Theo Riddick

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 17, BYU 14

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From the sounds of it, you’d have thought Notre Dame’s football team beat BYU while keeping an eye on Twitter, Facebook and message boards. The same social media and white noise that Brian Kelly warned his team about all week was tough on the No. 5 team in the country after a hard fought 17-14 victory. So when the Irish head coach walked up the tunnel and into the winning team’s locker room, he let his team know that he expected to hear a little bit more celebration.

“I think the thing that was concerning for me the most is when our guys came in, I didn’t sense a great feeling after winning a tough, tough, football game,” Kelly said. “That’s a team that won ten games last year. That’s a bracket-buster team in basketball parlance. That’s a darn good football team.”

If the emotions were subdued inside Irish quarters, its because this football team understands that expectations have been elevated. And they’ll go nowhere but up after this victory, with Notre Dame packing their things and heading to Norman, Oklahoma where a date with the Oklahoma Sooners awaits.

With any quarterback controversy stopped in its tracks by Kelly before he even got off the field (Everett Golson will start against the Sooners), let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 17-14 victory.

***

This football team can win without playing its best.

It wasn’t pretty for the Irish. Nor was the team playing to the noble characteristics that got them this far. But against a plucky opponent that took advantage of its opportunities, Notre Dame answered the bell in the second half, taking care of business and winning the football game. And while there’s joy after a victory, it’s clear that this team understands the expectations that come with being a top-five team.

“We won, and that’s great,” center Braxston Cave said after the game. “But I think guys hold themselves to a higher standard than what we put out there.”

It’s not just the guys in the locker room. Irish nation took to the internet, filled with panic and anxiety as they watched Notre Dame bumbled their way through the middle section of the football game. The passing game went dry. The defense couldn’t get off the field. Kyle Brindza missed two field goals he needed to convert. On a day where nothing seemed to go right, the Irish just went back to work and kept plugging, paying no attention to the energy vacuum that turned Notre Dame Stadium into a collection of 80,000 nervous fans sitting on their hands.

With just about everybody following Irish football knowing that a win would set up a gigantic match-up in Oklahoma next weekend, the Irish may not have been flat or fallen into a trap, but they sure didn’t play sharp. So they’ll celebrate a victory today, and come back tomorrow ready to correct some sloppy play.

“Saturday, you win the football game, and you need to feel that excitement,” Kelly said. “And then Sunday, Sunday could be an interesting day. But let’s wait for Sunday. Saturday is for success and celebration.”

***

Even with George Atkinson stuck in neutral, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood ran this team to victory.

Maybe Kelly was right when he wouldn’t put any stock into the fact that Theo Riddick was running for almost two yards per carry less than any other running back on the roster. Because today, Kelly was rewarded for putting his stock in Riddick, and the senior back played the best game of his Notre Dame career.

“I think what he did more than anything else is that he ran north and south and he plays physical,” Kelly said of Riddick’s efforts. “That gets an energy for everybody.  The O‑line sees a guy that’s really pounding it in there; I think that he got us that energy that we needed.”

No time was that energy needed more than in the third quarter, when the Irish offense was slumping and facing a third-and-one on their own 37-yard line. Needing to take advantage of a missed BYU field goal that could have turned the contest into a two-score game, Riddick broke a gang tackle at the line of scrimmage, kept his feet, and dashed for 55 yards before he was chased down at the BYU eight-yard line.

You’ll hardly mistake Riddick for a power back, a converted slot receiver who probably needs heels and a weight vest to get to his 5-foot-11, 200-pound program listing. But it’s been Riddick that’s gotten the tough inside yards for the Irish when they’ve needed them.

“He has run really hard and physical for us,” Kelly said. “Last year we had Jonas Gray, who was that big physical back. I’m not comparing him to Jonas because he’s not half his size, but running up between the tackles, it gives an energy to the entire team.”

Riddick’s long run was one of the game’s defining plays, but Cierre Wood also played his best game of the year. Facing a rush defense that was No. 3 in the country giving up just 67 yards a game, Wood sliced and diced his way through the Cougars for 114 yards on 18 carries. While George Atkinson struggled to get out in space and make plays, the veteran duo of best friends Riddick and Wood carried the load for the Irish.

***

From an afterthought to a key cog, Danny Spond has solved the Irish’s ‘Dog’ linebacker problems.

When Notre Dame received the commitment of blue-chip linebacker Jaylon Smith, many thought the youngster from Fort Wayne could step into the Irish starting lineup and fill a hole in the Irish linebacking corps. But after two seasons fighting his way through injuries and a crowded depth chart, Danny Spond has rewarded Brian Kelly for his faith.

Spond was one of Kelly’s first recruits, a prototype “RKG” before Irish fans really knew what one was. A converted high school quarterback, Kelly targeted Spond as a “big skill” talent, unsure of where he’d play once he got to South Bend, but sure that they’d find a place for a 6-foot-3, 230-pound athlete. After battling a scary migraine headache problem this preseason that on first glance looked career threatening, the junior linebacker has solidified the ‘Dog’ linebacker position, playing terrific football on the wide side of the field as both a run stopper and in pass coverage.

“He’s been so consistent,” Kelly said of Spond. “We don’t even take him off in nickel. I don’t know if you guys know it, he plays corner. Here is a guy that’s playing corner in our nickel package and running with No. 2 in bracket… He has been physical at the point of attack. Stopped teams that have wanted to go outside, I could go on and on.”

Spond iced the game with a game-ending interception deep in coverage, and made another terrific play knocking down a Riley Nelson pass. With the Irish playing Prince Shembo out of position last season on the wide side of the field and using Troy Niklas there as well, it was clear that Notre Dame needed someone to step up and take that role. While some expected that person to be sophomore Ben Councell, Spond has made himself an integral part of this defense.

“He’s been an unsung player on our defense and we appreciate him,” Kelly said. “He’s just played really, really well for us and he’s not even coming off the field.”

***

They may have given up two touchdowns, but the Irish defense played another rock solid game.

It says something about a defense when allowing 14 points is a disappointing performance. The Irish gave up their first defensive touchdown since Purdue, when broken coverage in the red zone resulted in Cody Hoffman‘s touchdown catch along the backline of the end zone. Fast-forward to another short field, as Kaneakua Friel‘s touchdown catch on linebacker Carlo Calabrese — with an assist to the replay official — put the Cougars in a rare place to score 14 points against the Irish defense in one quarter, the first time that’s happened this season.

“I think for us, we understood that we were beating ourselves and a lot of guys, we just needed to stay together,” Manti Te’o said after the game. “A lot of us were anxious and excited and we weren’t playing our brand of football. We came in at halftime and settled down and the result is the whole team just playing our brand of football.”

That brand of football included another banner game for the Irish’s star middle linebacker, with Te’o pitching in eleven tackles, his fourth interception of the season, and half a tackle-for-loss. After a few weeks with a quiet pass rush, the Irish also chased after Nelson all afternoon, getting four sacks — 1.5 courtesy of Stephon Tuitt — and forcing a few holding calls.

The Irish got a huge break when Nelson missed an open receiver behind the secondary, but otherwise Bob Diaco‘s unit created its own luck in the second half, limiting the Cougars to just 128 yards on 32 plays.

“We are finishing so well. It goes to their conditioning and mental and physical toughness,” Kelly said. “They believe they are going to win football games.  Doesn’t matter if they are behind. They have an energy about them that they believe they are going to win.”

***

With Tommy Rees in the game, Tyler Eifert came alive. The rest of the passing game? Not so much.

It didn’t take long to figure out that Tyler Eifert has missed having Tommy Rees at quarterback. In the game’s first quarter, Eifert matched his season high in catches and scored a touchdown. While he and Rees didn’t connect again for the rest of the game, Eifert’s presence drew nearly exclusive double-coverage on the Irish star, forcing the Irish offense to change their method of attack.

That change turned out to be a difficult one. Against a stingy defense, Notre Dame couldn’t get their passing offense rebooted, with TJ Jones‘ nice 33-yard gain on a good deep throw by Rees one of the only positive passing plays after the first quarter. With Davaris Daniels letting a football hit him in the facemask before it fell for an interception and Rees missing a few throws in the flat to Theo Riddick, Kelly decided to turn to the running game to win the game.

And while most people still peg Kelly for a gun-slinging pass-happy coach, the Irish head coach didn’t want it any other way.

“We always philosophically like to go in thinking about running the football first,” Kelly said. “That’s who we are. We are becoming that kind of football team on offense. You talk about finding an identity; that’s why we talk with it.  Even when we were down, we kept running the football.

“It’s our identity and what we do. There were some opportunities we probably could have thrown the ball and didn’t need to take advantage of it at this point.  But again, that’s how we are playing the game now.”

Anybody looking for Rees to provide the missing spark in the Irish passing offense probably came away disappointed. The junior went 7 of 16 for 117 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his start, modest numbers against a top-25 passing defense. But the quarterback played well enough to win, even if it was mostly getting the Irish into the right run checks and handing off the football.

Those handoffs led to an astonishing 270 yards on the ground, powering the Irish to 7-0 on the year and setting the stage for a very big road trip to Oklahoma, where a top ten Sooners squad awaits.

“Listen, you can’t win games by 28 and 30 points. You need to find ways to win,” Kelly said. “That’s who we are.  There’s a lot of teams around the country that have made their programs on winning 7-6 and 13-7. It’s just who we are. Embrace who we are.”

It may not have been pretty, but it’s certainly hard to argue with the results.

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…)