Everett Golson, oe Trebitz

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 29, Pitt 26

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Make no mistake, this is a football game that Notre Dame finds a way to lose. Yet down 14 points in the fourth quarter, the No. 4 Fighting Irish kept plugging away, failing to let the litany of mistakes they made Saturday afternoon get in the way of a season that seems destined for greatness as they pulled out a stunning triple-overtime victory 29-26.

In the end, it was Notre Dame that spoiled things for the underdog. The Irish pulling out an unlikely victory. And while most Notre Dame fans felt sick to their stomach as they watched the home team commit six penalties and lose the turnover battle 3-0, Brian Kelly’s squad found a way to eke out a triple-overtime win, advancing to 9-0 for the first time since 1993.

“We made uncharacteristically some mistakes turning the football over obviously twice in the end zone,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “Last year that would have been a loss for us.  But our team kept fighting, kept playing.”

Against an undermanned Pitt team that gave the Irish their best shot, Notre Dame did just enough to escape with a win, relying on the late game heroics of Everett Golson, who ended an up-and-down battle when he plunged into the end zone on a quarterback keeper from inside the one-yard line in triple overtime. After surviving a 33-yard field goal attempt that would’ve ended the game with a Pitt victory, the Irish — and fans all across the country — can breathe a sigh of relief as Notre Dame lives to fight another day, their national championship aspirations still intact.

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 29-26 victory.

***

He’s still the ultimate loose cannon, but this is Everett Golson’s offense.

A look at the stat sheet doesn’t explain why Brian Kelly started the second half with Tommy Rees at the helm. But the Irish head coach sent a message loud and clear to his sophomore quarterback, and Everett Golson responded.

After nine games, Golson is no longer viewed as the young talent learning as he goes. He’s now the key cog to an Irish offense that desperately needs Golson to be its best play-maker and decision-maker. And in the first half, Golson wasn’t playing up to the elevated standards Kelly set for the quarterback. He missed open receivers for big gains, like a near-certain touchdown to a wide-open Troy Niklas. He put his head down and scrambled, choosing sandlot rules instead of proper reads. And he failed to capitalize in the red zone, leaving points on the board when the Irish offense was able to move the ball.

“I was a little upset just because of the competitor in me just wanted to be out there,” Golson said of the brief benching. “But I think it was good for me that I actually saw it this time. I think previously in the beginning of the year, I come out and they would end up telling me, but I think that just comes from a lot of film study with coaches.  You know, actually seeing my mistakes and kind of seeing it in the sidelines and seeing what they were doing kind of helped me come back and lead.”

Yet for all the frustrations Golson gives a coaching staff, the youngster proved that he was more than worth the trouble, coming alive late in the game and leading the Irish offense. Sure, he still makes the devastating decision — throwing an end zone pick when two other reads were open. But he also makes his share of magic happen, finding Davaris Daniels deep down field after the play broke down for a 45-yard reception. He capped that drive off with another improvisational wonder, hitting Theo Riddick dragging across the end zone for a touchdown, and then scored the game-tying two-point conversion for good measure, pulling the Irish even with just over two minutes to go.

Golson finished the night 23 of 42, throwing for 227 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He ran for 74 yards on 15 attempts, breaking a huge 27 yard run in the fourth quarter and plowing in for the game’s winning touchdown. And most importantly, he took another step forward, picking himself up off the mat and getting a victory for the Irish when a devastating loss seemed all but certain.

“He knows he didn’t play quite as well, but did when it counted,” Kelly said of Golson.  “He got a chance to go back in there and got the game ball tonight.  So it’s all a process of learning and developing and getting thicker skin, paying more attention to detail and practice.”

***

Notre Dame’s special teams almost cost them the game.

Another Saturday, another wretched performance by the Irish special teams. For a football team with a razor-thin margin of error, Notre Dame is doing itself no favors with its performance in the game’s all important third unit.

Obvious mistakes are probably the easiest to clean up, with Kyle Brindza missing a field goal as the first half expired and a low-snap lead to a pull-hook left that cost the Irish an all-important extra point. But just as costly is another game where the Irish are continually losing the battle for field position.

Pitt returns killed the Irish, with Lafayette Pitts putting together a nice day on kickoffs and Cameron Saddler showing a Notre Dame Stadium crowd that returning punts is possible, ripping off a 31-yarder to set the Panthers up nicely.

Irish specialists had a crummy day, with Brindza also failing to find the end zone on a single kickoff and punter Ben Turk not doing much to help either. Turk’s 41.4 average wasn’t bad, but with the game hanging in the balance and after the offense fighting back to tie the game, Turk barely got his foot on a punt with a minute left, sending a low roller that depended on a fortuitous roll to get 40 yards. No, it didn’t cost the Irish, but after four seasons on the job, you’d expect a veteran like Turk to be an asset not a liability.

It was no banner day for Irish return men either. George Atkinson looked timid as he tiptoed for yardage, getting drilled on the game’s opening kick to set the tone. And Davonte Neal fumbled a returnable punt late in the game while letting another kick roll 56 yards, once again flipping the field.

Brindza came up big in overtime, making a crucial field goal to extend the game. But with difference between winning and losing so slim, the Irish need to find some answers and stability on special teams, or get ready to lose a close football game.

***

Ray Graham was the first running back to expose some weakness in this Irish defense.

It didn’t take long for Notre Dame to realize that the Pitt offense wasn’t all that impressed with the Irish’s lofty defensive rankings or stout run defense. Ray Graham burst off the left side of the offensive line, sprinted by Heisman candidate Manti Te’o, and rumbled for 55-yards before cornerback KeiVarae Russell finally made the tackle.

That was far from all the damage that Graham did for the Panthers, with the senior runner going for 172 yards on 24 carries. He broke loose multiple times, as did the Panthers’ screen game, and Bob Diaco‘s unit had its toughest day at the office of 2012.

Yet when it came down to it, the Irish defense stiffened, holding Pitt to just 21 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. And while Louis Nix didn’t start after spending two nights in the infirmary this week with the flu, the junior nose guard came up big along the front line, making four tackles from his nose guard spot and taking over the inside spot for Kona Schwenke.

Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore were both very active for the front line, with Tuitt notching six tackles and 1.5 sacks and Lewis-Moore adding 1.5 sacks of his own and three stops. And after a quiet first half where he made only one tackle, Te’o came up with a huge sack of his own and ended the game with seven stops. Add in another sack from Prince Shembo and two tackles for loss, and the Irish worked their way to five sacks and eight TFLs, rebounding nicely.

We tackled sub-par for us in terms of our defense,” Kelly said. “I know Coach Diaco would not be happy right now. But they found a way to shut them down in the second half, and that is the key. We shut them down in overtime. We took (Graham) and really were able to control him late in the game.”

The Irish showed the first cracks in their armor on Saturday, but came up big when it counted.

***

The Irish ran for 230 yards. And it still felt like they abandoned their running game.

Usually a 230 yard day on the ground means good things for the Irish. But Saturday felt like a lost opportunity for a Notre Dame rushing game that felt got lost in the mix and missed too many blocking assignments. No series of plays comes to mind more than the Pitt goal line stand, where the Irish had three shots at the end zone from two yard line, but each time Theo Riddick was stopped short, with the last two coming after Pitt defenders crashed through the Irish offensive front untouched.

Series like that — not to mention trailing by 14 points late in the game — help explain Kelly’s decision to go away from a ground attack that was still doing a nice job gaining yards. At one point in the second half, the Irish ran 19 straight plays without getting one of their talented running backs involved in the game. It helps explain Golson’s Denard Robinson-like existence, where Golson accounted for almost 75 percent of the team’s total offense in the fourth quarter and overtimes, throwing for 105 yards and running for 59, 164 of the Irish’s 223 yards.

Kelly explained the decision to lean heavily on Golson and go away from the run, crediting Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who made seven tackles for a Pitt defense that depended on a ton of man coverage.

“They were playing a lot of cover one, moving the front,” Kelly said. “As you know we were having some problems inside blocking No. 97 in particular. We just felt if we could spread him out, that would give us an opportunity to move the football down the field.”

Spreading the Panthers out meant more Riddick in pass-heavy formations for the Irish running game, relegating Cierre Wood to an after-thought for much of the second half, even though Wood once again was having a good game on limited touches. Even with a 60-yard run called back, Wood ran for 5.4 yards a carry, while Riddick once again failed to average four yards a carry.

But Kelly showed why he puts his trust in Riddick as his primary ball carrier, even if he’s a far less dynamic option. With Wood getting his number called in double-overtime, the senior back extended the ball while leaping for the goal line, and fumbled just inches short of scoring, turning himself from hero to potential goat, if Pitt kicker Kevin Harper didn’t bail him out.

Does Wood try to do too much because he’s getting less touches? Was it simply a very good play by a defender and a very risky play by a runner who knows better? Probably somewhere in the middle. But the Irish run game felt like it didn’t do as much as it could on Saturday. And that they still manage to gain 230 yards on the ground means Harry Hiestand‘s troops are being held to a higher standard.

***

You could call it the luck of the Irish. But give Notre Dame credit for pulling out a football game that seemed all but lost.

Things weren’t pretty for the Irish late in the third quarter. With freshman tight end J.P. Holtz rumbling loose through the Irish secondary, it looked like Pitt was going to put the game out of reach when Graham gave the Panthers first and goal at the Notre Dame two-yard line. But the Irish held Pitt out of the end zone, limiting them to a chip-shot field goal and a 20-6 lead. From there on, the Irish scored 14 points, sending things to overtime and eventually winning in dramatic fashion.

“Good teams do what Notre Dame did,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said after the game. “And that is win the close ones.”

The Irish won’t likely be rewarded by the pollsters for their win, but the dream undefeated season is alive. And it’s still possible thanks to some gutty efforts by some unheralded guys. Like safety Matthias Farley, who played with a cast on his hand just days after surgery in a move even Ronnie Lott would applaud.

“Matthias was operated on Tuesday, he was out cold on an operating table on Tuesday,” Kelly said of his safety now entrenched in the starting lineup after Jamoris Slaughter’s season-ending Achilles tendon injury. “They put two plates and six screws in his hand, put a cast on him, he came back and practiced Wednesday and Thursday you know, did the best he could.”

Kelly also had strong words of praise for Louis Nix, defending his player when an interviewer sounded like he questioned the validity of Nix’s illness.

“The kid was sick all week, and he busted his butt to try to help our football team today,” Kelly said. “So, you know, Louis Nix has got a lot in the bank of trust with me.  He was in the infirmary two nights, and he came out and helped our football team.”

And while Kelly wanted to steer the conversation away from any comparisons to the 2011 team that found ways to lose games like this, it was clear that the mental toughness that’s been preached about daily since December came through and helped this team rally for a season-saving victory.

“I’m proud of how passionate both our offense and defense are,” Golson said after the game. “The defense with their backs up against the wall, and Cierre fumbled, and just to have all the adversity. We had guys on the sidelines just saying, ‘Stay up.  Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re going to be good,’ and stuff like that.  I’m just proud of the character that we have.”

Character won’t help your BCS rankings or gain you points with pollsters looking for ways to differentiate undefeated teams. But it helps you win games, keeping the Irish in the conversation when it seemed they had done everything they could to play their way out of the national title hunt.

But on a Saturday that seemed all too eerily familiar to big game debacles of seasons’ past, Brian Kelly’s squad rallied to win on Saturday. That certainly counts for something.

In this case, a 9-0 record.

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.