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.

 

 

A spring perspective: Wimbush and his offensive line

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Many like to belittle spring practice as just spring practice. Similarly, others will gladly snub their noses at any positive reviews, insisting it is only warmer temperatures and sunshine eliciting optimism.

Another group sees every position change and depth chart shift as a definite indicator the program is on the right track.

The best assessment of these 15 practices falls somewhere between those two extremes, as most things in this world do.

Take the offensive line, for example. Why is it important to garner an idea of the starting five before fall? Once that is established, not only can the offensive line develop chemistry within itself, but it can also establish chemistry with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. That is, in fact, what Wimbush cited as the item he needs to most improve in a WatchND interview with Jack Nolan over the weekend.

“I need to get better at making it easier for the offensive line and understanding my pocket awareness, where my escape lanes are and where I need to step up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys are working their butts off and I’m at 10 yards, [graduate student left tackle Mike] McGlinchey is getting pushed back and pushed right into me. I have to understand where my pocket is.”

That understanding will develop at an even quicker pace once Wimbush knows exactly whom he is working with on each snap. Spring’s greatest benefit is taking steps toward answering those questions.

As for his greatest strengths on the field, Wimbush pointed toward his athleticism.

“Being able to make plays, get outside the pocket, and I feel like breaking down the defense is some of my assets,” he said.

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyway?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line