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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.

 

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…)