Temple v Notre Dame

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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Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)