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.

 

 

 

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.