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.”

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)