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.

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.