Five things we learned: No. 3 Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 0

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For a long time 38-0 signified the gap between Notre Dame and college football’s elite programs. In 2003, Michigan embarrassed the Irish, a top five team proving skeptics right that 2002 was a fluke as the Wolverines pounded the Irish, holding Notre Dame to just seven first downs and 140 yards.

“They came at us in every imaginable way,” Tyrone Willingham said. “There’s nothing positive about how we played. We were outplayed, outcoached, everything.”

A year after another Irish resurrection, Notre Dame felt the brunt of two more ugly 38-0 defeats. With Charlie Weis needing to rebuild after back-to-back BCS berths, the Irish crashed back to earth, in a season where Notre Dame had to rally to avoid being the worst team in school history. Again against Michigan, the Irish were thumped, gaining just 79 total yards against a Wolverines team that had lost to Appalachian State. And against the Irish’s other heralded rival USC, the Trojans demolished the Irish at home, with back-up quarterback Mark Sanchez breezing by Notre Dame before Pete Carroll called off the dogs.

“You see where they are, you see where we are,” Charlie Weis said after the defeat. We’re at different ends of the spectrum at this point.”

They symbolism of Notre Dame’s 38-0 victory over Wake Forest will mean a lot more if the Irish take care of business against Southern Cal next weekend. But after lopsided losses so often over the past decade, the fact that it’s Notre Dame — now 11-0 and marching towards a potential birth in the national title game — separating itself from competitors by wide margins, well, it shows you just how far this team has come.

“We’ve played three top ten teams, all of them great,” Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said after the defeat. “I can’t imagine anybody from what I saw today, playing better than Notre Dame.”

Let’s find out what else we learned during the Irish’s 38-0 demolition of Wake Forest.

***

On a day filled with emotion and enthusiasm, the Irish played close to the perfect game.

After an emotional pregame ceremony that honored the Irish seniors and their families, many wondered how Notre Dame would start the game. After an inauspicious beginning — a holding call on the opening kickoff pinned the Irish deep in their own territory — Everett Golson threw a perfect strike to Theo Riddick for a big 3rd and 11 conversion. On the very next snap, Cierre Wood broke a 68-yard touchdown run on a nice option pitch from Golson.

From there, the route was on, with Notre Dame  sprinting to 21 first quarter points and playing their most complete football game of the season.

“We have a paradigm for winning.  It’s something we talk about actually in our locker room.  It’s called four quarters of winning,” Kelly explained.  “It starts with getting off to a quick start.  We talk about getting off to that quick start how important that is in the first quarter.  Second quarter is attention to detail.  The third quarter is effort and enthusiasm, and the fourth quarter is finish strong.  I think that came together in this football game more than any game we’ve played this year.”

The Irish checked off every box their head coach asked for, gaining 221 yards in the first quarter, their most since the third quarter of the Miami blowout. From there, they handled their business, continuing the offensive explosion until it was time to clamp down and win the football game.

On a day where the emotions of the moment could have taken away from the attention to detail, credit this football team for playing like champions.

***

With another tremendous game, Everett Golson’s progress is right on schedule.

By halftime, Everett Golson was in uncharted territory. The young quarterback in his first year on the job came out firing from the start, throwing for an astounding 317 yards in the first half, not far from the 30-minute record set by Jimmy Clausen in a 2009 losing effort against Navy. Golson completed 17 passes in the first half before exiting the game in the third quarter with an impressive stat line of 20 for 30 for 346 yards, with three touchdown passes and one ill-advised interception.

“What you impressed me with that kid today is how accurately he threw the football,” Grobe said after the game. “We knew that he was going to be a problem for us with his feet, either running the football or making plays out of the pocket. I couldn’t be more impressed with how accurately he threw the football, especially two or three of the deep balls.”

Even without DaVaris Daniels, Golson had no problem finding receivers, throwing accurately both short and long and once again being incredibly efficient on third down. For the first time this season, the Irish offense seemed to stress defenses vertically, with Golson hitting Theo Riddick up the seam, John Goodman and TJ Jones on deep balls, and letting Tyler Eifert do what the All-American tight end does.

Outside of the one ill-advised interception Golson threw in the end zone, it was a spectacular game for the young quarterback, who is growing into his role as the leader of the offense quite nicely.

“Obviously, he’s a guy that makes explosive plays. He’s got the ability to throw it. He can run the football. He’s elusive. I think we’re seeing a guy that’s growing each and every week,” Kelly said. “Now he made some mistakes that a young quarterback has a tendency to make. We’ve got to kind of slow him down a little bit. But he’s definitely on the right path to providing us the offense that we need.”

Golson is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence heading into Los Angeles for Monte Kiffin and the Trojan defense. After extending the field vertically, he’ll give the Trojans one more thing to expect.

***

Better late than never, Tyler Eifert turns into an offensive difference maker.

It has taken some time for All-American tight end Tyler Eifert to develop some chemistry with Everett Golson. But with six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, the duo is making headway, with Eifert making big plays in the passing game, and finally started to do some damage down field.

It was a tremendous day for Eifert, with the senior from Fort Wayne breaking Ken MacAfee’s 35-year school record for career catches by a tight end. Just as important as any individual record, Eifert continued to develop as a key cog in the Irish offense, a process that’s taken longer than many expected. After turning down an opportunity to head to the NFL after last season, Eifert hasn’t put up the numbers you’d expect from a player of his caliber, but he certainly hasn’t harmed his cause.

“Coming back, not going into the draft. Coming back to get his degree says so much,” Kelly said. “But to also play at the level that he’s played, to break the kind of records with the great tight ends that have been here at Notre Dame is an amazing feat.

“I think it’s a combination of a guy that understands Notre Dame, understands the value of a great education, and wanted to be on a championship football team. I think he epitomizes in terms of what we look for as a Notre Dame football player.”

Mike Mayock spoke about Eifert’s decision to return to school during the broadcast, saying that while his stats aren’t what they were last year, talent evaluators and NFL scouts think Eifert has helped his cause by showing his ability to both block and make plays down the field. Jim Grobe certainly echoed that sentiment.

“What we find so often in tight ends is they’re one or the other,” Grobe said of Eifert. “They’re big guys, really good blockers, or they’re undersized guys that can run and catch a football.  He’s the perfect combination.”

***

In Cierre Wood, Brian Kelly has a chance at another six-star recruit.

In his three seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has landed a few “six-star” recruits — players that decided to come back to school instead of putting their names in for the NFL Draft. After landing Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, and Manti Te’o, Kelly and his offensive staff should set their sights on running back Cierre Wood.

After leading the Irish in rushing the past two seasons, Wood started the season seemingly in the head coach’s dog house, suspended for the year’s first two games for a mysterious violation of team rules along with linebacker Justin Utupo. And while Wood has continued to put up impressive stats in his third season in the Irish backfield, Kelly and the offensive staff have leaned more heavily on fellow senior Theo Riddick, choosing versatility and consistency, even if the results are more modest.

On paper, the decision is confounding. Riddick is averaging a decent 4.58 yards a carry on the season while leading the team with 160 carries for 734 yards. Wood, after running for 150 yards on just 11 carries, now has 720 yards on just 102 carries, averaging more than seven yards a carry. If you’re looking for consistency, its been Wood delivering on a weekly basis, not Riddick. At his worst, Wood has averaged 5.4 yards a carry, while having two games where he averaged better than 10 yards a carry. On the other hand, Riddick has had seven games where he’s failed to average four yards a carry, with big ball games against Navy, BYU, and Boston College buoying his stats, leading you to believe that the better place for him would be in the hybrid role many envisioned him playing from the start.

Wood mentioned on Facebook that Saturday would be his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, leading you to believe that he’s ready to depart South Bend after getting his diploma. But Kelly believes that the senior running back, who has a year of eligibility remaining, still has work to be done.

“Cierre continues to do the job we ask him to do,” Kelly said.  “He’s getting better. I mean, he’s got a long way to go, but he had a great night tonight. I think we blocked well up front.  He saw the things necessary to put his foot in the ground and play North and South. He’s a better football player when he goes North and South. I think he’s starting to understand that as well.”

No coach has handled his players better than Kelly at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz was on the sideline, so it’s difficult not to give the benefit of the doubt to Kelly about distributing touches at a crowded running back position. But with George Atkinson still learning on the job, there’s not a ton of options behind Wood in the backfield, even with Cam McDaniel as an excellent safety blanket.

With NFL scouts likely to throw some tough questions his way after the two-game suspension, perhaps there’s unfinished business in South Bend for Wood. It would behoove the Irish head coach to at least present the case.

***

It was a storybook ending at Notre Dame for the senior class.

Even the gruffest of men had to feel their emotions stir during the introductions of the senior class. Watching veterans like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, and Manti Te’o embrace their family and celebrate an up-and-down career at Notre Dame brought out the best in college football, and the afternoon romp felt like a celebration of the Irish’s greatest hits in a resurgent season.

Te’o had said many times that one of the big reasons he returned to South Bend for his senior season was for the chance to run out of the tunnel and be met by his parents. When asked if the moment lived up to his expectations, the senior linebacker was unflinching.

“Everything and more,” Te’o said. “I can’t believe this is the last time I’ll be playing here.”

With the game well in hand, Kelly paid special tribute to his senior defenders, calling a timeout to remove them to the roar of the approving home crowd.

“I wanted to make it a special moment for the seniors on defense,” Kelly explained. “They have been obviously the rock.  They’ve carried us while we were trying to find ourselves offensively. It just seemed to me to be a pretty good gesture to allow us to honor those seniors.”

It was certainly a moment well received, and one that will never be forgotten by Te’o.

“Just Magic,” Te’o said of the timeout, where he, Zeke Motta, and Kapron Lewis-Moore ran off the field for the last time. “Like everything’s come full circle. For coach to do that, he could have easily taken us out and not even put us on the field.  But it was a TV timeout, and he said I’m going to send you guys out there, and then I’m going to call a timeout, and one by one I’m going to sub you guys out. So that’s the type of coach that Coach Kelly is.  I’m just very lucky to play for him.”

In Kelly and Te’o, player and coach found the perfect partner. For the head of the Irish football program, he found a transcendent leader to bridge the gap between past and present. For the linebacker, he found a coach that brought out the best in him, challenging Te’o to surpass the expectations heaped on his shoulders from the start, something entirely uncommon for Notre Dame lately.

With one last step in front of the Irish, the job is far from complete. But on Saturday afternoon, a perfect autumn day for football turned into a celebration of Notre Dame’s miraculous season. Another chapter in a storybook season.

“That’s the great way to end my career playing here in Notre Dame,” Te’o said.

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

Associated Press
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Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

Associated Press
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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.