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.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

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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