Pregame six pack: The 8-0 edition

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It may not have the glamor and intrigue of last weekend’s match-up in Norman, but Saturday’s game against 4-4 Pittsburgh counts the same.  With No. 4 Notre Dame undefeated after two-thirds of the season, any loss will knock a dream Irish season off the tracks.

Not that Brian Kelly is letting the Irish turn their focus to anything other than playing football. The head coach, who has navigated situations like this, most recently in his final season at Cincinnati, has repeatedly said that he’ll keep his team focused on the task at hand and let everybody else talk about the postseason implications.

“I think we’ve talked about that each and every week,” Kelly said. “You win two games, you win three, you win four games in a row, you start to we are about how are you going to handle success.  So this is not a first‑time conversation with our football team.  They have handled success early in the season, and they have shown that they understand that if they don’t prepare the right way, that they’ll lose.  We’re not good enough to not prepare properly, and I think they know that.”

As Notre Dame prepares for Pittsburgh, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Panthers Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

***

If history is any indication, the Panthers won’t be intimidated by Notre Dame or a top-ranked opponent.

You probably didn’t expect the Panthers to be in awe of Notre Dame Stadium or an Irish squad in the thick of the national title hunt. And Pitt certainly won’t be. The Panthers have more than held their own in South Bend, winning two of the last three games under the Golden Dome.

In 2010, the Irish held on to win 23-17 after Dayne Crist and the Irish offense stalled out and David Ruffer‘s three field goals were enough. But in 2008, the Panthers rallied from a 14-point deficit and shocked the Irish in four overtimes, winning 36-33. Both Michael Floyd and Golden Tate went over 100 yards in the air and Jimmy Clausen threw for 271 yards, but the Irish gave up a 17-3 halftime lead and couldn’t get into the end zone in any of their three overtime possessions. The loss was the third of the season for an Irish squad that started 4-1, but ended the regular season 6-6.

In 2004, The Panthers outlasted Ty Willingham‘s squad, winning 41-38 in South Bend. Darius Walker ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns and Brady Quinn threw for three more, but Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko threw for 334 yards and five touchdowns for Walt Harris, and was very bleeping proud of his team afterwards.

As briefly mentioned by Sam Werner, the last time Pitt had a chance to take on a top-three team in the country, the Panthers pulled an even more improbable upset. At 4-7, Dave Wannstedt‘s squad walked into Morgantown and beat Rich Rodriguez‘s 10-1 West Virginia squad 13-9, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the two major polls.

***

Maybe it didn’t take a win against Oklahoma for the Irish to truly “arrive.”

It may move the dial and start a healthy debate, but for a team that’s been considered irrelevant, Notre Dame has quietly played pretty good football lately. Since mid-September 2011, only seven teams in college football have won more games that the Irish, with Notre Dame going 16-3 in their last 19 games.

Take a look at the not too shabby list of teams that have put together a better run than the Irish:

Oregon: 19-1
Alabama: 18-1
Boise State: 17-2
Northern Illinois: 18-3
Georgia: 17-3
Kansas State: 17-3

Considering the Irish lead the nation in victories over Top 25 teams this season, beating No. 10 Michigan State, No. 18 Michigan, No. 17 Stanford, and No. 8 Oklahoma, Brian Kelly has shown himself to be a coach that does a very good job in the W/L column, a pretty good area to show expertise.

If the Irish can win on Saturday, Kelly will have played .850 football over his last 20 games, a winning percentage that would fall between Chris Petersen (.920) and Urban Meyer (.831), the two most efficient winners currently coaching in college football. As it stands now, Kelly’s winning percentage in his 22 seasons as a head coach is .742, good for seventh.

***

Notre Dame’s defense: The place where high-scoring offenses go to die.

Last night on ESPN, Mark May cited Pittsburgh’s 42-point offensive outburst against Temple as reason for belief that the Panthers offense could put up some points against Notre Dame’s defense. That logic doesn’t look too solid when you consider that six of Notre Dame’s eight opponents scored 40 or more points in the game they played before facing the Irish.

Here’s a quick look at the offenses that stalled out at Notre Dame:

Purdue
Before: 48-6 win over Eastern Kentucky
Notre Dame: 20-17 loss
After: 54-16 win over Eastern Michigan

Michigan State
Before: 41-7 win over Central Michigan
Notre Dame: 20-3 loss
After: 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan

Michigan
Before: 63-13 win over UMass
Notre Dame: 13-6 loss
After: 44-13 win over Purdue

Miami
Before: 44-37 win over North Carolina State
Notre Dame: 41-3 loss
After: 18-14 loss to North Carolina

Stanford
Before: 54-48 win over Arizona
Notre Dame: 20-13 loss
After: 21-3 win over Cal

BYU
Before: 42-24 loss to Oregon State
Notre Dame: 17-14 loss
After: 41-17 win over Georgia Tech

Oklahoma
Before: 52-7 win over Kansas
Notre Dame: 30-13 loss

The opponents that came in scoring 40 or more points have scored a total of 55 points against the Irish, and none scored more than 17.

***

Notre Dame has turned November into its best month. And they’ve got Paul Longo to thank for it.

After losing eight of its last nine November football games, Brian Kelly has turned November into his team’s strongest month. The Irish are 6-1 in the month, with their lone loss coming to Andrew Luck and Stanford last year. With this being the most important November in over a decade, Kelly was asked about the process that goes into winning late in the season. Not surprisingly, strength and conditioning coordinator Paul Longo has something to do with it.

“Our strength and conditioning, our nutrition, the way we take care of ourselves, our schedule has really kind of taken shape and form over the last couple years that our guys feel fresh. We’re hitting peaks in the weight room right now,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’re peaking out in November. So we’re stronger as a football team right now.”

That Irish football players are able to peak in the weight room in the middle of the season shows you just how far this team has come since Kelly took it over. When athletic director Jack Swarbrick discussed some of the factors that went into improving the overall health of the football program, he noted the loss of size and strength as the football season wore on.

“The weight loss on defense was 13 pounds per player during the season,” Swarbrick said back in December of 2009. “Our weight loss on the defensive side of the ball was a little shocking.”

Numbers like that were a big reason why training table was implemented, and a big reason why Kelly was a tough-talker early in his tenure, cracking that, “Eating at Burger King at three in the morning is not going to make you the best for your eight o’clock workouts.”  With nutrition now handled in a completely different manner and Longo’s weight lifting structure allowing guys like Stephon Tuitt to put up a personal-best on the bench press in late October, Kelly gave a little bit more insight into the training program that has turned this team around.

“It’s a year-round process. It’s not top heavy as it relates to the off-season. We’re not killing them in January and February. We have different stages of our weight training. January, February, you’re building a lot of that mental toughness in those two months. We’re getting after you pretty good. But we’re not trying to put too much weight on your back.

“I think the other thing that Coach Longo does a great job of is understanding having a team ready to play football and a team that needs to add a coat of armor. There’s a lot of levels to it. Paul does a great job of managing things out through strength and conditioning so we play our very best in November, December and January.”

Don’t expect Kelly to get too much more explanatory than that.

“It’s all based for us to peak in November,” center Braxston Cave told CSNChicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “I don’t think he would tell anybody his secret, his formula, how he does it. But since I’ve been here, it’s worked every year.”

***

Entering the game, assault charges again three players add more uncertainty to the Pitt depth chart.

Never mind the season-ending injuries that have decimated Pitt’s defense. Word broke last night that Paul Chryst’s team might have bigger issues, with assault charges being filed against three Pitt players, including standout running back Ray Graham and wide receiver Devin Street.

This from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Three University of Pittsburgh football players were charged with assault and conspiracy Thursday night after police said they surrounded a man in Oakland last month and one of them punched him in the head.

Running back Ray Graham, 22, of Elizabeth, N.J., wide receiver Devin Street, 21, of Bethlehem, Pa., and defensive back Lafayette Pitts, 20, of East Pittsburgh, were not arrested but will receive summonses by mail telling them to report to court Jan. 9 for a preliminary hearing.

Pittsburgh police wrote in a criminal complaint that they were working an overtime detail early on Oct. 21 when they tried to disperse a crowd from the intersection of Oakland Avenue and Bates Street and three people remained in the roadway.

One those people, Karl Olsheski, told police he had just been assaulted. He refused medical treatment and said he did not want to file a report, he just wanted officers to stop the man who had punched him, according to the criminal complaint.

In an interview with police, Mr. Olsheski said he was walking in Oakland with two women when Mr. Graham stopped him, said, “What’s up?” and uttered a racial slur. Mr. Olsheski said that he replied “nothing” and tried to leave but Mr. Graham, Mr. Street and Mr. Pitts surrounded him and then Mr. Street slugged him on the left side of the head, according to the criminal complaint.

A Pitt spokesman could not immediately be reached late Thursday night to comment on the football players’ status with the team.

It goes without saying that the legal system needs to play itself out, but Pitt hasn’t said anything about the charges. But if the Panthers are without Graham and Street, that’s going to be a huge hit to the team offensively.

***

If the Irish are going to be national title contenders, the offense needs to show it’s up to the task.

At this stage in the season, it’s clear that Notre Dame’s defense is ready, willing and able. But if the Irish have championship aspirations, they need to show that last week’s offensive output wasn’t a fluke.

Incomplete efforts like the Irish victories over BYU or Michigan are no longer going to cut it. (They certainly won’t against a team like USC.) For Notre Dame to win out, and impress the pollsters as they do it, they’ll need to show some consistency. And putting together a good performance against an under-manned Pitt defense is the first place to start.

After playing his best football game in front of the biggest television audience to watch a football game this season, Kelly talked about raising the bar for quarterback Everett Golson.

“I think we demand more.  Our expectations are high,” Kelly said about post-Oklahoma Golson. “You did this on the road against very good competition.  Now, what we expect on Tuesday is for you to be fully engaged, to take over the practice.  So we’re going to move that bar up a little bit on him and demand more from him today.”

Golson will have a running game that welcomes back George Atkinson, healthy after a bout with the flu. He’ll have an offensive line that’s playing its best football. If he can remember that Tyler Eifert is on his team, he should have all the weapons he needs at his disposal on Saturday.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

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.