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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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…)