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.)

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)