The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Temple

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Before we officially turn the focus to Michigan, let’s burn out the DVR and take a much closer look at yesterday’s game. While we can expect to see quite a few different wrinkles next week against Michigan, let’s roll out our first good, bad and ugly of the season.

THE GOOD

Getting off to a quick start: We can bemoan the lull that followed the Irish’s jet-propelled start, but let’s not bury the lede. It was a picture perfect start for Notre Dame (if you just decide to forget the illegal substitution penalty that kicked the game off).

From the opening snap, Tommy Rees was dialed in, changing a call at the line of scrimmage before handing the ball to Amir Carlisle who exploded for 45 yards down the left sideline, sprung by great blocking both up front and down field.

After George Atkinson gained five tough yards before getting stung by a big hit by safety Abdul Smith, the Irish took advantage of Temple’s secondary creeping up when they hit DaVaris Daniels deep over the middle on a perfect post route for the touchdown.

Next the Irish got off the field in three plays on defense and took the ball back at their 13-yard line. After getting the field flipped on them because of a punt rolling out for 51 yards, TJ Jones took a short pass and burst 51 yards on a quick screen, sprung loose thanks to perfect blocking by Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas, who were both split wide on the left side, joining Jones in the slot. Again, Atkinson picks up a decent gain before the Irish take a shot downfield, this time Rees hitting Daniels with a perfect throw on the post-corner, with the defensive back over committing to the middle of the field after being beat the series before on a post.

That’s textbook offense right there, and aggressive downfield playcalling by Chuck Martin.

TJ Jones: Jones had the best game of his career and has ascended nicely into No. 1 wide receiver status. Never looking like a leading man, Saturday’s performance showed a different versatility to Jones, who managed positive yardage as a punt returner and made things happen after catching the ball.

“We know that not having the Michael Floyd or the Tyler Eifert to lean on, you need to make plays any way that you can,” Jones said after the game.

It’s hard to make any concrete judgments against a young defense like Temple’s, but Jones has now played back-to-back big games against Temple… and Alabama. So it’s safe to say while he might not be the physically dominant player that Floyd or Eifert were, Jones is going to be a productive member of this offense, especially as he hears his number called more often.

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Explosive Plays: Again, this one plays big with the Temple caveat, but this team did a much better job of creating big plays, with four receivers making catches of 30-plus yards and four backs gaining 10-plus yards on a carry.

It’s obvious there’s game-breaking ability with guys like Jones, Daniels, and Chris Brown out wide, and it’s going to be mighty interesting to see how the running back position develops, considering the one back that struggled to get something going was Atkinson, the guy we already know is a homerun threat.

Tommy Rees: A truer test will come next Saturday in Ann Arbor, but Rees did everything asked of him yesterday. His numbers were immaculate, not just hitting the obvious deep throws to Daniels early, but throwing a confident strike to TJ Jones on a post pattern in traffic while doing a nice job controlling the offense.

Rees looked very comfortable in the pistol formation, and was particularly deadly with playaction, a good sign heading into the more difficult portion of the schedule.

Davaris Daniels (and his groin): Doubly good news for Daniels, who scored the first two touchdowns of his career on Saturday on his first two catches. His three catches for 69 yards — and a near circus catch on the sideline where he was ruled just out of bounds — solidify his role as the homerun hitter of the wideouts.

Daniels was open for another long touchdown catch that Rees just over-shot, likely because a twinge in Daniels’ groin slowed him down. We didn’t see the junior receiver again, but Kelly said he’d be full-go for practice on Tuesday.

Wide Receiver play (both catching and blocking): It was an impressive Saturday for the depth at wide receiver, with youngsters Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and James Onwualu all getting action, with Chris Brown having a nice day as well. But if you’re looking for the biggest step forward, it was the excellent downfield blocking by the receiving corps, helping to spring big runs and short throws for nice gains.

Credit goes to Mike Denbrock‘s group for doing the little things right.

Second Half Defense: After getting a little loose in the first half, the Irish defense straightened up, giving up just 3.9 yards-per-play while holding the Owls to just 131 yards and had five drives end on two turnover on downs and three punts.

Quick Hits: 

* Nice job by Isaac Rochelle in limited snaps. Got some good pressure on the quarterback on one snap in the second quarter. (He was pancaked on his next snap, showing you life as a freshman defensive lineman.)

* Prince Shembo might not have gotten a sack, but he got five hits on the quarterback.

* He might not have filled the stat sheet, but Jaylon Smith was all over the field, playing in coverage and at the line of scrimmage .

* Great job by Troy Niklas. Not just for his 66-yard touchdown catch, but for excellent blocking on the perimeter and at the point of attack.

THE BAD

Quarterback Scrambles: It’s not hard to wonder what Devin Gardner will do to the Irish defense if Connor Reilly was able to lead the Owls in rushing. The Irish were burnt multiple times by scrambles, the product of man coverage downfield and pass rushers going in out of control. (See Ishaq Williams’ run by Reilly early in the second quarter.)

Those scrambles don’t just fall on the heads of the pass-rushers, but also the linebackers who need to do a better job of keeping their eyes on the quarterback and a better sense of timing. Expect that to be something the Irish work on this week with Gardner, who averaged 7.2 yards a carry against Central Michigan.

Linebackers in pass coverage: Kelly categorized the Temple offense as “dink and dunk,” but it was a tough first half in coverage for the linebacking corps, who gave up quite a bit underneath on Saturday. The Irish held the Owls to just 4.9 yards per attempt, but Reilly’s 230 yards of passing came primarily on underneath throws.

Nick Tausch’s field goal attempts and Kyle Brindza’s pooch punts: We talked about this yesterday so I don’t want to be overkill, but Tausch likely wants a mulligan on his first field goal attempt from yesterday, an ugly snap hook that barely cleared the line of scrimmage.

There’s a lot of pressure on Tausch to win this job and he’s likely feeling that, but that’s no excuse for a guy that’s a fifth-year player and was brought back to compete and win a job.

Likewise, Brindza’s directional punting was brutal, missing badly on his two attempts to pin Temple deep in their own territory. Kelly talked about letting Alex Wulfeck be the short punter, but it’s clear he wants this to be Brindza’s job.

Both guys need to improve this week — though I’m betting you see Brindza kicking field goals in Ann Arbor.

Free Releases: Don’t expect to see tight ends get free releases off the line of scrimmage next week. Temple killed the Irish with that both in playaction and the quick passing game Saturday.

It’s not a new problem for the Irish defense, and you can expect Al Borges to take note.

Elijah Shumate needs to have a better day in coverage. He was caught flat-footed on a slant route that went for 26 yards on Temple’s only scoring drive. Then he extended Temple’s touchdown drive with a sloppy pass interference penalty, giving the Owls the ball at the two yard line.

Louis Nix’s penalties: Notre Dame’s All-American defensive tackle needs to do a better job keeping his head. Frustrated after constant double-teams and giving chase to a quarterback he couldn’t quite catch, Nix had a silly personal foul penalty, and also jumped offsides twice.

Hail Mary Defense: Give credit to Connor Reilly for having an absolute cannon arm, but the Irish need to do MUCH better knocking down a long heave to the endzone. Especially walking back into The Big House, where nobody will forget how successful Denard Robinson was with 50-50 arm punts throws.

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THE UGLY

Let’s keep this section empty for now. There was nothing too ugly in this game, the 200th win for head coach Brian Kelly.

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Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.