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.”

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.