Marqise Lee, John Manoogian

Opposition round-up: Week Nine

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Let’s take a stroll across college football and see how Notre Dame’s opponents did last week.

NAVY — If Notre Dame fans are feeling disappointed in their opponents, don’t look at Navy. After a rough start, the Midshipmen have rallied nicely, continuing that trend with a big victory over East Carolina. Navy put up a season-high 563 yards of offense, powered by Gee Gee Green and freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who had a pretty active passing stat-line, finishing 3 of 5 for 51 yards, managing to throw two touchdowns and one interception in that. The Navy defense held ECU to just 338 yards of total offense, controlling the clock for over 35 minutes.

Trending: Upwards. Navy is 5-3 and looking like a cinch for a bowl game, a proposition that looked shaky when the Midshipmen were sitting at 1-3.

PURDUE — Oh Purdue. The wheels are falling off the Boilermakers season with their fourth straight Big Ten loss. That dark-horse status can officially be taken outside and shot, with Purdue following up their heart-breaking loss to Ohio State by completing getting run out of Minneapolis on Saturday, trailing 34-7 at halftime. Caleb TerBush was absolutely awful, and by the time Robert Marve replaced him it was too late. Purdue’s supposedly stout defense let freshman quarterback Philip Nelson throw for three touchdowns and 246 yards in the 44-28 throttling.

Trending: A huge disappointment for Purdue, who needs to hand the reins of the offense over to Marve, a QB playing with a torn ACL.

MICHIGAN STATE — It may have set football back a half-century, but the Spartans “outlasted” No. 25 Wisconsin on Saturday 16-13 in overtime, thanks to some late game heroics from Andrew Maxwell and tight end Bennie Fowler. The Spartans’ defense was terrific against the Badgers, holding them to 190 total yards and holding Heisman finalist Montee Ball to just 46 yards on 22 carries. But the Spartans offense wasn’t much better, with Maxwell needing 39 throws to pass for 216 yards and Le’Veon Bell only ran for 3.7 yards a carry. The overtime victory threw the Big Ten’s title chase into chaos, and made the conference only look worse.

Trending: Ugly or not, a big victory of Mark Dantonio’s team, who already has four losses and needs to salvage the season.

MICHIGAN — Michigan fans got a glimpse of what life will be like without Denard Robinson. Needless to say, they weren’t pleased. The Wolverines lost to Nebraska 23-9, with their offense grinding to a halt after Robinson left with an injury late in the first half. Nebraska held the Wolverines offense at bay even with Robinson in the game, but feasted on Russell Bellomy, who went 3 of 16 passing for just 38 yards with three interceptions. It was a rude awakening and appropriately raised huge questions for the future of the Michigan offense in life after Denard.

Trending: Another step backwards for Michigan, though they are still in the thick of it in the Big Ten standings, and have a chance to end Ohio State’s ineligible dream season as well.

MIAMI — The Hurricanes were off on Saturday, taking a bye week after their showdown loss to Florida State before taking on Virginia Tech.

Trending: The week off hopefully settled a Hurricanes team that began its free fall after losing 41-3 to the Irish, dropping three in a row to get to 4-4.

No. 14 STANFORD — It wasn’t pretty for Stanford, but they escaped downtrodden Washington State with a 24-17 victory. The Cardinal defense did just about everything for Stanford, racking up 10 sacks and taking an interception back for a touchdown. Stephan Taylor couldn’t get going on the ground and Josh Nunes put up meager statistics, but it was a survive and advance game for the Cardinal, who get another cupcake match-up with Colorado before facing Oregon State, Oregon, and UCLA to end the regular season.

Trending: Notre Dame’s win against Stanford looks better and better with the Cardinal keeping their lofty ranking. They’ll need to earn it in the season’s final month.

BYU — A week after losing a tight one to the Irish, the Cougars roared past George Tech with an impressive 41-17 victory. Young running back Jamaal Williams scored four touchdowns and Riley Nelson ran and passed for two more as BYU dominated on offense while its stingy defense completely shut down the Yellow Jackets. Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense had only 12 first downs and 157 yards, managing just 40 through the air.

Trending: A nice rebound victory for Bronco Mendenhall’s team, who have Saturday off before facing Idaho, San Jose State, and New Mexico State, giving them a strong chance to salvage an eight-win regular season.

PITTSBURGH — The Panthers won their first Big East game of the season in style, dominating a surprising Temple team 47-17 thanks to Ray Graham’s three touchdowns. First-year head coach Paul Chryst is starting to see some consistency out of his team, who started the year with a loss to Youngstown State, but has rebounded to win four of their last six. Tino Sunseri completed 20 of 28 passes for three touchdowns and freshman running back Rushel Shell ran for 79 yards and a touchdown as well. It wasn’t all good news for the Panthers, who lost three players to season-ending injuries.

Trending: While the injuries could gut this team, the Panthers have two very good running backs. Quarterback Tino Sunseri is also playing the best football of his career with 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions after an up-and-down career.

BOSTON COLLEGE — Chase Rettig’s 14-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute left beat Maryland and gave the Eagles just their second victory of the season. The Terps were down to their fourth-string quarterback on Saturday (who was also injured and lost for the season), but the Eagles were able to win with just 295 yards of offense, and only eight yards of rushing.

Trending: There was nowhere to go but up for Boston College, and the Eagles got a much needed victory against the injury-depleted Terps.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons got beaten badly by Clemson on Saturday 42-13, with Tajh Boyd throwing for five touchdowns and Sammy Watkins catching eight balls for 202 yards, as the Tigers racked up over 500 yards of offense. Tanner Price completed 27 of 44 passes for two touchdowns and Josh Harris ran for 76 yards on just ten carries but Wake Forest just couldn’t survive the Clemson onslaught, when the Tigers scored four touchdowns in the second quarter.

Trending: This doesn’t appear to be a very good Wake Forest defense, limiting just about any chance the Deacs have to be a good team. (Their offense isn’t too good either, ranking 92nd in passing and 112th in rushing yards.)

No. 17 USC — The Trojans were upset on Saturday by Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona squad, spoiling wide receiver Marqise Lee’s record-setting afternoon. USC had five turnovers and gave up 588 yards of offense, losing a 28-13 third quarter lead as the Wildcats scored 26 straight points before holding on for the victory. Matt Barkley threw for 493 yards in the losing effort as Lee has a ridiculous 16 catches for 345 yards. Lee had 12 catches for 255 yards in the first half alone.

Trending: We’re learning that the principles of football apply to the Trojans as well, with 13 penalties and five turnovers dooming USC and ending their dreams of a national title. They are set to face Oregon this Saturday in another huge test.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.