The road to 12-0: Navy

17 Comments

The Irish have taken a long and winding road to Miami. The trail they’ve forged — crossing the Atlantic to open the season and playing their season finale just miles from the Pacific — gives you an idea of the literal distance this team had to travel to fight their way into college football’s finale.  Yet the emotional journey might have been far more harrowing, starting the season as a team that was left for dead, and only after nobody else was left standing, finally, almost begrudgingly, accepted as one of the nation’s elite teams.

With apologies to The Hobbit, this was an unexpected journey that every Irish fan found entrancing. As we enter a holiday week that gives each of us an opportunity to look back at 2012, we’re spending the week looking back at the games and players that made this memorable 12-0 season possible.

Let’s get started with Notre Dame’s trip to Dublin.

STATUS CHECK

For those in need of a trip down memory lane to remember August, it wasn’t exactly rainbows and lollipops for Notre Dame or its fans. Entering week one, the Irish were dealing with a number of off-the-field headaches, and quite a bit of white noise that came from the media.

Rick Reilly, the ESPN writer/personality paid like an NBA first round draft pick, had just put down the shovel after digging a grave for the Irish football program. Brian Kelly had his own minor misstep blown out of proportion, when his quote, “I’m not a big fan of playing football games in Ireland,” was turned into referendum on the Irish coach who many saw as a dictatorial kill joy. And then add in Allen Pinkett’s silly “a few bad citizens” radio interview, and you start to remember that this season started out like far too many recently.

On the field, Notre Dame was dealing with its own issues. Would the loss of Aaron Lynch doom a front-seven that was in desperate need of pass rushers? In the days leading up to the game, we broke the news that Cierre Wood wouldn’t be traveling to Dublin, leaving the Irish’s leading rusher home to watch the game with Tommy Rees, Carlo Calabrese, and Justin Utupo. If you were looking for a safety net for newly named starting quarterback Everett Golson, keep looking.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Entering the season opener, here were a few key questions we were asking:

How ready was Everett Golson?

The debut of Golson was one of the few energizing offseason developments. The young quarterback showed flashes during the Blue-Gold game, but beating Navy was another thing.

“He’s going to make some mistakes and we know that we’re going to have to overcome those,” Kelly said of Golson back in August. “But if he’s not out of character on Saturday, I will safely say, he will do a very good job of taking care of the football. But that’s why they play the game.”

Will Bob Diaco’s untested secondary hold up?

Even with a full deck, Irish fans were concerned about the status of Notre Dame’s secondary. The loss of Austin Collinsworth to a season-ending shoulder surgery was a critical blow to the Irish’s ability to play nickel coverage. An Achilles tendon tear to Lo Wood cost the Irish their starting cornerback in preseason camp. While Irish fans felt comfortable about Bennett Jackson taking over the boundary cornerback position, freshman KeiVarae Russell, who started camp with a different number on his back and playing a different position, had a bunch of responsibility heaped on him as the team’s starting field cornerback.

Seniors Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter were two rocks that the Irish could depend on (not for long as it turned out), but this was a huge question mark heading into the Navy game, and all eyes were on Diaco, co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks and new safeties coach Bob Elliott.

What would the Irish offense look like with Chuck Martin running it?

The faith of Notre Dame fans in Chuck Martin was almost universal, a pretty bizarre occurrence for a group that’s known to be skeptical on just about everything. Yet Kelly’s unusual move of turning his safeties coach and recruiting coordinator into the offensive coordinator seemed solid from the start.

Yet Martin was given no small task. Transition to a redshirt freshman quarterback that had yet to see live game action. Replace Michael Floyd, the school’s record-setting wide receiver. Rebuild a running game with an offensive line that had a new position coach, solid talent, but little depth.

More importantly, Martin was tasked with finding a way to stop the Irish from getting in their own way, as the 2011 edition was plenty prolific, but often its own worse enemy. That objective on its own was tough enough. But doing that while breaking in a young quarterback, finding some dependable receivers, and starting the year without Cierre Wood? Well, maybe the faith in Martin was more a leap than anything.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 50, Navy 10.

The benefit of the early kickoff — a 9 a.m. EST start — meant most hard core college football fans were spending breakfast watching Notre Dame. And as the Irish went out and pummeled Navy, it sure seemed like Notre Dame was taking out a lot of their offseason frustrations on the outclassed Midshipmen.

Forget about Golson (for a minute), the Irish ground game was new and improved. Running early and often, Theo Riddick looked at home at tailback, pacing the Irish with 107 yards and two touchdowns. George Atkinson looked like the home run threat many had hoped he’d become, and his 56-yard sprint for the end zone was a dazzling display of speed. Harry Hiestand’s offensive line dominated the point of attack, and Martin and Kelly seemed happy putting Golson under center, running a throw-back offensive attack that took the pressure off a young quarterback getting his feet wet.

Golson played a solid game, completing 12 of 18 passes for 145 yards, finding Tyler Eifert for an easy red zone touchdown pass, but also forcing a ball into coverage for an interception. Yet the young quarterback looked calm, and while Andrew Hendrix saw the field, it was as a mop-up quarterback.

“We knew what we were going to get with Everett,” Kelly said after the game. “This wasn’t something where we didn’t know what was going to happen. There is always going to be some learning and he’s going to continue to learn all year. We would not have put him out there unless he had a good grasp of the offense. This was really just getting live snaps and experiencing the flow of the game. He’s going to be a much better player each and every week, today was just the start.”

Any concerns about the front seven seemed more than a little premature. Stephon Tuitt played relentlessly, and returned a fumble for 77 yards and a touchdown. Manti Te’o recovered a fumble and had an interception. And Prince Shembo played fast off the edge.

Still, no worries were allayed in the secondary. Navy quarterback Trey Miller completed 14 of 19 passes with freshman Russell getting beat over the top for a touchdown. Matthias Farley, at the time one of the true unknowns on the team, got a surprise start at outside linebacker, passing fifth-year senior Danny McCarthy with an excellent camp. While Irish fans expected the coaches to game plan a way into protecting their secondary as the season moved forward, Kelly seemed legitimately unconcerned about Navy’s ability to make plays through the air.

“I thought they did some great things,” Kelly said of his secondary. “I’m really excited about their ability to go out there and compete. The learning experience that we got today is something invaluable.”

Perhaps just as important, the easy 50-10 victory got Kelly and his staff the opportunity to get young players on the field. Seventeen players saw their first action of their Notre Dame career, many of whom would be important contributors this season.

“We all know this is going to be a long season,” Kelly said after the game. “We need all those players to play certain roles for us.”

 

 

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets

Getty Images
1 Comment

Last week, Notre Dame’s opponents enjoyed a 6-2 record, not counting Boston College’s loss to the Irish. This coming week, however, will prove a much more difficult slate. Exactly half of the dozen are favored with none facing each other.

Temple (2-1): The Owls needed a 13-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Logan Marchi to sophomore receiver Isaiah Wright with only 3:48 remaining to make it a two-score game against Massachusetts this weekend. The Minutemen got another score, but thanks to Marchi’s consistency, the last-minutes touchdown was not enough to catch Temple. The Owls prevailed 29-21, and Marchi continued his interception-less streak to start the season.

That streak will be tested Thursday at South Florida (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Bulls are favored by a mere 20.5 points with a combined points total over/under of 61. A 41-20 trouncing would not bode well for Temple in the American Athletic Conference this fall.

On a somewhat unrelated note, it was recently posited to your definitely-not-too-focused-on-gambling-lines scribe that favorites of 20 points or more win outright more than 98 percent of the time. Logically, that makes sense, but a spreadsheet now exists to quietly track that for the remainder of the season to gauge just how secure those endeavors may be.

Georgia (3-0): Georgia beat up on FCS-level Samford 42-14. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm went 8-for-13 passing for 165 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Nonetheless, sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason reportedly returned to practice Monday, though in a limited role.

The Bulldogs used a 21-0 third quarter to end any Samford dreams.

Whoever starts at quarterback this week will have a tough task. Georgia hosts Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET on ESPN). The Bulldogs are favored by 6.5 as of this Tuesday a.m. writing with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math and some rounding hint at a 27-21 final.

Pretty soon here, Boston College head coach Steve Addazio is going to be extremely desperate for a win. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Boston College (1-2): The Eagles lost to Notre Dame 49-20. You knew that, right?

The sledding will get much rougher for Boston College now, heading to defending national champion Clemson (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2). A 34-point margin is predicted with an over/under of merely 51.5. Suffice it to say, losing 43-8 would not do any good for Eagles head coach Steve Addazio’s future no matter who the opponent may be.

Michigan State (2-0): The Spartans enjoyed a bye week and now host, who is it again, hmmm, oh! Right! Michigan State faces Notre Dame at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. The spread is up to five, favoring the Irish, with an over/under of 54, indicating something along the lines of 30-24.

Miami (OH) (1-2): Chuck Martin has officially lost momentum. A 21-17 loss to Cincinnati at home will do that. The defeat was even more spirit-crushing than usual. The RedHawks led 14-3 entering the fourth quarter. They led 17-6 with fewer than three minutes remaining. A touchdown followed by a two-point conversion cut the lead to 17-14 and then an interception returned for a touchdown 70 seconds later gifted the Bearcats a victory.

Miami did not exactly play stellar football, though. The RedHawks converted only three of 14 third downs and gained a whopping 70 rushing yards on 32 attempts, a 2.2 yards per carry average.

Martin and Miami will look to right the ship this weekend on a trip to Central Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET on Watch ESPN). Despite the road venue, the RedHawks are only two-point underdogs with an over/under of 53.5. Another close loss, perhaps 28-25, would be all-too deflating for Martin’s reclamation efforts.

North Carolina (1-2): Congratulations Tar Heels, you found a win. Sure, it was a 53-23 delight at FCS-level Old Dominion, but a win is a win is a [four-beat pause] win. After giving up 72 points combined in your first two games, you gave up only 23 to the Monarchs, with seven of those coming from a kickoff return for a touchdown.

North Carolina next hosts Duke (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU). Those not too familiar with some of the norms of gambling spreads should remember home-field advantage is usually good for a three-point swing in the projected margin. With that in mind, raise an eyebrow at the Tar Heels being three-point underdogs to the Blue Devils with an over/under of 63.5, indicating a 34-30 type of afternoon.

That spread seems about right. That point total seems a bit low, especially when considering North Carolina’s defensive performances thus far this season.

A walk-on freshman, Chase McGrath provided the winning points, and the tying ones at the end of regulation, to propel USC past Texas in double overtime Saturday, though by then it was Sunday in most of the country. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

USC (3-0): The Trojans found their way to a 27-24 double overtime win against Texas. It was dramatic and entertaining and, if being honest, somewhat underwhelming.

If anything was learned, USC now knows it has a calm and confident kicker in freshman walk-on Chase McGrath.

He should not have too much to worry about this weekend. The Trojans head up to Cal (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC) to face the overmatched Bears. A 16.5-point spread and an over/under of 63 points results in a guess of 40-24, advantage USC.

North Carolina State (2-1): The Wolfpack enjoyed a 49-16 victory over FCS-level Furman, otherwise known as the Paladins, a truly exemplar team nickname, and fitting they had to travel to Raleigh.

North Carolina State now has to do the traveling, all the way down to Tallahassee to try and prove wrong an 11-point spread in favor of Florida State. The 51 point over/under implies a 31-20 finale. It may be a bit bold to predict the Wolfpack to win outright, but a cover and an under would go hand-in-hand.

Wake Forest (3-0): Three years ago, the Demon Deacons lost to Utah State 36-24. This past weekend, Wake Forest beat the Aggies 46-10.

By no means is that a sign of Utah State’s fall. It is, rather, a distinct note of the Deacons’ improvement.

That will be tested at Appalachian State this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET on Watch ESPN). This line opened at Wake Forest by three, but it has already moved up to 4.5, indicating the world is onto the Deacons rising. An over/under of 46 leads to considerations of a 25-21 finale. That would certainly be entertaining, but figure Wake Forest’s roll will continue with a bit more ease than that.

Miami (FL) (1-0): Hurricane Irma postponed Miami’s date at Florida State until Oct. 7. Having played all of one game this year, the Hurricanes will be eager to host Toledo (3:30 p.m. ET on ACC Network). They may be too eager to cover a 13.5-spread in their favor with an over/under of 57.5. That 35-22 final simply seems too wide.

Navy (2-0): The Midshipmen relished a bye week. Navy will now host Cincinnati. As 11.5-point favorites, the Midshipmen’s performance will provide a barometer of Miami (OH) as much as anything else. A 31-20 victory would indicate the RedHawks may be in for a long year while the Midshipmen get ready to challenge for the American Athletic title once again.

Stanford (1-2): The Cardinal fell for the second week in a row, this time at San Diego State by the score of 20-17 after the lights literally went out. This should not be seen as the end of times for head coach David Shaw’s Stanford. IT may be a tough loss, but they have set up too strong a program to let two-consecutive losses halt progress forward.

UCLA visits the Cardinal late Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). There is no way that 63-point total is not threatened, though Stanford remains favored by 7.5 points.

Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium

Getty Images
48 Comments

As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …

Will Cam Smith be healthy enough to get back on the field?
The fifth-year receiver suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week, limiting his reps throughout the week and keeping him from playing Saturday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That absence may have held more of an effect than was anticipated by anyone.

Certainly, Notre Dame’s receivers totaling three catches for 11 yards is not solely a reflection of Smith not being on the field. It is a sign of bigger issues, but that does not mean Smith would not have aided the cause. With his institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from their days together at Arizona State, Smith has been consistent. His seven catches for 54 yards come from running clean, disciplined routes.

Getting him back onto the field could alleviate a slight bit of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues. By no means would this eradicate the concern entirely, but even a small step in the right direction would be a welcome trend for the Irish at this point.

If Smith remains sidelined, did Chase Claypool do enough to maintain his spot as a starter?
Kelly answered this question Sunday, but it had already been worked into this concept’s draft and emphasizing it seems a valid decision.

Claypool will continue to see time, though more so at the boundary receiver position than the slot spot he worked at throughout spring and preseason practices. Of those three catches for 11 yards the receivers managed against Boston College, Claypool accounted for two receptions and eight yards.

“He was assignment correct,” Kelly said. “We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”

Along with Claypool, there was also some Michael Young innuendo last week. Will the depth chart now reflect that?
When Kelly discussed coming changes at receiver before the trip out east, he mentioned Claypool by name. He also seemed to imply another unexpected option could emerge.

“Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position,” Kelly said Thursday. “But we really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all the experience but have a higher ceiling.”

At that point, Kelly knew Smith was injured, though perhaps he was still questionable to play. Kelly also presumably knew senior Freddy Canteen would need season-ending shoulder surgery this week. Those two bits could explain the first half of that paragraph.

The second half suggests Claypool would have company in the inexperienced with a “higher ceiling” category. With sophomore Javon McKinley intended to preserve a year of eligibility this season, freshman Michael Young is the most-likely candidate.

That presumption could be quickly confirmed in the Notre Dame depth chart this week.

How badly is Tony Jones’ ankle sprained?
Exactly a week ago, this piece wondered, “Through two games, are the Irish really still this healthy?” Through three games, the answer has become no.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College, only x-rays confirmed no further damage. As a running back, that injury can obviously be more than a nuisance and waiting for Jones to return to full health before playing him makes sense. If that takes longer than a week, it should lead to a bit more playing time for junior Dexter Williams. (more…)

Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate

Getty Images
36 Comments

Notre Dame and Boston College combined to punt 15 times this weekend and the Irish never attempted a field goal, while the Eagles attempted and made two. At least two other possessions could have ended with boots of some variety, though it could easily be argued fewer should have.

This space will never adapt the “don’t kick” ethos advised by analytics. The math makes sense and the approach theoretically pays off in the long-run, but it is simply not going to come to be practiced, so arguing for it wholesale is nothing but a waste of time and keystrokes. Football coaches cannot afford to think about the long-run in an era when one poor season leads to billboards calling for firings. More on Mike Riley’s future below.

This space will, however, advocate going for a fourth-and-five from the opponent’s 35-yard line as Notre Dame did in Saturday’s second quarter. Yes, coverage forced junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to scramble for the needed gain, falling one yard short and handing possession to the Eagles. But when a game stands 10-7 long before halftime, looking toward the higher ceiling is simply smart maneuvering.

On the flipside, and this should be remembered moving forward, that decision may have also been a reflection on junior kicker Justin Yoon’s leg, or at least how the Irish coaching staff feels about his leg. From the 35-yard line, a field goal would have been a 53-yard* attempt. Yoon’s career long is 52 yards with room to spare, but that was two years ago.

The odds are, this particular fourth-down decision was made with an aggressor’s mindset, not out of doubts about Yoon’s maximum length.

If that was indeed the case, good for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly. Boston College could have used that approach — the Eagles punted four different times from the Irish side of midfield, going for fourth downs only on a fourth-and-inches at the 30-yard line and on a fourth-and-goal after desperation had set in.

Here’s to fewer punts, fewer field goals and more make-it-or-take-it fourth downs.

*Traditionally, a field goal attempt’s length is the line of scrimmage plus 17 yards: 10 accounting for the end zone and seven more for the distance behind the line of scrimmage where the holder spots the ball. In recent years, that latter number has grown to eight on longer kicks, allowing the kicker the ability to get the ball over the defensive line’s outstretched hands while also utilizing a lower kick angle, theoretically elongating the kick’s reach.

For example, Yoon kicked a 42-yard field goal in the second quarter against Georgia. The line of scrimmage before that kick was the 24-yard line.

One more note on Georgia and ticket sales, or lack thereof
Round-trip, non-stop flight from Atlanta to South Bend: $500 per person, give or take.
Hotel room within 30 miles of Notre Dame on a home game weekend: $300 per night, $600 total.
Tickets to see Georgia beat the Irish: Another $500 each, give or take.
Total for a party of two: $2,600, but that doesn’t mean the tickets will actually show up.

Such a fate befell hundreds of Bulldogs fans last week. No matter how any Notre Dame fans may have felt about the thousands of Georgia fans in the stands, they can certainly sympathize with the misery of a ticket broker reneging on his promised tickets.

In this instance, apparently some justice has been served. The Putnam County Sheriff down in Georgia arrested Jeff Cook for selling sports tickets without a license and advertising sports tickets for sale without posting a license number.

Per the local NBC-affiliate, the sheriff was well aware of Cook’s business and was largely okay with it until he failed to deliver on promised tickets to so many fans.

The Bob Diaco watch has become the Mike Riley ticking clock.
Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, thee of former Irish stardom, may have felt the heat after giving up 78 points in the season’s first two weeks, his first two games with the Cornhuskers.

This past weekend, Diaco’s defense allowed only seven points, but his job may now be in more jeopardy than ever. (The Huskies returned two interceptions for touchdowns.) That is, with the 17-21 loss to Northern Illinois, Nebraska head coach Mike Riley’s job appears tenuous, at best, in only his third season in Lincoln.

How tenuous? It is never a promising sign when your boss says something to this effect.

Continuing the offensive line vs. defensive line theory
Exactly a week ago, this piece posited, “defensive lines beat offensive lines of equal talent in college football.” Continuing with that thought process, this Ringer piece on the NFL’s league-wide struggles on offense delves into the trend, though arguing there simply may not be equal talent any longer.

“The lack of game-ready offensive linemen coming through the draft remains a real issue teams must deal with, especially with a parallel surge of highly athletic defensive linemen.”

Whether agreeing or not, the premise is one to keep in mind while watching football this season and the next few to come.

So, Wake Forest might be, uhhh, good. [Insert question marks here]
The Demon Deacons had no trouble with Boston College a week ago, dispatching the Eagles 34-10. Hosting Utah State this weekend, Wake Forest again cruised, this time to the tune of 46-10. Admittedly, this year’s Aggies are not the frustrating opponent they have been in recent past, but they are still a better-than-average Group of Five team. In the recent past, the Deacons have been a much worse-than-average Power Five team.

That would normally be an at least somewhat competitive dynamic. This wasn’t, even aside from the score. Wake Forest outgained Utah State 588 yards to 267, holding the Aggies to 1.4 yards per rush and forcing 10 punts.

This week the Deacons travel to Appalachian State. If you know anyone who might have predicted Wake Forest would fall short of 5.5 wins before the season, perhaps advise that scribe to consider whether the Deacons can beat the Mountaineers by more than a field goal Saturday.

What in the Jayhawk is that offensive line?
Ohio didn’t even consider bringing extra rushers on this snafu.

Around Kansas football, that really may be situation normal …

Third-down conversions
It bears repeating: Notre Dame was 3-of-9 on third downs at halftime at Boston College, then leading only 14-10.

The Irish converted 6-of-9 third downs in the second half on their way to the 49-20 win.

Illegal kicks are enforced similarly to illegal batting of the ball.
This unique clip started making the rounds Saturday night. Athletically, it is quite impressive. By the rules, though, it is not allowed.

Per two referees who dabble as drinking buddies, that would have been called an illegal kick, leading to a 10-yard penalty and a loss of down.

Every so often a player intentionally knocks a ball out of the back of the end zone or forward toward another player. There is always a debate about the actual intention. If deemed purposeful, it is an illegal bat. An illegal kick is similar in all manners except it is done, you know, with a foot.

Lastly, when is it going to be publicly acceptable for all of us to start sporting mullets a la Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy? The Cowboys are that good — it may be time for us all to emulate that man.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

Getty Images
11 Comments

As Notre Dame struggles to find contributing receivers, the option have diminished by two. Irish coach Brian Kelly said graduate student Freddy Canteen will undergo season-ending surgery this week to repair a torn labrum and sophomore Javon McKinley is likely to preserve a year of eligibility this season.

Canteen started Notre Dame’s first two games before injuring his shoulder against Georgia. The Michigan transfer made one catch for seven yards. He does have another season of eligibility remaining, making a 2018 return likely, though not guaranteed.

In Canteen’s place, the Irish will turn more to sophomore Chase Claypool, though that may have been the case, regardless. Claypool made two catches for eight yards in Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory over Boston College on Saturday.

“He’s big, he’s physical, he’s got speed,” Kelly said of Claypool. “He needs to continue to grow at that position. We just like that he blocked very well for us. He was assignment correct. We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”

Kelly said Claypool will see time more on the outside of the field, rather than Canteen’s position in the slot. That alignment could hint at increased usage of the already often seen two tight end packages.

McKinley saw action in six games during his freshman season, recording no statistics.

“We didn’t get enough of his year last year, so I try to save a year under those circumstances for those guys,” Kelly said. “… If they’re still growing, still learning — I don’t want to accelerate them through the program unless they are squared away in terms of all of your traits.”

With or without Canteen and McKinley, the Irish still need to find reliable receivers, currently a vacuum best-exhibited by the passing total of 96 yards amassed against the Eagles. (more…)