Irish defense gets one last chance to stop Denard Robinson

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Denard Robinson has killed Notre Dame. Smashed their hearts and stomped on their souls. This is undeniable. The man called Shoelace is Enemy No. 1 in South Bend this weekend. He’s put to sleep more echoes and silenced more thunder than any opponent in the modern era of Irish football.

The Wolverines enter South Bend attempting to win their fourth straight over the Irish. It’s Michigan’s longest winning streak against Notre Dame since 1908, making Robinson literally the villain of the century in a rivalry that might be described as one filled with mutual admiration, but really one built on hatred, jealousy, and a mutual dislike between Midwestern neighbors. This might not be the Hatfields and McCoys, but for two schools build on traditional pomp and circumstance, it’s not that far off.

As Notre Dame and Michigan prepare to play for the 40th time, only Robinson stands in the way of the Irish’s best start in a decade, and an inside track to a BCS bowl that hasn’t been in the Irish’s crosshairs since 2006. Yet to get by Michigan, they’ll need to slow down Robinson, something Notre Dame hasn’t come close to doing since he took over as the Wolverine’s starting quarterback.

There’s no way to understate Robinson’s impact on the Wolverines. He is their engine. And while his (not quite) six-foot, 197-pound frame won’t intimidate, his 600 horse-power, V12 has blown away Notre Dame the past two seasons, putting up statistics that defy logic.

In 2010, Robinson put up 502 yards of offense himself in the Wolverines’ 28-24 victory, including the game-winning touchdown run with 27 seconds left. He accounted for 94.4% of the Michigan offense, with the next leading rusher chipping in 17 yards on seven carries. If 2010 was painful for Irish fans, 2011 was pure evil. Playing the role of Verbal Kint for three quarters (even with a 43 yard touchdown pass in the second quarter), Robinson turned into Keyser Soze in the games final fifteen minutes, storming Michigan back with 28 fourth quarter points. Robinson threw for 338 yards on just 11 completions, a back-breaking 30.7 yards a catch. Sure he only ran for a modest 108 yards, but the rest of the team ran for six yards on ten carries. Robinson’s domination is put into perspective when you consider he accounted for 98.7% of the Wolverines offense.

Matt Hinton, over at his Sunday Morning QB blog, wrote about Robinson’s uncanny ability to play at his best in one of college football’s biggest rivalries.

Denard Robinson against Notre Dame is the ur-Denard from which all other versions of Denard follow and against whom they are all compared. With the possible exception of the Denard who played a nearly perfect game in the process of snapping a seven-year losing streak against Ohio State last November, the others almost always come up short. Denard against Notre Dame is the original formula. The idol to which thousands of No. 16 jerseys pay homage every weekend, hoping for a mere glimpse of what they got in South Bend in 2010, and under the newly installed lights in Michigan Stadium in 2011 – if not necessarily the best version of Denard, as they saw in the former case, then at least the version who abruptly forgot everything he’d ever been coached in the latter and proceeded to turn the fourth quarter into his own personal PlayStation at the Irish’s expense. No player in college football in the last decade has inflicted as much emotional damage on a single rival.

That’s essentially a matter of fact: It can be proven statistically, in two of the most prolific box scores in either school’s history. It can be proven narratively, in two late, improbable comebacks in the dying seconds, the details of which produce the kind of copy that practically writes itself. It can probably be proven financially, in terms of jersey and ticket sales and the record sums in the swear jars in Catholic kitchens. Since his second start at Notre Dame in 2010, that’s the Denard fans have paid to see, and opposing coaches have desperately hoped they don’t.

It’s also the Denard that Notre Dame’s defense is convinced it can beat. They were given a blueprint by Alabama, who executed a plan that turned Robinson into a mere mortal. Do the Irish have the defense that the Crimson Tide does? Certainly not. But with Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt, they have a front three that should dominate the line of scrimmage. With edge rushers Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams, they’ve got athletes that can crash off the edge and suffocate the pocket. And with Manti Te’o in the middle, they have a warrior that has one last enemy to cross off his list.

Much will be made about the inexperience of the back-end of the Notre Dame defense. It will face its stiffest test when Robinson scrambles and creates time, looking much like the running threat but capable (and eager) to throw deep and force somebody to make a play. Last year, those plays were made by Wolverines. But this game shouldn’t come down to defensive backs KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley.

Regardless of their preseason ranking, Michigan won’t have the better football team on Saturday night. They are struggling on both the offensive and defensive line, working in freshmen at linebacker, and looking for an identity. But as long as they have Robinson, they have a chance.

But after two superhuman efforts by Robinson, Notre Dame’s defense needs to put an end to Michigan’s dominance. Powered by a home crowd desperate to make an impact after watching the Big House will the Wolverines back from the dead, the scene is already set.

Now it’s up to the Irish to stop Robinson before he completes his very own superhero trilogy.

Monday Morning Leftovers: The long-term effects of Crawford’s punch, limited roster turnover & Yoon’s record approach

Associated Press
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Notre Dame is 3-1. Let’s rephrase that.

Notre Dame is only 3-1. This season could still go multiple directions. But if — IF — it continues to trend upward, one moment from this weekend may stand the test of time as the demarcation point between a successful 2017 and a new Irish head coach in 2018. When junior cornerback Shaun Crawford peanut-punched the ball away from Spartans junior running back LJ Scott at the goal line in Saturday night’s second quarter, Crawford certainly altered the game.

That is the very smallest effect of that heads-up play.

It may have altered the trajectory of the entire program. Until coming weeks play out, that claim needs to remain in the conditional verb tense. If the time comes where removing that particular phrasing is appropriate, the statement will not be one of exaggeration. It was that big of a play.

If granting that premise, and acknowledging the usage of “program” implies its reach could extend past this season, a look at Notre Dame’s travel roster from this weekend raises an eyebrow.

The listing included 72 names, complete with a number of walk-ons. If looking at the scholarship players, the strictest of readings finds only 11 names whom the Irish should not plan on having around in 2018.

The obvious, players currently in their last year of eligibility: linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, tight end Durham Smythe, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and receiver Cam Smith.

The almost-assuredly headed to the NFL: left guard Quenton Nelson.

The very-unlikely to be asked back for a fifth year: offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne, receiver Austin Webster and quarterback Montgomery VanGorder.

Of those 11, only seven contributed to the 38-18 victory over Michigan State.

Obviously there will be other departures, either due to transfer or early entry into the NFL Draft or perhaps injury, but the point is: Much of this team will be back in a year. Even more pertinently, the rout of the Spartans was done with youth, as contrary to the norm as that may be. It seems safe to assume that youth has yet to reach the ceiling on its potential.

Among those contributors, it is time to start a Justin Yoon record watch. It is preemptive, but the junior kicker has reached a point where any week he could essentially set the Notre Dame career field goal percentage record, though he remains a bit further from the mark being recognized.

Entering the season, Yoon had made 28-of-34 field goal attempts. Thus far this year, he has added 5-of-7 to the ledger, making for an 80.49 percent career rate. John Carney (1984-1986) holds the Irish record at 73.9 percent. If Yoon makes four of his next nine attempts, he will break that mark. Technically speaking, he will not set the record until he has indeed taken nine more attempts, notching the minimum requirement of 50.

Notre Dame has turned 19 trips into the red zone into 17 touchdowns to date. By no means has the Irish offense needed to rely on Yoon. By no means is this mention a subtle expectation of that changing. It is simply comprehensibly feasible to think Yoon might make four field goals in one weekend. After all, he has twice made three in one game.

It seems distinctly possible Notre Dame will not face the most-talented opposing running back on its schedule until the season’s finale week at Stanford. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

One of those occasions came against Stanford in 2015. Taking a look at this year’s Cardinal, it held on for a win against UCLA late Saturday night. The 58-34 shootout sparked two thoughts. First of all, junior running back Bryce Love is really good. Let’s skip finding creative adjective and memorable phrasing and instead get straight to that point. He is really, really good.

In four games this year, Love has taken 73 carries for 787 yards, averaging 196.75 yards per game and 10.8 yards per rush.

Those numbers are absurd.

Secondly, Stanford is already almost certain to fall short of preseason projections. The over/under win total number for the Cardinal was nine. At 2-2 currently, the over is still within reach if Stanford wins out, but that would require beating winning all of, in chronological order, vs. Oregon, at Washington State, vs. Washington and vs. Notre Dame.

On the other side of that spectrum, Wake Forest is poised to surpass expectations. The Demon Deacons are 4-0 after blocking a potentially game-winning field goal by Appalachian State on Saturday. Wake Forest has gotten off to the strong start in large part thanks to its defense, allowing only 11.5 points per game.

Notre Dame fans can take that to mean Irish first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, formerly in that same role with the Demon Deacons, did not have much of a determining effect on that defense’s success, or they can see that stifling unit’s continued growth as a sign of Elko’s developmental contributions to the individual players.

Anyway, the over/under win total of Wake Forest was 5.5. The Deacons could still fall short of that, but they would need to manage only one win from trips to Georgia Tech and Syracuse as well as a visit from Duke, while also not pulling off any surprises.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Kelly on Wimbush’s accuracy, receivers’ hands & needed secondary improvements

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Notre Dame’s greatest successes this season have come when relying on its running game. It would stand to reason the Irish would turn to their ground attack to set the tone from the outset of a pivotal matchup against a physical opponent. Instead, Notre Dame opened with the pass in its 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. The first five plays from scrimmage were passing attempts from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, completing four of them for 62 yards.

This was all very intentional, especially a week after Wimbush struggled with accuracy.

“Getting the quarterback off with some quick throws, some easy throws to get into a rhythm was important,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “I wanted to make sure [offensive coordinator Chip Long] got some openers for [Wimbush] in his first nine plays that were high percentage completions for him to get into a rhythm, which he did.

“… It was orchestrated or planned or constructed that way, whatever word you want to use.”

Wimbush finished 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown, a marked improvement from his 11-of-24 for 96 yards at Boston College.

“It’s not uncommon when you go through the volume you do in preseason camp and all the throwing that sometimes the ball drops a little bit,” Kelly said. “… [Wimbush] is throwing the ball perfectly.

“We wanted to get him some completions, no question, and we set him up that way.”

A few of Wimbush’s completions were aided by excellent catches by his targets. Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, junior running back Dexter Williams and sophomore receiver Chase Claypool all made difficult catches. Following the 49-20 victory over the Eagles last week, Kelly had been critical of both Wimbush’s accuracy and the lack of playmaking from the receiver corps.

“I knew that we needed to step up our play in supporting [Wimbush],” Kelly said. “He had to throw it better. We had to catch it better.”

With that in mind, Kelly and the coaching staff made it a point in this week’s practices to remind the receivers a pass needs two participants. The onus was not on only Wimbush to improve.

“There wasn’t a time where if a ball was not caught there was not a comment about how important it is for us to focus on the football and catch that football,” Kelly said.

“… We’ve got some guys that are gaining some confidence out there. I think you’ll see a better rapport as the season goes on here between Brandon and the receivers and confidence grow in that regard.”

Josh Adams & ankle ‘stiffness’
Notre Dame was already without sophomore running back Tony Jones due to a sprained ankle suffered a week ago. In the second half Saturday, junior running back Josh Adams took some time off, as well. Kelly said Adams felt “some stiffness” in his ankle at halftime, which led to a precautionary x-ray. The x-ray did not reveal any issues, but the Irish were content to rely on Williams unless it was “absolutely necessary” to reinsert Adams. With a three-possession Notre Dame lead, that situation never arose.

Adams handled a total of two rushes in the second half, one for a loss of a yard and the second for a three-yard gain. He finished with nine carries for 56 yards.

Room to improve
Michigan State attempted 53 passes, 12 more than the most the Irish had seen yet this year. This was in part due to Notre Dame’s quick and sizable lead, and it was in part the Spartans’ game plan, expecting the Irish to be ready for a known running focus.

Despite limiting the Spartans to only 6.51 yards per pass attempt, the influx of opportunities to defend the pass showed Kelly and his staff improvements waiting to be made in the secondary.

“We have to play with a little bit more of a sense of urgency in terms of down-and-distance, recognizing game situations,” Kelly said. “There is some improvement there for us.

“We have to do a better job with understanding passing off routes, underneath coverage, inside-out on slant routes in terms of down-and-distance.”

In other words, the Notre Dame secondary has yet to genuinely need to know where the first-down line is on a given down. On a second-and-seven, the concern is as much about a 15-yard route as it is a six-yard route. On a third-and-seven, the defensive back needs to be prepared for the seven-yard route more than anything else, expecting the pass to come in that area, while still protecting against the big play.

Exposure to those situations helps build that awareness. Saturday night provided some of that exposure, and now the Irish will set to developing those instincts.

“[It] gave us a real good snapshot of the things we have to focus in on and work to improve this week.”

On Miami of Ohio
If Notre Dame does not make those improvements, Redhawks senior quarterback Gus Ragland is the type of passer who can reap the rewards. Before the season, Kelly often described the first four Irish opponents as physical foes, ground-oriented. Now through those four, the focus will shift somewhat toward defending the pass. Ragland will be the first test.

To date, he has completed 52.1 percent of his passes this season for 881 yards and eight touchdowns compared to two interceptions. Ragland has averaged 7.53 yards per passing attempt.

In a 31-14 win over Central Michigan this weekend, Ragland threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns on only 11-of-19 passing.

The Redhawks are led by former Notre Dame assistant and longtime Kelly confidante Chuck Martin.

“We have a lot of respect for Chuck,” Kelly said. “Obviously I know him quite well. He’ll have his team ready.”

What We Learned: Notre Dame found a No. 2 WR & an accurate passer

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We learned the closing 20-plus minutes of last week’s Notre Dame victory over Boston College were not an anomaly. Rather, the Irish carried over nearly everything from that period in their 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday.

They also introduced some new facts to life.

Moving Chase Claypool to the boundary may have unlocked a whole new offensive dynamic.
Throughout spring and preseason practice, the sophomore receiver worked at the slot, theoretically positioning a skilled player with a blocker’s physique near the point of attack. In the first two games, that approach yielded one catch for 16 yards.

Against Boston College, Claypool moved to the boundary position, typically the sole receiver on the narrow side of the field. He made only two catches for eight yards, but both of those figures led the Irish receivers during a day of absolute aerial ineffectiveness.

Notre Dame kept him lined up near the sideline against the Spartans, and, finally, he broke loose. Claypool’s four catches for 56 yards likely underscore the relief the Irish coaching staff inevitably feels thanks to his performance.

Notre Dame’s opening play went to Claypool, a 10-yard gain. Two plays later, he notched another 10-yard reception. All four times junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeted Claypool, a positive result ensued, including a leaping 27-yard catch along the sideline to set up a nine-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Deon McIntosh.

That catch, in particular, showed Claypool’s ability to utilize his 6-foot-4, 228-pound frame in jump-ball situations. The concept of putting Claypool near the tackle box had merit. A large target in short-yardage situations could have become a desirable safety net for Wimbush. That did not come to fruition. Adjusting such had become imperative.

To their credit, the Irish coaches made that adjustment. In doing so, they appear to have found the needed complement to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who finished with four catches for 61 yards Saturday, including a 40-yard reception.

“We’re going to take our shots down the field,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “We had a big throw to [St. Brown] earlier in the game. Claypool makes a great catch on the sidelines, so we’ll still be able to push the ball down the field.”

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush rebounded nicely from a disappointing passing performance a week ago. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Brandon Wimbush can indeed hit the broad side of a barn. He, in fact, might even be able to throw through a swinging tire.
The third-quarter sideline pass to Claypool showed a side of Wimbush the Irish long believed existed. They had seen it in practice. He had just not brought it yet to a Saturday. The pass was where Claypool could make a play on it, but the defender would not be able to. On a deeper route like that, such a delivery is ideal, even if it makes the actual catch more difficult. It lowers the risk:reward ratio.

In the second quarter, Wimbush tossed a 21-yard touch pass to a leaping fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe. The completion certainly reflected Smythe’s natural ability, but it was, again, put where he could reasonably catch it, yet out of reach of any Spartans.

These are the plays that lead to a stat line of 14-of-20 for 173 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. That may not set the world on fire, but Notre Dame did not need it to.

“He’s just growing,” Kelly said of Wimbush following his fourth career start. “He hasn’t arrived, but he did some really good things at the position tonight that helped us become efficient on offense.”

The season’s opening three games were a small sample size of inaccuracy. Saturday night was an even smaller sample size of accuracy, but it proved that skill is within Wimbush’s realm of Saturday possibility. The next step, obviously, will be reaching consistency.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame can, should and inevitably will continue to lean on the running game first.
It is still unknown just how good (or bad) Michigan State is — the next two weeks, vs. Iowa and at Michigan, should provide much more clarity on that — but the Irish offensive line still made quite a statement when it routinely sprung theoretical fourth-stringer McIntosh loose for chunks of yardage at a time.

Irish junior running back Dexter Williams finished with 40 yards on eight carries, including this 14-yard touchdown run, in Notre Dame’s 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Notre Dame gained 187 yards on 39 rushes (sacks adjusted). Those numbers may not come anywhere near the records set against Boston College, but those were records for a reason. Saturday’s average of 4.8 yards per carry is the type of consistency needed to sustain an offense. Even in light of Claypool’s and St. Brown’s success, Kelly acknowledged where this offense starts.

“It should be more about through our play-action and quick game.”

Whatever level of quality resistance the Spartans provided, they are still a Mark Dantonio-coached unit. A crucial part of last season’s 3-9 collapse was injury after defensive injury. Writing off a decade’s track record due to one season is foolhardy.

Notre Dame ran through a stout defensive front Saturday night. Michigan State is not at the level of Georgia, but it is on the stronger half of defenses the Irish will face this season. Success against it is an indicator of coming success.

Speaking of Georgia …
The SEC may be hard to read yet, but the No. 11 Bulldogs looked very good Saturday afternoon as they mopped the floor with No. 17 Mississippi State, 31-3. If Wimbush had a calmly-efficient evening for Notre Dame, it will be difficult to find the adjectives needed to describe Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm’s day, finishing 9-of-12 for 201 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

A week after Mississippi State delivered a statement victory over LSU, the Bulldogs outgained the Bulldogs — okay, let’s try that again — Georgia outgained Mississippi State 404 yards to 280, simply winning with a methodical approach.

Georgia could not be in much better position in the SEC’s Eastern Division. If nothing else, the red-and-black Bulldogs will clearly not be far from contention this season.

Notre Dame really wanted that megaphone.
Maybe it is the hour of typing this (early Saturday a.m.). Maybe it is this scribe’s cynicism. Maybe it is completely off base.

But, how exactly does someone get this excited about ownership of a trophy that absurd?

Points off turnover differential becoming theme to Notre Dame’s season

Associated Press
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To truly grasp how much Notre Dame relied on forced turnovers to rout Michigan State 38-18 on Saturday, consider the halftime stat sheet.

The most important number, naturally, was the score: 28-7. Every statistic down the rest of the box score was either an even comparison or tilted toward the Spartans.

Total yards: Notre Dame 209, Michigan State 221.
Rushing yards: Notre Dame 99, Michigan State 121.
Passing yards: Notre Dame 110, Michigan State 100.
Third down conversions: Notre Dame 5-of-8, Michigan State 6-of-10.
Total plays: Notre Dame 34, Michigan State 39.
Yards per play: Notre Dame 6.1, Michigan State 5.7.

A three-possession deficit belies all those metrics.

Interceptions: Notre Dame 0, Michigan State 1.
Fumbles Lost: Notre Dame 0, Michigan State 2.

Ahhhhhh.

“We hadn’t been able to take the football away the last few years,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “We’re taking it away, and then we’re opportunistic.”

Not only did junior cornerback Shaun Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble prevent a Michigan State touchdown Saturday, it also led to a Notre Dame score on the ensuing drive. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Opportunistic may be putting it lightly. Notre Dame has scored 56 points off nine turnovers this season. The only occasion which did not result in a touchdown came as the first half ended against Georgia. Senior rover Drue Tranquill intercepted Bulldogs freshman quarterback Jake Fromm with only 26 seconds remaining in the second quarter. A three-and-out, in part limited by a false start penalty against senior left guard Quenton Nelson, led to a punt as the clock reached four zeroes.

To put those nine turnovers in a larger context, last year the Irish defense forced a total of 14 turnovers. At the current pace, there may be as many as 27 this season.

“Those are the real numbers when you get down to it,” Kelly said. “They equal points and point differentials, and they equal winning football games.”

Part of those numbers are certainly the lack of turnovers offered up by Notre Dame’s offense, only five at this point. More impressively, however, is how the defense has responded to those situations, allowing a total of three points.

Think about that: The Irish have outscored opponents 56-3 on stolen possessions.

“Each team takes on a different kind of look each year, and this team is the way it’s coached, the way [defensive coordinator] Mike Elko was brought here because we knew that’s the kind of defense that he has coached in his tenure,” Kelly said. “He coaches it every day, he talks about it, but more importantly, it’s taught every single day. Those aren’t coincidences.”

An increase also in sacks
Fourteen was a common theme in criticizing Notre Dame’s defense from a year ago. The Irish forced only 14 turnovers, for example. They also tallied only 14 sacks.

Nearly keeping pace with the influx of takeaways, Notre Dame has recorded eight quarterback takedowns through four games. Most notably Saturday, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara sacked Michigan State junior Brian Lewerke on the second half’s opening drive, forcing the Spartans to attempt a field goal.

Officially, Okwara shared credit for that sack with junior tackle Jerry Tillery, but whoever deserves the credit, the event itself is what is vital to Elko’s approach. Tranquill also managed a sack against the Spartans.

Quick multiplication puts the Irish on pace for 24 sacks this season. That may not be an especially startling figure, but the simple threat of that pass rush forces quarterbacks to keep it in mind, furthering its effect.

Both Okwara and Tillery entered the weekend with one sack this season. The half for each will put them atop the Notre Dame listing.

Two firsts
Junior running back Dexter Williams caught his first career touchdown pass Saturday night, an eight-yard reception from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush in the second quarter.

Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh notched his first career touchdown with a nine-yard carry in the third quarter, finishing the day with a career-high 12 carries for another career-high of 35 yards.