Stephon Tuitt

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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A big win for Notre Dame doesn’t mean they’re back. But the dominating victory sure does propel them into the conversation. An exciting weekend of college football combined with a terrific defensive performance pushed the Irish up to No. 11 in the country, the highest ranking for Notre Dame since the end of the 2006 season, as they prepare to battle Michigan this weekend.

A funny thing happens each football season. Team’s are forced to play games, and either live up or fall short of the expectations the media set for them. It takes actual football to reveal the inadequacies of a squad that might be hidden (or ignored) — flaws that have exposed teams like Virginia Tech, Wisconsin, and even USC — in the season’s first quarter.

That’s part of the big reason why Brian Kelly isn’t getting caught up in the Irish’s jump up the rankings.

“Don’t get infected with success,” Kelly said. “It’s easy to forget how you got here. It’s easy to listen to how great you are. We’ve got to avoid the noise and stay disciplined on the process. If we do that, we’ll be pretty good in November.”

Solid advice as the Irish prepare to vanquish an opponent that has haunted Notre Dame the past few seasons.

With that, let’s take one more look back at Notre Dame’s 20-3 victory over No. 10 Michigan State.

THE GOOD

The Run Defense. It was a great overall performance for Bob Diaco’s troops, who played tremendous fundamental football and shut down the Spartans’ best offensive player in Le’Veon Bell.

After running the ball at a 55 percent clip through two games, the Spartans all but abandoned the run in the second half, handing Bell the ball only four times and throwing the ball on 65 percent of their snaps.

Michigan State averaged only 2.0 yards a carry. It was their worst performance on the ground since running for just 1.3 yards a carry last season against Notre Dame.

The Special Teams. I may hammer Ben Turk for his inconsistency, but on Saturday night he played a tremendous role in the Irish’s success, continually helping the Irish control the field position battle. Turk’s eight punts averaged 42.4 yards — a nice number, but nothing incredible — but he pinned the Spartans inside their 20 yard line four times, with the Spartans starting on average at their own 20-yard line compared to Notre Dame starting at the 33. Turk even drew a personal foul on a roughing the punter for good measure.

“Our special teams played a large role in flipping the field,” Kelly said. “That was absolutely crucial to the success we had. I think you need all three phases if you’re going to win a game on the road against Michigan State.”

Just as important was kicker Kyle Brindza, who looked rock solid in his second start for Nick Tausch. Brindza nailed both of his field goal attempts and had four of his five kickoffs go for touchbacks.

A nice performance for a unit that looked shaky earlier in the season.

The Offensive Line. The numbers may not look that impressive, but that’s a heck of a performance by Harry Hiestand’s unit after playing subpar against Purdue. The Spartans’ pass rush was held in check, with the only sack of Everett Golson coming from cornerback Johnny Adams inside the Spartans’ five-yard line.

Take out the four kneel downs the Irish had at the end of the game and Notre Dame ran for a respectable 4.5 yards a carry. More impressive was the fourth quarter drive that took 6:35 off the clock and marched the Irish from their own four-yard line for a game-clinching field goal.

Notre Dame held onto the ball for 18:32 of the second half, winning the game the old fashioned way. There may have been missed blocks and negative plays, but when it counted, the offensive line got it done.

Manti Te’o. We already covered Te’o’s heroics yesterday where he performed his best despite facing personal tragedy. Bob Diaco awarded Te’o the defense’s golden ball after the game, and Te’o had only one thing to say after, telling his teammates that he loved them.

It was pretty easy for Brian Kelly to expound on what he thought of his star inside linebacker.

“At Notre Dame, you get a chance to coach a kid like this,” Kelly said. “It might be once in a lifetime. That’s the kind of kid he is.”

Cierre Wood (and the running backs). With the game on the line, the Irish offense turned to its best runner and Wood rewarded them, running for 45 yards on five carries on the game’s biggest series. A week after struggling to find touches for his talented running backs, Kelly got 30 touches for Wood, George Atkinson and Theo Riddick. (The exact number one idiot blogger was asking for on Saturday.)

It wasn’t necessarily a dominant performance, but the Irish got exactly what they needed out of everybody. Atkinson delivered his long run on a beautifully designed counter draw we hadn’t seen yet this season. Wood iced the game. And while Riddick couldn’t break loose, he had a 15-yard run and pitched in three catches.

The pass Defense. It was a brutally tough game for the Spartans passing attack. When Andrew Maxwell wasn’t getting harassed by Prince Shembo, Stephon Tuitt and company, he was forced to check down and settle for nothing but short throws. Against a youthful secondary getting valuable experience by the game, the Irish defensive played terrific team defense, allowing only one big play on a quick strike to tight end Dion Sims.

Freshmen KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate both made big plays batting down passes. As did Matthias Farley and Bennett Jackson. More impressively, Bob Diaco’s inside linebackers played tight coverage, with Dan Fox and Manti Te’o contributing three pass break-ups, the best big game performance by the linebackers in the Kelly era.

“We really emphasize to get on body,” Kelly said of the game plan. “Coach Diaco really emphasized this week getting on body, in other words, getting hands on receivers and being more aggressive with them. I thought it paid off on a number of instances, in particular our will linebacker.”

Game Management. Another game, another victory in turnover margin. That’s three in a row for the Irish, who only won that all-important stat three times last season. The Irish are +5 this season, good for a tie for 9th in the country.

Brian Kelly > Mark Dantonio. It’s worth mentioning that since “Little Giants,” Brian Kelly’s Irish have outscored Dantonio’s Spartans 53-16, in two games where the Spartans were favored and ranked 15th and 10th.

THE BAD

Third Downs. The Irish somehow won this football game convincingly while going 1 of 14 on third down conversions. That’s a troubling statistic and one that’ll need to be fixed moving forward, as the Notre Dame offense needs to get more efficient in what it’s trying to do.

“We had too many opportunities to put points on the board and to get the kind of production we need,” Kelly said. “A lot of it is in the quarterback’s development. Again, he did some really good things. But we’ve got a long way to go. He needs to continue to stay on task, Everett, and continue to develop each and every week.

“We are so far from where we need to be offensively. I think a lot of it is just in the stuff that we’re doing right now. We don’t need to extend the playbook any deeper.”

Golson’s inefficiency on third down likely had something to do with the defense he was facing, but it also is a product of the Irish coaches ingraining the belief that zero is okay on a play. While the young quarterback is a long way away from mastering this offense, he’s made solid decisions while learning on the fly, something not many first-time starters do.

Deep Passes. There’s no doubt Golson throws the best deep balls on the team (though we haven’t seen Gunner Kiel’s yet). But a year after Tommy Rees was maligned because he missed too many vertical throws, Golson missed his share of open receivers. It didn’t matter on Saturday night, but as the Irish continue to play high-caliber opponents, they’ll need to get more efficient in those situations, giving youngster Chris Brown a chance to utilize the speed that had him breaking open against two very good Big Ten cornerbacks.

Jamoris Slaughter. It’s a heart-breaking loss for the Irish in the secondary, losing a team leader from a position group that desperately counted on the fifth-year senior’s leadership. Kelly awarded Slaughter the game ball in the hard fought victory, a game that might be the final one for Slaughter in an Irish uniform.

THE UGLY

This space stays clear after the Irish delivered one of their most impressive victories in recent memory.

(Of course, it could be dedicated to the early season woes of the Big Ten, who have looked pretty dreadful this season, starting with Alabama’s dismantling of Michigan and continuing through Saturday.)

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.