Robert Maci, Joe Gilliam, Everett Golson

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.

 

 

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.