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.”

 

 

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.