Notre Dame v Arizona State

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 37, Arizona State 34

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After a month of getting kicked around, picked on, and compared to last year’s historic unit, you can forgive Notre Dame’s defense for playing with a chip on their shoulder. And with Irish fans steaming after Tommy Rees’s throw sailed over DaVaris Daniels’ head to stop a clock with precious few seconds left, you can hardly blame senior linebacker Dan Fox for diving into the end zone after his interception, even though a kneel down would’ve ended the game.

Fox’s touchdown extended the Irish’s lead to ten points — all of them needed — as Notre Dame held off a late-charging Sun Devil offense for a wild 37-34 victory in AT&T Stadium. The Irish defense carried the day with three turnovers and a resurgent pass rush, winning a game that didn’t necessarily play like a shootout until the game’s final seconds.

“I just felt like we were getting better,” Kelly said of his defense. “You know, not to the level where we feel like we have arrived. We think there’s a lot left out there that needs to get better.”

For all the twists and turns the Irish took during the season’s opening month, Notre Dame now heads to the off week at 4-2 before welcoming USC to South Bend. Nobody will forget losses to Michigan and Oklahoma, but after a frustrating week spent poking holes in every facet of Kelly’s football team both during and after football games, the Irish won as an underdog in a game they desperately needed.

Let’s find out what else we learned during Notre Dame’s 37-34 Shamrock Series victory.

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They’re not the same unit that led the Irish to the National Championship game. But Bob Diaco’s defense won the football game for Notre Dame. 

Entering Saturday night’s game with more questions than answers, Notre Dame’s defense was at a crossroads. An injury to Sheldon Day forced the defensive front to work in some players not exactly ready to contribute. The suspension of Ben Councell and a season-ending injury to Jarrett Grace led to Joe Schmidt and Romeo Okwara taking snaps at linebacker. And critical mistakes in the secondary turned some okay performances into bad ones.

But on a Saturday night where the Irish were facing their biggest test of the season, Bob Diaco dialed up a textbook game plan, and the Irish defense forced turnovers and got after the quarterback, two essentials on the way victory.

“They’re a very difficult offense to defend. They do so many things very well,” Kelly said. “It’s just a difficult offense to defend and thought we did a pretty darn good job.”

After being held sackless, Prince Shembo was a man on a mission on Saturday night, playing primarily with his hand on the ground and dominating with three sacks. Stephon Tuitt was relentless as well, adding a sack and forcing a fumble as he played a ton of snaps with Day still out. Bennett Jackson had a key strip when the team needed momentum. Matthias Farley rebounded after a tough series and made a clutch interception. Dan Fox stepped back in after Grace was injured and returned an interception for a touchdown.

No, it wasn’t the kind of stingy, mistake-free performance that marked last season’s historic regular season. But after failing to make big plays for much of the season, it was the defense that carried the weight.

The film room will show some of the areas that need to be cleaned up. But a gritty performance against an elite college offense was just what Brian Kelly had pointed at all week.

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Needing to control the tempo of the football game, Notre Dame’s offense did their job. 

It wasn’t always pretty, but Tommy Rees and the Irish offense did their job, holding onto the football for over 35 minutes while keeping the Sun Devils off the field. A week after George Atkinson broke lose with his best game of the season, the junior turned over the crunch time carries to Dallas-area native Cam McDaniel, and the Texan answered the bell with 15 tough carries, running for 82 yards on the evening.

Playing 20 minutes from home, McDaniel was a key in the fourth quarter, carrying it nine straight times for the Irish.

“We’ve been looking for some consistency offensively, we knew heading into the game we had to control the football and keep that offense off the field,” Kelly said.

Against an Arizona State defense that had struggled against the run, Notre Dame only rushed for 3.9 yards per carry, with Atkinson never getting started. But when push came to shove the Irish ground game was there, and McDaniel’s gritty performance was a big reason why.

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After learning on the job in the season’s opening month, Jaylon Smith had a breakout performance. 

With Ben Councell forced to sit out the first half after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ejection last week, freshman Jaylon Smith was tasked with playing without a safety net against one of the most dangerous offenses in college football. Smith was up to the task, leading the Irish with nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

Danny Spond’s retirement during preseason forced Smith into an every snap role, playing a position that forces even the most athletic player to do an awful lot of thinking. Even with a steep learning curve, Smith’s freakish abilities have been seen in flashes, but never for four quarters like the ones he played on Saturday night.

“He’s a difficult guy to block. He’s got great speed,” Kelly said of Smith. “You saw him and his ability to track down Kelly in the open field. He’s a very important player now within our defense.”

With spread offenses making things harder and harder on defenses, a weapon like Smith might not always show up in the box score, but he’s certainly essential in slowing down a big play opponent like ASU.

He may have struggled keeping leverage a few times, but Smith was a dominant factor in containing Taylor Kelly in the run game, with the Sun Devils’ quarterback being held to less than one yard per carry.

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In a must-have football game, Notre Dame’s veteran leaders rose to the occasion.

It’s been a relatively quiet season for Notre Dame’s captains. A year after Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o became two of the leading men of college football, offensive tackle Zack Martin, wide receiver TJ Jones, and cornerback Bennett Jackson have remained mostly anonymous. That goes with the territory for Martin, but shouldn’t be the case for Jones and Jackson, who are desperately needed by this team to be key playmakers on both sides of the ball.

Saturday night, all three guys with a ‘C’ on their chest played great football. Martin anchored an offensive line that helped the offense rack up over 400 yards and kept Rees from getting sacked. Even with the Sun Devils defense bringing five and six men, they failed to get to Rees once, while the Irish run game did enough down the stretch to win.

Meanwhile, Jones caught eight balls for 135 yards and a touchdown, also contributing a huge punt return. As he needed to be, Jones was the best player on the field for the Irish offense, doing the little things right and also making big plays down the field. Facing man coverage and needing to defeat it, Jones and Rees were in sync all night.

“TJ’s best asset is how well he understands defenders are playing him, and then he runs routes based off of that,” Rees explained. “A guy like that I can trust and count on being on the same page.”

After being off for much of the first month, Bennett Jackson seems to have hit his stride as well, looking much better in man coverage and playing his usual physical brand of football at the boundary cornerback position. His tackle and strip of receiver Richard Smith also teed up an Irish touchdown, extending Notre Dame’s lead to 11 points late in the third quarter.

When the team needed it, the Irish’s senior leaders stepped up.

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It wasn’t necessarily always pretty. But it was all hands on deck for the Irish victory. 

Joe Schmidt at inside linebacker. Romeo Okwara at defensive tackle. Forgotten man Ben Koyack chipping in an all-important touchdown catch. Notre Dame’s depth chart extended on Saturday night and the Irish won the game thanks to big performances by players big and small.

It wasn’t a victory that came without some losses. Both Daniel Smith and Jarrett Grace are lost for the season. Smith broke an ankle while Grace fractured his tibia. Smith will force the young Irish receiving corps to find another glue guy, someone willing to play physically and block on the perimeter. The loss of Grace will hurt the Irish even more, leaving the defense will Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese to man the inside linebacker positions with zero experience behind them.

Still, the Irish won a football game against a very talented Arizona State team. And while there were breakdowns in the secondary and uneven play on offense, Brian Kelly won for the eleventh time in his last twelve when the football game was decided by less than a touchdown.

The loss to Oklahoma last week sent fans into another spiral, where debates about the alma mater turned into a minor referendum on a team that pulled rabbits out of hats all last season. But with the noise once against getting louder around this football team, Kelly’s squad tuned it all out and played their best football of the season.

A pass rush that had been nonexistent roared. A defense that couldn’t force turnovers became opportunistic. Tommy Rees completed passes on the move and from an empty set. And even though the Irish committed nine penalties and struggled to close out the football game,  heading into the off week with a 4-2 record looks infinitely better than 3-3.

“It’s a big win for us,” Rees said after the game. “To get right back on the right track heading into the bye week, the halfway point of the season, was the kind of a game we understood the importance of.”

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”