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

126 Comments

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.

 

 

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

Getty Images
13 Comments

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

Associated Press
27 Comments

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

Getty Images
17 Comments

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

Getty Images
43 Comments

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?