ND BC

Pregame six pack: The Holy War

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When Notre Dame goes to Chestnut Hill, they’ll be playing not just to get to 10-0, but to continue a winning streak against a rival that brings out the ire of Irish fans everywhere. Even with Boston College 2-7 and in the midst of a season that’ll likely end with Frank Spaziani getting fired, you won’t see any sympathy from Notre Dame fans, and certainly won’t see Brian Kelly’s squad take things easy either.

Kelly might not be well versed — or a fan — of replaying Notre Dame football history, but it isn’t hard to understand why this game means something to both sides. The series between the two Catholic schools was fairly innocuous until 1992, when the Irish rolled the undefeated and ninth-ranked Eagles 54-7, going as far as to fake a punt in the third quarter with a 37-0 lead. Tom Coughlin and his squad didn’t take kindly to the move and the next year, the Eagles used that snub as fuel to their shocking 41-39 upset, ruining the Irish’s undefeated season just a week after they beat Florida State. The No. 8 Irish lost the year after that as well, and while Notre Dame rallied to take back the momentum of the series throughout the late 90s, from 2001-2008, Boston College reeled off six consecutive wins, a streak that included the Eagles’ shocking 14-7 win over Ty Willingham’s No. 4 ranked Irish, who donned green jerseys.

With the Irish once again No. 4 and taking on a decided underdog, the Eagles will relish their role as potential spoilers as any postseason aspirations have washed away with seven Boston College losses.

‘‘I would rather knock Notre Dame out of the national championship than go to the Toilet Bowl,’’ offensive lineman Emmett Cleary said. ‘‘They’re not Alabama, but they’re a very good team. They’re winners and they’ve pulled out a lot of close games, so we’ve got our work cut out for us, for sure.’’

As Notre Dame prepares to take on Boston College for the 22nd edition of the Holy War, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings to get your ready for the Irish versus the Eagles.

***

If you were worried about the Irish special teams, you should worry about Spiffy Evans.

There isn’t a whole lot to get excited about for Boston College fans. But in a game where the Eagles will need to win by dominating the turnover battle and making big plays on special teams, one weapon the Irish will need to watch out for is wide receiver Spiffy Evans.

The sophomore from Hollywood, Florida hasn’t been burning up the field as a wide receiver, but he’s been one of the nation’s most explosive punt returners, averaging over 31 yards a return on the season. Evans has only had seven opportunities to field returns on the season, but he’s already broken one for a touchdown, and played a major factor in both of B.C.’s wins this year, racking up over 200 yards on five returns during the two wins.

Frank Spaziani talked about getting Evans involved in the return game.

“I think we’ve done a good job on our punt return scheme, Xs and Os, and then I think Spiffy has gotten a little more confidence and he knows where we’re going,” Spaziani said. “We’re not doing much back there, and it’s a matter of seeing an opening and taking it, and we’ve gotten a couple breaks with kicks and coverage and things like that. You put it all together, and it leads you to a 31‑yard average, which has been a big plus for us.”

Opponents haven’t started to kick away from Evans yet, but it’ll be interesting to watch how Ben Turk handles his punting duties on Saturday night.

***

Stephon Tuitt will be taking dead aim at Notre Dame’s single-season sack record.

With ten sacks through nine games, Stephon Tuitt ranks fifth in the country in taking down quarterbacks. And in his breakout sophomore season, Tuitt is also taking dead aim at the Notre Dame record books. Currently, Tuitt is tied for the third-best pass-rushing season in school history, tied with Bert Berry (1996) and Mike Gann (1984) with ten. He’s just a half sack behind Victor Abiamiri’s 2006 senior season and Justin Tuck’s impressive 2003 junior campaign, when Tuck racked up 13.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss.

Making Tuitt’s season all the more impressive is the fact that he’s doing this as a true sophomore. Tuitt’s numbers for underclassmen are tops in the country, with Oregon State’s Scott Crichton (9.0) and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney (8.5) trailing Tuitt’s sack totals. All of that done from his 3-4 defensive end position, and often times sliding inside to defensive tackle in pass rush situations.

A season after tallying just two sacks in spot duty, Kelly talked about the confidence he had in his all-everything defensive end.

“We thought that he could pick up and be a better pass rusher for us this year because we were going to give him more of those opportunities to do that,” Kelly said. “So being on the field as much as he has and the kind of player he is, he’s quote unquote an inside player, but as you know, when we go to four down, we can kick him out and he can play at the end position too.”

Against a Boston College offense that’ll depend on the passing game to move the football, Tuitt will certainly get his chances to rack up some stats Saturday night.

***

If the flu couldn’t slow Louis Nix down, don’t expect the Boston College offensive line to do it either.

A week after gutting out an impressive performance after spending two nights in the infirmary, Louis Nix is back and healthy, joking with the media and preparing to take on a hefty load up front with back-up defensive tackle Kona Schwenke battling a shoulder injury. After “going into a gun fight with a pair of scissors,” Nix is back to full strength and ready to challenge an Eagles front that’s struggling with some depth after guard Ian White questionable with an ankle injury.

The Eagles offensive front isn’t one of Spaziani’s most stout, and the mediocre B.C. running game — a horrific 122nd in the country with just 75 yards a game on 2.7 yards per carry — is in for a load with Nix fired up and back to his jovial self.

Nix even jokingly explained how he planned the Irish comeback against Pitt.

“We said, Coach, we’re going to let them go up 20-6 in the fourth. We’re going to try to come back, have the fans sweating,’” Nix joked. “Told Everett, don’t do your magic until the last five minutes. He agrees, ‘Yeah. I’m gonna get the touchdown, get the two-point conversion.’ Then I hit up Cierre, told him fumble the ball. And then he let it go. Then, at the end of the game, I hit up the Pitt kicker, ‘Just go to the right a little bit.’

“I’m just kidding. It was a close one. We’re just happy we won. We just kept fighting the whole game and that’s all that matters.”

Whether it was Nix, or “Touchdown Deal With It Jesus,” a healthy defense — with Manti Te’o also recovered from his own battle with the flu — should help the Irish shut down a one-dimensional Boston College offense.

***

While the chemistry on this Irish team is certainly a key to an undefeated start, some of that groundwork was laid last season by leaders like Jonas Gray.

There is no doubt that the unity and chemistry on this Fighting Irish squad is better than the previous teams under Brian Kelly. Whether that’s a product of entering the third year of the program or strong leaders like Manti Te’o, this team has continued to win close football games thanks to mental and physical toughness that just wasn’t exhibited enough last season.

But that’s not to say it wasn’t there. While the 2011 Irish slumped to a 8-5 record as injuries and turnovers marred the season, they were lucky to have some strong leaders that laid the groundwork for the 2012 team that’s now the surprise of college football. While you’d expect the locker room to miss veteran leaders like Harrison Smith and Michael Floyd, UND.com’s Strong and True moment featuring running back Jonas Gray gives you a good idea of the culture that’s being built under Kelly and his staff.

***

***

Gray’s postgame talk after having his knee demolished against Boston College is one of those moments that help you understand what makes sports so great. That Gray was able to support his teammates when he knew his career at Notre Dame was over — not to mention any professional aspirations — goes to show you that a team like this wasn’t just formed in one offseason, but a team that evolved over time.

Addressing the team on crutches and fighting back tears, Gray cites the same Alexander Dumas quote that Manti Te’o referenced this year, comparing life to a storm. “You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when the storm comes.”

After spending much of the offseason and training camp rehabilitating the knee injury suffered against the Eagles last year on Senior Day, Gray is now back to practicing with the Dolphins. It’s a moment in the sunlight that’s well deserved.

***

Another Saturday, another opportunity to improve for Everett Golson.

The lights might not be as bright as they were against Oklahoma, but Saturday night is another primetime opportunity for Everett Golson to take command of this Irish offense. A week after rallying the Irish back for victory against Pitt, Golson will have another chance to play a team that’s over-matched on paper.

This time, it’ll be up to the young quarterback to bury the opponent.

For the Irish to do that, they’ll need to play better in the red zone and get a more efficient performance out of Golson. When asked about the young quarterback’s week of practice, Kelly praised the progress Golson made staying in the pocket and making the correct throws.

“The thing we really asked him to do was to get his footwork settled within the pocket,” Kelly said. “That was probably the priority from last week’s game. Get settled in the pocket. I think you can say it all you want. They have to decide to want to do it and I thought he decided this week that he was going to work on that and he made some progress.”

Golson’s inability to settle in behind center cost him a few easy reads, including one to tight end Troy Niklas that Kelly acknowledged Thursday after practice. And with a young quarterback learning as he goes, mastering the basics and adding that to his game-breaking abilities will help catapult this offense to new places.

***

There’s a chance Notre Dame could come up smelling like Roses this year.

Thanksgiving weekend might not be the only trip the Irish take to Southern California this season. While there are plenty of permutations possible as postseason bowl implications continue to sort themselves out, there’s a growing chance that Notre Dame could find itself heading to Pasadena this year, matching the Irish up with the Grand-Daddy of them all, the Rose Bowl.

The Irish have only played in one Rose Bowl, way back in 1925, but if the Irish find themselves the odd man out in the National Championship game, a date on New Year’s Day in Pasadena might be quite the consolation prize.

“There is still so much that can happen, and of course the biggest story out there is whether we would take Notre Dame, but there is a lot to play out before it starts to become a serious conversation within our group,” Rose Bowl spokeswoman Gina Chappin said Wednesday.

The Irish playing in Pasadena will likely mean Oregon makes its way to Miami, bumping the No. 1 Pac-12 team out of its traditional spot in the Rose Bowl. And if Oregon State stumbles against Stanford and Oregon, and the Irish give USC another loss, the Irish all of a sudden look mighty attractive as an at-large option, with potentially no Pac-12 team even in the BCS top 14 .

‘‘There are so many variables that go into the conversation of the matchup. It’s not a conversation we have a lot,’’ Chappin said. ‘‘We’re at a position right now where it’s too early to focus on the what-ifs.’’

Any what-if that don’t include Notre Dame (and perhaps an undefeated Irish squad) in the national championship are obviously relegated to back-up duties. But January 1 in Pasadena certainly isn’t the worst fall back in the world.

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.