Spartans

Pregame six pack: Identity check for the Irish

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After holding serve with victories over Navy and Purdue, we’ll finally get an identity check on No. 20 Notre Dame, as they head to East Lansing for a battle with No. 10 Michigan State.

The Irish are healthy after losing seven players during their hard-fought 20-17 victory. They’ll have their top two receiving threats back with Davaris Daniels rebounding nicely after an ankle tweak and All-American tight end Tyler Eifert cleared from a mild concussion. Starting running back Cierre Wood is back from suspension, and he’ll work into the rotation with Theo Riddick and George Atkinson. Quarterback Everett Golson, a week after sitting out the game’s winning drive in favor of veteran Tommy Rees, is ready for his first true road test.

Along the defensive line Kapron Lewis-Moore is back anchoring his defensive end position and junior linebacker Danny Spond returns to outside linebacker after a scary preseason injury. Jamoris Slaughter is fine after a big collision kept him from returning to a young secondary that improved from week one to two.

With its biggest test of the season ahead of it, it appears all hands are on deck for head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame. Let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as No. 20 Notre Dame prepares to take on the Big Ten’s best in No. 10 Michigan State.

***

For the Irish to win, they’ll need to hang onto the football and control the line of scrimmage.

At this time last year, Notre Dame was winless and at the bottom of the NCAA rankings in turnover margin. After outgaining and outplaying both USF and Michigan, the Irish figured out how to lose two excruciatingly tough football games because they couldn’t hold onto the football.

Fast-forward one year and it’s a different story. Breaking in new quarterback Everett Golson, the Irish have won their first two battles, and have completely flipped the switch in the turnover category.

On paper, it’s a shocking contrast:

2011
Turnovers: 10
Differential: -7

2012
Turnovers: 2
Differential +4

Part two of the upset equation is controlling the line of scrimmage. A week after a disappointing performance along the offensive line, Kelly laid it out fairly simply.

“If Michigan State can exert their will on both fronts the offensive line and defensive line I think we probably know how that game’s gonna go,” Kelly said. “We feel like we have to be able to exert our same kind of presence on both sides of the ball.”

After reviewing the game film and turning the page, center Braxston Cave was candid about the offensive line’s play.

“We didn’t play up to our standard that we’ve set for ourselves and it showed,” Cave said. “When our team struggles we’re gonna put that on the offensive line.”

The Irish have already won the turnover battle twice this season after winning it only three times all of last year. If they can manage to do that and win the line of scrimmage, there’s a great chance they’ll walk out of East Lansing 3-0.

***

If recent history has told us anything, expect a close one Saturday night.

You can throw out the Irish’s rather easy 31-13 victory over the Spartans last year. In recent years, most times Notre Dame and Michigan State meet, it’s a game that will go down to the wire. For every Little Giants, there’s been the Irish’s epic 2006 comeback in the rain. The Spartans have won 10 of the last 15 games in this series, but nine of the last 12 have been decided by seven points or less.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane:

2011 — ND wins 31-13
2010 — MSU wins 34-31 (Little Giants)
2009 — ND wins 33-30 (Kyle McCarthy with the pick!)
2008 — MSU wins 23-7
2007 — MSU wins 31-10
2006 — ND wins 40-37 (Comeback in the rain)
2005 — MSU wins 44-41 (Flag plant.)
2004 — ND wins 31-24 (The Tommy Zbikowski show)
2003 — MSU wins 22-16
2002 — ND wins 21-17 (Dillingham to Battle for the win!)

The betting line for Saturday night’s game opened up at 4.5 points, but has surged to Michigan State being a six-point favorite. Interestingly, 87% of money is betting on the Spartans right now, potentially pushing this point spread even further in Sparty’s direction. With the Spartan’s looking impressive last weekend after following up a big win against Boise State, it’s not surprising that they’ve got Las Vegas’ attention.

***

Manti Te’o will be playing Saturday with a heavy heart.

You can’t blame linebacker Manti Te’o if his mind is on something other than football right now. The heart of the Irish defense has suffered his share of heartbreak this week, losing two people incredibly close to the senior from Hawaii. Te’o’s girlfriend Lennay Kekua lost a battle with leukemia this week. He also lost his grandmother within 24 hours.

“We lost some people very close to him, and it’s obviously taken a toll on him,” Kelly said. “Our players have been there for him and have been a great support. We’ll support him. He’ll be with us. He practiced. He’ll be playing Saturday against Michigan State. Unfortunately, he’s gone through a very rough 24, 48 hours. But his support and his family at home have been great, and all of the coaches and players have been there for him.

Te’o has not spoken publicly about the losses, and that’s an awful lot to deal with for anybody, let alone a senior in college. As always, the stoic leader of the Irish football team has said and done the right things, writing of Kekua on Twitter, “I may not hear your voice anymore but I do feel your presence.”

There are obviously logistical challenges that go into getting Te’o back to Hawaii for memorial services or funerals and Kelly mentioned the bye week as a potential opportunity for Te’o to return home. But for now the linebacker stays with his support system in South Bend.

“He wants to be with his teammates, he wants to be with the people that care about him,” Kelly said. “He’s a strong man and he’s going through a tough time, but he’ll rise to the occasion.”

***

Brian Kelly is on the “coolest seat in America.”

Jack Swarbrick made more headlines this week with the Irish move to the ACC, a transition that’s energized just about every athletics program on campus. He also made headlines last night talking with Dan Wetzel and Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports when discussing the status of Brian Kelly the head coach and the state of the Irish football program.

“I couldn’t be more pleased. I like to say that my coach is on the coolest seat in America, as opposed to a hot seat. What we had to do was build a program. It’s not about changing whether you run the spread offense or something else, or if you run a 3-4 or 4-3. It was really for us, we had lost the elements of a really elite program over a course of time. Many years, not just a few. And that’s what we had to address.

“We had to focus on approach to strength and conditioning, and nutrition, and scheduling our athlete’s day, our approach to competitive scheduling, our facilities. We just had to take this thing down to ground zero and build all the elements back up so we had a foundation for success. And that’s what I see now.

“Now the AD built a crazy schedule this year, and we ought to fire him, but the foundation for success is there. I love the athleticism of this team and the quality of the student athletes. And I love what I think is coming in the next few years, so I couldn’t feel better about the program.”

The next two weeks will likely help define the 2012 season, but that should put an end to any discussions on minimum win total and other messageboard debates. Whether some fans like it or not, Swarbrick has decided to take the long view on the Notre Dame football program, and he’s setting the program up for success by realizing stability and a structured process are a good thing.

***

The focus might be on the Michigan State front seven, but the cornerbacks will challenge the Irish passing attack.

You might know the names Will Gholston and Max Bullough, but the back end of the Spartan defense will be a key to Saturday night. With Golson proving his can throw the football effectively last week, the Spartans might not want to load the box to take away the Irish running game and challenge Notre Dame to beat them through the air. But if they do, it’ll be because Mark Dantonio trusts his cornerbacks, the strength of his underrated secondary.

With Johnny Adams returning for a fifth season, he and Darqueze Dennard will be called upon to play big in the back end of the defense, often challenged with one-on-one match-ups in defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi‘s aggressive scheme.

“You just don’t have to worry about them, about things going wrong,” Bullough told the Detroit Free Press about his cornerbacking duo. “Sure, someone’s gonna make a play on them at times, that’s how football is. But for the most part we feel like we have better corners than a lot of the receivers we go against.”

With Tyler Eifert split wide to help create those match-ups, Bullough will get a chance to see if his theory is correct.

***

The time is right for the Irish to finally spring an upset at night.

It’s been quite some time since the Irish went out and made a primetime statement against a top ten opponent. As Tim Prister writes at Irish Illustrated, maybe it’s been way too long.

The Irish — 20-17 all-time against ranked opponents at night and 63-35-2 overall – have lost 10 straight night games against teams ranked in the top 10 with USC the most frequent perpetrator (three).

Notre Dame hasn’t won a road night game against a top 10 opponent since the Jan. 1, 1992 Sugar Bowl when Lou Holtz’s squad knocked off Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, 39-28, in the Superdome. Since then, the Irish have lost to:

  • No. 8 Florida State, 31-26, in the Jan. 1, 1996 Orange Bowl
  • No. 4 Tennessee, 38-14, on Nov. 6, 1999 in Knoxville
  • No. 5 Oregon State, 41-9, in the Jan. 1, 2001 Fiesta Bowl
  • No. 5 Nebraska, 27-10, on Sept. 8, 2001 in Lincoln
  • No. 6 USC, 44-13, on Nov. 30, 2002 in Los Angeles
  • No. 3 USC, 44-24, on Nov. 25, 2006 in Los Angeles
  • No. 4 LSU, 41-14, in the Jan. 3, 2007 Sugar Bowl
  • No. 5 USC, 38-3, on Nov. 29, 2008 in Los Angeles
  • No. 8 Pittsburgh, 27-22, on Nov. 14, 2009 in Pittsburgh
  • No. 4 Stanford, 28-14, on Nov. 26, 2011 in Palo Alto, Calif.

The Irish have been building to this moment ever since they laid an egg last year at home against USC. And while we’ve mentioned they aren’t the betting favorite and they’ll be playing in front of one of the more hostile environments that they’ll see all year, there’s reason to believe this could be the end of a long string of bad football.

“Our guys are confident and they prepared well and they should be (confident),” Kelly said. “They’re looking forward to the challenge of playing at Michigan State in what will be a great atmosphere.”

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)