Pittsburgh v Notre Dame

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.”

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.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars

Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

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Even as he recovered from a broken ankle suffered late in the 2015 season, Alex Bars made the move everybody expected from him this spring. The rising junior rose to the top of the depth chart at right tackle, filling the hole Mike McGlinchey left behind and potentially solidifying the rebuilt core of Notre Dame’s front five.

It was a move that felt preordained, especially if you’d been paying attention to the coaching staff’s belief in Bars. A high-level recruit, an impressive redshirt and capable in spot duty in 2015, assuming all goes according to plan, the move to the starting lineup gives Bars the chance to spend three seasons in the starting lineup of one of the country’s most competitive position groups.

Now he’s got to perform.

 

ALEX BARS
6’6″, 320 lbs.
Junior, No. 71, RT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 recruit who chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

His father Joe played linebacker for Notre Dame in the early-80s, while two of his brothers played major college football. Bars is a blue-chipper by every measure.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in six games, starting against Navy and USC at guard before breaking his ankle. Served as primary backup at both tackle positions and guard until his injury.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Spot on here, both about the time-share being difficult and injuries. Unfortunately, Bars was the lineman who suffered—not finding as much time behind Nelson and then ending his year with a broken ankle.

Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bars looks like another potential NFL offensive lineman, something Harry Hiestand is churning out at an impressive rate. While we won’t know just how good he is until we see him on the edge against Texas, Bars is the type of lineman who’d have started too early in his career at left tackle in previous eras, forced to learn on the fly like Ryan Harris or Sam Young.

The staff was careful with Bars this spring, not rushing the 320-pounder back until his surgically repaired ankle could handle it. And while they explored the idea of keeping him inside at the vacant right guard position, it’s only to obvious that Bars’ skill-set—not to mention the remaining personnel—needed him to play on the edge.

With three years left there’s plenty of time to grow at the position, while also building from a position of strength. That’s the sign of great positional depth.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I assume a healthy, strong season from Bars. I think the time working inside could help him in the running game, while his athleticism should make pass blocking feel natural, especially with great length and feet.

Of course, he’s still a first-year starter. Expecting a year like Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey had might be too much, but there’s no reason not to set a similar bar. From the moment Bars stepped foot on campus, Kelly knew he had a special player.

Hunter Bivin can play tackle in a pinch. Freshman Tommy Kraemer might be able to as well. But for the Irish to have their best offensive line, they need Bars to anchor the right side. I expect him to do so in 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas