Oklahoma v Notre Dame

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma

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Usually losing for the second time in the season’s opening month calls for greater introspection. But upon the second viewing of Notre Dame’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, the results were quite clear: Early turnovers sunk the Irish on Saturday.

Those turnovers ultimately fall on quarterback Tommy Rees. The senior leader of the Irish offense once again played a subpar football game, completing just nine of 24 throws for 104 yards, passing for two touchdowns but throwing three first half interceptions.

Brian Kelly talked Sunday about the options at quarterback, and for those asking for a change, they’ll be disappointed. Kelly publicly supported Rees as the Irish’s No. 1 quarterback, with Andrew Hendrix supplementing him.

“He certainly is,” Kelly said of Rees as the team’s QB1 moving forward. “With the recognition that Andrew is going to be able to help us out as well. But there’s no question that the quarterback that’s going to start for us is Tommy Rees.”

With the inmates restless and the Irish needing to move on quickly and prepare for Arizona State, let’s clean out the notebook and take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to Oklahoma.

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THE GOOD

George Atkinson. It was a great day at the office for Atkinson, who ran for a career-best 148 rushing yards against Oklahoma. Given a chance to establish some rhythm, Atkinson rewarded the staff with his best effort.

As the Irish prepare to play an Arizona State team that looks a lot more beatable when its offense is on the sideline, they’re going to need that commitment from the ground game, and Atkinson also gives them a threat to take it the distance as well.

Carlo Calabrese. We don’t usually see a Notre Dame linebacker making double-digit tackles not named Te’o. The fifth-year linebacker was stout on defense, filling the stat sheet with ten tackles.

Jaylon Smith & Elijah Shumate: The youngsters on defense both contributed seven tackles against the Sooners, a dynamic opponent that challenges you in a variety of ways.

Tarean Folston. A very impressive run by Folston around the left side of the offensive line set up an early Notre Dame touchdown. He didn’t get many more opportunities after Atkinson started to pick up steam, but Folston showed himself to be an explosive option.

Speaking of freshman running backs, more rumors have spread across the internet about Greg Bryant. Palm Beach Post reporter Jeff Greer said that Bryant’s father mentioned the plan to redshirt Bryant.

On Sunday, Kelly wasn’t willing to go that far, but acknowledged that Bryant wasn’t available because of a knee injury.

“He didn’t play this week because of a knee injury,” Kelly said. “But you know, when you start talking about medical redshirts and you talk about redshirts here at Notre Dame, we are way down that line.  We have got to slow down a little bit here.”

Saving a year of eligibility would be a nice perk for Bryant, and a nice bit of roster management for the Irish, especially with Elijah Hood decommitting from the recruiting class.

An offensive identity forming. It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame isn’t going to run the table by spreading an offense out and beating them with one-on-one passing match-ups. That type of game plan seems to work if your quarterback’s playing on Sunday, and mostly if their last names are Manning (only Peyton) or Brady.

Kelly talked about getting back to the basics, and setting a goal of 200 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving.

“From an identity standpoint, we ran for 200 yards,” Kelly said. “We have to be able to run for 200 and throw for 200 and that’s the identity we want to have as an offense.”

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THE BAD

Tommy Rees’s accuracy. Notre Dame can’t win completing less than 40% of their passes. And Rees just hasn’t been as accurate as the Irish need him to be the past few weeks.

“I’m disappointed with how I played individually,” Rees said after the game. “You’ve got to be better. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win games against good teams like Oklahoma.”

While Kelly did commit to playing more of Andrew Hendrix, he also revealed his season-long plan to keep a redshirt on Malik Zaire, something that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you start to think about the roster management needed after losing Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel unexpectedly.

“My guess is right now, unless we have an injury, you’re not going to see Malik, unless we get into an injury situation,” Kelly said. “We only have the three quarterbacks, so we have to keep him ready to go.  But I’d prefer not to play him unless we have a medical situation.”

Rushing Defense. After a really stingy performance two seasons ago, the Irish just gave up too much on the ground against Oklahoma. The Sooners ran for five yards a carry, allowing Oklahoma to control the ball for nearly 36 minutes.

A season after not giving up a gain of over seven yards on the ground, the Sooners had five people with carries of over seven yards, including four ball carriers that had runs of twelve yards or more.

Ben Councell’s ejection. Outside linebacker Ben Councell was ejected from the game after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay. The hit ended Councell’s afternoon early, and will likely cost him the first 30 minutes of the game against Arizona State, unless the Irish win their appeal.

“We don’t believe there was any intent there,” Kelly said.  “There was no intent, he was trying to make a play on the ball. We’ll obviously discuss it with the commissioner of the ACC and we’ll make our case that in video as we’ve looked at it, we clearly don’t see any intent for him to lead and intentionally try to strike with his helmet.”

If Councell isn’t back, the Irish will be in a bit of a pinch from a personnel perspective. Romeo Okwara could slide over to the field-side, or the Irish could slide a safety down in the box, perhaps a bigger body like John Turner.

Back-breaking slant for a touchdown. With 12:35 on the clock and the Irish down six points, Notre Dame could’ve gotten off the field with a third down stop and taking the ball back. But the Sooners lined up in a tight bunch formation, with Notre Dame looking to be in man coverage.

The Irish sent Bennett Jackson and Dan Fox off the short-side in a blitz, while Ishaq Williams dropped back into coverage. Sterling Shepard got a free release at the line of scrimmage and rant a quick slant across the middle, beating Jarrett Grace underneath before outrunning Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth to the end zone.

The blitz didn’t get there against the quick throw and the Sooners essentially clinched the victory.

QUICK HITS: 

* Bennett Jackson filled the stat sheet as a tackler, making seven stops and two behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s got to do a better job in coverage. Much is expected from the guy wearing a C on his chest.

* Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to put the blown blitz pick-up on one guy. But between Tommy Rees, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, they’ve got to pick that one up.

* In a passing game that relies on precision, the young wide receiving corps isn’t necessarily doing their job. In the same breath that Kelly talked about Rees’s need to be more accurate against man coverage, he also talked about the receivers needing to do their job better as well.

“We have got some young receivers out there that are not precise quite frankly in their route running,” Kelly said.

THE UGLY

A terrible start. You couldn’t script a worse beginning for Notre Dame. The perfect recipe to not just lose a football game, but to also take the crowd out of it.

Terrible turnovers. Notre Dame isn’t going to beat anyone with a -3 turnover differential. And they certainly aren’t going to do it against a good team like Oklahoma, who turned those three into 21 points. Let’s run through the three crucial mistakes, just for posterity’s sake.

* Turnover One: Interesting that Brian Kelly won’t call this an interception even though it’s in the books as a pick. Rees was hit as (or just before) he was hit, and it flies right into the linebacker’s arms. Pick Six to start the game.

* Turnover Two: This one is on Rees, who threw the slant early to a spot and missed. Cornerback Aaron Colvin batted the pass into the air, it was intercepted and a handful of plays later the Sooners were up 14-0.

* Turnover Three: Not a great design, especially when DaVaris Daniels ran an incorrect route. Still, the quarterback has to make a decision that’s better than that, and it was thrown either behind Daniels or into traffic if it was heading to Jones.

Terrible September. Irish fans might have forgotten that these are the perils of a Notre Dame schedule. While some teams start with a cream-puff non-conference slate, the Irish have battled one mediocre squad and then played three Big Ten teams and Oklahoma.

While any BCS National title dreams are gone, the Irish could still find a BCS bowl if they run the table or finish with three losses. But after watching Arizona State put the finishing touches on the Lane Kiffin era, the focus should only extend to the Sun Devils.

 

 

 

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.