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.

 

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.