The good, the bad, and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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After eight lead changes, Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame team did just enough to keep Navy from springing an upset that would’ve undone much of the positives that have come from a season that hasn’t come easy. At 7-2, the Irish will likely climb a few more spots in the polls if only because of attrition, as teams get into the meat of their schedules.

We’ll hear later today just how bad the injury situation is for the Irish, with Kelly updating the media in his usual Sunday conference call. But before that, let’s get into the good, bad and ugly from Saturday’s wild 38-34 victory.

THE GOOD

Tarean Folston. The freshman running back looked the part on Saturday afternoon, running for 140 yards on 18 carries, carrying the load for the Irish down the stretch when Notre Dame turned to the ground game.

After rarely trusting a freshman with key touches in games that are tight, that Kelly turned to Folston to be the chain mover was telling. (Then again, every other back has had fumble problems.)

The freshman ran with power and speed, showing great cutback ability and vision as he diced the Navy defense down the stretch.

Kona Schwenke. The senior defensive lineman had an impressive  11 tackles before leaving the game with an injury, wreaking havoc on the interior of the Navy offensive line.

We will see how serious the leg injury Schwenke suffered is, but it’d be a shame if this was a career-ending injury for the Hawaii native, who would likely be returning for a fifth year if Kelly and the coaching staff had any depth along the defensive front when they arrived in South Bend.

TJ Jones. The senior receiver connected with Tommy Rees on a beautiful 35-yard post route for a touchdown, Jones’ sixth consecutive game with a touchdown and his fourth 100 yard game of the season. While his slip on a crossing route resulted in an interception, Jones has been the most reliable Irish receiver all season, and had a 19-yard punt return called back because of a block in the back.

Ben Koyack. Another game, another touchdown for Koyack, who is starting to show how effective the Irish can be with two tight end sets. Koyack’s 17-yard touchdown catch was a perfect design and setup by offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.

The running game. So THIS is the running game Notre Dame fans have been waiting for. The Irish rushed for 268 yards even with Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer starting at guard. In addition to the nice game by Folston, George Atkinson averaged over 10 yards a carry and ripped off a 41-yard touchdown run early. Cam McDaniel averaged 7.4 yards a carry and had a 16-yard touchdown run called back as well.

Offensive efficiency. The Irish averaged 9.0 yards per offensive play, the most since the 1998 season, a remarkable 15 years. While the two turnovers the Irish committed kept the Midshipmen in the game, the Irish offense is rounding into form at the right time, especially with the attrition on the defensive side of the ball.

THE BAD

Injuries. There’s no way around it, this team is ravaged by injuries right now, especially on the defensive side of the ball. For those wondering why the Irish struggled against the option after doing so well the previous two seasons, consider the fact that Bob Diaco’s unit barely resembled the group on the field the past two seasons.

Here’s a quick look at the significant injuries the defense has faced:

OLB Danny Spond – Out for Season (Migraines)
DE/DL Tony Springmann – Out for Season (Knee)
S Nicky Baratti – Out for Season (Shoulder)
DE Chase Hounshell – Out for Season (Shoulder)
LB Jarrett Grace – Out for Season (Knee)
DE Sheldon Day – Missed multiple games (Ankle)
DT Louis Nix – Missed multiple games (Knee/Shoulder)
OLB Ishaq Williams – Missed multiple games (Knee)
S Elijah Shumate – Missed multiple games (Hamstring)
DE Kona Schwenke – Left game against Navy (Lower Leg)
OLB Ben Councell – Left game against Navy (Knee)

Councell’s injury looked to be serious, with the junior linebacker carted to the locker room with a wrap on his knee after an injury covering a kickoff.

Containing the option. It’s hard to say just one segment of the option attack killed the Irish since everybody but Keenan Reynolds averaged 4.8 yards or more per rush. But if there was a surprising problem for Notre Dame, it was the fact that the Midshipmen got outside the Irish’s leverage so often.

Multiple times it looked like the defense had Navy strung out only to see the pitch man or quarterback get outside the edge and turn a play in the backfield into a big gainer. It was especially demoralizing for the Irish after making decent plays early in a series only to give it all back a play later.

Third down defense. Maybe the most disappointing stat of the game for Notre Dame is the fact that Navy converted on 10 of 16 third downs, moving the chains often and contributing to a really lopsided time of possession ratio, with Navy possessing the ball for 37:36 to Notre Dame’s 22:24.

Tough penalty flags. The call against Justin Utupo (or Matthias Farley) was a complete debacle. The refs called it on the wrong player, diagnosed the call incorrectly, and then couldn’t explain what exactly was called when Brian Kelly asked for clarification.

The extra 15 yards took Navy out of a sure punt situation and gave the Midshipmen a much needed first down that turned into a touchdown drive.

While Navy wasn’t flagged once, multiple flags against Notre Dame appeared suspect on second glance including the touchdown that was wiped out thanks to a “holding” call on Troy Niklas. (Replay showed it as a perfect pancake block, though a second hold was called on No. 1 (Greg Bryant?) but was meant for DaVaris Daniels, a penalty that didn’t look like much of one when reviewed again.)

Irish turnovers. In a game where the Irish absolutely NEEDED to turn the ball over to keep Navy in it, the offense obliged, with an ugly interception courtesy of the turf monster (we’ll get to that later) keeping ND from stretching the game to a two-touchdown lead early.

The second interception came after DaVaris Daniels lost the battle for a 50-50 ball on the first play of an Irish two-minute drive, a pass that Tommy Rees threw to the outside and Daniels didn’t get to. It wasn’t one of Rees’s better passes on the day, but the quarterback showed faith that Daniels could beat the Navy cornerback and Daniels didn’t do it.

Three plays that changed the game. If you’re looking to distill this game into a three-play sequence, you could do it. The Irish’s fate changed early in the second quarter as the offense was marching to take a 10-point lead that could’ve forced Navy out of its game plan.

But then this happened:

* Cam McDaniel’s 16-yard touchdown run was called back because of Troy Niklas (and Davaris Daniels) holding penalty.
* On 1st and 20, the Irish offense set up a perfect running back screen. With blockers in front of him, Amir Carlisle couldn’t hold onto the quick throw from Tommy Rees, and the pass fell incomplete.
* 2nd and 20, Rees threw a in-cut to TJ Jones, who slipped on the break and had the pass intercepted.

Problems compounded and ten plays later, Navy scored a touchdown to take the lead.

THE UGLY

Notre Dame’s playing surface. Weather played a factor all across the Midwest yesterday, so Notre Dame Stadium wasn’t the only slippery track in college football. But after spending years and thousands of dollars trying to keep a natural playing surface inside Notre Dame Stadium, it’s beyond clear that the fight isn’t one that can be won without some drastic steps.

When asked about the field after the game, Kelly — who has openly talked about wanting FieldTurf — didn’t throw anyone under the bus.

“Our field people work their butts off, though, to try to get it the best they could,” Kelly said. “This is something that has been inherited in a large degree over a long period of time.

 

“It’s going to be resolved.  It will be handled.  Jack Swarbrick will take care of it. It will be handled. It’s not an easy fix. This is not just roll out some grass and tamp it down. So it will be something that will have to be worked on in the off‑season, looked at extensively, and we’ll come up with a solution.”

Plans are already underway to turn the stadium into something that’s used for more than just seven Saturdays a year, a renovation that could include additional luxuries boxes, classrooms, a potential video board and other modern amenities.

And while people point to hybrid surfaces like Green Bay or great natural turf like Michigan State, the work that needs to be done to allow the grass to hold is a costly and time consuming renovation that might not be possible for reasons other than money.

 

Either way, expect the final home game against BYU to be the final game for natural grass.

 

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

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It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

(more…)

Friday at 4: 4-0 against West Virginia in history … in football

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Today, the thought of Notre Dame facing West Virginia immediately triggers thoughts of tomorrow (Saturday) and their NCAA Tournament matchup. Typically, though, those two universities facing each other would elicit memories of a particular football game.

The two faced each other plenty on the basketball court when they overlapped in the Big East for 17 seasons, compared to only four times ever on the football field. Of those four, the Irish hold a decisive 4-0 edge.

Is that significant? Not at all. But how productive and efficient do you think I have been this week? It’s the third week of March. The hope here is to reach for relevance, perhaps touch on noteworthiness and maybe even come near entertaining. If nothing else, 4-0 is a good set of memories to recall, especially that one aforementioned particular game.

Of course, that game was the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, a 34-21 national championship-sealing Notre Dame victory. Don’t let time cloud the hype of that game, a contest between the consensus No. 1 Irish and No. 3 Mountaineers.

The other three victories all came under the watch of Bob Davie: 21-14 on Nov. 22, 1997; 42-28 on Oct. 21, 2000 in Morgantown, W. Va.; and 34-24 on Oct. 13, 2001.

If this weekend’s basketball game goes the way Vegas expects—depending where you look, the line is hovering at West Virginia by two for the 12:10 p.m. ET tip—reminisce back to those four Irish football victories. After all, if West Virginia prevails, it is likely because the basketball game becomes quite physical and there may be a few football-esque plays.

Why “St.” Brown?
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s father, John Brown, joined ESPN’s 710 AM on Thursday. In addition to Equanimeous, Brown has two other football-catching sons: Stanford’s Osiris and five-star 2018 recruit Amon-ra. Thus, 710 and its hosts Keyshawn Johnson, Jorge Sedano and LZ Granderson reached out to John Brown to discuss Lavar Ball, the headline-making father of a trio of young, promising basketball stars including UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball.

“From what little I know about the guy … I think he’s doing, in general, a great job,” said Brown, a former two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World. “It’s not easy to raise three superstars… I think he’s doing a great job at promoting his boys. He loves his boys, just like every father, and just wants the best for his boys.”

Skipping past the biology lesson Brown then meandered into and its minefield of political correctness faux pas, Brown explained why his sons have such elaborate names compared to his.

“My wife was in the hospital pregnant, true story,” he said. “I told her, sweetheart, we have to talk about the name, because we can’t name the kid Brown. She goes why?

“I say, because it doesn’t look good on the back of a jersey… I say we’re going to put St. Brown because it will look good on the back of a jersey.”

If Brown, the father, was thinking of jerseys before his sons were even born, his preparation for their futures certainly expanded from there, including weightlifting programs beginning on their fifth birthdays, customized protein powder he now sells and emphasis on schoolwork.

“I told my sons when they were little, you cannot go to school on an athletic scholarship,” Brown said. “They were like, what? I said you can’t, it has to be academic, or we will not allow you. Of course, we were just saying that to get them to continue their schoolwork.”

To listen to all of Brown’s interview, head to the show’s podcast page and download the second hour of the March 16 show. Brown’s segment begins around the 21:20 mark and lasts a bit more than 10 minutes. A nod toward everyone’s preferred “Inside the Irish” writer, Keith Arnold, for taking advantage of the sun in Los Angeles to let me know about the Brown interview.

Before leaving this topic entirely, let’s remember Brown did more than add a holy designation to his offspring’s last names. When it comes to Notre Dame’s leading receiver last season, in fact, Brown displayed more creativity than this scribe ever will.

A quick correction
In Wednesday’s look at new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s last four years working with punt and kick units, glowplugv pointed out a typo in the statistics. The correct version: Notre Dame covered 22 punts in 2015, allowing 194 yards for an average of 8.82.

The four-year average numbers were accurate, as they were calculated from the notes next to the screen, not the mistake in the article.

A genuine thank you to glowplug for taking the time to check those numbers. He also argued the difference between Polian’s units at Nevada and the Irish renditions of the last four years was so negligible statistically it should not be looked at with much favor. If considering the numbers from a theoretical, data-driven standpoint, glowplug has a solid argument.

However, if applying those figures past theory, they could genuinely have an impact. If Notre Dame can gain 2.35 yards in field position with each exchange of punts, that can quickly become nearly 10 yards in a game. A shift of that magnitude can be all the difference in a fourth quarter dominated by two defenses.

March Madness update
The allure of absolutely no prize was enough to entice 69 entrants, none of which made it through a chalk-filled Thursday unscathed. Three picked 15 of the games correctly and earned 12 bonus points via upsets to establish a slight lead: Jackson; Q B; andy44teg.

Of the 69 prognosticators, a bold four predicted the Irish will win the national championship. They take the next step in that direction against West Virginia.

For now, it is not only Friday at 4, but it is also St. Patrick’s Day. Think about Notre Dame’s football record against West Virginia: 4-0. You know what to do.