Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Navy 34

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With the game on the line late and Midshipmen facing a critical fourth down with four yards to go, Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper rolled the dice, hoping to catch the Notre Dame defense over-committing to the option that haunted them all afternoon. But Keenan Reynolds headed around the right side only to pitch the ball back to wide receiver Shawn Lynch heading the opposite direction, and a foot race to the wide side of the field ensued.

First on the scene was reserve safety Eilar Hardy, who cut beneath the block of Navy lineman Bradyn Heap and dove at Lynch’s feet, slowing him up and stretching him wide. Then came cornerback Bennett Jackson, who got a hand on Lynch before Jaylon Smith cleaned up the mess, putting the finishing touches on Notre Dame’s 38-34 victory and ending Navy’s upset bid with just 1:08 remaining.

“We had a chance. I think we were one block away from breaking it,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the game.

After executing almost flawlessly all game, it was the Irish that made the game’s most important play, with Notre Dame surviving on Saturday, keeping their BCS hopes alive as they move to 7-2. After two straight 40-point victories over Navy, the Midshipmen made a sweep a Notre Dame’s option opponents hard work. And while the Irish got the victory, the win came at a price, with injuries piling up and the Irish stretched to their limits.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during Notre Dame’s wild 38-34 victory.

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After getting killed by the option in the first half, Bob Diaco and the Irish defense did just enough to make adjustments in the second half and pull out the win.

Heading into half down 20-17, things looked ugly for the Notre Dame defense, especially with Navy starting the second half with the football and an opportunity to extend the lead to a two-score game. The Midshipmen had run for 207 yards in the first half, averaging over five-yards a carry on a stunning 40 attempts, while going a perfect three for three in the red zone with touchdowns.

But with the body count piling up, the Irish came out and broke Navy’s serve, stopping a 3rd-and-6 and getting a much needed punt out of the Navy offense, the one stop the Irish defense got until their last stand.

After the game, Brian Kelly all but tipped his hat to the Navy offense, acknowledging how well quarterback Keenan Reynolds piloted the option attack.

“They executed flawlessly today. Hats off to them,” Kelly said. “Shorten the game, no penalties, no turnovers.

“If you look out at option teams, especially Navy, I’m ecstatic about getting out of here with a win. They were flawless in terms of their execution.”

That execution utilized a lot of counter option looks, with Reynolds turning away from his original read and running the option to the back-side. That look made it difficult for Notre Dame’s secondary, and a week after the cornerbacks had a field day tackling, nobody had more than KeiVarae Russell, who made just four stops.

With the Irish unwilling to commit to a single-high safety, Notre Dame was continually at a numbers disadvantage in the box. But when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had his safeties shoot the alley on the way to the pitch man, Navy caught the Irish with a well designed pass for a 34-yard touchdown.

“It’s just one of those deals where they’re difficult to defend. We just scored more points than they did today. And we got a win. I’m happy about that.”

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In a wide-open running back race, freshman Tarean Folston took advantage of his opportunities.

With Notre Dame needing to score every time it touched the ball in the second half, Brian Kelly leaned heavily on freshman running back Tarean Folston and the youngster responded with 140 yards on 18 carries, including the game-clinching touchdown with just over five minutes remaining.

Folston’s 100-yard day was the first time an Irish freshman running back went over 100 yards since Robert Hughes did in 2007 against Stanford, and effectively catapulted him to the front of the line in a running back race that seems to change every week.

Kelly talked after the game about Folston’s contributions, doing his best to measure his words, while ultimately happy about the performance from the talented Florida native.

“I don’t know if he’d have made that many carries early in the year, he wasn’t conditioned well enough,” Kelly said. “He always had the mental makeup, we felt that from the very beginning. I think this is more about his physical conditioning. And really just having the hot hand.”

Folston was far from the only back to have a field day against the Navy defense, with Folston, Cam McDaniel, and George Atkinson all averaging more than 7 yards per carry. But with the game on the shoulders of a powerful Irish running game (all the more impressive with Notre Dame playing without Chris Watt), it was Folston that heard his number called.

And Folston delivered.

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Notre Dame’s defense is hurting in a very bad way.

If there’s a worry after Saturday afternoon’s win it’s the injuries that are piling up on the Irish defense. Coming into the game already short on bodies, the Irish lost Sheldon Day with another ankle set back, Ben Councell to what looked like a serious knee injury and Kona Schwenke to an undisclosed lower-leg injury as well.

When asked after the game if the Irish depth chart had reached a point of concern, Kelly was quick to respond.

“We’ve reached it and surpassed it. We’re past it,” Kelly said.

Sundays medical update will likely give us a better idea of the type of toll Navy’s option attack took on Notre Dame’s defense. But it’s easy to see just how deep Notre Dame had to dig into its roster when little-used fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton is playing with the game on the line.

“They’re all banged up. They all will require some attention that I’ll have to get further information,” Kelly said. “It was a triage in there.

“We’ve got some guys that didn’t play today and we’ve got more guys that are banged up.”

***

In a game where the Irish needed to be efficient, turnovers and missed opportunities nearly cost them the game.

There were varying degrees of mistakes made by Notre Dame, but all of them played a key factor in Navy nearly pulling the upset.

There were opportunities missed, like the touch pass Tommy Rees missed to Troy Niklas in the end zone that forced the Irish to kick a field goal instead of get seven points. There was the sloppy playing surface that took down TJ Jones in the middle of a route and resulted in an interception. There was a “holding” call on Troy Niklas that likely took seven points off the board, and a bizarre personal foul called against Justin Utupo that gave Navy a critical first down, keeping alive a drive that resulted in a touchdown.

For Navy, they needed to play not just a near-perfect football game, but they also needed the breaks to stay in the football game.

“For us to beat them, that’s what’s got to happen,” Niumatalolo said after the game. “They had a couple turnovers, we didn’t have any. We didn’t have any penalties. We’ve got to play almost perfect to even have a chance.”

As Navy kept the game within reach throughout the afternoon, Niumatalolo felt like the game was playing exactly by the script he had envisioned when he plotted Navy’s upset bid. And after a second big kickoff return by Marcus Thomas, the Midshipmen had the ball at midfield with the game there for the taking.

“I thought we had a perfect scenario. We got the ball at the 50 yard line, all of our timeouts left,” Niumatalolo said. “I didn’t want to give them the ball back. So if we were going to score, I wanted to score with nothing on the clock. We had a chance.”

Ultimately, the Irish defense made the plays when it needed to, helped out by a poor pitch by Keenan Reynolds that stacked Navy into a crucial 3rd-and-long that they converted to get to 4th-and-4. But Notre Dame’s defense made the play when the game was on the line.

“It wasn’t good enough though, we didn’t win,” Niumatalolo said. “We struggled against Notre Dame the last couple years. I thought our kids played well, but it still wasn’t enough.”

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Ugly wins are part of the evolution of a football program now on very solid ground.

Don’t expect Brian Kelly to apologize for winning a close game against Navy. And don’t expect the Irish to celebrate any less after squeaking out a victory against a service academy.

“We haven’t made any excuses about guys being out of the lineup,” Kelly said. “We just went out and battled the best we could.

“There are no asterisks next to this one. This is a W, and we’re excited about it. We’re going to have our 24‑hour rule. We’re going to take all 24 hours on this one.”

While there was plenty of griping among fans that fail to understanding how difficult it is to win every week, seeing Brian Kelly’s team continue to find ways to win has to be encouraging. That’s ten straight victories for Kelly in games decided by a touchdown or less, matching some guy named Knute Rockne for second-most in program history.

There will be a full calendar year for the Irish to work on playing against the option. But when the chips were down and the game was on the line, it was a full team effort to pull out the victory, with talented freshmen emerging next to unheralded veterans.

The Irish move to 27-4 over their last 31 regular season games. Only Alabama and Oregon have gone on a better run, putting into context just how strong this program is after Kelly took it over from Charlie Weis.

“We’re not in a rebuilding mode. I think it’s always about blending in some true freshman,” Kelly explained. “It’s really nice to see some of those young players, because they’re extremely skilled, it gives you a glimpse of some of those guys that are going to be here for the next three-and-a-half years.”

The Irish don’t win the football game if Jaylon Smith and Tarean Folston don’t play big down the stretch. But they also don’t win if Eilar Hardy and Kona Schwenke come up big, as both did on Saturday.

Niumatalolo talked about the weekly challenge Notre Dame faces, a target on their back courtesy of the rich tradition that turns a .500 opponent into hopeful world beaters.

“I think Notre Dame goes through this every week. Everybody gets up for Notre Dame,” Niumatalolo said. “For everybody that plays Notre Dame its the Super Bowl for that team. For us to come to the mecca of college football, our kids were excited about it. We played really really hard.”

This Saturday, playing hard wasn’t enough, as Notre Dame used almost their entire roster to hold off Navy’s charge. And in doing so, they kept their postseason goals alive.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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