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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Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

@NDFootball
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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line