Robert Maci, Joe Gilliam, Everett Golson

The road to 12-0: Purdue

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The second in a series that will look back at Notre Dame’s undefeated 12-0 regular season. For more, read about the Navy game.

With Notre Dame’s impressive 50-10 victory, the Irish jumped into the polls, checking in at No. 22 as they returned home from Dublin to play Purdue. After watching Everett Golson look comfortable at quarterback, and the Irish defense look impressive shutting down Navy’s potent option attack, optimism was abound.

Back on September 7th, here’s how I described the temperature surrounding this team:

No doubt, expectations have been raised thanks to the Irish’s convincing victory over Navy. But one win is a data point. Two would make a trend. And over the past few years, the trend has never been a good one for Notre Dame.

Let’s take a closer look at the Irish’s home opener, a closer-than-you’d-like 20-17 victory over Purdue.

STATUS CHECK

A week after most Irish fans fawned over Notre Dame’s offensive line, the group was knocked back to reality against a stout Purdue front and a blitzing attack that regularly stuffed the line of scrimmage. Without Cierre Wood for a second consecutive game, Theo Riddick carried the load, but the senior only managed 53 yards on 15 carries, and the Irish ground game was held to just 1.4 yards an attempt on the afternoon. Mike Golic was routinely beat by Kawann Short. Even Zack Martin was flagged for three penalties. The Boilermakers racked up five sacks and eight tackles-for-loss as new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar threw a lot at Everett Golson and the Irish offense.

Golson’s afternoon was also an up-and-down proposition. His passing numbers were excellent. Completing 21 of 31 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown, it was one of the most prolific games of the season for the young quarterback. But as the team lost Tyler Eifert with what looked like a concussion and Davaris Daniels with an ankle injury, Golson struggled to move the offense with the team’s second unit, and in the fourth quarter, he took a back-breaking sack before carelessly turning the ball over deep in Irish territory that led to Purdue’s game tying touchdown.

With just over two minutes left in the game and no timeouts left, Kelly took the ball away from Golson and brought in Tommy Rees, a decision that was met by a cascade of boos heard loudly across Notre Dame Stadium. With only TJ Jones and Riddick remaining from the team’s No. 1 offense, Rees took the Irish down the field, converting clutch third down conversions to John Goodman and Robby Toma, as Theo Riddick ground out a key run before Kyle Brindza kicked the game winning field goal with 27 seconds left.

No doubt, the win felt good. But it supplied a whole lot more questions than answers.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Even before entering the interview room, Kelly tried to diffuse any quarterback controversy, telling NBC’s Alex Flanagan after the game, “There is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State.”

Nonetheless, let’s bullet point some issues:

Was Kelly creating a quarterback controversy again?

Even with Kelly’s on-air proclamation, it didn’t stop the media from asking about the quarterback situation, and Kelly said that Golson had injured his hand on the series beforehand, making it difficult for him to grip the ball.

Whether you believed that or not, that Kelly turned to Rees when the game was on the line puzzled just about everyone, remarkable considering Rees hadn’t taken a rep with the full offense all camp, and had only begun getting work with the first team that Tuesday.

Was this team going to be decimated by injuries?

Overshadowed by the close score was the fact that the Irish lost a ton of personnel during the game. While Irish fans were frustrated with the outcome, Kelly was able to turn the victory into a teachable moment, a bedrock opportunity for one of his teaching philosophies.

“The story for me as the head coach is our mantra: Next Man In,” Kelly said. “We had seven guys go down today. Our key players. We had two captains go down. A leader in the secondary in Jamoris Slaughter. Our guys kept fighting. The next guy came in and battled.”

The injuries all turned out to be rather benign, but the early playing time for guys like Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, and Tony Springmann was critical.

What could we expect out of the Irish offensive line?

Harry Hiestand’s group took a fairly precipitous drop when they faced a Big Ten defensive front. While Kelly talked about the schematic looks Purdue used to limit the Irish running attack, it was probably the worst game of the year for the Irish up front.

A few factors weighed into this that might have made things tougher on the offensive line. The Irish had no true game tape on Purdue’s defense, forced to look at 2008 Kansas State film to see what Tibesar’s defense would look like. They also were learning what life was like with a young quarterback, who struggled pre-snap with reads and contributed to the five sacks himself. Still, it was a tough afternoon for just about everyone involved, and after playing a very clean game in Dublin, the Irish took a step back with eight penalties.

Was this Notre Dame team mentally different than the others?

Irish captain Zack Martin provided one of the early data points that this football team was built differently than the rest. After gutting out a tough victory and battling back from some early struggles, Martin crystallized a belief that was widely held inside the locker room, but still not obvious to those of us watching.

“A few years before this, the game wouldn’t have gone down like this. We wouldn’t have won,” Martin said after the game. “The resilience of those guys when their number was called, it was a full team effort.”

That the Irish would pull this game off the way that they did, getting contributions from one of the team’s most maligned players — and also one of the team’s most well liked — showed this group to be different. And credit Kelly for playing a gigantic hunch, one that was so unpopular that boos echoed down and Irish centric websites nearly exploded with rage, but one that ultimately worked out perfectly.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17.

You could blame jet lag or the general malaise that mysteriously comes with playing at home, but the Irish’s victory over Purdue feels a bit like a microcosm of the season. It was never easy, but it was awfully fulfilling.

For Golson, you saw a young quarterback that did some dazzling things, yet also made some head scratching mistakes. For Theo Riddick, you saw a veteran that struggled to get much of anything going in the run game, but buoyed the team with 44 critical receiving yards, and a game-clinching 11 yard carry on the Irish’s game-winning drive. For Tommy Rees, you saw the beginnings of a revival that took the quarterback from reviled to respected.

On defense, the Irish found some consistency in the secondary, limiting the Boilermakers to under 200 yards passing and forcing two interceptions. Even without Jamoris Slaughter, who injured his shoulder early on a bone-crunching hit, Zeke Motta held down the fort, helping youngsters like Farley, Shumate and Brown find their spots. While Manti Te’o led the team in tackles with ten, we continued to watch Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt dominate, with the duo contributing 3.5 sacks between them.

Perhaps more impressive than anything that happened on the field, you watched Brian Kelly coach fearlessly. The decision to bring in Rees was one that could’ve easily backfired, yet Kelly played the hand he needed to, and his team responded.

After deciding to hit the reset button on the offense and hand the job to Golson, Kelly knew he would need to delicately balance a flammable quarterback situation and a locker room that was incredibly loyal to Rees. And while the head coach unequivocally stated that Golson was his starter, he created a very important niche for Rees.

“If we feel like Tommy can help us win a game or he can come in in a situation where we believe it’s the right fit, then he’ll be prepared to do so,” Kelly said. “I’ll use this baseball analogy: We would like our starters to finish the game. We want them to go all nine innings. But occasionally, you may need some help. Maybe you need long relief and maybe you need some short relief. I don’t want to take anything off the table.”

After the game, Kelly awarded Rees the game ball as the junior quarterback led the team singing the fight song. Rees responded in kind, playing the role of good soldier immediately after the game with NBC’s Flanagan.

“We’ve got to win this game,” Rees said on-air, before side-stepping a tough question from Flanagan about his role in the offense. “I try to be as positive of a role model as I can and help Everett out when I can. Everett played a great game today. He’s a great player and he’ll continue to get better.”

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

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.