Notre Dame v Michigan

Five things we learned: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It turns out Notre Dame’s quarterback nightmares didn’t end when Denard Robinson graduated. With the shoelace-less wonder gone to the NFL, redshirt junior Devin Gardner took his turn terrorizing the Irish, with the quarterback putting on a performance for the ages in Michigan’s 41-30 victory.

Gardner passed for 294 yards and four touchdowns while running for 82 yards and another touchdown as the Wolverines offense was just too much for Notre Dame’s defense to handle. Teaming with Jeremy Gallon, who caught eight passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns, the Michigan offense hit the Irish for multiple big plays, doing to Bob Diaco’s unit what nobody but Nick Saban’s Alabama team could last year.

In the last match-up between the two teams in Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future, Gardner sent the home crowd home happy while dropping the Irish to 1-1, their first regular season loss since losing to Stanford to close the 2011 regular season.

Let’s take a look at what we learned.

1. Even with the kitchen sink thrown at him, Devin Gardner made Notre Dame’s defense pay.

It’s not often a man wearing No. 98 is the most athletic and elusive player on the football field. But Gardner’s homage to Heisman winner Tom Harmon had the redshirt junior quarterback looking like another Michigan legend in training.

Early and often Gardner made the Irish pay, regardless of the tactics Bob Diaco threw his way. Gardner opened the game throwing with precision, putting together scoring drives on the team’s first two possessions.

“Devin Gardner played outstanding,” Kelly said after the game, an assertion that really didn’t require much explanation.

While the talk in Ann Arbor has long been about getting back to the pro-style offense that the Wolverines utilized with statuesque, strong-armed quarterbacks, the reality is that Al Borges’ offense is more difficult to defend with a dual-threat player like Gardner than any offense piloted by a traditional dropback passer that Michigan used to collect like baseball cards.

Gardner made the Irish pay in a variety of ways on Saturday night, keeping the ball on the zone read, buying time and making plays outside of the pocket, throwing deep over the top or in the precision-based short passing game. With a flair for the dramatic and the same riverboat gambling genes that Robinson possessed, Gardner almost brought the Irish back into the game in the fourth quarter, but nevertheless was the difference maker on Saturday night.

***

2. This isn’t last year’s Notre Dame defense.

Sure, eight starters return from a unit that was among the best in college football last season. But this sure isn’t the group that finished second in scoring defense last year. While it’s hard to quantify what Manti Te’o brought to the heart of the Irish defense last season, it’s clear that this unit is still trying to figure out what it is, and Michigan’s 460 yards confirmed that there are deficiencies in a group that was expected to be among the nation’s elite.

A season after a very green secondary still managed to finish in the top 25 against the pass, Notre Dame was beat early and often by Michigan through the air, with KeiVarae Russell looking like he was being picked on by Jeremy Gallon, who had a career day catching eight balls for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Bennett Jackson also gave up some throws when playing man-to-man, and too often the Irish were burnt when their secondary were forced to win an individual battle during an Irish blitz.

The Irish defense managed to make eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage, with Ishaq Williams notching the team’s lone sack. But even with Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix chasing after Gardner for most of the night, there were too many breakdowns, with the Wolverines putting together five plays of 15 yards or more, including two critical pick-ups in the fourth quarter after the Irish pulled within four points.

Add in three critical pass interference calls that extended Michigan drives and led to touchdowns, and there’s a lot of work to be done in the defensive meeting room.

***

3. While the defense gave up 41, the Irish offense couldn’t do its part to win this game.

When recapping the loss, you might have expected Brian Kelly to discuss his defense’s inability to stop the Wolverines offense. But interestingly enough, Kelly talked about the failures of the offense when trying to decipher how the Irish came up short.

“I felt that we missed some opportunities offensively that could’ve given us the opportunity to win this football game,” Kelly said. “I felt like we had two opportunities to score. We’ve gotta make those plays. This was one of those games that our offense needed to carry the day for us and we just came up short on a couple of key plays for us.”

A season after the Irish slugged out a 13-6 victory, Kelly talked about the need for his offense to keep pace with Michigan’s tonight.

“We knew that Gardner was a very difficult quarterback to defend,” Kelly said. “We also knew that offensively that we were in a position where we needed to score more points. I didn’t think this was going to be like last year.”

If you’re looking for where things went wrong for the Irish, look no further than the difference in the teams’ red zone performances. Michigan went four-for-four inside the Irish twenty, cashing in all four drives for touchdowns. Notre Dame only converted two of their five appearances for seven points, getting nothing twice when they were in scoring position.

Forced to throw much of the second half trailing by 14 points, Tommy Rees threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns. But Rees also threw two interceptions in his 51 passing attempts, one at the end of the first half and the second on a deflected ball that sealed the game late. On a night when the offense needed to play with efficiency to hang in and win, they were unable to do it.

***

4. The Big House continues to be a house of horrors for the Irish. 

As 115,109 fans excited the stadium, the Michigan PA blared the Chicken Dance, a less than subtle dig at a Notre Dame team that Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said was “chickening” out of the spirited rivalry.

It was a glorious conclusion for Michigan fans, who celebrated another huge victory over the Irish under the lights, a showcase evening for a football program that’s still undefeated under Hoke playing at home.

Last season, Brian Kelly looked like a changed man from the one we had seen in ’11, a fiery sideline yeller that created headlines with the different hues his face turned during turnover plagued football games. That head coach returned for a bit this evening, a familiar look for the coach when playing Michigan, a program he has lost three of four to in his four seasons in South Bend.

The night looked as if it were going to take a turn for the better for Kelly, when Stephon Tuitt made a diving catch in the Michigan end zone capping one of Devin Gardner’s more inexplicable plays. But after kicking a field goal to pull within four points, the Wolverines were able to march down and score a game-icing touchdown, getting a major break when a Bennett Jackson interception was taken off the board by a suspect pass interference penalty.

***

5. With plenty still to play for, it’s back to the basics for Notre Dame. 

The message was clear after the football game. Regardless of missed calls or tough breaks, the focus was internal for the Irish, and Brian Kelly will spend the next week getting back to the basic fundamentals that turned Notre Dame into an unlikely twelve-game winner last season.

“We have to play smarter and more disciplined,” Kelly said after the game. “I told our football team, losing is losing. But we’re going to go back to work on Tuesday with the emphasis in practice on a more disciplined approach to everything. We have to tighten up everything. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And they understand what I mean.”

There will be time for breaking down tape and analyzing what exactly went wrong. But Kelly sees this loss as an opportunity to refocus a team that didn’t play particularly sharp against Temple and made plenty of mental mistakes in a game where execution was at a premium.

Nobody expected another undefeated regular season. But with a calendar that features a handful of Saturdays where the Irish will have to play their best football to win, refocusing a group that had everything go right last fall is the team’s biggest challenge.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.