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

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With the Irish taking the week off with a well deserved bye week, Notre Dame fans everywhere can breathe deep and enjoy a nice break in the action and savor the 4-0 start. As you’d expect with a game like Saturday’s, not everything on the field went the way it was planned, but thanks to a dominant defensive performance and forcing a ton of takeaways, the Irish ran the table in September, and beat back-to-back top 20 opponents for the first time since 2002.

Let’s get down to the good, the bad, and the ugly of Notre Dame’s 13-6 victory over Michigan.

THE GOOD

The scoring defense. Notre Dame hasn’t allowed a touchdown over their last eight quarters, and has yielded just 36 points on the season. The Irish check in at No. 4 in the country in scoring defense, a stat made all the more impressive when you look at the schedules of the teams in the top ten.

No. 1 TCU — Grambling State, Kansas, Virginia.
No. 2 Alabama — Michigan, Western Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida Atlantic
No. 3 Cincinnati — Pitt, Delaware State
No. 4 Notre Dame — Navy, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan
No. 5 South Carolina — Vanderbilt, East Carolina, UAB, Missouri
No. 6 (tie) Texas Tech — Northwestern State, Texas State, New Mexico
No. 6 (tie)  Florida State — Murray State, Savannah State, Wake Forest, Clemson
No. 8 LSU — North Texas, Washington, Idaho, Auburn
No. 9 Iowa State — Tulsa, Iowa, Western Illinois
No. 10 Boise State — Michigan State, Miami (OH), BYU

There are quite a few cupcakes on that list, making the Irish’s slate of three Big Ten opponents (two ranked) and Navy look all the better.

Forcing Turnovers. A season after struggling to force any turnovers, the Irish intercepted an amazing five Michigan passes in a row, forcing six turnovers on their way to victory. Notre Dame hasn’t registered five picks in a game since they did it to Purdue in 1988. Notre Dame now sits at No. 4 in the country in turnover margin, registering five fumble recoveries and eight interceptions on the season, good for a +9 margin.

“My wife even talks to me when I’m plus-nine,” Kelly cracked after the game on Saturday. “Which didn’t happen much last year.”

There’s still plenty of work to do in the young Irish secondary, but whether it’s good fortune or not, there’s a noticeable difference in the secondary’s ability to get their hips opened and turn and look for the ball. Bennett Jackson‘s interception on Saturday night was a product of taking the football away from a receiver and while Denard Robinson was certainly throwing balls up for grabs, he did the same thing the year before and the Irish couldn’t capitalize on it.

The Pass Rush. You can’t just pin your ears back and chase after a quarterback like Denard Robinson. But the Irish still managed to get three sacks on Michigan’s elusive quarterback, and the relentless pressure of the Irish forced more than a few bad decisions by the quarterback. It didn’t show up in the box score, but Dan Fox‘s hustle play on Michigan’s first drive embodied the effort. Coming up the middle on an A gap blitz on 3rd and 9, Fox was chopped down by a blocker, but somersaulted back to his feet and laid a hit on Robinson, forcing a high throw. Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo each tallied another sack as well, with Tuitt at six for the year, good for second in the country. Freshman Sheldon Day also had a sack. That’s two for the rookie.

Bennett Jackson. Talk about filling up a stat sheet. Jackson led the Irish with nine tackles — six solo — and had a fumble recovery and an interception. What an active player on the short-side of the field, and in his first season starting at cornerback he’s already an athletic upgrade at the position.

Manti Te’o. With tens of thousands of Hawaiian leis being worn in his honor, Notre Dame’s heart and soul put together another transcendent performance. Te’o intercepted Robinson twice and made eight tackles, including one for a loss, as the defense stood strong and closed out the game. In an era of offensive firepower it might not be possible for Te’o to make his way into the Heisman Trophy race, but it’s not an outrageous suggestion.

Danny Spond. Spond also had his best day in a Notre Dame uniform, making seven tackles and forcing a fumble on Robinson. The junior went through a very scary ordeal after a big collision in practice left him with a severe migraine that caused him to lose feeling in his leg. But Spond has rebounded and played well the last two weeks at the drop linebacker position. He was efficient in the run game and also showed a great ability to get depth in his passing drops, shoring up a position of weakness for the Irish while Ben Councell learns on the job.

Kyle Brindza. After missing his first attempt against Navy, Brindza has been rock solid. His field goal against Purdue won the game. He iced the victory at Michigan State. And with the pressure on him against the Wolverines, Brindza made two clutch kicks, neither in doubt. Mix in his ability to kick touchbacks, he’s turning into another special teams weapon.

Tommy Rees to Tyler Eifert. After teaming for one of the most potent QB-TE combinations in the country last year, Rees and Eifert hooked up for the game clinching completion, with Rees hitting Eifert in stride on a go-route after Eifert blew by Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd. The 38-yard connection was Eifert’s only catch of the day, but came at a crucial time.

Theo Riddick’s game sealing run. He might not be as dangerous as Cierre Wood, but on 3rd and 8 with the Irish needing a first down to end the game or be put in a tricky situation on 4th down, Riddick ended the game, bursting up the middle for eight yards and a game-ending first down that let the Irish take a knee and run out the clock.

THE BAD

Everett Golson’s step back. There’s no reason to beat this into the ground, but it’s an important two weeks for Golson. For the Irish offense to be what it needs to be, they’ll need Golson to make better decisions and do a good job managing the game. His physical gifts are obvious for anyone that’s watched the Irish play, but they’ll be useless if he makes decisions like the one he did on Notre Dame’s end zone interception. Throwing that ball up for grabs in a game like Saturday’s should get a quarterback pulled, and credit Kelly for doing it.

There will be days like that for young quarterbacks, but the more Notre Dame wins, the harder it is to stomach rookie mistakes. It might make it tough on a young quarterback to develop with confidence, but this is Notre Dame, one of college football’s great pressure-cookers.

The offensive versatility. The majority of ND Nation wanted Brian Kelly to run the football against Michigan. But after Everett Golson under-threw a ball into coverage on his first snap, the game plan turned pretty vanilla. Run twice, then throw a two-yard pattern on 3rd and four creates plenty of grumbling.

It’s tough to run the football with a stacked line of scrimmage. And Kelly openly discussed being stubborn and jamming the football into some not-so-friendly run looks. But if the Irish are going to making a run this season, they’re going to need to get more out of this offense. It’s easy to blame the play of the offensive line, but some creative play calling makes things easier for everybody.

Lack of a killer instinct. This football game could’ve gotten ugly quickly if the Irish were able to capitalize on the field position they had after Denard Robinson’s first two interceptions. It didn’t come back to bite the Irish on Saturday, but putting away opponents — especially ones that have done what Michigan did to the Irish in 2011 — is the next step.

THE UGLY

Denard Robinson’s stat line. After a ballgame like that, there’s nothing else to say. Robinson played the worst game of his football career in one of the season’s biggest moments. There will be plenty of opportunities for Michigan to play better. And in the weakest Big Ten in recent memory, the Rose Bowl is still very much in play for the Wolverines. But after playing his best against Notre Dame in 2010 and 2011, it was a nightmare for Robinson on Saturday night.

An ugly win. But still a win.

 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“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, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

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

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)