: offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne, receiver Austin Webster and quarterback Montgomery VanGorder.

Of those 11, only seven contributed to the 38-18 victory over Michigan State.

Obviously there will be other departures, either due to transfer or early entry into the NFL Draft or perhaps injury, but the point is: Much of this team will be back in a year. Even more pertinently, the rout of the Spartans was done with youth, as contrary to the norm as that may be. It seems safe to assume that youth has yet to reach the ceiling on its potential.

Among those contributors, it is time to start a Justin Yoon record watch. It is preemptive, but the junior kicker has reached a point where any week he could essentially set the Notre Dame career field goal percentage record, though he remains a bit further from the mark being recognized.

Entering the season, Yoon had made 28-of-34 field goal attempts. Thus far this year, he has added 5-of-7 to the ledger, making for an 80.49 percent career rate. John Carney (1984-1986) holds the Irish record at 73.9 percent. If Yoon makes four of his next nine attempts, he will break that mark. Technically speaking, he will not set the record until he has indeed taken nine more attempts, notching the minimum requirement of 50.

Notre Dame has turned 19 trips into the red zone into 17 touchdowns to date. By no means has the Irish offense needed to rely on Yoon. By no means is this mention a subtle expectation of that changing. It is simply comprehensibly feasible to think Yoon might make four field goals in one weekend. After all, he has twice made three in one game.

It seems distinctly possible Notre Dame will not face the most-talented opposing running back on its schedule until the season’s finale week at Stanford. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

One of those occasions came against Stanford in 2015. Taking a look at this year’s Cardinal, it held on for a win against UCLA late Saturday night. The 58-34 shootout sparked two thoughts. First of all, junior running back Bryce Love is really good. Let’s skip finding creative adjective and memorable phrasing and instead get straight to that point. He is really, really good.

In four games this year, Love has taken 73 carries for 787 yards, averaging 196.75 yards per game and 10.8 yards per rush.

Those numbers are absurd.

Secondly, Stanford is already almost certain to fall short of preseason projections. The over/under win total number for the Cardinal was nine. At 2-2 currently, the over is still within reach if Stanford wins out, but that would require beating winning all of, in chronological order, vs. Oregon, at Washington State, vs. Washington and vs. Notre Dame.

On the other side of that spectrum, Wake Forest is poised to surpass expectations. The Demon Deacons are 4-0 after blocking a potentially game-winning field goal by Appalachian State on Saturday. Wake Forest has gotten off to the strong start in large part thanks to its defense, allowing only 11.5 points per game.

Notre Dame fans can take that to mean Irish first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, formerly in that same role with the Demon Deacons, did not have much of a determining effect on that defense’s success, or they can see that stifling unit’s continued growth as a sign of Elko’s developmental contributions to the individual players.

Anyway, the over/under win total of Wake Forest was 5.5. The Deacons could still fall short of that, but they would need to manage only one win from trips to Georgia Tech and Syracuse as well as a visit from Duke, while also not pulling off any surprises.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Kelly on Wimbush’s accuracy, receivers’ hands & needed secondary improvements

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Notre Dame’s greatest successes this season have come when relying on its running game. It would stand to reason the Irish would turn to their ground attack to set the tone from the outset of a pivotal matchup against a physical opponent. Instead, Notre Dame opened with the pass in its 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. The first five plays from scrimmage were passing attempts from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, completing four of them for 62 yards.

This was all very intentional, especially a week after Wimbush struggled with accuracy.

“Getting the quarterback off with some quick throws, some easy throws to get into a rhythm was important,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “I wanted to make sure [offensive coordinator Chip Long] got some openers for [Wimbush] in his first nine plays that were high percentage completions for him to get into a rhythm, which he did.

“… It was orchestrated or planned or constructed that way, whatever word you want to use.”

Wimbush finished 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown, a marked improvement from his 11-of-24 for 96 yards at Boston College.

“It’s not uncommon when you go through the volume you do in preseason camp and all the throwing that sometimes the ball drops a little bit,” Kelly said. “… [Wimbush] is throwing the ball perfectly.

“We wanted to get him some completions, no question, and we set him up that way.”

A few of Wimbush’s completions were aided by excellent catches by his targets. Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, junior running back Dexter Williams and sophomore receiver Chase Claypool all made difficult catches. Following the 49-20 victory over the Eagles last week, Kelly had been critical of both Wimbush’s accuracy and the lack of playmaking from the receiver corps.

“I knew that we needed to step up our play in supporting [Wimbush],” Kelly said. “He had to throw it better. We had to catch it better.”

With that in mind, Kelly and the coaching staff made it a point in this week’s practices to remind the receivers a pass needs two participants. The onus was not on only Wimbush to improve.

“There wasn’t a time where if a ball was not caught there was not a comment about how important it is for us to focus on the football and catch that football,” Kelly said.

“… We’ve got some guys that are gaining some confidence out there. I think you’ll see a better rapport as the season goes on here between Brandon and the receivers and confidence grow in that regard.”

Josh Adams & ankle ‘stiffness’
Notre Dame was already without sophomore running back Tony Jones due to a sprained ankle suffered a week ago. In the second half Saturday, junior running back Josh Adams took some time off, as well. Kelly said Adams felt “some stiffness” in his ankle at halftime, which led to a precautionary X-ray. The X-ray did not reveal any issues, but the Irish were content to rely on Williams unless it was “absolutely necessary” to reinsert Adams. With a three-possession Notre Dame lead, that situation never arose.

Adams handled a total of two rushes in the second half, one for a loss of a yard and the second for a three-yard gain. He finished with nine carries for 56 yards.

Room to improve
Michigan State attempted 53 passes, 12 more than the most the Irish had seen yet this year. This was in part due to Notre Dame’s quick and sizable lead, and it was in part the Spartans’ game plan, expecting the Irish to be ready for a known running focus.

Despite limiting the Spartans to only 6.51 yards per pass attempt, the influx of opportunities to defend the pass showed Kelly and his staff improvements waiting to be made in the secondary.

“We have to play with a little bit more of a sense of urgency in terms of down-and-distance, recognizing game situations,” Kelly said. “There is some improvement there for us.

“We have to do a better job with understanding passing off routes, underneath coverage, inside-out on slant routes in terms of down-and-distance.”

In other words, the Notre Dame secondary has yet to genuinely need to know where the first-down line is on a given down. On a second-and-seven, the concern is as much about a 15-yard route as it is a six-yard route. On a third-and-seven, the defensive back needs to be prepared for the seven-yard route more than anything else, expecting the pass to come in that area, while still protecting against the big play.

Exposure to those situations helps build that awareness. Saturday night provided some of that exposure, and now the Irish will set to developing those instincts.

“[It] gave us a real good snapshot of the things we have to focus in on and work to improve this week.”

On Miami of Ohio
If Notre Dame does not make those improvements, Redhawks senior quarterback Gus Ragland is the type of passer who can reap the rewards. Before the season, Kelly often described the first four Irish opponents as physical foes, ground-oriented. Now through those four, the focus will shift somewhat toward defending the pass. Ragland will be the first test.

To date, he has completed 52.1 percent of his passes this season for 881 yards and eight touchdowns compared to two interceptions. Ragland has averaged 7.53 yards per passing attempt.

In a 31-14 win over Central Michigan this weekend, Ragland threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns on only 11-of-19 passing.

The Redhawks are led by former Notre Dame assistant and longtime Kelly confidante Chuck Martin.

“We have a lot of respect for Chuck,” Kelly said. “Obviously I know him quite well. He’ll have his team ready.”

What We Learned: Notre Dame found a No. 2 WR & an accurate passer

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We learned the closing 20-plus minutes of last week’s Notre Dame victory over Boston College were not an anomaly. Rather, the Irish carried over nearly everything from that period in their 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday.

They also introduced some new facts to life.

Moving Chase Claypool to the boundary may have unlocked a whole new offensive dynamic.
Throughout spring and preseason practice, the sophomore receiver worked at the slot, theoretically positioning a skilled player with a blocker’s physique near the point of attack. In the first two games, that approach yielded one catch for 16 yards.

Against Boston College, Claypool moved to the boundary position, typically the sole receiver on the narrow side of the field. He made only two catches for eight yards, but both of those figures led the Irish receivers during a day of absolute aerial ineffectiveness.

Notre Dame kept him lined up near the sideline against the Spartans, and, finally, he broke loose. Claypool’s four catches for 56 yards likely underscore the relief the Irish coaching staff inevitably feels thanks to his performance.

Notre Dame’s opening play went to Claypool, a 10-yard gain. Two plays later, he notched another 10-yard reception. All four times junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeted Claypool, a positive result ensued, including a leaping 27-yard catch along the sideline to set up a nine-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Deon McIntosh.

That catch, in particular, showed Claypool’s ability to utilize his 6-foot-4, 228-pound frame in jump-ball situations. The concept of putting Claypool near the tackle box had merit. A large target in short-yardage situations could have become a desirable safety net for Wimbush. That did not come to fruition. Adjusting such had become imperative.

To their credit, the Irish coaches made that adjustment. In doing so, they appear to have found the needed complement to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who finished with four catches for 61 yards Saturday, including a 40-yard reception.

“We’re going to take our shots down the field,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We had a big throw to [St. Brown] earlier in the game. Claypool makes a great catch on the sidelines, so we’ll still be able to push the ball down the field.”

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush rebounded nicely from a disappointing passing performance a week ago. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Brandon Wimbush can indeed hit the broad side of a barn. He, in fact, might even be able to throw through a swinging tire.
The third-quarter sideline pass to Claypool showed a side of Wimbush the Irish long believed existed. They had seen it in practice. He had just not brought it yet to a Saturday. The pass was where Claypool could make a play on it, but the defender would not be able to. On a deeper route like that, such a delivery is ideal, even if it makes the actual catch more difficult. It lowers the risk:reward ratio.

In the second quarter, Wimbush tossed a 21-yard touch pass to a leaping fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe. The completion certainly reflected Smythe’s natural ability, but it was, again, put where he could reasonably catch it, yet out of reach of any Spartans.

These are the plays that lead to a stat line of 14-of-20 for 173 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. That may not set the world on fire, but Notre Dame did not need it to.

“He’s just growing,” Kelly said of Wimbush following his fourth career start. “He hasn’t arrived, but he did some really good things at the position tonight that helped us become efficient on offense.”

The season’s opening three games were a small sample size of inaccuracy. Saturday night was an even smaller sample size of accuracy, but it proved that skill is within Wimbush’s realm of Saturday possibility. The next step, obviously, will be reaching consistency.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame can, should and inevitably will continue to lean on the running game first.
It is still unknown just how good (or bad) Michigan State is — the next two weeks, vs. Iowa and at Michigan, should provide much more clarity on that — but the Irish offensive line still made quite a statement when it routinely sprung theoretical fourth-stringer McIntosh loose for chunks of yardage at a time.

Irish junior running back Dexter Williams finished with 40 yards on eight carries, including this 14-yard touchdown run, in Notre Dame’s 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Notre Dame gained 187 yards on 39 rushes (sacks adjusted). Those numbers may not come anywhere near the records set against Boston College, but those were records for a reason. Saturday’s average of 4.8 yards per carry is the type of consistency needed to sustain an offense. Even in light of Claypool’s and St. Brown’s success, Kelly acknowledged where this offense starts.

“It should be more about through our play-action and quick game.”

Whatever level of quality resistance the Spartans provided, they are still a Mark Dantonio-coached unit. A crucial part of last season’s 3-9 collapse was injury after defensive injury. Writing off a decade’s track record due to one season is foolhardy.

Notre Dame ran through a stout defensive front Saturday night. Michigan State is not at the level of Georgia, but it is on the stronger half of defenses the Irish will face this season. Success against it is an indicator of coming success.

Speaking of Georgia …
The SEC may be hard to read yet, but the No. 11 Bulldogs looked very good Saturday afternoon as they mopped the floor with No. 17 Mississippi State, 31-3. If Wimbush had a calmly-efficient evening for Notre Dame, it will be difficult to find the adjectives needed to describe Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm’s day, finishing 9-of-12 for 201 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

A week after Mississippi State delivered a statement victory over LSU, the Bulldogs outgained the Bulldogs — okay, let’s try that again — Georgia outgained Mississippi State 404 yards to 280, simply winning with a methodical approach.

Georgia could not be in much better position in the SEC’s Eastern Division. If nothing else, the red-and-black Bulldogs will clearly not be far from contention this season.

Notre Dame really wanted that megaphone.
Maybe it is the hour of typing this (early Saturday a.m.). Maybe it is this scribe’s cynicism. Maybe it is completely off base.

But, how exactly does someone get this excited about ownership of a trophy that absurd?