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.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

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

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)