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.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)