Brian Kelly

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 22, USC 13

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LOS ANGELES — It’ll be a game that ends up etched in a coffee table book. Or a victory memorialized by a catchy turn of phrase. History will certainly be kind to No. 1 Notre Dame’s gutty 22-13 win over USC. But make no mistake, this victory was not extraordinary.

The Irish beat the Trojans Saturday night playing just as they had eleven Saturdays before this. With dogged perseverance. Unbridled energy and emotion. With a championship effort that could overcome red zone futility and third down struggles.

And with defense. A unit that looked vulnerable at different points of the night, but still was remarkably stingy, no more so than on nine straight plays from inside the Irish five yard line, when Notre Dame held the Trojans out of the end zone, clinching the victory with a goal line stand that guaranteed the Irish’s birth in the national title game.

“That’s how we played the game all year,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “This was another clear indication of how we got to 12-0. Our guys have an incredible resolve, regardless of the circumstances, of coming up and finding ways to win.”

As the Irish fly through the night for a hero’s welcome in South Bend, let’s talk about the five things we learned in No. 1 Notre Dame’s 22-13 victory.

***

With the chips on the table, Brian Kelly’s trust in Theo Riddick was proven right.

Theo Riddick might not be Notre Dame’s most talented running back. But with the season on the line, it was Notre Dame’s do-everything back that carried the Irish offense, running like a 195-pound freight train through the Trojan’s defense for 146 yards and a touchdown.

“If you want to know about the Fighting Irish, you just take a look at Theo Riddick,” Kelly said after the game. “Here’s a guy that was a wide receiver for me the first two years, we asked him to move back to running back and in game twelve he manages 140 yards and broke countless tackles and got us the tough yards that we needed today.

Riddick was absolutely huge Saturday night, picking up the slack when Cierre Wood was neutralized by USC’s defense. In the final regular season game of his career, Riddick played his absolute best football, running for a career-high 146 yards while running like a power back in a slot receiver’s body.

“You just look at his jersey after the game and you just go, there’s no wonder why this team has the has got the toughness that it does,” Kelly said.

Riddick stayed humble after the game, deferring credit to his offensive linemen while showing the humility of a guy that worked his way from supporting cast to leading man.

“It was a great feeling, but it was a great feeling to see the offensive linemen doing their job and moving those big guys up front to make great holes for us. We started to get the best of them. The offensive line did a great job all game.”

Riddick might not be the natural runner that Cierre Wood is, but in a game where Notre Dame needed to dictate terms, Kelly once again called on his do-everything man. And Riddick paid back his confidence tenfold.

***

He may not win it, but Brian Kelly believes Manti Te’o deserves the Heisman Trophy.

Another press conference, another reporter asking Brian Kelly to shill for Manti Te’o, his Heisman Trophy candidate. And this time, Kelly stated his most persuasive case for his star linebacker.

“If a guy like Manti Te’o isn’t going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award,” Kelly said. “Just give it to the offensive player every year and just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each week. He showed it again tonight with a key interception and a great play in the end zone. If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I don’t know how Manti Te’o is held out of that conversation.”

Te’o went over the 100 tackle mark on the season this evening, joining Bob Crable as the only Irish player to college 100 or more tackles in three different seasons. He also intercepted his seventh pass of the year when he stepped in front of Marqise Lee and picked off Max Wittek, his seventh of the season, which ranks second in all of college football, a total not reached by a linebacker in 13 seasons.

Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel had another banner game, throwing for 372 yards and three touchdowns while running for two more, so the redshirt freshman in College Station might have sealed the trophy for himself on Saturday in the Aggies’ 59-29 win over Missouri. But no player has played consistently better than Te’o all season, with Manziel having clunker games against Ole Miss and LSU. (The game against the Tigers could end up being the worst statistical game of any Heisman Trophy winner in their crowning season.)

In an era where the highlight reel sells much better than consistency, the story of Johnny Football might be unavoidable. But Te’o will earn his way to New York, quite an accomplishment for a linebacker that’s done the big and little things right all season.

“To be honest, I’ve said it before, I’d rather go to the national championship,” Te’o said. “If I win, that’ll be a great honor, but if I don’t, I’m glad I got to go to Miami.”

***

Add Notre Dame’s goal line stands to the list of memories in his magical season.

Down nine points with just under six minutes remaining in the game, Max Wittek hit Marqise Lee for the game’s biggest play, a 53-yard bomb that beat Bennett Jackson. But with first and goal from the one and the Trojans needing two scores to win, Notre Dame held USC out of the end zone, as the clock ticked away precious minutes.

“You have to make the plays in those situations,” Lane Kiffin said after the game. “You are not going to beat the No. 1 team in the nation kicking field goals instead of getting touchdowns. They are number one on the goal line defense and they did that to everybody.”

How the Irish did it was the interesting part. After a crucial false start pushed the Trojans back five yards, the Trojans ran the ball back to the Irish four-yard line. From there, Kiffin decided to throw the fade to Lee, who drew a well-earned pass interference penalty on freshman KeiVarae Russell. With a fresh set of downs starting at the two-yard line, Kiffin went back to Lee and was once again rewarded with a pass interference call, this one a little bit less cut and dry.

With another first down, this one at Notre Dame’s one, the Trojans decided to try and pound their 225-pound quarterback into the end zone. They were stuffed short. And again with Wittek on second down, from the shadow of the goal line. With the clock ticking down to 3:19, Kiffin burned the Trojans’ second time out, before trying Curtis McNeal. No dice, with Matthias Farley and Kapron Lewis-Moore meeting McNeal in the backfield. And when Wittek’s low fourth down throw fell threw fullback Soma Vainulu’s hands, the Irish had their game-clinching goal line stand.

With the game hanging in the balance, the Irish defense played their best football. And their goal line stand against the Trojans will be another shining moment for a Notre Dame defense that’ll go down in school history.

***

The Irish won Saturday night in spite of their red zone offense.

For a nine point victory, things could have been much easier for Notre Dame. After marching down the field on the team’s first three drives, the Irish settled for too many field goals, converting just one of six red zone attempts for touchdowns.

While Kyle Brindza converted five of six field goal attempts — including a clutch 52-yarder into the wind — Notre Dame nearly shot itself in the foot by not burying the Trojans when they had the chance. With six weeks to get things cleaned up before the BCS National Championship, quarterback Everett Golson, talked about what the team needs to do to turn threes into sevens.

“Just execute. Simple as that,” Golson said after the game. “We had a couple mishaps. One being, me missing a throw, or me missing a check. But we’ve got six weeks to prepare for that.”

That’s maturity from a young quarterback you may not have heard earlier in the season. But Golson has grown in front of our eyes, playing another mistake free football game in hostile territory, throwing for 217 yards and running for 47, all while battling cramps for much of the second half.

The next six weeks, the Irish coaching staff will analyze and cross-check their decisions inside the 20. They’ll likely remind themselves that Theo Riddick deserved a shot running towards the end zone instead of Golson alone in an empty set, but those are worries for another day.

***

It wasn’t perfect, but these sixty minutes encapsulated Notre Dame’s entire season.

Go ahead and spend the next six weeks talking about Notre Dame’s slim chances to derail Alabama or Georgia. It won’t bother the Irish in the least. With an offense still learning how to be great and a defense with a self-belief that makes it unconquerable, Saturday night’s victory was a perfect microcosm of the season.

“That’s all we talk about,” Kelly said after the game. “We don’t talk about style points, we don’t talk about anything else. Just find ways to win. And these guys continue to do that. I’m so proud of our coaches. I’m so proud of our players grit and toughness.”

That grit and toughness was easy to see Saturday night. But so was the discipline that comes with championship level teams. Once again, the Irish won the turnover battle, playing clean football while taking away two Max Wittek passes. And while the Irish had seven penalties, you could argue three of them were smart plays — with KeiVarae Russell trading pass interference calls for a long reception and two potential touchdowns.

The Irish started strong, moving the ball at will in the first quarter, and held the Trojans at bay throughout the second half, dominating the time of possession by almost ten minutes, which helped limit the Trojans to a modest 281 yards and 13 points.

That’s team football at its core. A strong running game — 222 yards at a 5.3 yard clip — that controls the clock and holds onto the football. A defense that avoids the big play and makes things tough on an opponent. Clean special teams and clutch kicking on the road all helped seal the victory.

Even in the season’s final game, there are things the Irish can work on. And that’s what makes this season so amazing: even in growth, Brian Kelly has taken his team to the summit.

“Not getting touchdowns came back to make it a little bit more difficult on us,” Kelly said. “We’re still in a process. We’re not there yet.”

Oh but you are, coach. Oh but you are.

In 44 days, Notre Dame will play for the national championship.

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.