Matthias Farley, Bennie Fowler

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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Upon second inspection, Notre Dame’s win over Michigan State doesn’t look much prettier. But the result is all that counts for Brian Kelly’s team, who need to quickly turn the page and prepare for the Oklahoma Sooners, coming to town with revenge on their mind.

At 3-1, the Irish sit at No. 22 in both major polls, well within range of their big picture goals. Yet any thoughts about the big picture should be tucked away for December, as this football team is in the middle of improving week to week, focusing only on doing enough to win on Saturday.

The Irish barely did that yesterday, failing to beat the Spartans in man-to-man coverage with a wide receiving corps that many expected would be good enough to do so. But after escaping a blocked punt on the game’s first offensive series, the Irish might played sloppy but made no major mistakes, doing enough on defense to hold the Spartans offense to just 13 points.

Let’s take a look at the good (a few things), the bad (a few more) and the whole lot of ugly that took place during Notre Dame’s 17-13 victory.

THE GOOD

Corey Robinson: It was a game-changing performance by the freshman wide receiver, who was the only receiver that could get on track against Michigan State’s physical coverage. At 6-foot-5, you’d expect Robinson’s ability to be predicated on going up and picking the ball, but he’s been a much better tactician than you’d expect for a young player learning the game.

“He’s a big target.  He tracks the ball so very well,” Kelly said of Robinson. “Look, if you can keep the ball in a position where he can play six‑six, he’s very difficult to defend.”

With the young receiver likely still swimming in the deep end, the Spartan’s man-to-man approach in some ways made it easier for Robinson to just take advantage of his physical traits and go get the football.

“It’s not conceptually a lot of different route adjustments,” Kelly said of the game plan against the Spartans. “You’re going to get press man, go up and get the football. In a large degree, that allows a guy like Corey to get some more playing time.”

After that kind of game, you’d like to think Robinson has earned some more playing time against the Sooners.

Stephon Tuitt: Playing the Spartans was just what the doctor ordered for Tuitt. Along with a sack, Tuitt had six total tackles, a highly productive day for the junior preseason All-American who has had a slow start to the season.

Sunday, Kelly talked a little bit about the offseason surgery, and slow-moving recovery that has maybe hampered Tuitt through the first quarter of the season.

“He couldn’t cut loose at times. In camp he dealt with a strain in the same area where he struggled at times really being able to cut loose,” Kelly disclosed. “He’s feeling great. He had a great week of practice.  His volume is up.  His reps are up.  You could see he’s really starting to come on.”

He’s coming on just in time for the Irish, who’ll need Tuitt at his best during this difficult stretch of the season and with Sheldon Day still working his way back from an ankle injury.

Carlo Calabrese & Jarrett Grace: Starting next to each other for the first time this season, both Calabrese and Grace had eight tackles, a nice contribution as the Irish played a nice game in the front seven.

Kelly talked about the solid contributions Calabrese has been making both on Saturday and throughout the season’s first month.

“He’s been playing solid football for us. He’s contributing on special teams. He’s having a good senior season for us,” Kelly said of Calabrese. “Really liked his attitude, his commitment. All the things you want from your senior. He played real physical football for us Saturday. Feel really good about the season he’s having up to this point.”

Grace started next to Calabrese and while he’s not Manti Te’o, he did show some athleticism that points to a bright future in the middle of the defense, taking over for Dan Fox after Kelly vowed to change things up.

Quick Hits: Heckuva first catch, Will Fuller. A really athletic play and great catch on the sidelines by the young freshman from Philly.

No Turnovers, No Loss. Notre Dame is now 12-0 under Brian Kelly when they don’t commit a turnover. That’s a stat that tells quite a story for a head coach now entering his fourth season in South Bend.

Getting back to the basics on Defense: Celebrating a performance against a Michigan State offense that might just be historically bad shouldn’t be anything to get too excited about. But this group did a nice job making forward progress, and Kelly said so today after looking at the tape.

“You’re talking about consistency up front. So on the defensive line we’re looking for that consistency,” Kelly said. “We’re looking at the linebacker position. You know, we’re replacing a guy like Te’o where you’re looking for a play‑maker at that position.  Then the physicality that we want.

“It wasn’t just at one position.  It was really at three levels:  the defensive line, linebacker, and defensive backs.  We saw on Saturday all three of those things show themselves.  We’ll now need to see that on a consistent basis.”

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THE BAD

Missed opportunities: Tommy Rees had some shots down field that he’s going to need to complete. In the first half, the Irish put the game on his shoulders and while it wasn’t just the quarterback that was a fraction off, that was more than enough for a defense like Michigan State’s.

Let’s just add Deep Passes to this here, because it’s hard to call Tommy Rees’ game a bad one when he didn’t throw a pick and did lead the Irish to a win. But it sure wasn’t one of his best.

The running game: After four games, it’s pretty clear that the Irish front five has some work to do. While Zack Martin and Chris Watt are playing solid football, two new starters in Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley, and Christian Lombard playing at guard still look like a work in progress.

“I think in the run game, we need to continue to evolve,” Kelly said. “We’re getting so many different looks where at times we have to be able to identify different backers, who to work to. But by and large, we’re continuing to evolve offensively up front.  But with Ronnie Stanley, obviously Nick Martin as first‑time starters, those guys are making progress for us.  We’re getting strong play from the left side with Watt and Martin each and every day.  And Lombard continues to play consistent for us.”

Kelly is right to talk about some of the challenges this team has faced. But Purdue looked mighty ordinary giving up 41 points and 388 rush yards against Wisconsin. The revolving door at running back isn’t helping anything, but the Irish absolutely need to show more balance when Oklahoma comes to town.

Third Down and short: We hit on this pretty hard yesterday, but it’s worth repeating again. Notre Dame needs to do better on these conversions. The Irish tried rolling the pocket. Thanks to a missed block by Ben Koyack that didn’t work. They tried going long, that didn’t work. They tried running inside, that didn’t work.

It’ll be up to this staff to put together a few solutions in the coming days. But playing mistake free in critical situations would be a start.

Quick Hits: 

Come on, Jarron Jones. If you want to play on special teams, whiffing on a block like that just can’t happen.

While Irish fans are all for punt returns, they’re not for suicide missions. If TJ Jones wants to stay on the field in the return game, he’s going to need to make better decisions.

Bad swing and miss by Ben Councell. That’s a missed tackle that all 85,000 fans in the stands saw.

THE UGLY

The Victory: Brian Kelly said it’d be ugly. Just because you didn’t want to believe it is your problem. But for a turnover free performance, that was one of the uglier games I’ve had to watch multiple times that I can remember.

Too many flags: After rewatching the pass interference calls, I can see it both ways. The Spartans cornerbacks played some of the most physical football that you’ll ever see. But there was hand-fighting and tugging on just about every play, and Brian Kelly wasn’t just trolling when he said they could’ve had a few more.

What I can’t necessarily understand is some of the other judgment calls the refs made, including two personal foul calls on Notre Dame. It’s especially tough to miss a punch to the head and then call a 15-yarder on Notre Dame’s bench. Ditto on the personal foul on Cam McDaniel, who had his helmet ripped off and then only signaled a first down.

Still, it’s clear that the Spartans didn’t see the P.I. calls that way. Playing a physical brand of defense it made for a lot of judgment calls. Forgive Notre Dame fans if they aren’t exactly apologizing for a Big Ten officiating crew that finally saw things their way.

Creativity: Both Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin are smart guys that know more about football than everybody reading (or writing) this blog. But there’s got to be room in the playbook for some crossing routes, especially after they’ve killed the Irish defense in man coverage this year.

The vertical strikes down the field have long been part of Kelly’s offense. But picks and rubs work for both teams, and there’s got to be a few more ways to attack Cover Zero than just going long.

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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.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.