And in that corner… The BYU Cougars

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There is no preordained headline for Notre Dame’s battle this Saturday against BYU. It won’t be in a historic location or against a natural rivalry. ESPN won’t be staked out in front of the library. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a critical Saturday for the Irish.

With BYU heading to South Bend, two independent teams with a ton of football tradition collide. For the Cougars, a win will get their season back on track after uncharacteristic mistakes have led to three losses. For the Irish, it’ll mean getting win number seven before heading to Norman, Oklahoma for the next biggest game of the year.

To get everybody up to speed on the Cougars, Jeff Call of the Deseret News was kind enough to answer some questions for me. Jeff has been covering Cougar sports since 1993, so needless to say he’s seen his fair share of football teams roll through Provo.

I asked, Jeff answered. Let’s all learn a little bit.

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1. From afar, it feels like an up-and-down season for BYU. I’d probably make the argument that the Cougars have to feel like they should be 5-1. Is that the feeling inside the program?

With 29 seniors on the roster, BYU entered the season with very high expectations. Losing by a combined four points at Utah and Boise State in back-to-back weeks was a disappointment. Riley Nelson suffered a back injury in the win against Weber State, rendering him ineffective against the Utes and Broncos. The Cougars felt they had a great shot to knock off No. 10 Oregon State last week, and they were tied with the Beavers heading into the fourth quarter before some mistakes cost them the game. BYU is still a confident team, knowing it is just a few plays away from being 5-1, and the Cougars are looking at this week’s game at Notre Dame as another great opportunity to prove how good they are.

2. Obviously, the strength of this team is the defense. They’ve put up some impressive numbers and kept BYU in just about every football game. They don’t look like the biggest unit, so how are they playing as well as they are?

We knew going into the season that BYU would be strong defensively. The Cougars had a lot of veteran players returning. But they have been better than advertised. They did give up 332 passing yards last week against Oregon State, but other than that, they’ve been very impressive this season. These guys have great chemistry, they love playing together, and they pride themselves in being in the right spot and executing. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy is a big play-maker, while Brandon Ogletree is the emotional leader. USC transfer Uona Kaveinga and Spencer Hadley have been solid this year. On the defensive line, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, a native of Ghana who only started playing football a couple of years ago, has also made an impact and is drawing considerable attention from NFL scouts.

3. Taysom Hill seemed like an intriguing dual-threat player until he went down with an injury. That puts the offense back in Riley Nelson’s hands, who looks to have really regressed this season. Can it all be blamed on a back injury? What’s the current state of the quarterbacking position?

Riley Nelson’s back injury has really hampered him this season, obviously. But what we’re seeing from him this year is what we’ve always seen from him. He’s a risk-taker. Sometimes that results in big plays, sometimes that results in turnovers. There are times when he will scramble around and force a throw into triple coverage rather than throw it away. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is adamant that Nelson continues as the starter because he loves his grit and leadership. With Hill out for the season with a knee injury, James Lark, a senior, is Nelson’s backup. Because Nelson is injury-prone, it wouldn’t surprise anyone around here if Lark ends up seeing significant playing time at some point this season.

4. Give me one player on offense and one player on defense that Notre Dame fans should be worried about.

Offense: Wide receiver Cody Hoffman. He has caught at least one pass in 26 consecutive games and is BYU’s leading receiver (41 catches for 534 yards and two touchdowns). Hoffman is Nelson’s favorite target and he can be dangerous.

Defense: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Despite being double-teamed often this season, Van Noy has 11.5 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, five pass breakups, eight quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.

5. As someone that follows BYU football, can you give me your perspective on what football independence means for BYU? Do you feel like Notre Dame has been an ally in that process?

BYU officials love independence so far because it provides the school, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a tremendous amount of exposure thanks to the broadcast partnership with ESPN. There are BYU fans throughout the country and throughout the world, and ESPN has given those fans the opportunity to follow the Cougars. Independence also gives BYU flexibility in scheduling, and the series with Notre Dame is something that everyone associated with BYU is excited about. The fact that Notre Dame was willing to schedule BYU shows that Notre Dame has been an ally. However, nobody seems to know how Notre Dame’s decision to partner with the ACC will affect the six-game series. While BYU knows it is not Notre Dame, I think the Cougars are watching Notre Dame very carefully as it navigates independence waters.

6. The Irish opened up as two-touchdown favorites. What’s the recipe for a BYU upset victory?

With the way BYU’s defense has been playing for most of the season, I think the key for an upset rests in the hands of the offense. The Cougars can’t afford to turn the ball over. In their three losses, they have had 10 turnovers — including a pair of pick-sixes and a fumble return for a touchdown. Nelson needs to avoid mistakes like that if BYU has any hope of an upset. The Cougars will need to generate some semblance of a run game, and that could be tough against Notre Dame’s defense, and BYU’s starting running back is a 17-year-old true freshman, Jamaal Williams. The Cougars have had trouble at times getting into the end zone this season, and I know Notre Dame hasn’t given up a touchdown in weeks. But if BYU can keep it close going into the fourth quarter, it has a shot.

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Read Jeff’s work at the Deseret News here. You can also follow him on Twitter @ajeffreycall.

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)

And in That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season

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Michigan State has yet to be tested this season. Certainly, the Spartans have not seen a test the likes of Notre Dame, no matter what one’s view of the Irish may be. To get a better idea of who Notre Dame will face Saturday night, let’s turn to Chris Solari of the Detroit Free Press.

Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to educate us here at “Inside the Irish.” First off, how long have you been covering the Spartans for the Free Press?
I have been with the Detroit Free Press since last August, but I spent the previous 10 years following Michigan State for the Lansing State Journal and have been covering the Spartans off and on since 1994 when I was attending MSU.

It is somewhat remarkable how closely Notre Dame and Michigan State have paralleled each other over the last 13 months. Two miserable seasons followed by interminable offseasons, and now hopes of strong returns to success, though yet somewhat unfounded. At least, that is the mood around the Irish. Is it something similar up in East Lansing?
MSU’s situation goes beyond the 3-9 season last year, along with having four players dismissed for their involvements in two separate sexual assault cases and nine others having left the program. The optimism from the 2-0 start is very much tempered based on beating two Mid-American Conference opponents, but fans are warming to the improved efforts on offense and defense. However, coaches and fans alike know this is a young team with a lot of questions remaining to be answered.

I don’t know that the Spartans have realistic College Football Playoff hopes this year, but playing spoiler in the Big Ten certainly seems a possibility, especially with games at Michigan and Ohio State and home against Penn State. (Lucky to dodge the Boilermakers offensive powerhouse this year.) Where does facing Notre Dame fall in a macro view up there?
The next three games against ND, Iowa and Michigan will go a long way to determining both the Spartans’ identity and the course of their season. The game with the Irish really is the start of that trilogy after playing two up-tempo teams. It’s the first traditional, line-em-up, smashmouth game — in primetime on national television, no less — for a team with 19 true and redshirt freshmen playing.

It’s a young but talented collective, and MSU has shown surprising depth despite the aforementioned attrition. This week’s game will show just how deep the rotation will be going into those first two Big Ten games. All that said, after last season’s swoon, the young Spartans know they cannot be looking two or three opponents ahead.

Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke, left, and coach Mark Dantonio react following Lewerke’s 61-yard touchdown against Western Michigan in the Spartans’ season opener. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke saw some work last year, but has become the offensive leader only this season. Through two games, he has rushed for 150 yards and thrown for 411. Has his dual-weapon effectiveness been a result of Michigan State’s MAC-filled schedule so far, or is that kind of playmaking something Irish fans should expect to see this weekend?
Lewerke showed his legs last year at Maryland with 79 rushing yards and against Michigan with a 24-yard run, so it’s a significant part of his arsenal. He runs the read-option better than his predecessors, but MSU needs more from his arm to maintain its successful start. Brian Kelly knows this and, like I expect the Spartans to do with Brandon Wimbush, will attempt to make Lewerke show he can hit throws downfield and make wise decisions when he takes shots deep. He hasn’t shown great accuracy on long passes yet early in his career, but he has a strong arm (as Wimbush does) and is not afraid to take chances and be a “gunslinger” QB.

Maybe I am being presumptuous, but I would have expected junior running back LJ Scott to be the engine behind the Spartans offense. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry and gaining 994 yards in a dismal team campaign catches my attention like that. As Lewerke emerges, is there any chance Scott continues to be the secondary piece or is his assertion something of an inevitability?

Michigan State running back LJ Scott (3) stretches over the goal line for a touchdown against Western Michigan, Scott’s only rushing score thus far this season. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Take out Scott’s 44-yard run on fourth-and-1 against Western Michigan, and he’s averaging 2.5 yards on 32 other carries this season. He had two fumbles in the opener against Bowling Green, and he’s coming off multiple shoulder surgeries in the offseason that were meant to correct a “numbness” he said he would feel when he gets hit that goes all the way back to high school. Of the three running backs, all of whom have been featured at times the past three seasons, Scott provides the most versatility in running styles and ability to catch passes (including a touchdown catch on a wheel route against the Broncos). The staff remained committed to giving him the ball after his fumbling issue in the opener, but Gerald Holmes also showed last year at Notre Dame he can be the bell cow if Michigan State wants him to shoulder the load of carries. Nonetheless, there’s no question the Spartans expect and want Scott to be their feature back.

In Michigan State’s nine losses last year, the defense allowed more than 32 points per game. That would be disappointing for any team, but even more so for a Mark Dantonio-led unit. Before looking at this year, what went wrong defensively a season ago?
First, start at the MSU-ND game a year ago. That’s when Riley Bullough first got injured and missed the first three of a seven-game skid. Then Jon Reschke, who shined against the Irish, got hurt against Wisconsin and missed the rest of the year before leaving the program in the offseason. Malik McDowell was on and off the field all season with one minor injury after another. Demetrious Cox battled leg issues, and then Vayante Copeland was lost for the season. Losing those veterans last year forced MSU to play a number of untested players, many of whom were not quite ready early in the year but improved with experience (showed against Ohio State). Beyond that, MSU managed just 11 sacks all last season with those injury issues and inexperience. The Spartans also struggled to get off the field on third downs and wore down in the second half. They were outscored 220-136 after intermission, including 120-59 in fourth quarters and overtime. That was the first time in Dantonio’s first 10 seasons MSU was outscored after halftime and just the second time the Spartans got outscored in the fourth quarter and overtime in his tenure.

How much of that has changed this year?
The depth through two games has been surprising, even with most of the offseason attrition coming on defense. MSU has rotated six defensive ends and four defensive tackles, and its flipped pairings at both safety and cornerback regularly. That has kept the front seven fresh and quick to stop the run and get more pressure in the backfield. The Spartans’ third-down package has changed to more of a three-man front, with redshirt freshman Brandon Randle and senior Demetrius Cooper the pass-rushing ends. They are first in the country in allowing just an 11 percent third down conversion rate.

A year ago, the Spartans limited Notre Dame to 68 rushing yards (sacks adjusted). These days, as made quite clear last weekend at Boston College, the Irish could not be much more reliant on the run. Presuming Michigan State can’t limit Notre Dame to sub-70 again, will it be able to still force Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to win via the pass?
Dantonio admitted that allowing a quarterback to run for 200-plus yards is a recipe for failure, so expect the Spartans to spy him throughout Saturday night. Linebacker Chris Frey called him a “capture” quarterback as opposed to one who the defense believes it can go for sacks, which means they likely will put more eyes in the box on Wimbush and force him to show more accuracy in the passing game. There could be chances for Wimbush as well. True freshman Josiah Scott has made an immediate impact at cornerback, though the Spartans’ young secondary has benefitted from opposing quarterbacks missing throws and receivers dropping passes when they’ve been burned in coverage. As Kelly showed in the 2013 game, Notre Dame believes it can move the chains by throwing the ball up against Michigan State when it plays press man coverage and simply hoping the Spartans get too handsy and are called for pass interference penalties.

What else am I missing? Who or what should Notre Dame fans be looking for this weekend?
It’s expected to be a hot night in mid-Michigan, which could affect the players and cause cramping. Honorary captain Kirk Gibson’s Ring of Honor ceremony for being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame will amp up the crowd. So, too, will the first game under the new permanent lights at Spartan Stadium — night games in East Lansing create a different intensity Notre Dame teams have survived (2006) and failed (2010) in front of. It’s also worth noting Michigan State has won 11 of the last 18 meetings in the series, and this could be the last time these two teams play again until 2026. Everyone up here is cognizant of those facts, especially Dantonio, who knows it might be his last game coaching against a Notre Dame team he followed as a kid growing up in Ohio.

It strikes me you keep as close an eye as I do on spreads and such. Certainly, those are only for evaluation purposes and no other endeavors. This game opened with Notre Dame favored by 4 or 4.5 points, depending where you looked. It has already fluctuated toward 3 and 3.5 before seeming to settle at 4. How do you see Saturday night playing out?
I expect this to be a close game like most of the Michigan State-Notre Dame games have been during the Dantonio-Kelly era. It very well could come down to which team executes best on special teams. Justin Yoon is experienced, while Spartans kicker Matt Coghlin has yet to attempt a field goal.

While we’re at it, can I get you to commit to a score prediction?
Notre Dame 27, Michigan State 24.