The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Purdue

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Say this: Brian Kelly certainly gives you something to talk about.

A week after spending most of the afternoon pounding the ball on the ground, the head coach needed to rely on the passing game to beat the scrappy Purdue Boilermakers. He also needed to dig deep into his bench, with seven regulars hurt during the game.

There’s been enough discussion about Kelly’s decision to bring in junior Tommy Rees to close the game out, which he did successfully as he led the Irish to the game-winning field goal without any timeouts.

A win is a win is a win is a win. Don’t believe me? Go ask Arkansas, who had their hopes dashed with a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Or Oklahoma State, who just gave Rich Rodriguez the signature victory he desperately craved in Ann Arbor.

After winning with style in Dublin, the Irish fought their way to an ugly win and crawled up two spots in the AP poll to No. 20, as they await a primetime match-up in East Lansing with No. 10 Michigan State.

Let’s close the book on Purdue and take a look at the good, bad, and ugly of the Irish’s 20-17 win.

THE GOOD

Being 2-0. Maybe some of you missed it, but the Irish are 2-0 for the first time since 2008. A season after the Irish had BCS aspirations and proceeded to open with two mind-numbing losses, the Irish handled their business in adversity, not melting down after the Boilermakers tied the game at 17 and finished the deal.

Was it pretty? No. But with a schedule like this, style points are unnecessary. Advance and survive. Especially dealing with the adversity the Irish faced on Saturday.

Everett Golson’s passing game. In his second start, the sophomore answered any questions there might have been about his arm. Tasked with moving the Irish offense as the running game sputtered, Golson completed 21 of 31 throws for 289 yards and a touchdown. Obviously, the young quarterback wasn’t on the field for the game’s final drive, but Kelly had this to say about his performance.

“I thought he threw the ball very well yesterday,” Kelly said. “He missed one pass that we thought that we should have connected on.”

Missing one throw out of 31 isn’t all that bad, and while the reliance on the passing game may leave many Irish fans wondering what happened to the running game, it also gives Mark Dantonio a little bit more to think about when he starts his game plan for the Irish offense.

Tyler Eifert. After being neutralized in the season opener thanks to the game plan, Eifert reminded everybody why he’s the most dangerous tight end in the country. His four catches for 98 yards would’ve been more if he didn’t sit out much of the fourth quarter with a slight concussion, which has already been cleared. After not utilizing the vertical seams in week one, the young quarterback and the All-American tight end showed improved chemistry.

Stephon Tuitt. That’s four sacks through two outings for the 6-foot-6, 305-pound sophomore. Tuitt matched Purdue’s All-American candidate Kawann Short with four tackles and two sacks, and continued his assault on offensive lines. With Kapron Lewis-Moore on the sidelines for most of the game, Tuitt carried the load at defensive end.

Louis Nix. He may have been overshadowed by Tuitt, but Nix played possibly his best game in an Irish uniform, with 1.5 sacks and four tackles of his own. It appears the junior defensive tackle has elevated his game, proving himself a capable run-stuffer and teaming with Tuitt and Lewis-Moore for the most physically imposing defensive front in recent history.

The Secondary. After worrying much of the Irish fan base with its pedestrian work against Navy, the young Irish secondary did its job against Purdue, holding Boilermakers quarterbacks to 19 of 37 throwing for 198 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. More impressive, the Irish managed to defend with more youth in the back-end, getting solid contributions from freshmen (eligibility-wise) KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, and Jalen Brown.

For those worried that the Irish wouldn’t have the personnel to run multiple defensive backs onto the field, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might have put out the first dime defense of his tenure, with six Irish DBs on the field: Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, and Matthias Farley manning the safety slots, with corners Russell, Bennett Jackson, and Shumate in coverage as well.

Tommy Rees. Brian Kelly called his number and the junior quarterback delivered. Welcomed by boos and hecklers in his home stadium (not to mention vitriol and anger across the interwebs), Rees calmly did his job, putting together a key drive with reserve wideouts and a missing All-American tight end.

Brian Kelly gave Rees the game ball after the victory and Rees led the Irish as they sang the fight song. He also calmed down any worries that Rees would assume a Mariano Rivera like role at the end of tight football games.

“No, it’s not a role. I see it as if we feel like Tommy can help us win a game or he can come in in a situation where we believe it’s the right fit, then he’ll be prepared to do so,” Kelly said. “But no, I don’t see this as, you know, and I use this baseball analogy: We would like our starters to finish the game. We want them to go all nine innings. But occasionally, you may need some help. Maybe you need long relief and maybe you need some short relief. I don’t want to take anything off the table, but we like our starter to start and finish it.”

Kyle Brindza. After badly missing a kick earlier, the sophomore pounded through the game winning without hesitation. He’ll now be in competition with Nick Tausch for the placekicking duties when Tausch is cleared to return from a groin strain.

The injuries. Usually you’d file this under bad, but it appears there’s nothing but good news after the Irish were missing seven players as the game wore on. Both Eifert and Slaughter are already cleared for practice this week. Golson is cleared as well. Daniels has an ankle sprain, which might nag him for a bit, but he’ll be back, building on another strong performance.

The turnover margin. Don’t look now, but that’s another positive game in the turnovers category for the Irish. After spending last season ranked No. 119 out of 120 at -16, the Irish now sit at No. 7 in the country through two games. Breaking in a new quarterback, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

THE BAD

The running game. After mauling Navy on the ground, the Irish were stuck dead in their tracks against Purdue’s talented front. (Yes, it does bear repeating — Purdue’s front is talented. Kawann Short looked every bit the part of a first round draft pick. And word out of West Lafayette is that Ryan Russell, who had seven tackles and 2.5 TFLs Saturday, is a player the Boilermakers coaching staff thinks has more talent than Ryan Kerrigan.) Regardless of the personnel across from them, the Irish offensive line played a poor football game. Mike Golic Jr. routinely got beat at the line of scrimmage against Short, and Zack Martin played an uncharacteristic game for the senior, noticed far too often for mistakes than his usually reliable self.

Whether it was because of Purdue’s scheme or the Irish game plan, the run was a secondary option to the pass on Saturday. While you might not agree with it, the strategy worked for the Irish. Notre Dame still controlled the time of possession, while gaining 8.3 yards per passing attempt versus only 1.4 yards per rush.

Third down defense. The Irish did just fine for most of the game on first and second down, but Purdue continued to extend drives with third down conversions. The Irish gave up 11 of 19 on third down, turning what could’ve been a dominant defensive performance into a game that almost got away from Notre Dame.

Quarterback Caleb TerBush was Purdue’s most effective runner, gaining 6.8 yards a carry and scrambling for a few key first downs. With multiple key contributors off the field, we’ll give the Irish a free pass this time around. But the difference between a good defense and a great one is the ability to get off the field, and Bob Diaco’s guys didn’t do it on Saturday.

4th and 10. When push came to shove for the Irish defense, linebacker Carlo Calabrese got beat on a play that could’ve closed out the game. Here’s how Kelly described the play on Sunday.

“They attacked our will linebacker,” Kelly said. “So our will doesn’t come out of the game. And they set him up with a pretty good double move… The will linebacker is a guy that we have confidence can play that No. 2 receiver.”

There’s a lot of things Calabrese can do, but playing one-on-one with a team’s inside receiver isn’t one of them. Whether it was due to injuries or inexperience, Kelly leaned on Calabrese on the inside while Dan Fox, a much better player in pass coverage, shifted outside. Don’t expect to see that again.

Penalties and Clock Management. After playing a clean game, the Irish had eight penalties against the Boilermakers. That’s too many, especially when captains Manti Te’o and Martin are picking up personal fouls. And for as good as Golson looked throwing the ball, he struggled identifying fronts and getting the play called and run, burning multiple timeouts early in each half.

Game Management. This isn’t knocking Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin for taking too long to get the offensive plays in, this is a knock on them for not getting the ball into the hands of George Atkinson more. Whether or not the running game is neutralized, the Irish need to make an effort to get the ball to Atkinson. He’s too big of a home run threat not to. Adding Cierre Wood back into the offense this week will only make this even more of a challenge, and credit Kelly for acknowledging the need to figure this out.

“We really have to make sure we get him into the game and find ways to get those touches to him,” Kelly said of Atkinson, who only had one carry. “So I think it’s something we’ll have a heightened awareness in making sure that those guys get the ample touches necessary to help our offense. So I think that falls on my shoulders and Coach Martin’s shoulders to make sure that happens.”

Special Teams. Brindza may have made the game winner, but that’s another missed kick for the Irish early this season. The Irish also let Raheem Mostert get outside of containment on kick coverage, turning a very good kickoff into even better field position when Mostert got around end. Ben Turk was also hot and cold punting, nailing two nice kicks but also throwing a few wobblers out there.

THE UGLY

Booing Tommy Rees. That a home crowd would shower boos on Rees as he prepared to take the Irish down the field to win the game is unfathomable to me. The junior quarterback, who was a punching bag all offseason and the primary scape goat for the Irish’s disappointing 8-5 2011 campaign, did nothing to deserve the heckling. At a place like Notre Dame, the classless gesture was more than a little surprising.

Rees can’t undo the sophomore season he had. He took his demotion and suspension with grace, acting as a model teammate as he helped prep Golson for a starting job many inside the program still thought should be his. Rees roomed with Golson during fall camp and has acted like another coach as he only took mental reps up until this week.

There’s no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Notre Dame fans believe Golson should be the starting quarterback this year. So does Brian Kelly. But if the Irish are going to maximize their wins in a season where Ws won’t come easily, they’re going to need to use all of their assets. And Tommy Rees is one of them.

Why a large group of Notre Dame “fans” can’t figure that out is beyond me.

 

 

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.