Five things we learned: Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13

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Torrential rains. Phantom whistles. Heroic quarterbacking. And an epic (and disputed) goal line stand. Notre Dame’s 20-13 victory over Stanford played out like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, with 80,795 soaked fans waiting for what seemed like eternity while replay officials decided whether or not Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor was stopped short of the goal line on the game’s final play.

Notre Dame Stadium exploded when the ruling on the field stood, and the Irish players celebrated with a few thousand students on the field as the skies opened up and poured sheets of rain to the field. Hollywood stuff, indeed, even if the ruling was a bitter pill for Stanford to swallow.

“I didn’t get to view the last play,” Stanford coach David Shaw said after the game, disappointment dripping off his every word. “Stepfan swore to me that he got in and that he put the ball over the goal line on the second effort. Officials looked at it and they said he didn’t get in, so we didn’t get in.”

At 6-0, Notre Dame’s improbable run continues thanks to another monumental performance from the Irish defense and another improbable win in relief by junior quarterback Tommy Rees. A year after back-breaking losses and locker room dysfunction turned the season into a soap opera, the redemption story of this football team feels ripped right from a Hollywood screenplay, as the Irish defense conquered their nemesis, a Stanford team that beat the Irish by at least two touchdowns the last two years, as they kept the Cardinal out of the end zone from inside a yard on the game’s final two plays.

“When you’re talking to your team all week about a heavyweight match, and you can’t keep taking body blows, you have to stand in there,” Kelly said of the games final plays. “Sooner or later, you’ve got to be the one that delivers. It comes to fruition in the game ending and our team coming up with a great goal line stand. Classic.”

Let’s take a look at the things we learned during the Irish’s 20-13 triumph over Stanford.

Once a goal that seemed unreachable, B.I.A. — Best In America — isn’t too far fetched of a statement for Notre Dame’s defense.

When Brian Kelly came to South Bend, he wasn’t short on coachspeak or catchy maxims. Next Man In. Right Kinda Guys. Unconscious Competence. These were just a few of the building blocks he brought with him to Notre Dame, in hopes of rebuilding a program that lacked an identity that even resembled that of an elite national program.

Still, of all the catchy slogans and acronyms, one defensive goal stood out as probably the most far-fetched. B.I.A. Best In America. That was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s goal, one that drew more than a chuckle from Irish fans that had just watched Rick Minter, Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta turn the Irish defense into a roller derby team.

Now look at this group.

Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t allowed an offensive touchdown in sixteen quarters, its fourth straight game holding offenses out of the end zone. The 8.7 points allowed per game ranks second behind only Alabama, while the Irish still have yet to give up a rushing touchdown to an opponent, an impressive feat considering Stanford had four shots at it from inside the four yard line and spent all evening bringing in an extra offensive lineman to try and bulldoze the Irish defensive front with an off-balanced line that cleared the way for Stepfan Taylor. With a touchdown streak on the line, the Irish held the Cardinal out of the end zone, winning the game with its defense.

“We don’t talk about it but certainly it’s a source of pride,” Kelly said of the team’s touchdown streak. “They hear about it. They talk about it amongst themselves. It’s not something we stand up and talk about, other than when we go over our goals on Monday and we’ll go over them again and talk about what we are doing defensively. Again, the game ball went to our defense. How do you not give the defense the game ball after the way the game was played.”

Once again, Manti Te’o led the team in tackles and Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix were sometimes unblockable along the defensive line. The defense continued to force turnovers, with Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley snatching interceptions. And while there’s no complacency in this team’s defense, they also realize that they’ve taken their game to the level they’d long thought was merely a goal.

“If you’re not trying to be the best at what you’re doing, then why are you playing this game,” Te’o said. “If you’re just trying to be mediocre, then football’s not the game for you. We try to be the best at everything we do. That’s part of us now. That’s not just something we just preach anymore. That’s part of us now.”

Another game, another clutch save for Tommy Rees.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. With the game on the line and Everett Golson still dazed from a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit, Kelly once again called on Tommy Rees to come in and win the game for the Irish. With the Irish down three and a 15-yard penalty taking Notre Dame to the Stanford 34 in the game’s final minutes, Rees walked into the game and led the Irish to the game-tying field goal, then completed three clutch passes in overtime, including a game-winning seven-yard slant to TJ Jones.

Four throws, four completions, and another gutty win by the Irish’s deposed starter. As usual, Rees said everything right, rolling with the punches that come with being college football’s only quarterback closer.

“The best way I can describe it is really, you don’t have time to think,” Rees said after the game of getting called into action. “You have ten guys on offense and then a hundred guys on the team that are counting on you, let alone the University of Notre Dame and just playing for everyone here. You don’t have time to think about that kind of stuff. You just get out there and play.”

That it took as long as it did for Rees to come in the game says something about Kelly’s resolve in keeping Everett Golson as the team’s starting quarterback. Golson completed just 12 of 24 passes for 141 yards, took three sacks, was hit early and often and had three crucial turnovers.

Still, with Golson woozy from a hit and the game own to what looked like Notre Dame’s final possession, the team had nothing but confidence when they saw Rees go in.

“When Tommy goes in there, we don’t have any worries,” Te’o said. “It’s just, okay, Tommy’s in now. We have confidence in Tommy and he knows that. He’s just going to get better.”

Again, there’s no reason to believe that Golson won’t be the Irish’s starter when Notre Dame plays BYU next weekend. And as long as the Irish keep winning, maybe this formula can find a way to keep working.

It wasn’t all negative for Everett Golson out there.

In a game plan where Everett Golson needed only not to turn the ball over and manage the game, the sophomore quarterback had a hard time doing even. Golson fumbled the ball four times, losing three of them, and almost single-handedly kept Stanford in the football game through the game’s first three quarters. Throwing from his own end zone, Golson fed Stanford their only touchdown of the game, when he sacked from behind by defensive end Ben Gardner and the ball was scooped up by Chase Thomas for the score. (Though this touchdown is as much on the head coach as the quarterback, with a befuddling play call that Kelly admitted he wanted back.)

Golson lost a slippery center exchange in the first quarter. He lost another on a run in the second quarter that Theo Riddick recovered. The strip-sack and touchdown on the next series gave Stanford its lead.  In the third quarter, Golson killed a nice drive in the red zone, cutting up field instead of getting out of bounds and giving the ball to Stanford in a huge momentum shift.

While thousands of eyeballs fixated on the Irish sidelines looking to see if Tommy Rees would warm up, Kelly stuck with his young quarterback, and Golson rebounded down the stretch.

“I was really proud of Everett,” Kelly said. “His confidence was a bit shaken and he came back with a great drive and did some really good things. I was really proud of the way he overcame a little bit of adversity during the game, whereas when he had that situation against Michigan we really had to move in another direction. He fought through that and he made a big step today. He made some plays. He helped us win this football game.”

This performance wasn’t all on Golson. Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled to protect the young quarterback all evening, and Golson’s physical gifts helped him make some plays from outside the pocket and move the chains with a few athletic plays that certainly don’t happen with Tommy Rees on the field. At the same time, in film review tomorrow, it’ll be apparent that Golson left a ton of good looks on the field, missing a wide open Davaris Daniels who didn’t have anyone within 20 yards of him.

Still, that’s living and learning with a young quarterback. And credit to Kelly for growing with Golson, getting his confidence back before he was knocked from the game.

With a collection of great tight ends on the field, Tyler Eifert reminded people why he is still the class of college football.

So that’s the Tyler Eifert we all expected to see this year. Sharing a field with Stanford tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, it was Eifert that was the difference maker, as the All-American made the play of the night snatching a third-and-18 throw down between two defenders for a 24-yard touchdown that got the Irish back in the game.

Held to just three catches over his last three games, Eifert caught four balls for 57 yards, including the big touchdown. And while its definitely a step in the right direction, the Irish are still looking for ways to get the ball to their best playmaker.

“It was tough. He had double coverage on the weak side, and one-on-one on the front side. We just didn’t do a good enough job of taking advantage,” Kelly said of the use of Eifert. “We had to get the ball to him and maybe we forced it a couple times, but the kid came up with some great plays.”

Eifert’s statistics might be down, but his draft stock might be getting a bump up. With Ben Koyack disappointing in the blocking game, Eifert’s taken on the role of a more traditional tight end, showing really strong blocking skills at the point of attack. But when the chips were on the table, it was Eifert split wide this evening and making big plays.

If the Irish are going to keep winning, that’s where they’ll need him.

With David Shaw and Brian Kelly settling into their jobs, expect the Notre Dame – Stanford rivalry to pick up some intensity.

Don’t tell the guys on the football field that this was a battle of academic heavyweights. While both schools were touting a top 20 match-up between two schools ranked not just on the field but in the classroom, this looked to be the first of many epic clashes between Notre Dame and Stanford in the coming years.

With the ACC scheduling venture trying up five games a season, Notre Dame made sure to protect its rivalry with Stanford, an aspirational peer both on and off the field. While letting Michigan walk and likely making some other tough calls on more established rivalries, its telling that Notre Dame’s athletic director would immediately protect the annual series with the Cardinal, a program not necessarily entrenched as a football power, for reasons more nuanced than just another November destination on the West Coast.

Great games between Stanford and Notre Dame are good for college football. When quarterbacks at Ohio State are making waves for their dislike for class and SEC programs continue to push athletes onto the field that are student-athletes by name only, there’s something quite aspirational about a great battle between schools that do it right both on and off the field.

Add a little bad blood over botched calls, phantom whistles from the stands, and overtime games that come down to a matter of inches, and you get an annual match-up that can only get better with age.

 

 

 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

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

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

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)