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.)

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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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

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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

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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…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

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You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)