Manti Te'o, Stephon Tuitt

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Oklahoma 13

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Games like this built the legend. Thunder shaking and echo-waking, it could only be built upon a tradition of winning big match-ups like this, what though the odds.  No. 5 Notre Dame added another brick to the house that Rockne built with its incredible 30-13 victory over No. 8 Oklahoma. And after 20 years of hype before substance, corporate ambiance over traditionally dominance, the Irish turned back the clock with a huge win, forcing themselves into a still-crowded national title conversation with an improbable upset over an Oklahoma team that was almost two-touchdown favorites.

This was vintage stuff, led by Manti Te’o and an Irish defense that bent but didn’t break, and a young quarterback that grew up in front of capacity crowd in Norman, Oklahoma. With the win, Notre Dame moves to 8-0, with a clear path to 11-0 and a date with destiny in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at the five things we learned.

1. Everybody in the stadium knew Notre Dame needed to run the ball to win. And the Irish did it anyway.

Few stats tell the story of a football game like this one: 215-15. That was Notre Dame’s dominance in rushing yards, with Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and Everett Golson running through the Sooners, while the vaunted Oklahoma running game crashed to a halt.

Few things silence a crowd like an effective running game. And with the Sooners up-tempo offense putting the Irish on their heels early, Wood put an early dagger into the side of the Owen Field crowd when he burst up the middle for a stunning 62-yard touchdown run. The sprint pushed the Irish ahead 7-3 and gave Notre Dame the early lead it desperately needed.

From there, it was pretty impressive stuff for the Irish offensive line, with the impressive effort becoming standard fare for Harry Hiestand‘s linemen. The Sooners had only yielded 3.8 yards a carry and just under 140 yards a game. Against Notre Dame, they gave up 5.5 yards a carry and 215 yards, all of them earned against Mike Stoops‘ defense that certainly didn’t think the Irish passing attack was capable of beating them.

As the calendar turns to November and running the ball becomes even more important, Notre Dame now knows it can trust its two premiere runners. In Wood, the Irish have a slippery back with game-breaking skills. In Riddick, they have a slasher that isn’t afraid to gain the hard yards inside, sealing the game with a 15-yard touchdown that encapsulates his role on the team.

With Notre Dame needing to run the ball to win, the fact that the Irish did it when everybody else in the world knew it was coming is the next step in offensive competency. Saturday night was a huge step forward for this football team.

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2. With the weight of Notre Dame Nation on his shoulders, Everett Golson stepped up and played the hero.

His numbers don’t shine, but Everett Golson did everything asked of him Saturday night. In completing 13 of 25 passes for 177 yards, Golson didn’t light the world on fire, but he moved the chains, played mistake-free football, and was the confident leader Kelly was hoping would appear.

Golson wasn’t the most impressive quarterback on the field, but he was the one that played like the veteran. No snaps rolled through his legs, no miscommunications hurt his team. He knew when to throw it away, he knew when to tuck it and run, and he did his best to silence a gigantic crowd, helping the Irish convert seven of 15 third downs, just about all of them critical.

The sophomore quarterback still knows how to send a chill through Irish fans everywhere, whether its holding the football like a loaf of bread or taking a gut-busting hit. But after suffocating under the pressure against Michigan, Golson stood tall against the Sooners and helped deliver a win.

No time was that more clear than when Golson hit freshman wide receiver Chris Brown on a beautiful 50-yard completion, with the towering spiral falling right into the young receivers hands for the first catch of his career. It was a throw Golson missed earlier in the game, but he dusted himself off and let it fly again, completing the crucial pass when Notre Dame needed it most.

In Golson, the Irish have something Tommy Rees — and a lot of other quarterbacks across America — can’t be. A talented runner, a playmaker, and a wildcard when the play breaks down. On Saturday night, that wildcard turned into trump, and Golson led the Irish to their biggest win in a decade.

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3. Manti Te’o wrote another chapter in his legend, and forced his name into the Heisman conversation.

In a week where Manti Te’o‘s stock off the field pushed further through the ceiling after this story came to light, the senior linebacker played a game for the ages on Saturday night, making a dozen tackles, sacking quarterback Landry Jones once, and catching an acrobatic interception that helped ice the game for the Irish.

At this point, we’re running out of superlatives for Te’o, with us half-expecting him to rescues a cat from a tree at halftime. But on Saturday night, he raised the bar again, showing himself to be one of the country’s most complete players, making tackles in space, playing well in coverage, getting after the quarterback, and helping shut down the Sooners running game in Notre Dame’s biggest game of the seasn.

A Heisman Trophy candidate is only as good as his football team. Usually that’d disqualify a Notre Dame player’s candidacy, as it did with Brady Quinn in 2005. But with the Irish 8-0 and Te’o playing at his best in front of a national audience, the Heisman chatter should rightfully turn itself into a full-fledged conversation.

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4. For a program in search of a signature win, Brian Kelly cemented his place at Notre Dame on Saturday night.

For the naysayers, Notre Dame’s win might have finally muzzled those that weren’t sure Brian Kelly had what it takes to be the head coach of the Fighting Irish. On the biggest stage of the year in enemy territory, Notre Dame came out and played their best, embodying everything Kelly said he wanted to build in his football team.

The Irish played stifling defense. Notre Dame ran the football with impunity. And on a night where the margin for error was slim, the Irish played all but error-free football, with only one penalty for five yards. This was a signature win for a head coach waking up the echoes in his third year in South Bend, a season where the cream usually rises to the top.

Saturday night was Kelly’s best game on the Irish sidelines. He consistently kept Bob Stoops and the Sooners off-balance with his playcalling on offense. He was tight but aggressive, limiting the Sooners’ opportunities with the football, but not falling into the pitfalls of a conservative game plan.

Just about everything Notre Dame needed to do, they did. Offensively, the Irish cobbled together a win with a young quarterback learning how to be great and an offensive line that put the team on its shoulders. Defensively, the Irish rode their star player, stuck with a four man pass rush, and stiffened in the red zone. It was a text book performance by a head coach that clearly knows the winning blue print for his team, even if it wasn’t the one that got him the job at Notre Dame.

There will be plenty of time for national kudos and postseason accolades. But facing an identity crisis last December after falling to Florida State and ending another season 8-5, Kelly doubled-down on himself, and those changes made all the difference in the world.

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5. Celebrate tonight’s victory as hard as you want, but you’re a fool if you don’t think danger lies ahead.

This similarities between tonight’s victory and the 2002 win over Florida State in Tallahassee are uncanny. While the Irish didn’t need special teams fortune and plenty of good luck to spring the upset this evening, Notre Dame’s last 8-0 season suffered a heart-breaking failure just a Saturday later, when the Irish fell to Boston College 14-7 after a stunning implosion.

Now it’s time for Notre Dame to keep an eye on the prize. Because looking too far ahead could be intoxicating. After a win over the Sooners, the schedule opens up nicely for the Irish. With Florida’s loss, the Irish knock another SEC team out of their way, pushing them up the BCS rankings by default.

With 4-4 Pitt next Saturday, downtrodden Boston College in two weeks, and a mediocre Wake Forest team following that, Notre Dame should be heavy favorites in their next three football games. And with Arizona moving the ball at will on USC in their upset of the Trojans, the recipe has been established for beating Lane Kiffin’s talented but flawed team on Thanksgiving weekend.

In 2002, the Irish lost after donning green jerseys and getting a case of fumble-itis that will likely never be duplicated again. The Irish laid the ball on the turf an astonishing seven times, losing three. Add in an interception and winning the yardage battle by almost 200 yards wasn’t enough to beat the Eagles, who have made their name on crushing Irish dream seasons.

Brian Kelly has said all the right things when it comes to avoiding the noise and not believing the press and hype that come with playing for one of America’s most popular teams. His job will become even harder starting tomorrow, with Notre Dame feeding crow to dozens of talking heads across the national airwaves.

But this journey is far from complete. With the Irish entering the season’s final quarter, Notre Dame need to keep their head down and plow forward, continuing to do the things that got them this far.

It’s certainly easier said than done, especially after a historic win like this.

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…)