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.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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