Opposition round-up: Week seven

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Oklahoma stepped forward while Purdue and Michigan State stepped backwards. Oklahoma’s offense looked to be in peak form while USC’s defense did the job against Washington. As the season continues, the Irish schedule continues to come into focus.

Let’s take a look at how Notre Dame’s opponents did over the weekend.

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NAVY — A vintage Navy victory this weekend, bringing the Midshipmen back to .500 on the season as they went into Brian Kelly’s old house and beat up Central Michigan. With Navy able to run the ball effectively, they used the playaction pass as the knockout blow, and freshman Keenan Reynolds threw three touchdown passes — all three on relatively deep shots — to run away from the Chippewas.

Trending: A great win for Ken Niumatalolo’s squad, who played much better defense as they held CMU to just 12 first downs and 221 yards while controlling the clock.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers got off to a quick start against Wisconsin, scoring in the game’s first minute. But after that it was all Montee Ball, as the Badgers rolled over Purdue, sticking the proverbial fork in the hopes that the Boilermakers would be a Big Ten dark horse. Caleb TerBush was just 7 of 16 for 80 yards and one interception, and Robert Marve and Rob Henry weren’t much better. Purdue is now 3-3 and 0-2 in the Big Ten.

Trending: Another big step backwards for Purdue, after the season started off with relatively high hopes. It seems the old adage about having two quarterbacks is true when the number is three as well.

MICHIGAN STATE — After playing roulette last weekend with an inferior opponent, the Spartans struck out against Iowa, with the Hawkeyes tying the game up with a touchdown in the game’s final minute and then winning in double-OT when quarterback Andrew Maxwell was picked off. Maxwell completed only 12 of 31 passes for 179 yards, while Le’Veon Bell ran for 140 and a score. That’s two losses for the Spartans in Big Ten play with their annual grudge match with Michigan set for this weekend.

Trending: A really disappointing loss for Sparty in the rain, who is looking like one of the biggest disappointments of the first 1/2 season.

No. 23 MICHIGAN — What cures the Wolverines’ ills? How about some Big Ten competition. A week after pasting Purdue, it was the Denard Robinson show all over again, running and throwing for four total touchdowns on his way to steamrolling downtrodden Illinois. It could’ve been more if Robinson didn’t exit the game briefly in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury. Michigan’s defense was even more dominating, holding the Ilini to just 134 yards and seven first downs. Illinois had just 29 yards of passing.

Trending: The Wolverines climbed their way back into the top 25 this week. If they can beat Michigan State for the first time in five seasons, they might turn themselves back into the Big Ten’s best team, with the ineligible Buckeyes hoping to play spoilers.

MIAMI — A week after getting shut down by the Notre Dame defense, Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels did the same against the Hurricanes, holding Stephen Morris to just 12 of 26 passing and two interceptions. Morris hurt his ankle in the fourth quarter and the ‘Canes couldn’t rally as North Carolina climbed to 5-2 on the season. Another game, another offense runs for 250+ against the Hurricanes defense, as former Notre Dame commitment Gio Bernard went for 177 and two touchdowns.

Trending: It’s a step back for Al Golden’s young Canes, but probably more of a leveling out.

BYU — In a game that was closer than it looked, No. 10 Oregon State ran away from BYU in the fourth quarter, pulling away after the Cougars pulled even at 21 late in the third quarter. Senior Riley Nelson completed 28 of 51 throws for 305 yards, but was intercepted three times. Oregon State also managed to put up 450 yards of offense on the stingy Cougars defense.

Trending: BYU feels like a really dangerous three loss team. They probably feel like they should have victories against Boise State and Utah, and were in this game until the fourth quarter against an undefeated Oregon State team.

No. 10 OKLAHOMA — The Red River Shootout was a beat down, with the Sooners playing their most impressive game of the season against their rival Longhorns. While I expected the Sooners to win, a 36-2 halftime score raised some eyebrows, as the Sooners absolutely shredded the Texas defense for an astonishing 677 yards. Landry Jones threw for 321 yards and the Oklahoma ground game got more than healthy, running for 343 on 51 carries.

Trending: It didn’t take long for ABC to turn this game into a national, primetime broadcast. The farther the Sooner’s loss gets in the rear-view mirror the better they look. With the Irish heading into Norman next weekend, it should be a really intriguing match-up.

PITTSBURGH — Pitt came out swinging against Louisville, but the No. 18 Cardinals rallied with three unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter to run away with the win in a high scoring affair, 45-35. Pitt is certainly getting better, with Tino Sunseri putting together an impressive stat line with 28 of 37 passing for 287 and two touchdowns. Freshman running back Rushel Shell took control of the ground game, gaining 96 yards on 18 carries. But Senorise Perry’s four touchdowns were too much to overcome.

Trending: There aren’t moral victories in college football, but Pitt certainly is looking better than they did early in the year. Whether Ray Graham is slow to recover from an ACL injury or Rushel Shell is really good, Pitt seems to have found a running back, now they just need to solidify their offensive line and defense.

BOSTON COLLEGE — Another ugly loss for Boston College, getting beat down by Florida State 51-7 as the Seminoles took out some frustrations on the downtrodden Eagles. E.J. Manuel threw for 439 yards against BC, racking up 649 yards while Chase Rettig and company only managed seven points and 225 total yards. Junior running back Andre Williams offered the only silver lining, running for 104 yards after running for 191 against Army.

Trending: The Eagles’ season is an unmitigated disaster. Their lone victory is against Maine. The Frank Spaziani hot seat is now engulfed in flames.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons had the weekend off, staying at 3-3 and 1-3 in the ACC. They face Virginia and Clemson over the next two weekends.

Trending: Staying put.

No. 11 USC — Nothing all that impressive offensively from USC, though their ground game put together a nice effort behind Silas Redd’s 155 yards and a touchdown. Still, Matt Barkley can’t be doing his draft stock any good with a 10 for 20 day for 167 yards with one touchdown and interception. Still, the Trojans defense is coming together, holding Washington to 299 yards, and SC got a punt block in the second quarter to extend their lead to 24-7, letting their defense do the rest.

Trending: Upwards. You get the feeling that USC’s offense will play well enough to win against Notre Dame come November. But if their defense can keep making progress, the Trojans will be one last gigantic obstacle in the way of the Irish.

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

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