The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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As you could probably imagine from the uproar on the web, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about Notre Dame’s triple-overtime 29-26 victory. The close shave, along with the impressive Oregon victory over USC, was enough to drop Notre Dame down to the No. 4 spot in the BCS rankings, their same ranking in both the AP and USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

Brian Kelly talked about the challenges his team faced and how they need to continue to compete at a high level.

“I really didn’t have any problem with their preparation during the week,” Kelly said. “We just didn’t play with the same focus and intensity that we need to each and every week against quality opposition. There can’t be any difference between Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, because they’re going to play at the same level, and we’re not good enough not to play our A‑game. So I think the learning experience is that, listen, you’re 9‑0, but you have to play your very, very best or all these games are going to come down to one or two plays. So hopefully they’ve learned from that.”

With that, let’s take a quick run through the good, the bad, and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 29-26 victory.

THE GOOD

Everett Golson’s rally. We’ve spent more than a few words talking about Golson’s rebound from a shaky first half, but the sophomore quarterback, who still has three more seasons of eligibility, was a special player in the game’s final quarter and overtime.

His numbers — 23 of 42 for 227 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a rush score to boot — are some of his most prolific of the season, and also show that the young quarterback has a flair for the dramatic.  But more important than any heroics are his ability to keep his confidence and rally after making mistakes, something Kelly seems more confident about now than ever.

“I think we’re getting close to playing through it because of what he did in the second half. I don’t think we could have done that earlier in the year, quite frankly,” Kelly said. “So, in truthfulness, I would tell you that he’s closer to getting to that level where let’s just keep fighting through it, because we saw him respond with that competitiveness in the fourth quarter and overtime.”

Golson didn’t play a perfect game by any means and still struggles to pull the trigger and be decisive with some quick throws. But his ability to save the Irish season with natural gifts like a rocket arm and great feet sure make things easier for an offense that needs every advantage it can get.

Wide receiver play. It’s time to start acknowledging the good work of an underrated wide receiving corps. DaVaris Daniels had his most prolific day with the Irish, making seven catches for 86 yards, including an absolutely clutch 45-yarder in the fourth quarter. Robby Toma had six big catches and outside of an easy drop before the half, TJ Jones also played well. Add in the contributions of Daniel Smith, the Irish’s best blocking wide receiver, and this team is getting big-time help from its receivers not named Tyler Eifert.

Speaking of Tyler Eifert… A great step forward in the chemistry between Golson and Eifert. The senior All-American had six catches for 62 yards. While he didn’t break a catch for more than 11 yards, a hint that Golson still isn’t comfortable working the seams where Eifert is so effective, just targeting the big tight end is progress enough.

KeiVarae Russell. What’s not to like about this kid? The freshman ran down Ray Graham, saving a touchdown on Pitt’s first big offensive play and notched five more tackles. He’s already playing at a level higher than graduated veteran Gary Gray, something nobody saw happening at the field corner position.

Dan Fox. He may never be a true leading man opposite Manti Te’o, but Fox has kicked his play into high gear, making it harder and harder to take him off the field and sub in Carlo Calabrese. Fox is great against the pass and shows the type of sideline-to-sideline athleticism that makes you think he will only get better the more comfortable he gets.

The Pass Rush. Any game with five sacks is a good one. And with Prince Shembo, Manti Te’o, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron Lewis-Moore getting into the action, the Irish front put some heat on Tino Sunseri as the game went on, making things tough on the Panthers offense when they needed it most.

It’s nice to see a guy like Lewis-Moore, who plays a key role on this defense as a captain, but is often overlooked by the dynamic Tuitt, put together a huge game with 1.5 sacks, getting pressure on Sunseri early and playing with great intensity. As for Tuitt, don’t look now, but he’s got 10 sacks on the season, well within range of Justin Tuck’s school record of 13.5.

The Win. Every win is a good win, especially when you dig a hole as deep as the Irish did for themselves. This point can’t go understated, and while there’s been a ridiculous amount of bellyaching and finger-pointing, the Irish are 9-0, and live to fight another day.

THE BAD

Early field goals. You just can’t get a total of six points out of 14 and 18 point drives like Notre Dame did in the first quarter. After eating 16 minutes of the clock the Irish scuffled in the scoring zone, something that just can’t happen when you’re playing a team in November.

Ball possession is a nice step forward for this offense. But if you possess the ball without getting points, you’re your own worst enemy.

Struggles on the offensive line. I’m looping in the tight ends in this criticism as well, since most times the protection included Troy Niklas, Tyler Eifert, or Ben Koyack. In the red zone — especially close to the goal line — Harry Hiestand’s team came up empty, with protecting breaking down on both second and third down runs. That kind of thing can’t happen from inside the one yard-line.

Defending the screen pass. Paul Chryst is one of the best at the screen game in college football. But after Danny Spond made a crucial one-on-one tackle to blow the play up early, J.P. Holtz broke loose for a huge gain after Notre Dame’s linebackers flowed downhill and ran themselves out of the play.

Expect to see teams — especially USC, a pretty good screen team as well — take advantage of the Irish’s over-aggressiveness.

Davonte Neal’s punt returns. The freshman from Arizona will have some electric days for the Irish, but Saturday wasn’t one of them. Neal’s decision making was spotty on returns and he actually had some opportunities to put together a return but couldn’t capitalize, muffing one catch and making a bad decision to let another punt roll.

Kelly wouldn’t even entertain the idea of replacing Neal in the return game. But it wasn’t No. 19’s best afternoon at the office.

Notre Dame’s “Desperado” Brain cramp. The Irish’s game-saving break on Kevin Harper’s missed 33-yard field goal could’ve been erased because of a special teams snafu, with both Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown being a part of the Irish’s kick block team. Since both players wear the number two, they aren’t allowed to be on the field at the same time unless one of them switches jerseys and declares himself to the refs. But that didn’t happen, and while the refs didn’t spot it, it could’ve been called for a penalty, a situation that already happened when Danny McCarthy and Justin Ferguson both wore No. 15.

Kelly didn’t sugarcoat the mistake when he discussed it Sunday.

“It was a coaching mistake. We had put our Desperado team on there, and Chris Brown is part of Desperado,” Kelly explained. “Just we’ve got to do a better job. An oversight that can’t happen.”

The Irish struggles at home. This is getting to a point where it’s no longer coincidental. This football team plays better when its on the road. Whether its the circus that comes with a Notre Dame home game or better concentration on the road, Notre Dame’s home field advantage has been more than nullified this season, much to the chagrin of a head coach that continues to seek the right formula for getting his team ready.

“We’re really trying to figure that out. It might just be it is what it is. I don’t know. We’ve looked at schedule. We’ve looked at trying to limit distractions. I wish I had a really good answer. I don’t have one. I know this:  We’ll battle you at home. We’ll protect our turf. We’ll find a way to win. But it seems as though for some reason we don’t get the points on the board at the opportune time or convert when we need to offensively.

“I don’t think there is any question that there’s a lot going on here at Notre Dame. We really think we’ve streamlined our schedule to eliminate a lot of those distractions. But ultimately it comes down to the players, and whether it’s ticket requests or family and friends want a tour of the football building or they want to go to the Basilica. We’ve talked about it ad nauseam with our team about how important it is to really focus the last 48 hours in on the football game.”

The Red Zone. This is an area where a championship team just can’t struggle. Kelly talked about the team’s issue near the goal line.

“BK: The quarterback’s got to do a better job down there. We fumbled the football, threw an interception and missed a couple of really easy opportunities to score. As you know, a 15‑play drive, 18‑play drive to come up with only six points. You can’t leave those points out there. It’s a process of continuing to develop at the quarterback position, taking care of the football.”

Notre Dame got a nice touchdown on a nifty playcall with a back-side screen pass to TJ Jones. But don’t expect the Irish to scheme their way to seven points.

“I think you have to be even more simpler in terms of execution and repeating the same plays and making sure that you make progress during the week,” Kelly said. “We thought we did, and then the game starts and we don’t get the kind of production down there. So we’re on it as much as you guys are in terms of understanding how important it is to put points on the board when you get down there.”

Cierre Wood’s fumble. There’s no question that Wood is the team’s most gifted running back. But a senior leader can’t cough the ball up on the goal line. It didn’t end up costing the Irish the game, but it was a back-breaking mistake for a running back that can’t get enough quality touches as it is.

THE UGLY

The uncertain future of Tate Nichols. The mammoth right tackle, who battled with Christian Lombard for a starting job before an injury slowed him down, suffered a major setback to his injured knee. It’s a situation that’s unsettled though one that’s also potentially serious to a guy that looked like a starter entering the season.

We’re going to get an MRI on his knee,” Kelly said. “We’re not certain until we get more results and talk to (team doctor) Brian Ratigan today and meet with his parents. We’re still in the process of getting more information. But he did suffer an injury, and we won’t have any definitive information for a couple more days.”

Irish Illustrated is reporting that a source told them that Nichols’ injury is a career-threatening one, a devastating end to a career and an injury that would certainly thin out the offensive line depth chart.

The lack of style points for a team looking to win. You don’t always have to look good winning, but something a little bit more impressive wouldn’t hurt. The Irish were a sloppy team, committing three turnovers, two in the end zone. Kelly talked about making sure his team does more than just go through the motions, and not rely on luck to escape.

“The winning teams have all found ways to win games. I’ll go back to Auburn in 2010. I think they had six games that they won by three points,” Kelly recalled. “I think the most important thing to ingrain into your football team is that you’re going to win, and that confidence that you’re going to win no matter what.

“Along the way, you learn that you also have to play your very best each and every week, especially when you’re at Notre Dame. So I think the latter comes first. In other words, you want to build that belief that they can win under all circumstances. But along that journey, they also realize that each and every week, they’re going to have to bring their best.”

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.