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

48 Comments

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.

***

***

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.

***

***

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.

***

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

Getty Images
2 Comments

Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

Getty Images
4 Comments

Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

Getty Images
28 Comments

It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

(more…)

Friday at 4: 4-0 against West Virginia in history … in football

Getty Images
29 Comments

Today, the thought of Notre Dame facing West Virginia immediately triggers thoughts of tomorrow (Saturday) and their NCAA Tournament matchup. Typically, though, those two universities facing each other would elicit memories of a particular football game.

The two faced each other plenty on the basketball court when they overlapped in the Big East for 17 seasons, compared to only four times ever on the football field. Of those four, the Irish hold a decisive 4-0 edge.

Is that significant? Not at all. But how productive and efficient do you think I have been this week? It’s the third week of March. The hope here is to reach for relevance, perhaps touch on noteworthiness and maybe even come near entertaining. If nothing else, 4-0 is a good set of memories to recall, especially that one aforementioned particular game.

Of course, that game was the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, a 34-21 national championship-sealing Notre Dame victory. Don’t let time cloud the hype of that game, a contest between the consensus No. 1 Irish and No. 3 Mountaineers.

The other three victories all came under the watch of Bob Davie: 21-14 on Nov. 22, 1997; 42-28 on Oct. 21, 2000 in Morgantown, W. Va.; and 34-24 on Oct. 13, 2001.

If this weekend’s basketball game goes the way Vegas expects—depending where you look, the line is hovering at West Virginia by two for the 12:10 p.m. ET tip—reminisce back to those four Irish football victories. After all, if West Virginia prevails, it is likely because the basketball game becomes quite physical and there may be a few football-esque plays.

Why “St.” Brown?
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s father, John Brown, joined ESPN’s 710 AM on Thursday. In addition to Equanimeous, Brown has two other football-catching sons: Stanford’s Osiris and five-star 2018 recruit Amon-ra. Thus, 710 and its hosts Keyshawn Johnson, Jorge Sedano and LZ Granderson reached out to John Brown to discuss Lavar Ball, the headline-making father of a trio of young, promising basketball stars including UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball.

“From what little I know about the guy … I think he’s doing, in general, a great job,” said Brown, a former two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World. “It’s not easy to raise three superstars… I think he’s doing a great job at promoting his boys. He loves his boys, just like every father, and just wants the best for his boys.”

Skipping past the biology lesson Brown then meandered into and its minefield of political correctness faux pas, Brown explained why his sons have such elaborate names compared to his.

“My wife was in the hospital pregnant, true story,” he said. “I told her, sweetheart, we have to talk about the name, because we can’t name the kid Brown. She goes why?

“I say, because it doesn’t look good on the back of a jersey… I say we’re going to put St. Brown because it will look good on the back of a jersey.”

If Brown, the father, was thinking of jerseys before his sons were even born, his preparation for their futures certainly expanded from there, including weightlifting programs beginning on their fifth birthdays, customized protein powder he now sells and emphasis on schoolwork.

“I told my sons when they were little, you cannot go to school on an athletic scholarship,” Brown said. “They were like, what? I said you can’t, it has to be academic, or we will not allow you. Of course, we were just saying that to get them to continue their schoolwork.”

To listen to all of Brown’s interview, head to the show’s podcast page and download the second hour of the March 16 show. Brown’s segment begins around the 21:20 mark and lasts a bit more than 10 minutes. A nod toward everyone’s preferred “Inside the Irish” writer, Keith Arnold, for taking advantage of the sun in Los Angeles to let me know about the Brown interview.

Before leaving this topic entirely, let’s remember Brown did more than add a holy designation to his offspring’s last names. When it comes to Notre Dame’s leading receiver last season, in fact, Brown displayed more creativity than this scribe ever will.

A quick correction
In Wednesday’s look at new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s last four years working with punt and kick units, glowplugv pointed out a typo in the statistics. The correct version: Notre Dame covered 22 punts in 2015, allowing 194 yards for an average of 8.82.

The four-year average numbers were accurate, as they were calculated from the notes next to the screen, not the mistake in the article.

A genuine thank you to glowplug for taking the time to check those numbers. He also argued the difference between Polian’s units at Nevada and the Irish renditions of the last four years was so negligible statistically it should not be looked at with much favor. If considering the numbers from a theoretical, data-driven standpoint, glowplug has a solid argument.

However, if applying those figures past theory, they could genuinely have an impact. If Notre Dame can gain 2.35 yards in field position with each exchange of punts, that can quickly become nearly 10 yards in a game. A shift of that magnitude can be all the difference in a fourth quarter dominated by two defenses.

March Madness update
The allure of absolutely no prize was enough to entice 69 entrants, none of which made it through a chalk-filled Thursday unscathed. Three picked 15 of the games correctly and earned 12 bonus points via upsets to establish a slight lead: Jackson; Q B; andy44teg.

Of the 69 prognosticators, a bold four predicted the Irish will win the national championship. They take the next step in that direction against West Virginia.

For now, it is not only Friday at 4, but it is also St. Patrick’s Day. Think about Notre Dame’s football record against West Virginia: 4-0. You know what to do.