TJ Jones

Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with the Sooners

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Moments like this are earned. Big games, premiere Saturdays, they are a product of hard work off the field and fortune on the field. As Notre Dame prepares to play in their biggest game in a decade, and easily their most anticipated since Pete Carroll’s Trojans came to South Bend to battle first-year head coach Charlie Weis’ Fighting Irish, it’s worth remembering that as Herb Brooks once told us, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.”

The table is set for Notre Dame to walk into Norman, Oklahoma and surprise the college football world. It would certainly fit the bill of this improbable season, which has seen the Irish continue to win as this team searches for its offensive identity and matures before our eyes.

Brian Kelly isn’t under the impression that he has a great football team. But his team is ranked No. 5 in the country because they’ve defeated every team they lined up against, and on Saturday night, they’ll have their best opportunity to make another statement. But to beat the Sooners, Kelly knows it’s more about what his team does than anything Bob Stoops‘ squad can do.

“Our guys understand the importance of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday relative to their preparation. The good part for me it hasn’t been a lot about Oklahoma,” Kelly said. “My feeling is that when your team is focused on yourself more so than who you’re playing, that’s the kind of focus you want.”

The Irish have a great deal of respect for Oklahoma, but they also know they control their own destiny this Saturday evening. And that’s what makes this weekend so exciting.

As No. 5 Notre Dame prepares to take off for battle against No. 8 Oklahoma, let’s run through six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers miscellaneous musing before Saturday evening’s 8:00 p.m. ET game.

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If Notre Dame is going to win, they’re going to have to play better in the red zone.

There are a lot of places Notre Dame’s offense needs to improve. But to win at Owen Field, the Irish absolutely need to cash in their opportunities in the red zone. Right now, Notre Dame doesn’t seem to have a red zone identity. The pieces are there — Tyler Eifert on the fade, Everett Golson‘s legs, a fairly stout power running game — but the results haven’t been.

With the exception of Golson’s interception against Michigan, turnovers haven’t been the biggest problem. Execution has been. Kelly spoke openly about the two areas holding this offense back, throwing the football efficiently and production in the red zone.

“We have to be better on third down throwing the football, and we have to be better in the red zone,” Kelly said. “And those are areas of emphasis, and if we’re better in those two areas, then our efficiency is going to jump up. I’m interested in being more efficient in terms of our passing game.”

A quick glance at the rankings and you’ll actually see Notre Dame’s third down conversion rate isn’t terrible at 48th. But looking at the Irish in the red zone, especially cashing in touchdowns instead of field goals, and that’s a different story.

The Irish are 89th in the country in scoring rate, putting points up only 26 of 34 times, good for 76.47 percent. Scoring touchdowns is much worse though, with Notre Dame only getting six points 16 times. Compare that to Oklahoma, who is leading the country scoring on 97 percent of their trips and converting almost 76 percent of them for touchdowns, essentially get seven points just as often as Notre Dame gets anything.

If the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to win the red zone. Their defense makes that victory always possible, but the offense is going to need to do its part.

“We have to realize the importance of getting down there and putting points on the board,” senior tackle Zack Martin said. “Ten points in four appearances last game is not good enough. That’s not going to beat Oklahoma.”

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He may not be a terror in the box score, but Prince Shembo is a scary dude on the field.

One of the great stories on the season is the work Prince Shembo has done taking over for Darius Fleming at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position. The junior, who played out of position last year, has been a pass-rushing terror off the edge, while playing stout run defense for a guy many were worried was undersized for the position.

Shembo’s stats might not reflect his work on the field, with his 3.0 sacks modest compared to his impact on the game. But the North Carolina native’s relentless passion, whether it’s screaming about his stolen bike seat or swinging a sledgehammer on the sidelines, embodies the passion, but workmanlike attitude this Irish defense is all about.

“Just do your assignment,” Shembo said this week. “If people try to do things they’ve never done before, that’s when the problems start. Just have confidence and do your job.”

That job will include dealing with Oklahoma’s jumbo quarterback package, anchored by the “Belldozer” sophomore quarterback Blake Bell. Shockingly, Bell doesn’t seem to worry Shembo too much.

“He’s a big guy. 6-6, 260. I squat 600. So we’re just going to go put our pads on and meet him in the hole,” Shembo said this week.

Whether Bell is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds or 6-foot-8, 340-pounds as nose tackle Louis Nix joked, don’t expect this defense to be intimidated, something Shembo credits to his teammates.

“We’ve got monsters on our team. Troy’s a monster, Eifert’s a monster,” Shembo told the Sun-Times. “The more you practice with monsters, the better. If I’ve got to fight a dragon every day — without getting killed, hopefully — I’ll know how to beat the dragon eventually.”

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The war in the trenches should be won by Notre Dame.

We’re running out of superlatives for Notre Dame’s rush defense. By this time, we all know the unit hasn’t given up a touchdown on the ground yet. But let’s take a look at a team by team breakdown of how well the Irish have done shutting down their opponents compared to their performance against everybody else.

Navy Rushing Yards
Notre Dame: 149.0
Everybody Else: 251.3
102.3 yards below average

Purdue Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 90
Vs. Everyone Else: 169.5
79.5 yards below average

Michigan State Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 50
Vs. Everyone Else: 152.3
102.3 yards below average

Michigan Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 161
Vs. Everyone Else: 232.8
71.8 yards below average

Miami Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 85
Vs. Everyone Else: 132.9
47.9 yards below average

Stanford Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 147
Vs. Everybody Else: 170.5
23.5 yards below average

BYU Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 66
Vs. Everyone Else: 171.4
105.4 yards below average

It’s ridiculous to consider that Notre Dame’s worst comparative game against the run was against Miami, a game where the Irish throttled the ‘Canes 41-3. Saturday night, Notre Dame will certainly be tested at the line of scrimmage, and the Sooners’ running game is effective if not underutilized. The Sooners are averaging a gaudy 5.93 yards per carry, yet only running the ball 33 times a game.

(Edited to add Stanford’s rushing numbers, which detract from the above point, but are actually a bit more nuanced. Stanford has run for over 200 yards against USC, Arizona, and Cal, but their overall numbers are dragged down by 92 rush yards against Duke in a blowout win and 65 yards in their loss to Washington.)

The Irish won’t have the choice to walk away from the ground game, as they’ll need to establish the run early this weekend. And there’s reason to believe they can do it against the Sooners front, an undersized unit that might be the smallest front seven the Irish have faced since playing Navy.

If you’ve got 30 minutes, here’s a great breakdown of the battle in the trenches from the Solid Verbal’s Dan Rubenstein and Oregon offensive lineman Carson York, who is sitting out the season after undergoing right knee surgery. York’s unbiased opinion is favorable for the Irish, and he does a nice job of explaining the intricacies of things like the inside and outside zone running plays, staples of the Brian Kelly offense.

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He’ll be the best quarterback Notre Dame’s faced this year, but what Landry Jones is going to show up?

Make no mistake, Landry Jones is a talented quarterback. But he’s far from bulletproof in pressure situations. The senior quarterback has put together an impressive career in Norman, thrust into duty as a redshirt freshman after Sam Bradford went down with a shoulder injury. From there, the former Parade All-American has all but rewritten the Sooner record books, holding 13 Oklahoma passing records, including the all-time passing yardage mark.

But Jones, an All-Big 12 quarterback who returned for his senior season after a somewhat disappointing 2011 campaign, reignited some of the criticism he’s taken over the years for big game struggles after the Sooners’ disappointing loss to Kansas State.

The statuesque quarterback, who has yet to log a run for positive yardage on the season, fumbled twice, including one in the end zone recovered for a Wildcats touchdown, and threw an interception in the Sooners’ 24-19 loss.

Jones talked about the struggles he had against Kansas State and the pressure he’s been putting on himself this season back in late September.

“It drives me nuts that we’re kind of underachieving right now,” Jones said after the loss. “I feel like, specifically for myself, I’ve definitely been underachieving this whole year. It’s one of those things that we played a good team in Kansas State and we made mistakes that put us into a position that we couldn’t win.”

Kansas State’s game plan was to flush Jones from the pocket, forcing the quarterback to make mistakes. With Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and an Irish pass rush that already has 19 sacks on the year, expect that to be the part of Bob Diaco‘s thought process as well.

Even with some uneven performances, Jones will still likely hear his name called relatively early in this spring’s NFL Draft. And creit Jones for taking advantage of games against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas to get back in rhythm, putting the Sooners offense in peak form heading into Saturday night’s game, while taking the pressure off himself.

“It was like walking on eggshells, trying so hard to play perfect that I was getting in my own way,” Jones told SI.com. “You can’t play like that. You can’t play like that as an athlete. You just have to not think and just go out there and react and play the way you know you’re capable of playing.”

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Can Big Game Bob Stoops live up to his name?

There’s no question Bob Stoops earned his reputation as a big game coach. Taking over the Oklahoma program after coordinating Steve Spurrier’s Florida defenses, Stoops quickly turned the Sooners around, going 7-5 in his first season in Norman before running the table in 2000, winning the Orange Bowl and the national championship in his second season.

In Stoops’ first four seasons, he was unparalleled in big games, going 18-2 against ranked opponents, winning an Orange Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and a Rose Bowl, and three Big 12 championships along the way.

Stoops’ home record of 78-4 at Owen Field is astonishing, but look a bit closer and that big game success is starting to erode after surprising slip-ups seem to pockmark the Sooners’ prolonged success. While Oklahoma is 10-point favorites against Notre Dame, this wouldn’t be the first game the Sooners have lost being decided favorites.

The Sooners were two-touchdown favorites when Bill Snyder and Kansas State ambushed them. Last year, the No. 3 Sooners were shocked in Norman by Tommy Tuberville’s Texas Tech team, a 28-point underdog pulling off a huge upset. In 2010, the same thing went down, with No. 1 Oklahoma being shocked by No. 11 Missouri, again, with Stoops’ squad a favorite in the polls and in Vegas. And who can forget 2009, when BYU knocked out Sam Bradford and shocked the No. 3 Sooners, a 22-point opening day favorite.

No coach was capable of keeping pace with the torrid start of Stoops’ career, but the Sooners have lost nine conference games since October of 2009, a number that raises a few eyebrows when you consider the rarefied air in which Stoops is still held (not to mention paid).

Notre Dame’s big-game cred certainly isn’t anywhere near what it once was, likely playing into Irish’s underdog role. But that skepticism might need to extend to both sidelines on Saturday.

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The Irish will need an ordinary game plan and an extraordinary Everett Golson to walk out of Norman winners.

Make no mistake, this game will be decided by the play of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson. For Notre Dame to win, the Irish need Golson to play the best game of his young career, and do it in the most hostile environment and on the biggest stage he’s experienced. If that’s too much pressure to heap on the shoulders of the Irish’s inexperienced signal-caller, well… tough. This is the kind of football game a quarterback goes to Notre Dame to play in. And this is the type of game the Irish need Golson to break through in if they’re going to exit the weekend 8-0.

“I really liked the way he practiced. Confident, moving, running around, throwing the ball with authority,” Kelly said. “Again, we’re probably all at that stage of, ‘Okay, when’s it going to happen? When’s it all going to come together?’ I think we’re all waiting and it’s going to.

“It hasn’t yet, but he’s starting to put together multiple practices in a row where I leave practice and go, ‘When this thing comes together, it’s going to be pretty exciting.'”

Feeling no ill-effects from the concussion that kept him from playing against BYU, Golson should feel more confident in his job than ever, after watching Tommy Rees falter when taken out of a supporting role and tested as a leading man. And after nursing a variety of maladies to start the season, Kelly believes the week off will be an added blessing for his quarterback.

“As I look back on it, it was the right thing to do,” Kelly said of sitting Golson out. “To really give him that week to kind of give over the hump.”

It may be a bit premature to announce that Golson is indeed over that hump, with the Sooners’ defense likely playing into that evaluation. But with some time to step back and catch his breath, Golson will be armed with a conservative game plan that this staff will ask him to execute efficiently, and if his natural talents help make some big plays, so be it.

After struggling in his first appearance under the Notre Dame microscope, Golson gets a rare mulligan Saturday night. For the Irish to win, he’ll need to take advantage of it.

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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