Five things we learned: No. 9 Notre Dame 41, Miami 3

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After five impressive Saturdays, it’s getting pretty difficult to ignore. Notre Dame might just have a really good football team. On a Saturday where three of the top five teams in the country lost, the No. 9 Fighting Irish just kept rolling, dominating a young but talented Miami team 41-3.

It’s Notre Dame’s most commanding victory over the Hurricanes in 35 years, when they beat Lou Saban’s 3-8 1977 squad 48-10 en route to a national championship. Powered by a dominant ground attack that featured 100-yard rushers in both Cierre Wood and George Atkinson, Notre Dame blew the game open with 28 points in the second half, coasting to victory in front of 62,871 fans in Chicago’s Soldier Field.

In another Shamrock Series game designed to help spread the Notre Dame brand, the product Brian Kelly‘s squad put on the field did the job better than any alternate uniform or barnstorming tour.

Here’s what else we learned during Notre Dame’s impressive 41-3 win.

1. Against a Hurricane defense prone to give up yardage on the ground, Notre Dame’s run game got healthy Saturday night.

Heading into Saturday night’s contest, the Irish ranked a mediocre 86th in the country in rushing offense. With a depth chart stacked at the running back position and an offensive line that has plenty of veteran talent, Notre Dame spent the bye week getting their running backs more comfortable running behind offensive line coach Harry Hiestand‘s blocking schemes, and the results were pretty impressive.

“We really took a hard look at where we were offensively,” Kelly said after the game. “We felt like we found a way to run the football today and out game plan was situated on running the football.”

The Irish didn’t burst out of the gate running the ball, with Notre Dame running for a modest 106 yards on 20 carries in the first half. But starting with the ball in the third quarter and a 13-3 lead, the Irish ground game took over, thanks to the long-waiting good play of senior Cierre Wood.

Wood had a dazzling 37-yard run off the right side of the Irish line, bursting around the corner and diving into the end zone for what looked like a touchdown. While replay put the ball on the two-yard line and forced Wood to carry it once more to score, it started the Irish offense rolling, and Notre Dame never threw the ball again.

After spending the past few weeks trying to work his way out of Kelly’s doghouse, Wood earned his coach’s praise with his performance on Saturday night, keyed by his big run.

“He did a great job on his run, showed great patience, stepped on the heals of the guard and bent it back. He hadn’t done that all year,” Kelly said. “He had a great week of practice, preparing himself to do what we’ve asked him to do.”

Wood ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns on just 18 carries, powering the Irish offense in the second half. And if Wood put the Hurricanes defense on its heels, sophomore Atkinson put Miami on their collective backs. Atkinson exploded in the second half, running for 127 yards on just ten carries, including a 55-yarder that left multiple Hurricanes in his vapor trail.

With Theo Riddick nursing an elbow bruise, it was Wood, Atkinson, and Cam McDaniel powering the Irish offense for 270 second half rushing yards, killing the will of Miami’s young defense and bleeding most of the second half away.

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2. Notre Dame’s defense continues to put up scary numbers.

Notre Dame hasn’t given up a touchdown over its last 12 quarters, holding Michigan State, Michigan and now Miami out of the end zone. The Irish defense is allowing just 7.8 points a game now, and has surrendered only three touchdowns on the season, the least amount in college football.

After scoring 86 points and gaining 1,260 yards over the last two Saturdays, Miami scored just three points and gained 285 yards of total offense. Missing on two deep chances on their first drive, the Hurricanes struggled to do anything against Notre Dame’s defense after the Irish got settled in.

“After we settled down to the speed of the game, we limited a very good offense,” Kelly said. “We didn’t give up the big plays and we certainly got a couple breaks early on. I thought we adjusted well to the speed of the game after the first quarter. Again, we have now held University of Miami, Michigan, and Michigan State to not scoring a touchdown. That’s an incredible feat for our defense.”

The Irish didn’t rush the passer particularly well, failing to get a sack against Stephen Morris. But Notre Dame did get pressure on Morris in the second half, and the ability to do so with just four men helped the Irish drop men into coverage and hold the ‘Canes at bay. From there, it was just a matter of the defense tackling, and Bob Diaco‘s unit continues to play fundamentally solid defense.

The Irish kept up their incredible play in the red zone, keeping Miami out of the end zone both times they entered. It’s a perfect formula for limiting points and the Irish surrendered only 13 first downs on the evening.

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3. In need of a solid performance, Everett Golson delivered when he needed to, stabilizing a quarterback position that had a roller-coaster week.

After reaffirming Everett Golson as the starting quarterback Thursday evening after practice, I learned late Friday night that Golson wouldn’t be starting against Miami. The Thursday announcement that was meant to quell any controversy at the quarterback position was once again thrown up in the air when Notre Dame confirmed Golson wouldn’t be starting less than an hour before the game, because of an unspecified violation of team rules.

“Our team rules are pretty simple as it relates to being on time,” Kelly said after the game, explaining Golson’s temporary demotion. “We have high standards and we hold all of our players to that standard.”

Those standards lasted just three plays, as Golson took over the reins of the offense after Tommy Rees went three and out, but Ben Turk was roughed in his first punting attempt. From there, Kelly built Golson’s confidence back, mixing in some quarterback runs while also helping Golson establish his rhythm passing.

After playing his worst game of the season against Michigan, Golson completed 17 of 22 throws for 186 yards. He looked solid on a two-minute drive at the end of the first half that ended with a missed Kyle Brindza field goal, and he also found Tyler Eifert and Davaris Daniels for two big plays down the field.

More importantly, Golson showed command of the offense and helped solidify Kelly’s belief that sticking with his talented but still learning sophomore won’t hinder the Irish from going to where they believe they can.

“I thought Everett grew up today,” Kelly said after the game. “It was important for me after disciplining him to get him back in the game right away, to let him know that I had trust in him and that I believed in him.”

Golson paid back that faith by playing relatively risk-free football, essentially replicating his performance against Navy by managing the game, buying time with his legs, and handing the ball off as the running game got on track.

Golson will face a true test next weekend when Stanford’s defense comes to town. But until then, the sophomore quarterback quieted his detractors with a solid day at the office.

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4. After a week off, the Irish offense opened up the playbook and finally put up some points.

It wasn’t a radical departure from what worked over the season’s first four games. But by unlocking Golson’s ability to contribute in the running game, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin gave defenses one more problem to worry about.

Notre Dame gave the ball to five different players at least five times, averaging an impressive 7.4 yards on the ground. They also threw it to nine different players, distributing 19 balls for 211 yards. While Eifert continues to be a marked man by defenses, the Irish utilized multiple sets and formations and got the Miami defense into some situations that were advantageous for the offense.

“We used some formations to get some good match-ups,” Kelly said. “They were rotating their coverage to Eifert quite a bit and it opened up a lot of things for us in the running game.”

With Eifert still relegated to being more of a traditional tight end than many imagined, Notre Dame mixed in three tight end sets, using Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack with Eifert at the same time, presenting some match-up problems for Miami’s youthful defense.

With multiple tight ends on the field, the Irish were able to control the pace of the game and the football, dominating the time of possession battle with an astounding 39:08 with the football. Notre Dame gained 18 first downs on the ground, moving the sticks for much of the second half, and keeping the ball out of Miami’s hands.

“We felt like if we could keep them from getting the big plays, and we could run the football, that was going to be our recipe for success,” Kelly said.

Incorporating Golson into the run game helped open up lanes for Wood and Atkinson, and will keep Stanford’s defense from crashing down at the line of scrimmage next Saturday.

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5. With ESPN’s College GameDay coming to South Bend, the Irish are deserving of every early accolade they get.

Expect the talk about Notre Dame to amplify as the week goes on. With ESPN set to come to town with College GameDay for Notre Dame’s showdown against Stanford, it’ll be up to Kelly and his rapidly maturing football team to avoid the distractions and get ready for another difficult opponent.

But make no mistake, Notre Dame deserves all the accolades coming their way. With a defense that’s as good as any in the post-Holtz era, this football team is very worthy of a ranking in the middle of the top ten. Sure, there’s work to be done by the offense, but just about every team in the top ten has had some flaws exposed this far into the season, and the fact that the Irish are still standing and undefeated says plenty about this football team.

It’s still far too early to be looking towards the postseason, but getting by next Saturday will be huge for Notre Dame. If the Irish can beat Stanford, a team that looked shaky when Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona team took the Cardinal to overtime, Notre Dame would get past one of their three largest remaining hurdles. From there, they’ll face opponents their defense can shut down and will get to take their shot in two daunting road games, in Norman, Oklahoma and Los Angeles over Thanksgiving weekend.

A ten-win team with losses to Oklahoma and USC still seems a lock for a BCS game, especially with the Irish’s drawing power. But after watching the Sooners and Trojans struggle this season, there’s every reason to believe Notre Dame is going to be in every game they play this year, if only because Manti Te’o and the defense won’t let them do anything else.

After all, Notre Dame still hasn’t trailed this season, the last team in the country to be able to say that. The last time they went through five games without trailing was during the 1947 national championship run.

Gazing ahead in early October is the kind of thing that usually trips up a football team. You can bet Kelly and his coaching staff, not to mention the team’s veteran leadership, will keep everybody’s eyes on the prize. But for Irish fans unaccustomed to having anything to look forward to by Autumn, the ability to even dream has to be a welcome surprise.

After watching the Irish absolutely outclass Miami in Soldier Field and extend their record to 5-0, that dream is well on its way to becoming reality.

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

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

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

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You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)