BYU v Notre Dame

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.

 

 

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…)