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.

***

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.”

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
247 Sports
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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.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

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

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

Asmar Bilal 247
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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars