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.

 

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.