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Pregame Six Pack: War with the Wolverines

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An all important snapshot will be taken of Brian Kelly’s football program on Saturday night. Tasked with their first big challenge of the season, we’ll see how quickly the Irish have turned the page from their historic ’12 season, building on the sizable momentum the program has quietly established over the past two-plus years.

Nobody has beaten Brady Hoke in the Big House. Brian Kelly and his team had that chance, only to squander a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead that’ll surely be mentioned a few dozen times this weekend.

But the Irish program is on solid footing, perhaps more so than most recognize. In the Irish’s last 25 games, Notre Dame has won 21 of them, good for a .840 winning percentage, bettered only by Oregon and Alabama among BCS schools. With a five-year extension for Kelly and a long range plan for the program coming into focus, it appears the Irish have finally found their place among college football’s elite programs, after struggling through four head coaches trying to find it.

Yet that assumption will need to be affirmed on Saturday night, with Kelly’s Irish team needing an impressive performance against the Wolverines to erase some of the skepticism that’s carried over from the BCS National Championship game.

This Irish team believes they’ve turned the page, leaving last season behind and forging a new trail. But a victory will go a long way towards helping everybody else understand that, likely pushing the Notre Dame into the top ten of the major polls, and getting by one of the major hurdles in a difficult schedule that stands between the Irish and another BCS appearance.

With Notre Dame and Michigan set to play in primetime on Saturday night, let’s dig into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and Wolverines go to battle.

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Not Rocket Science: When the Irish play turnover free, they’re unbeaten under Brian Kelly. 

After watching a promising ’11 season derailed after turnovers decimated the team’s offensive productivity, Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin set out to correct the fatal flaws that sunk a talented and explosive offense.

We saw the fruits of those labors last season, when the Irish chopped their turnovers impressively, even while breaking in a new quarterback and restructuring an offense that had relied on wide receiver Michael Floyd to power the engine.

For all the complaints and supposed limitations in Tommy Rees’ game, the Irish offense hasn’t lacked punch with Rees in charge. But the key to escaping Ann Arbor with a win is playing a clean game in the turnovers column.

No stat crystalizes the Irish’s fortunes more than this one. Notre Dame is undefeated under Brian Kelly when they don’t turn the football over. So while we can talk about special teams worries or containing Devin Gardner, the Irish have won their last eleven games when they put a goose egg up in the turnover column.

The last game Notre Dame lost without a turnover was a 34-27 loss to Southern Cal in 2009.

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After being damned by September failures, Notre Dame has turned it around under Brian Kelly’s watch. 

For much of the past decade, Notre Dame’s BCS aspirations were dead before the season’s first month finished. Dating back to 2002, the Irish had not gotten out of September clean since Ty Willingham’s first season in South Bend. Even at Charlie Weis’ best, the Irish loss a September game in both ’05 and ’06.

That trend continued with Brian Kelly. Kelly’s teams stumbled early out of the gates, losing five of their first six games in September. But since that fateful evening in the Big House in ’11, Notre Dame has won every September game on their calendar, winning seven straight, including last week’s 28-6 victory over Temple.

In the past five September games, the Irish have dominated the turnover battle, winning the margin 13-3. (The Irish pulled off victories against Michigan State and Pitt in ’11 even while losing the turnover battle in both games).

A season after making it to the final game of the college football season, the goals have not changed for Brian Kelly’s squad. But to have a realistic shot at forging another BCS run, they’ll need to get out of September alive, no easy task considering dates with Purdue, Michigan State and Oklahoma still await the Irish after Michigan.

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With an offensive trying to get back to its roots, can Michigan actually run the ball against Notre Dame’s defensive front? 

Denard Robinson is gone. It’s worth a sigh of relief for Irish fans, but also an encouraging sign for the Michigan faithful that has been waiting patiently for the Wolverines to get back to their blue-collar roots of running the ball and playing power football.

That will certainly be an emphasis for the Wolverines on Saturday night, but the big question is will the rebuilt offensive line be able to win the battle up front against a stout Irish front. Bookend tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield return, with Lewan turning down a first-round NFL grade to come back for a fifth year in Ann Arbor. But the interior of the Michigan line is still a big question mark, with coordinator Al Borges admitting the depth chart is still very much in pencil.

In Michigan’s first game explosion, the Wolverines ran for 242 yards on the ground en route to putting up 59 points against Central Michigan, averaging a healthy 5.1 yards-per-carry. But parsing those numbers a bit, the productivity is a bit misleading. Take away a 38-yard gain by Dennis Norfleet on a reverse, and Devin Gardner’s highlight reel scramble for a touchdown, and Michigan averaged an ordinary 3.9 yards a carry against a rush defense that finished 91st in the country last season.

Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is still the starting running back, but freshman Derrick Green has ascended to No. 2 thanks to some attrition at the position. Green came into camp with about 20 pounds on him that the coaching staff wasn’t happy about, but at 240-plus pounds, he’ll be a physical load to take on.

After being bottled up and held to just 161 yards on 41 carries last year, Lewan acknowledged how important the play up front with be for Michigan.

“We didn’t play well,” Lewan said earlier this week, when thinking back to last year’s 13-6 loss. “None of us did. So that’s unfortunate.”

***

In the pre-snap chess match, can Greg Mattison beat Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense? 

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is known for his impressive scheme, with the ability to confuse a quarterback with multiple looks and apply pressure by any means necessary. Never will that be more important than on Saturday night, when the Wolverines will need to pressure and confuse quarterback Tommy Rees to limit the Irish offense and force some much needed mistakes. The senior quarterback feels prepared for the unexpected, and knows much of his job will take place presnap.

“They do that all the time, where they’re showing one thing and play something else,” Rees said Thursday. “For us, we’ve just got to be prepared and focus in on what they’re trying to do to us.”

How the Wolverines plan on getting after Rees remains the big question. While Michigan picked up four sacks last Saturday against CMU, they only had 22 sacks all of last season (77th in the country), and lost their best playmaker behind the line of scrimmage when Jake Ryan went down with a knee injury last spring.

Overall, Michigan’s two-deep front seven accounted for just 9.5 sacks last season, with Jibreel Black (3) and Frank Clark (2) the only players to register multiple sacks. Mattison rotated an incredible 14 linemen through the Wolverine front against CMU, getting just about everybody on the roster some reps before the Irish head to town. While it’s easy to keep everybody fresh up front when you’re winning by a quarter-century, how Michigan distributes reps up front — and manages to get to Rees — will be a key in this game.

Whoever’s on the field for Michigan, Brian Kelly feels confident that Rees is ready to to respond accordingly.

“You’re going to see somebody who is so much more proactive in the game,” Kelly said of Rees. “He’s going to see it before it happens. He did a very good job in that game. He’ll do a better job taking care of the football.

“I think you’ll see that on Saturday. I hope you see it. I expect to see it.”

***

After last season’s disappointing performance up front, Notre Dame needs to control the line of scrimmage with improved offensive line play. 

While most look at Notre Dame’s success limiting Denard Robinson and Michigan’s offense, there was a whole lot of ugly coming out of the Irish offense last year as well. Michigan’s defense shut down the Irish running game during the Irish’s 13-6 win, holding Notre Dame to under 100 yards of rushing on 3.1 yards-per-carry.

The interior of Michigan’s defensive line is stout, with Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington anchoring the front four. But the Irish need to impose their will against a front seven that’s replacing a lot of experience.

The challenge will be playing their best in one of college football’s least friendly environments, with the Big House expected to be rocking for another game under the lights. Harry Hiestand’s crew is ready for the challenge, as Zack Martin talked a bit about the prep that goes into a big night game.

“We rep all week of practice with loud music. We’re lucky that we’ve played together for all of camp, all of spring,” Martin said Thursday. “Me and Chris have played for the past few years together, so we just get used to how we play.”

One element that also needs to be ironed out is finding a running back that’s going to carry the load for the Irish. It’s easy to get all five backs reps when you’re playing Temple. But Kelly and the Notre Dame offense will need to find someone on Saturday night to turn to that can move the chains, make big plays, and convert yards to points.

***

While the last visit to Ann Arbor still spooks Irish fans, there’s nothing haunting Brian Kelly and the Irish. 

Just about every Notre Dame fan that I’ve spoken with isn’t heading to Ann Arbor. It just hasn’t been a friendly place to Notre Dame, with each loss seemingly more cruel than the next. That’s especially true if you made it to Ann Arbor in ’11, experiencing first hand one of the more shocking and gut-wrenching finishes in the history of the ND-UM rivalry. But if you expect that game to resonate in this team’s minds, you’re discounting the mental toughness Kelly’s squad has developed over the past two seasons.

The game isn’t something that the team is likely to forget, but it’s also something that won’t hang over the heads of the guys playing Saturday night.

“Anybody who was there will certainly remember it, but it doesn’t do anything to affect the outcome of the game,” Kelly said. “I mean, the game will be affected by how you prepare this week and how you play on Saturday, so if that’s motivation for them to prepare better, that’s great.  If that’s going to help them play better, that’s great.”

Even more interestingly, Kelly’s walking into this weekend’s game with an underdog mentality. And it appears Las Vegas agrees with him, giving the Wolverines a four-point advantage Saturday night in a game where 20 of the past 24 underdogs have covered the spread.

“I mean, the pressure’s on Michigan. They’re at home. They’ve got to win at home,” Kelly said. “For us, we’re going to go up there swinging. Go on the road, we’re going to have to play well. It’s a very good football team. We can’t go up there and turn the ball over like we did a couple years ago. We understand that.

“Nobody’s been able to do that now under Brady Hoke, at Michigan, you better go up there with an attitude to be aggressive and go play the game. You can’t sit back and wait and hope, because if you do, you’re not going to win the game.”

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.