Discover BCS National Championship - Notre Dame v Alabama

Five things we learned: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — There will be a silver lining in all of this. But for now, Notre Dame’s disappointing performance in their 42-14 loss to Alabama outweighs everything.

“It definitely sucks, to be quite honest,” Manti Te’o said after the game, seated next to his head coach and teammates for a final time as a member of the Fighting Irish. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t trade this team for anything. I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

The journey that took this football team from a demoralizing defeat against Florida State last December to the national championship will be one that’s looked at fondly when the dust settles after this disappointing, one-sided defeat. But tonight, it’s a very hard pill to swallow for players and fans alike, with Alabama outclassing the Irish early and often, soundly beating a Notre Dame team that most thought could hang as a heavyweight.

But done in by a uncharacteristically sloppy first quarter and an incredibly thorough Alabama offensive performance, the dream season was just not meant to be.

“Alabama was the better team today,” Kelly said after the game. “They ran the football well. Our strength all year has been playing physical and tackling and we did not tackle well together. They were the better football team and they deserved to win.”

As the maintenance staff cleans up crimson and white confetti from the prestine grass of Sun Life Stadium, let’s take a look at the five things we learned during Alabama’s 42-14 victory in the BCS National Championship game.

***

1. Alabama won the football game because they won the line of scrimmage.

It didn’t take long to understand that the Notre Dame defense was in for a long night against the Crimson Tide. Alabama marched decisively down the field to start the game, going 82 yards in just five plays and 2:57. For the first time, the Irish gave up seven points on an opening drive, and things were only going to get worse from there.

After not allowing a single touchdown drive longer than 75 yards, Alabama put together six scoring drives of 70 or more yards on the evening. The Tide were able to chew up massive yardage against an Irish defense that had been stout all season, effectively ending the game by halftime thanks to a dominant first half that including touchdowns the first three times Alabama touched the football.

We knew it’d be strength versus strength when Alabama’s offensive line battled Notre Dame’s front seven. But nobody saw the Crimson Tide offensive line being such decisive winners.

“I think everybody knows about Alabama’s offensive line,” Te’o said after the game. “They’re very big and they’re very athletic and very strong. You know, we battled. We battled. They just did what Alabama does.”

For the Tide, leaning on their running game and impressive offensive line opened up the passing game as well. And with the media spending much of the last month trying to quantify just how good this Alabama front five was, Nick Saban’s evaluation of the unit might have been the most flattering commentary.

“I think this may be the best offensive line, and I don’t like to make comparisons, that we’ve ever had or been associated with,” Saban said.

That was clear Monday night, when the Alabama offensive front dominated the Irish front seven.

***

2. It may not have mattered in the end, but the Irish doomed themselves with an uncharacteristically slow start.

Notre Dame spent six weeks preparing for a one-game season. And while the coaches and players felt good about their preparation and outlook heading into the game, the Irish laid an early egg, never able to recover from a disastrous start.

“Coach Kelly told us before the game that there are eight minutes that are very important in the game,” Te’o said. “The first two minutes of the game, the last two minutes in the second quarter, the first two minutes of the third quarter and the last two minutes of the game.

“Obviously, the first two minutes of the game didn’t pan out the way we thought it would go.”

That might have been an understatement.

The first two minutes featured AJ McCarron hitting Kevin Norwood for a 29 yard strike, the first of many passes that attacked the edges of the Irish’s zone coverage. They included a personal foul on Dan Fox and an offsides penalty on Louis Nix. That all but marched the Tide into the Irish redzone, where they scored cashed in their first of six touchdowns.

The final two minutes of the half were no kinder to the Irish. With Alabama already up 21-0 and looking to put the game away, McCarron led the Tide down the field again, executing a two-minute drill to perfection as he found Christon Jones for 27 yards on 3rd and 6. From there, Eddie Lacy did the rest, dancing in for an 11 yard touchdown catch, ulling away in the half’s final minute.

Add in three tough breaks for the Irish on suspect calls by the Pac-12 officiating crew, and Notre Dame all but shut down a crowd that was almost a two-thirds majority for the Domers.

***

3. For 40 days, Notre Dame worked on getting good enough to play with Alabama. For 40 days, Alabama built a game plan to defeat Notre Dame.

When Brian Kelly set out to plan Notre Dame’s 42 day layoff, he focused on building his team into a unit that could go toe-to-toe with the nation’s most impressive program. That meant a focus on strength and conditioning to go along with the fundamentals and a commitment to improving young quarterback Everett Golson from the ground up.

In the end, it wasn’t enough, as the Irish couldn’t match the physicality that Alabama possessed. But the Irish were also done in by a masterful game plan designed by Nick Saban, and his two coordinators Doug Nussmeier and Kirby Smart.

It’s no surprise that Alabama limited the Irish’s ability to run the football. Falling behind early, there weren’t too many opportunities to run the football, but the Irish only netted 32 yards on 19 carries, a meager 1.7 yards a tote.

But the biggest surprise of the evening was the Tide’s excellent offensive game plan, showing incredible balance by running for 265 yards and throwing for 264. With Alabama consistently beating the Irish on the edges of their defense, Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon had great success getting around the corner, stretching the Irish defense out before attacking them in the north-south run game.

Just as impressive was AJ McCarron’s evening, as he consistently attacked the deep corners of the Irish zone coverage, exploiting the holes that emerged in Bob Diaco’s young secondary.

“I watched a lot of film on these guys and they play a lot of zone defense,” freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper said. “Both touchdowns came from big holes in their zone defense.”

Giving Nick Saban six weeks to game plan usually spells trouble for the opposition. And while the Irish had to spend the layoff working on getting better, Alabama worked on scheme. Along with their physical talents, it was just too much to overcome.

4. While it wasn’t Manti Te’o’s best game in a Notre Dame uniform, the senior’s legacy will remain intact.

After missing only two open field tackles all season for the Irish, Te’o missed more than that in the first half alone. Needing a perfect game from the team’s star linebacker, Te’o struggled making plays against Lacey and Yeldon, getting caught up in the wash created by Alabama’s monstrous offensive line.

And after a postseason awards haul crowned Te’o one of college football’s finest ever, it seemed popular to try tearing Te’o down after he had been propped up for the past month. Part of that is the nature of the beast, playing football in a world of Twitter and a tidal wave of social media and opinions. Part of that is fair game, the byproduct of a subpar game for Notre Dame’s best player, who made many uncharacteristic mistakes as the defense struggled to contain Alabama.

But any worries that Te’o may have hurt his legacy — or his draft stock — are probably overblown. With four seasons of game film and off-the-charts character and leadership, some team is going to take a gamble on Te’o in the first round of the NFL Draft.

While the end of Te’o’s career came in a way many never saw possible, the senior had no regrets after his final game in a Notre Dame uniform.

“We wish the night could have ended in a different way, but the season, the year, my career here, I’ve been truly blessed to be at Notre Dame,” Te’o said. “I’ll forever be proud to say I’m a Notre Dame Fighting Irish and I’m proud of my team.”

Te’o wasn’t the only player to miss tackles, a plague on the Irish that was a combination of really impressive work by Eddie Lacey and the long layoff. But it was surprising to see from a player that played near perfect football all season.

***

5. Monday night’s results proved the Irish weren’t the best team in the country. But there’s plenty to be proud of after a tremendous season.

With the SEC’s dominance still intact and Alabama out-classing Notre Dame throughout the evening, it was clear that the best team in the country didn’t enter the game ranked No. 1. But that doesn’t take away anything from Notre Dame’s 12-1 campaign. The Irish may not be the best team in the country, but they’re not all that far away.

“We’re close. Obviously we’re not there,” Te’o said. “If we were there, we’d be holding the crystal ball. But we’re close.”

With disappointment showing through his voice, Kelly talked about the gap between his program and the one that just completed their third championship in the last four years.

“I measure success as a head coach with consistency. And some people use the word dynasty. I look at it as program consistency,” Kelly said of Nick Saban’s Alabama program. “It starts at the top and filters its way through the entire program. And what Coach Saban has been able to do has really put an exclamation point on consistently putting elite programs and football teams together at the University of Alabama.”

For those worried that it might be another 24 years until the Irish find themselves in this position again, fear not. Watching Everett Golson throw for 270 yards against the Tide was a promising step in his development. Watching TJ Jones catch seven balls and battle tough coverage gives you hope for next season. And DaVaris Daniels held his own with Alabama’s star freshman receiver, coming back from his collarbone injury to catch six passes for 115 yards.

Sure, the Irish will need to replace Manti Te’o, a hole that’ll be tough to fill both on and off the field. And with Tyler Eifert likely announcing his intention to head to the NFL and graduate, the passing attack will need to find a new leading man. But the future is bright in South Bend.

Even if it doesn’t feel that way tonight.

 

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.