Notre Dame v Michigan State

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.

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.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.