Five things we learned: Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 3

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Statistics don’t always tell the story of a football game. A quick glance at the box score of the Irish’s 20-3 dismantling of No. 10 Michigan State doesn’t do Brian Kelly and his football team justice.

The Irish were just 1 of 14 on third downs. Everett Golson completed less than half his throws, going 14 of 32 for only 178 yards. The Notre Dame running game struggled again, with the Spartans holding the Irish to a modest 3.6 yards a carry and 122 yards. All-American tight end Tyler Eifert was held without a catch. And in a game where the Irish needed to keep their wits, the offense didn’t make it one play without taking a penalty and burning a timeout, all in the first seven seconds of the game.

Paragraphs like that usually explain why Notre Dame finds itself on the wrong side of another primetime match-up with a top ten team, extending a run of futility that dates back to the Reagan administration. But on Saturday evening with the college football world watching, Brian Kelly’s defense took matters into their own hands, making a resounding statement and dominating Mark Dantonio‘s team for all four quarters.

The Spartans’ vaunted running attack? Held to 50 yards. The vulnerable Irish secondary? Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw 45 times for just 187 yards — a meager 4.2 yards an attempt. With a chance to show itself as the class of the Big Ten, Michigan State managed only 237 yards of total offense, dominated at the line of scrimmage and putting up its only points thanks to a 50-yard field goal.

With Manti Te’o willing his teammates to victory and Prince Shembo practically unblockable off the edge, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco put together an aggressive attack that the Spartans could never overcome. Neutralizing running back Le’Veon Bell, dominating the line of scrimmage, and swarming to the football with a relentless drive, the Irish defense put together their most dominant performance of the Kelly era and likely propelled the Irish into the country’s top 15 teams as Notre Dame heads home for a showdown against Michigan next Saturday.

“Our defense continues to be the group that we had committed to building when we started this process,” Kelly said. “They’re starting to get to that level that can play against anybody.”

On Saturday night, that might have been an understatement. Let’s find out what else we learned in the Irish’s dominating 20-3 victory over Michigan State.

***

The stats may not show it, but Everett Golson is coming into his own.

The numbers may not be that impressive, but Everett Golson continues to reward Kelly for making him the team’s starting quarterback. Walking into hostile territory, Golson kept his wits about him as he managed the game, took care of the football, and also showed some of the dazzling skills that make him such an exciting player.

Golson was hardly perfect. He missed two deep balls that likely would’ve gone for big plays and showed a need to improve his touch on some short throws. But the sophomore refused to get flustered when the Spartans front seven pressured him, and made the play of the game when he launched a beautiful deep ball to senior John Goodman for a 36-yard touchdown.

With the bright lights on, Golson continues to look like the Irish’s quarterback of the present and future.

“He needed to be in this kind of atmosphere,” Kelly said. “He needed to be on the road, in this kind of great collegiate atmosphere and a very difficult football team you’re playing. He needed these kind of experiences.”

That the Irish can get victories while also getting valuable experience is a luxury not many teams can afford.

“We’re not even close where we could be, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said. “We’re going through some of the growing pains.”

Those pains are getting easier and easier to take as Golson continues to get better, making a ton of big plays with his arm while also absorbing as much as he can. A week after getting pulled with the game on the line in favor of Tommy Rees, Golson watched comfortably from the sideline as Rees handled some garbage time snaps as the Irish bled the clock late in the fourth quarter.

“He gets it,” Kelly said of Golson’s role. “He’s going to continue to get better.”

***

Manti Te’o is what’s good about college football.

With his work done for the evening and the Notre Dame sidelines basking in victory, the Irish’s senior linebacker went down to a knee, closed his eyes, and said a prayer. It’s been a life-changing week for Te’o, who lost his girlfriend to a long battle with leukemia and his grandmother in a 48-hour span. That two of Te’o’s teammates put a hand on each of his shoulders was fitting, as he carried the memory of two loved ones on his own shoulders as he willed the Irish defense to victory.

“He’s so strong for everybody, so when he was in this time, everybody wanted to help him out,” Kelly said. “I’ve never seen that type of dynamic.”

Te’o was super on Saturday evening, recording his 20th career double-digit tackle game as he racked up a game-high twelve stops, including one behind the line of scrimmage. Tasked with covering 6-foot-5, 285-pound Dion Sims in the middle of the field, Te’o showed his improved play in pass coverage, breaking up two passes and tackling receivers for modest gains after Maxwell was continually forced to check down and make short throws.

The Irish’s undeniable leader on the field did everything asked of him, using his teammates as his support system as he battled through heartbreak.

“During this tough time all he wanted to do was be at practice with his teammates,” Kelly said. “All those kids in their were pulling for Manti. Given all the distractions and tragedy he’s had to deal with, he went and played really good football.”

For as well as Te’o acquitted himself on the field, he was perhaps more impressive in a short postgame interview with ABC and with the media after the game. Deferring to the help of his teammates, and thanking both Notre Dame and Michigan State fans for their support this week, Te’o was humble in victory as he honored two of the most important people in his life.

Still, it’s clear that Te’o is suffering. When asked if this weekend could have ended any better, Te’o was brutally honest.

“Yeah. I could call my girlfriend right now and talk about the game,” Te’o said. “But I’ve just got to get on my knees, say a prayer, and then I can talk to her that way.”

***

Through three games, the Irish defense is on a pretty historic pace.

It’s hard to pick a stat that properly qualifies how dominant the Irish defense has been these first three games, but the 30 points the Irish have surrendered in the first quarter of the season is the least since 1988, when the eventual national champions gave up 27 points over the season’s first three games.

Tonight the Irish not only ended an ugly streak against top ten teams, but they did it with style, racking up four sacks, six tackles for loss, and holding Michigan State to the fewest points they’ve scored in Spartan Stadium since 1991. Running back Le’Veon Bell only managed 77 yards, with his longest carry going for 15 yards when the Spartans were content running the clock out to end the half.

Outside linebacker Prince Shembo almost single-handedly supplied the Irish’s pass rush, with the junior linebacker wreaking havoc all night off the edge as he made nine tackles, two tackles-for-loss, and a sack, while continually pressing Maxwell and drawing a well deserved holding call. Stephon Tuitt added another sack, planting Maxwell for a huge 12 yard loss as almost an exclamation point for the defense.

The 237 yards the Irish allowed was the least amount the Irish have given up on the road since 2008 against Ty Willingham’s Washington Huskies. With the Irish’s young secondary not missing a beat after Jamoris Slaughter went down with a significant ankle injury, it was a near perfect performance for Bob Diaco’s unit.

“We got pressure when we needed to,” Kelly said. “We got them behind the chains. We got them throwing the football. I think that was the key defensively.”

***

With Tyler Eifert taken away by the Spartans’ defense, the Irish’s wide receivers made plenty of big plays.

The Spartans defense managed to find a way to shut down tight end Tyler Eifert. But the Irish wide receivers — a position many perceive to be the weakest group on the roster — did serious damage, making big plays down the field against a tough Michigan State secondary. TJ Jones, Robby Toma and Goodman all had catches of 20 yards or longer, and Kelly’s ability to stretch the field vertically in the passing game caught the Spartans on their heels.

Goodman’s touchdown catch in the first quarter — an amazing one-handed grab he completed while being interfered with — was a beauty, and the type of play many have been waiting four years to see out of the talented Fort Wayne native. In the first half, the Irish got the “big chunk” plays Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin so desperately wanted, with Golson averaging 18 yards a completion in the first half.

With Davaris Daniels limited because of an ankle injury and Golson missing two long shots down the field with freshman speedster Chris Brown pushing defenses vertically, the chance to do even more damage was there for the taking. And while the Irish couldn’t take advantage of it Saturday evening, they proved that Notre Dame’s wide receivers can make plays down the football field, something that’ll need to continue throughout the season.

“Our challenge was going to be to find a couple big chunk plays,” Kelly said. “We were able to get a couple, but we missed a few that we’re going to regret when we watch the film.”

***

Notre Dame imposed their will on Michigan State, wearing out the Spartans on their home turf.

Brian Kelly has repeatedly talked about his football players finally being able to get the rewards for the work they put in. On Saturday night, the fruits of their labor were on display, as the Irish dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage as the Irish were the football team that pushed their opponent into submission.

“It’s a signature win,” Kelly said. “There’s no question when you go on the road against the No. 10 team in the country and you beat them, it’s definitely going to build the confidence in that locker room.”

Signature wins have been a talking point around Notre Dame football for much of the past decade, and interestingly Kelly not only used the words, but also assigned the victory to the players in the locker room, not the guys in the headsets. With the Irish clinching the game with a crucial 12 play, 84-yard scoring drive that ate up almost seven minutes of the fourth quarter, Kelly’s players are winning games not only because of the work they’re doing preparing for opponents but because of the commitment they made in the offseason.

“I just felt like this group since January has totally committed themselves to wanting to win each and every week,” Kelly said. I don’t think it was all of a sudden just this week I saw it. It’s been coming. We’re so committed to the process. We’re right in the thick of the process of developing our football team.”

One-third of the way through the season, the Irish are unblemished for the first time in a decade. After having watching his team fizzle last season when expectations were high, a victory like this could be the key to building momentum as the Irish turn their attention to Michigan.

“You need one of those wins to break it open,” Kelly said.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends