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.)

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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