Notre Dame v Arizona State

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

228 Comments

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.”

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
5 Comments

Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Getty
8 Comments

Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Getty
2 Comments

In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
3 Comments

With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.