Pregame Six pack: Onward to Oklahoma

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One-third of the way into the season and the Fighting Irish still haven’t played a complete football game. After sliding by Temple, Purdue and Michigan State without their best efforts, there’s no room for mediocrity to creep into either side of the football’s efforts. To beat the 14th ranked Oklahoma Sooners, Notre Dame will need to play four quarters of very good football.

“We have to do a better job of being consistent through four quarters. We haven’t really put together those four quarters of really good football,” head coach Brian Kelly said on Thursday. “We’re going to need to do that against Oklahoma.”

Coming to town is a Sooners team that just established its offensive rhythm with quarterback Blake Bell and then took a week off. The early bye week felt a little bit like a scheduling snafu, but it did allow standout cornerback Aaron Colvin to get healthy.

What type of team the Sooners actually are is still to be determined. After beating up Louisiana-Monroe, a disappointing West Virginia team and Tulsa, Oklahoma heads to Notre Dame looking to find out if it’s got the type of team that can get Bob Stoops back to the BCS.

After downplaying the importance of this game for the past two weeks, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jay Norvell let the cat out of the bag. “This is a special game,” Norvell told the Oklahoman. “We’d be lying if we say it’s just another game. It’s not. You don’t get to play in South Bend very often.”

Let’s walk through this week’s Pregame Six Pack. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before No. 22 Notre Dame and No. 14 Oklahoma take the field.

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Getting the Sooners offense “off schedule” could be key on Saturday. 

With an impressive depth chart at both running back and receiver, and a quarterback that’s capable of doing damage both on the ground or through the air, the Sooners will be Notre Dame’s most difficult challenge of the season from a personnel perspective.

But if Bob Diaco’s defense wants to follow a script that already led them to victory once, they’ll try their best to keep Oklahoma’s offense “off schedule,” tripping up the Sooners on first down and forcing them into difficult down and distances.

As we talked about already this week, first down is a key play for just about every team. Last year, the Irish defense made some big plays, limiting the Sooners offense and also getting them off the field by only allowing 4-of-14 third down conversions.

But with a balanced Sooner attack and the No. 4 ranked offense in terms of efficiency (according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index), the Sooners know they need to do a better job of keeping themselves in favorable down and distances.

“We’ve got to do a good job of making efficient plays on first down, whether it’s running or throwing,” Norvell said. “And in this game, it’s important that you catch and you get upfield north and south and it’s not fancy. It’s just get upfield, get the yards you need, bang off pads and move on to the next play.”

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Sheldon Day might not be the only one battling an injury.

The good news for the Irish is that defensive end Sheldon Day is back and healthy, having a solid week of practice and pronounced ready to go by Kelly on Thursday, an impressive turn time by an important cog in the Irish’s front seven.

But in a rare look behind the curtain this week, courtesy of UND.com’s Strong and True video series, we saw some of the work that went into getting Cam McDaniel ready to play after fracturing his hand midweek in practice, and linebacker Dan Fox and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley battle through injuries.

Kelly talked about the job Stanley did to get back into the game after a painful hip injury. But news that Fox has been battling nagging injuries since fall camp might shed new light on why the fifth-year senior has been off to a particularly slow start.

It’s difficult to tell what exactly is bothering Fox, but the senior linebacker will be counted on to play some important minutes against the Sooners. He’s got the athleticism to be an asset in pass coverage underneath, where the linebackers are still a work in progress. Last year, Fox chipped in five tackles against Oklahoma, and had one very key pass break-up, which Manti Te’o ended up intercepting on a huge momentum changer.

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Can Notre Dame contain the slot receiver? 

Last week, Irish fans watched Michigan State’s Macgarrett Kings backpedal into the end zone for an easy touchdown, beating safety Elijah Shumate so badly in man coverage that he could coast into the end zone.

Kings’s touchdown against the Irish was hardly the only damage done by a diminutive slot receiver. All season, the Irish have struggled to slow down the inside receiving threats, taking advantage of schematic changes and beating man coverage from the start of the season.

Taking a run through the four box scores the Irish have produced this year starts to show some trends emerging. And waterbug sized, lightning quick receivers have really hurt Notre Dame’s defense.

Against Temple, 5-foot-9, 175-pound Ryan Alderman had his best game of the season, leading the Owls with five catches for 65 yards against the Irish. Who can forget what Jeremy Gallon did to the Irish? The 5-8, 187-pound Wolverine had eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns to torch the Irish secondary. Against Purdue, it was 5-foot-9 Akeem Hunt would did most of the receiving damage, making nine catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. And Kings supplied one of the lone bright spots for the Spartans offense last Saturday.

All of that leads us to the Sooners’ Jalen Saunders. Last year, Saunders racked up an astonishing 15 catches for 181 yards against Notre Dame. After wreaking havoc underneath the Irish defense, Saunders might do something far deadlier if he’s given the chance against man coverage on Saturday.

Kelly and Bob Diaco have experimented with the Irish’s secondary personnel, shifting Cole Luke, Elijah Shumate, Devin Butler and Lo Wood in and out, trying to find the right cover man. But the Irish might be better off not trying to run with Oklahoma’s skill players, instead just throwing an umbrella over everything, using zone responsibilities to keep the play in front of them.

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Can the Irish offense get out of the gate quickly?

Perhaps Irish fans were spoiled early. After starting the season opener with two picture perfect scoring drives, it’s been rough sledding for the Irish to start games. Against Michigan, it was two three-and-outs, two punts and two scores for the Wolverines. Against Purdue it was worse, the Boilermakers marched down the field for a touchdown on the game’s first drive before shutting down the Irish’s first four drives. It was no better against Michigan State, with the Spartans getting a punt block on the first series of the game before watching the Irish offense sputter twice more.

With a crowd ready to carry the Irish if needed, the offense and defense will need to do their jobs, putting an early Irish score on the board and getting a few defensive stops while trying to get into rhythm with the speed of the Sooners.

“We’ve always talked about starting fast. It really hasn’t been part of this group yet consistently,” Kelly said. “But what they do is they finish really well, so I’d stick around if I were you, because they know how to finish games.”

Finishing games isn’t possible if you dig yourself too big of a whole. We witnessed that in Ann Arbor. It won’t be possible against Oklahoma if the Irish aren’t ready out of the gates.

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Will the Irish finally do their best to establish the run? 

Four games into the season and the Irish running game is still a mess. It doesn’t appear to be the offensive line’s fault, with the unit blending nicely, though succeeding mostly in pass protection. But against an Oklahoma  3-3-5 defense, can the Irish simply decide to run the ball and dictate tempo, or will they try and throw their way around bad defensive looks?

While Irish fans have screamed about trying to establish some offensive balance, the Irish head coach understands its importance, now it’s just a matter of executing better.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we’ve got enough balance,” Kelly said. “We haven’t run the ball effectively enough throughout four quarters. There are times where we’ve been effective — we won some football games late, Purdue in particular — where we’ve been able to run the ball to finish out a game. But we’re not where we want to be in terms of running the ball effectively throughout the game, which is going to allow us to have a run-pass balance.”

Notre Dame’s running back depth chart features five backs — George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all listed as co-starters. The Irish haven’t been able to establish more than one of them in a game yet this year. But it might make some sense to give it a try if it keeps the Sooners off the field.

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 For two of college football’s most storied programs, this rivalry is awfully one-sided. 

There is no more winning program in the modern era than Oklahoma. The Sooners have the most victories and best winning percentage of any program since World War II. But as two of college football’s winningest programs get set to do battle, it’s a good time to remind you that Notre Dame has just historically owned this match-up.

Notre Dame holds a 9-1 record in this series, beating the Sooners in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1961, 1962, 1966, 1968, 1999, and 2012. Outside of the Sooners’ lone victory over the Irish, a 40-0 thrashing in 1956, the Irish have won seven straight in a span of seven decades, with the Irish beating a Sooners team ranked in the top 10 seven times in the ten meetings.

Notre Dame has dashed more Sooner dreams than just about any program, including Bob Stoops last visit to South Bend, when Jarious Jackson threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Irish stormed back to score 20 unanswered points to win 34-30 over No. 23 Oklahoma.

That game became a defining moment in the Stoops era at Oklahoma, helping to set the tone for the Sooners return to the top of college football.

“More than anything, I remember us leading in the third quarter by 16 and looking around and seeing too many happy faces,” Stoops said on Monday. “I felt there were too many guys who thought that they had this won, really realizing that we had not really learned how to truly compete yet for four quarters.

“I remember telling the coaches in meetings the next day, ‘Listen, they hadn’t been ahead of anybody like that on the road before. They don’t know how to handle it and we’ve got to teach them how to handle it – teach them how to finish games and to win a game like that.’

“Those guys hadn’t been in that situation.”

It didn’t take long for Stoops’ team to learn from the disappointing loss. The Sooners won the national championship the next year.

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For more on Notre Dame’s match-up with Oklahoma, check out these stories from IrishIllustrated.com

From IrishIllustrated.com

Irish look for Norman momentum
by Douglas Farmer

A year ago, a win over Oklahoma provided the Irish with much-needed momentum. They hope it can do it again Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.

From IrishIllustrated.com

Grace could have captain potential
by Pete Sampson

Barely a week after his first start, linebacker Jarrett Grace has already been mentioned as a potential future captain. On a defense looking for leadership, that could be a major boost.

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?