The road to 12-0: Michigan State

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The third in a series that looks back at Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season. For more, read entries on Navy and Purdue.

Sure, Notre Dame bumped up the rankings to No. 20 after squeezing by Purdue. But there would be little room for the Irish to play anything but their best game in East Lansing. While the depth chart would be replenished with Cierre Wood returning from suspension and Danny Spond healthy after his scary preseason injury, the Irish were happy to have all hands on deck for their first edition of the biggest game of the year.

Traveling to No. 10 Michigan State was the first of many big tests for Notre Dame. While the Spartans didn’t turn out to be the elite team many pegged them to be, they had a defense that was top flight, and a lofty ranking that usually spelled certain doom for Notre Dame. The Irish hadn’t won a night game against a top ten team in twenty years, when Lou Holtz’s Irish beat Steve Spurrier’s Gators in the Sugar Bowl.

It was time for the first of many moments for this football team. And Brian Kelly felt good about it.

“Our guys are confident and they prepared well and they should be,” Kelly said. “They’re looking forward to the challenge of playing at Michigan State in what will be a great atmosphere.”

STATUS CHECK

The week heading into the Michigan State game was a life changing one for Manti Te’o. In a 48 hour span, he lost his girlfriend to her battle with leukemia and his grandmother. Still, Te’o found strength with his teammates, and in retrospect the game he played against Michigan State — where he filled the stat sheet up with 12 tackles, one TFL, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups — was just tremendous.

The game against the Spartans was also a huge data point for the development of Everett Golson. The young quarterback had just sat out for the Irish’s game-winning drive against Purdue and was in desperate need of a fast start and a smart football game. Facing one of the country’s toughest defenses, and playing in one of the season’s premiere early-season match-ups, Golson delivering in the clutch was a great sign of things to come.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Could the Irish ace their first big test?

It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. The Irish defense held the Spartans to just 237 total yards, neutralizing Le’Veon Bell while sacking Andrew Maxwell four times. The offense didn’t do much, but was aided by the return of Cierre Wood, who averaged 5.6 yards a carry while Theo Riddick struggled to a rough stat line of 30 yards on 12 carries.

Yet Notre Dame did everything that was needed to win. Control the line of scrimmage, hold onto the football. Break a big play with George Atkinson on a nifty counter draw that went for 43 yards while John Goodman caught a game-changing 36-yard touchdown catch beating one-on-one coverage.

Could the Notre Dame receivers beat Michigan State’s coverage?

We asked this exact question before the game and the Irish receiving corps answered the bell. Even without Tyler Eifert having a catch, the Irish receivers made big plays. In addition to Goodman’s long touchdown catch, Robby Toma and TJ Jones each chipped in a 20-plus yard catch. While Davaris Daniels was slowed still by a tweaked ankle, Daniel Smith chipped in a catch and also established himself as one of the team’s best blockers.

Can Everett Golson manage a football game?

That was the first question I asked on game day, especially a week after Golson made to critical mistakes down the stretch against Purdue. Yet Golson played decisively and with poise, throwing the football away when the moment called for it and keeping the offense out of difficult situations.

Still, it wasn’t all positives for the offense. The Irish were an anemic 1 of 14 on third downs.

“We had too many opportunities to put points on the board and to get the kind of production we need,” Kelly said. “A lot of it is in the quarterback’s development. Again, he did some really good things. But we’ve got a long way to go. He needs to continue to stay on task, Everett, and continue to develop each and every week.”

How would the Irish secondary play without Jamoris Slaughter?

Notre Dame suffered a heart-breaking loss when fifth-year Jamoris Slaughter suffered an Achilles tear against the Spartans and was lost for the season. Already without Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth, the Irish were going to have to find a second safety to pair with Zeke Motta.

While the decision to bring back Dan McCarthy for a fifth year seemed like a fortuitous decision, Kelly called on redshirt freshman Matthias Farley to step into the starting lineup. Still, there was no discounting the loss, with Slaughter one of the most versatile players on the Irish roster.

“You lose a Jamoris Slaughter, you’re losing an ‘A’ player,” Kelly said Sunday. “Matthias is certainly not at the level yet of a Jamoris Slaughter. He has to continue to develop, but we have a lot of confidence and trust in him. He’ll be getting a lot of work back there.”

Kelly was confident that a secondary featuring Farley and freshman KeiVarae Russell wouldn’t hold back the defense.

“You’re worried if you feel you have to hide them out there,” Kelly said of his young players. “We don’t have to hide those guys, they just need to continue to develop.”

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 6.

Entering the toughest stretch of the season, Notre Dame walked out of Spartan Stadium looking like a team that could physically battle with anyone. The defense was playing at near historic levels, giving up just 30 points in the season’s first three games, the stingiest any Irish team had been since 1988. Against Michigan State, Prince Shembo terrorized the Spartan offensive line, with two tackles-for-loss, a sack, and a well-earned holding call. The 237 yards Michigan State’s offense put up was the lowest output for an opposition since the Irish beat the 2008 Washington Huskies, a team that didn’t win a football game.

Offensively, the run game continued to evolve, with the Irish offensive line winning the battles down the stretch. With the game still up for grabs, Notre Dame took the ball from their own four-yard line and marched down the field for a game clinching field goal. The line play against the best defensive front in the Big Ten controlled the ball for 18:32 of the second half, winning the game with a respectable 4.5 yards per carry and allowing only one sack.

Needing to find some big plays for the offense, Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly had a terrific game plan, utilizing a diverse personnel group, with Chris Brown running a deep pattern that nearly went for a big gain and George Atkinson getting limited touches, but on plays that helped the young runner break a big play. While Golson was still developing chemistry with Eifert, the quarterback took shots down the field attacking the Michigan State secondary even before he was utilized as a key in the run game.

For Kelly, the victory was a big one. After falling victim to Mark Dantonio courtesy of a trick play called Little Giants, the Irish head coach dispatched Dantonio’s Spartans 53-16 over the past two seasons, beating two teams that were ranked 15th and 10th in the country.

“It’s a signature win,” Kelly said. “There’s no question when you go on the road against the No. 10 team in the country and you beat them, it’s definitely going to build the confidence in that locker room.”

That confidence would come in handy the next week, when Notre Dame would need to take on Denard Robinson and Michigan.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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