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

107 Comments

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.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

Getty Images
5 Comments

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

Getty Images
26 Comments

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

Getty Images
7 Comments

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

Getty Images
4 Comments

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…)