michigan-notredame

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.

***

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.

***

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.”

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…)