Irish running back Wood runs for a 68 yard touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the first half of their NCAA college football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest

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At this point, it’s probably best to give up looking for a bad and an ugly from the weekend that was. Between the Irish’s demolition of Wake Forest, senior day festivities, and losses by both Kansas State and Oregon, there hasn’t been a better autumn Saturday in South Bend in quite some time.

With the #1 shining above Grace Hall for the first time in a long time, let’s run through the good, the bad, and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 38-0 victory.

THE GOOD

Fast Starts. The Irish couldn’t have asked for a better start, with Cierre Wood exploding for 68 yards around the right side on an option pitch from Everett Golson. Watching Wood burst through the Demon Deacons secondary was a thing of beauty, with the season’s longest run of the year jump-starting the Irish.

That run wouldn’t have been made possible if it weren’t for Golson’s terrific throw on third down, where the young quarterback picked up a low snap and fired a strike to Theo Riddick in drop-eight coverage.

On the defensive side of the ball, it was Carlo Calabrese that got the defense off on the right foot. Calabrese absolutely crushed running back Josh Harris, jarring the football loose and forcing a turnover on Wake’s third offensive play. That was enough to flip the football field, put the Irish in good position on offense, and make the game a quick 14-0.

Everett Golson. Every Saturday Everett Golson is getting better. And against a mediocre Wake Forest defense, Golson looked terrific. Staying strong in the pocket, Golson played his best football of the season, attacking the Deacs vertically while buying time and playing mostly as a pocket passing game.

With his confidence overflowing, Golson made one bad decision, floating a ball into the end zone for Robby Toma. But he focused, came back down to earth, and finished the strongest game of his career. Golson put up a personal best for passing yardage and nearly set a school record with his 317 passing yards in the first half.

He’ll face the biggest test of his career this Saturday, but he’ll be entering the weekend playing the best football of his career.

Louis Nix. The junior defensive tackle was everywhere on Saturday, notching seven tackles from his nose guard position and being all but immovable as the rock in the middle of the defense. You don’t often see a nose guard leading a team in tackles, but that goes to show you the improvement Nix has made this season.

“His work volume has increased dramatically through his commitment and hard work in the weight room and in conditioning. And he plays so hard.  You know, he’s a guy that is all over the field,” Brian Kelly said of Nix after the game. He’s a guy that is playing the game at the highest level, and he did it through the off‑season conditioning and the commitment he made to it.”

Saying goodbye to Kapron Lewis-Moore will be tough, but a front three locked down by Stephon Tuitt, Nix, and Sheldon Day won’t miss a beat.

Cierre Wood. It’s fun to watch a running back wreak havoc at the second level of a defense. That was Wood’s day to a tee. Amazingly enough, Wood was caught in the backfield multiple times, forced for a loss on his first carry and falling victim to Wake’s attacking defense multiple times washing away any chance at positive gains. But he broke multiple big runs, with a 20-yard, 16-yard, and 43-yard dash ripping through the Demon Deacon’s defense after his opening 68 yard scamper. That’s the type of feast or famine running that happens against USC, with the Wood heading to the Coliseum to play at home in front of family and friends.

Team Defense. The shutout of Wake Forest was the first blanking of an opponent since the Irish stopped Nevada 35-0, with future star Colin Kaepernick getting shutdown by Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta. Tanner Price and company only gained 209 yards on the day, averaging just 3.5 yards per play.  Even with back-ups playing for much of the fourth quarter, the Irish defense was relentless, delivering a shutout at home to cap off a terrific Senior Day.

Explosive Plays. So much for that methodical Irish offense that depended on a grind-it-out running game. Saturday’s offensive explosive featured multiple “big chunk” running plays (see Cierre Wood) and an aerial attack downfield by Golson. John Goodman continued his big play season, notching another long touchdown catch. TJ Jones caught a deep touchdown as well. If it weren’t for a nice play by a defensive back, Chris Brown would’ve had another long reception as well.

After struggling to stretch the field vertically, the Irish exploded with down field receptions, as Jones, Goodman, Theo Riddick, Robby Toma, and Tyler Eifert all had receptions of 24 yards or more. That’s an easy way to rack of passing yardage, and score a lot of points.

Clearing out the bench. Want to see a thing of beauty? How about the participation report from Saturday. Check out some of the names on there, including:

Charlie Fiessinger
Joe Romano
Nick Fitzpatrick
Jake Golic
Blake Breslau
Andrew Hendrix
Ben Councell
Eric Lee
Connor Calavaris
Conor Hanratty
Bruce Heggie
Dennis Mahoney
Nick Martin

At one point, two sets of brothers were on the field at the same time, with Jake and Mike Golic and Nick and Zack Martin all in the offensive huddle. A nice moment for two families that won’t easily be forgotten.

THE BAD

It’s hard to complain about a missed field goal by Kyle Brindza, but the sophomore is struggling from the right hash. While his kick percentage slides closer to 70 than you’d like, he’s still made just about every clutch kick he’s been asked to make.

Both Chris Brown and George Atkinson struggled to make some routine catches, answering questions from fans wondering why they weren’t getting the ball via air more often.

THE UGLY

This stays empty. Nothing ugly for an Irish program with the top graduation rate in the country to match their No. 1 ranking on the field.

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.