Brian Kelly

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.

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…)