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.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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