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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.

 

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.