Te'o Victory Stanford

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.

 

 

 

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…)