Tulsa  v Oklahoma

Five things we learned: Oklahoma 35, Notre Dame 21

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Notre Dame’s first four plays could’ve served as the CliffsNotes for their 35-21 loss to Oklahoma. On third and long from the Irish 28, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker came unblocked off the backside, hitting Tommy Rees just as he was trying to throw. The ball ended up in linebacker Corey Nelson’s arms, and just 49 seconds into the game, the Sooners were up a touchdown.

Notre Dame’s next play from scrimmage was no better. Looking for TJ Jones on a slant route, Rees missed Jones but hit Sooner cornerback Aaron Colvin, who batted the ball into the air, where it was snatched up by linebacker Frank Shannon. Shannon scampered down the field, giving the Sooners the ball inside Notre Dame’s 35-yard line. Four plays later, Oklahoma was up 14 points

“If you’re going to turn the football over and give Oklahoma a 14 point lead, you’re in trouble,” Brian Kelly said after the game.

Even as the Irish tried their best to dig out of it, Bob Stoops’ Sooners seemed to have an answer for every counter the Irish seemed to mount. Riding an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers — all of which were turned into touchdowns — and a mistake-free performance by Blake Bell, Oklahoma earned a big non-conference victory to close out September.

Let’s find out what else we learned in Oklahoma’s 35-21 victory over Notre Dame.

***

Notre Dame’s slow start practically doomed them from the beginning.

After a clockwork opening quarter against Temple, the first quarter has been a disaster for Notre Dame. We’ve talked about it before, but after three-and-outs against Michigan, and even uglier starts against Purdue and Michigan State, the Irish found the only way to one-up that futility with two interceptions in their first four offensive plays.

When asked about the slow starts, Kelly was candid about his frustrations.

“If I knew what that was, I would not be standing here right now. I’d be doing something else,” Kelly said. “This is my 23rd year as a head coach. You never expect to not pick up the simplest of stunts. You never expect not to run the right route when you’re supposed to. But they happen.

“That’s why we have ulcers in this business. So you go back and you’ve got to coach. You’ve got to do a better job communicating. Ultimately it falls on me. We lost today.”

Credit should go to the Irish for fighting back, making a game of it and pulling within a touchdown both late in the second quarter and again in the second half. But Kelly’s prediction that Notre Dame needed to play their best game to win proved true, and now it’s up to this staff to find some answers for the early woes.

***

***

Just as he was starting to look like the odd man out, George Atkinson took back the No. 1 running back job. 

Late in the first quarter, freshman Tarean Folston burst around the left side of the offensive line, sprinting for a 36-yard gain before being tackled inside the Oklahoma five-yard line. The freshman looked like he was racing to the top of a jumbled depth chart, with five backs all jockeying for position behind him.

And then George Atkinson reminded everybody why Kelly and the coaching staff can’t give up on him. Atkinson played his finest game in an Irish uniform, gaining 148 yards on just 14 carries, with his 80-yard touchdown run a reminder that the Irish have one of college football’s most explosive players in their backfield.

All of that doesn’t matter if Atkinson doesn’t run like it. And after four games, the 220-pound back was given a stark appraisal of his work by Kelly this week.

“We didn’t think George ran physical enough. We told him that,” Kelly said. “We told him if he wanted to be the starter, he can’t get tackled by his ankles. He’s 220 pounds and I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball. He’s got to do that every week.”

Entering the game ranked 100th in rushing, the Irish did their job running the football. The Irish gained 220 yards on the ground, netting a hearty 7.6 yards per carry with Folston also looking very good on his two touches.

With it painfully obvious that the Irish are simply unable to beat a quality opponent if they’re forced to be a one-dimensional passing team, the ground game’s revival might be the one positive that the Irish can take out of Saturday’s lost offensively.

***

This offense can’t succeed if it’s hoisted solely on the shoulders of Tommy Rees. 

It was an ugly step backwards for Tommy Rees, who finished the day 9 of 24 for just 104 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Dissecting the turnovers will help shine a kinder light on Rees — the backside blitz snafu wasn’t his fault, nor was an incorrect pattern by DaVaris Daniels on his third — but a combined 39 percent passing over the last two Saturdays is a pretty glaring datapoint that Rees can’t be the man that serves as the engine of the Irish offense.

“We don’t want to put Tommy in a position where he’s got to carry the whole load,” Kelly said after the game. “We thought in the second half we were able to get into a position where we ran the football, play action pass, some quick throws. That’s how we want to play.”

That was evident in the game plan, which used two tight end formations and Andrew Hendrix in short yardage and zone read looks, his first playing time of any importance since the Champs Sports Bowl at the end of the ’11 season. Hendrix didn’t necessarily look comfortable out there, but he did add another wrinkle to the Irish offense, especially in short yardage situations.

After being questioned about his offense’s predictability, Kelly’s curveball at quarterback could be a sign of things to come.

“We’re just trying to diversify the offense a little bit, trying to add some more looks,” Kelly said on Hendrix’s inclusion in the game plan.  “He’s got some work to do.  We’ve got to continue to work with him, but I think it gives us some things that the defense has to defend as well with him in there.”

Rees’s performance awoke a mob of critics that hardly ever go far from the scene. But with Notre Dame’s starting quarterback sitting in San Diego because of an academic impropriety, the vitriol for a senior leader that’s done nothing but his best for the Irish football program these past four seasons is one of the ugliest parts of Notre Dame Nation.

“We don’t want to put this whole thing on Tommy,” Kelly said. “It’s everybody. We always go back to the quarterback around here.  But this is about eleven players.”

***

Even a great defensive effort can be undone quickly by inconsistency. 

There was plenty of good mixed in by Bob Diaco’s defense, who did a nice job containing the Sooners’ passing game for most of the afternoon. But on a critical third down and short when the Irish needed a stop, Blake Bell hit an easy slant route to Sterling Shepard that all but sealed the football game for Oklahoma.

“I thought we gave up one play that we’d love to have back,” Kelly said after the game. “You know, the quick slant where we let Shepard inside. Just something that shouldn’t happen. Other than that, we were doing a really good job defensively against a very good offense.”

Oklahoma’s offense was able to run the football against the Irish, running for 212 yards and five yards a carry after being held to less than a yard a carry last season. And after establishing the ground game with the Sooners’ stable of backs and both Bell and backup quarterback Trevor Knight, that success opened up a back-breaking pass play that came out of a short-yardage running formation.

“When you can run the football in those sets, people have to start trickling down from the secondary to stop the run,” Stoops explained. “Generally, you can find some space to make big plays.  Fortunately, we caught one.”

With Sheldon Day still hampered by an ankle injury, the Irish got a nice effort by Kona Schwenke. Carlo Calabrese led the Irish with ten tackles. Freshman Jaylon Smith made seven stops and both Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt were active as well.

But with the chips in the middle and the defense needing a critical stop after clawing back to within a touchdown, they couldn’t deliver. In a scene too reminiscent of the fourth quarter in Ann Arbor, when it was time for one team to make a play, the opponent made it.

***

Fans and media members can focus on the implications of the loss. Brian Kelly and the Irish are going to get back to work. 

You can understand if Brian Kelly wasn’t too interested in discussing the Irish’s BCS hopes with the calendar still in September. That’s the type of big picture thinking that’s so destructive to a team that’s already dropped two games.

“I don’t really care about that stuff,” Kelly said after the game. “That’s for you guys to talk about.  I’ve got a football team here we’re trying to develop and work with.”

After five games, it’s easy to look at the remaining schedule and wonder what could be in store for an Irish team that is in the middle of its toughest stretch and still needs to play four games that look very losable on paper. But that’s not how this program operates.

“This is a group that each one of them knows why we lost the game,” Kelly said. “Each coach, each player in that locker room. This is a transparent group. There is nobody in there that is pointing a finger.  There are only thumb pointers in there.”

On Saturday, turnovers told the story, stacking the deck against a team that fought its hardest to get back into the game after spotting a talented opponent 14 points. While the Irish stayed with their game plan throughout most of the first half, the mistakes proved too costly as the Irish tried to play catch-up in the second half.

“I wanted to be in two tight ends and I wanted to run the football, and I wanted to run play action and I wanted to be able to control the game that way,” Kelly said of his original game plan.

“You just can’t turn the football the way we did. If we take care of the football, we might be in overtime right now. Who knows? But the bottom line from this offense is take care of the football. Play good defense. And these kids will battle their butts off and find a way to win.”

It wasn’t all negative on Saturday afternoon, though the Irish loss will likely knock Notre Dame out of the Top 25 for the first time since the second week of the ’12 season. The running game looks to have found its identity. The defense continues to make progress. And while it’s easy to think about what could’ve been had the Irish not started out so terribly, it’s back to the grind for the Irish, who next take on Arizona State, one of the most explosive passing teams in the country next Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium.

“We’re four years into our program. We know clearly what needs to be done,” Kelly said. “We’ll get back to work on Tuesday and work to get better.”

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…)