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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.