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.”

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.