The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. BYU

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It was a Saturday devoid of style points for No. 5 Notre Dame, who got a victory without playing their best yesterday. On a weekend where the rest of the top five all rolled to easy victories, the Irish slugged it out against BYU, needed to come back from down a touchdown to win in the second half.

Style points didn’t really mean much on Saturday, especially with Notre Dame heading to Norman, Oklahoma this weekend. With the Sooners opening up as 9.5 point favorites this afternoon, it’s clear that the Irish have their hands full this weekend.

Before we turn our focus to one of the biggest games of the last decade, let’s run through the good, bad, and ugly from Notre Dame’s 17-14 victory.

THE GOOD

Theo Riddick. I feel like I deserve to eat a little crow on this one, and Riddick was the spark plug that helped pick the Irish offense up when it was in desperate need of a big play.

Riddick’s 143 yards on 15 carries was a career high and his 55-yard run on third and one was the biggest play of his career. At this point, it’s not worth focusing on the things Riddick isn’t — a breakaway home-run threat for sure, after getting tracked down by BYU defenders — but he’s a complete back that runs hard and seems like a great leader.

Cierre Wood. As much as I liked the game Riddick played, I really enjoyed watching Wood run. He’s without question the team’s best running back, and on Saturday he continued to make big plays all afternoon, including a terrific 22-yard scamper late in the game that helped seal the victory.

The next step for Wood is getting some involvement in the passing game. I’ve got no idea why Wood hasn’t been incorporated into the passing game yet this season. His two catches for nine yards takes away a really important part of his skillset, and almost makes you forget that Wood had 47 catches over the past two seasons.

Getting Wood open in space, especially running wheel routes or easy swing passes would give opposing defenses something to think about, especially considering that role has been made exclusive to Riddick this season.

Tyler Eifert. It was awfully nice seeing Eifert be the most dangerous player on the football field again on Saturday. Even if it was only for the game’s first quarter. Eifert had four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown, moving him up in the Notre Dame record books and earning the game ball from head coach Brian Kelly.

Danny Spond. We mentioned it yesterday, but it’s worth hitting on again. Danny Spond played great yesterday, and has been the unsung hero of this defense. I was unaware that Spond was playing cornerback — cornerback! — in the nickel, but that goes to show you what kind of athlete the Irish have in the Colorado native.

Spond will face another big test this weekend, but his ability to step up and seize that outside linebacker job helps keep Prince Shembo on the field and keeps the Irish rush defense stout.

Kapron Lewis-Moore. He’s not quite an afterthought, but the fifth-year senior played a heck of a game on Saturday, racking up a sack, making five tackles and putting constant pressure on Riley Nelson.

Playing opposite Stephon Tuitt has its privileges, and it’s good to see KLM taking advantage of them. This weekend against Oklahoma he’ll need to continue to make big plays and get after the passer.

Stephon Tuitt. The sophomore went back to dominating at the line of scrimmage in both the run and pass game. Another multi-sack game (1.5) and five tackles is a nice day at the office.

Manti Te’o. That’s four interceptions for Te’o and another double-digit tackle game. Both Te’o and Bennett Jackson are tied for fourth in the country with four interceptions, pretty impressive when you think about it.

Winning the close ones. After being 2-9 in games decided by seven points of less, the Irish have turned the tables in close games. This season it has been Notre Dame getting it done in crunch time, not letting something happen to them. Notre Dame is now 7-1 in its last eight games decided by seven points or less.

“When we get into close games, the mentality now is we’re going to do whatever it takes to win,” Te’o said after the game. “It’s no longer just crossing our fingers and saying, ‘Please, please, please,’ and wait for the next shoe to drop. We’re always trying to be that person to go out and act and make things happen.”

That’s what the Irish did in the second half, not letting penalties or bad luck stop the comeback. When Riley Nelson and the Cougars had a chance to go down and win the game, it took two plays for that opportunity to be vanquished.

Quite a change from what things used to be like.

THE BAD

Sloppy Penalties. It was an uncharacteristic first half for the Irish on Saturday, with sophomores Troy Niklas and Matthias Farley taking really stupid penalties that hurt the team. Niklas’ 15-yarder backed Notre Dame up early while Farley’s tacked on 15-yards to an already big BYU play.

Add in Louis Nix’s facemask, the absolute worst penalty at a really bad time for the Irish defense and another false start along the offensive line and all five mistakes were mental mistakes, and certainly things that need to be cleaned up before next Saturday.

Kyle Brindza. The Irish’s sophomore kicker has made some big kicks this year. But he left six points on the board yesterday on field goals he needed to make. Brindza knocked two of four kickoffs into the end zone, but he’s got to do a better job cashing in points when he’s called upon.

Settling for Field Goals. Notre Dame converted 3 of 5 red zone opportunities, with Brindza’s misses the two disappointments. And while making the kicks is important to Brian Kelly, not settling for three is even more important.

“Two missed field goals, those have to be touchdowns on those drives. We can’t settle for field goals,” Kelly said Sunday. “As we go through it, what we’re looking for is how we can put more points on the board.  Settling for field goals has really been my focus here the last hour because, again, we just finished up with all of our breakdowns, and we’ll take a closer look at it, but again, I’ll go back and say we left too many points out there.  We’ve got to put more points on the board.”

Spoken like a coach that’s about to take on a top ten opponent.

Hot and Cold streaks. The Irish got off to a quick start in the passing game, with Tommy Rees doing a nice job stretching the field with Tyler Eifert. Yet after the first quarter, Rees and the passing game shut down, with Notre Dame seemingly unwilling to stretch the field vertically until TJ Jones caught a deep throw down the far sideline.

With Tommy Rees behind center, the offense seemed to slow itself down, working horizontally far too often instead of stretching the ball down the field. The only time we saw Davaris Daniels was when a football clanged off his facemask. The only great throws Rees seemed to make were downfield deep balls, a problem area last season, compared to his usually accurate underneath possession throws.

Notre Dame can win by managing the game. But with Rees running the show, the Irish didn’t attack BYU’s defense often enough, with only four players making catches.

Did Rees play great football? No. And certainly not good enough to make Kelly’s decision to go back to Golson as starter something he had to think about. But put some of that on a conservative game plan that made it awfully tough on itself.

Special Teams. Taking the special teams out of Mike Elston’s hands hardly made things better for the Irish. Right now, Notre Dame has been no better than ordinary on special teams, a huge disappointment considering the personnel the Irish have.

Let’s take a quick run through the units through seven games:

Opponent Kickoff Return: 94th.
Kickoff Return: 97th.
Opponent Punt Return: 31st.
Punt Return: 114th.

It’s certainly tougher to return punts in college with the proliferation of spread formations in coverage. But right now, it feels like Brian Kelly seems happy to merely guard against fake punts as opposed to trying to set up an actual return.

Just as important, after taking two kicks to the house last season, George Atkinson hasn’t done anything in the return game, and his blocking has been bad. Against an opponent like Oklahoma, the Irish need to be better than mediocre in special teams, and try to get a big play out of one of those units.

Lastly, Notre Dame needs to stop getting demolished in the punt game. Ben Turk’s 40.9 yard average isn’t terrible, but it’s 75th in the country. But add in the fact that Irish opponents are averaging 44 yards a kick, the 10th best against any team, and it’s keeping the Irish in bad field position too often.

Turk’s punt into the endzone was a terrible boot by a senior that should know better. It didn’t end up hurting Notre Dame, but Turk didn’t do the Irish any favors.

THE UGLY

The victory. That’s the definition of an ugly win. Mediocre red zone scoring, ground it out running, and winning without playing its best.

Fan Mental Toughness. During the live blog, you’d have thought Notre Dame Stadium was being torched by hoodlums and the Irish were losing by double-digits. The hecklers and boo-birds were everywhere, blaming Tommy Rees, Brian Kelly, play-calling, strategy, the announcers and every other reason under the sun. And the Irish were losing by just a touchdown at halftime.

Sure, it’s been a tough couple decades for Notre Dame fans. But man — the Irish are off to their best start in a decade when most were thinking an eight-win season would be a good year. On Saturday, it was doom and gloom and sky-falling stuff, even with the Irish holding on for the win.

With the Irish heading to Norman nearly double-digit underdogs, it’s a perfect situation for Brian Kelly and his Notre Dame team. You can play the nobody believes card, and get one of America’s most popular teams to actually think it’s just them against the world.

So while many of you take to the internet to blow off steam, suffer among like-minded fans, or enjoy the group therapy aspect of it all, here’s a pleasant reminder that things are good in Notre Dame nation. As good as they’ve been in a long time.

Now enjoy it already.

 

 

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

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)