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.”

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

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.