Pitt Mailbag

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Let’s get to it.

NotreDan: How does the defensive scheme have to change with all of the injuries we have suffered? Can scheme even compensate? Have you heard anything from inside channels about this?

I think a different head coach and coordinator might be more prone to tweak scheme. But that hasn’t been Brian Kelly’s MO, and I certainly don’t believe that’s what Bob Diaco will do, either.

Knowing Diaco a little bit, I expect him to drill down on the fundamentals. He’ll spend more time talking about “mastering your musts,” the three things each position group absolutely must master. (Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated wrote about this a few weeks ago.)  You don’t take inexperienced players and add more to their plate, you focus on the basics.

On the surface, it makes complete sense to try and tweak things to play to what you have. But in reality, you’ve got 20 hours a week with these guys. That’s not enough to implement wholesale changes.

aisforara: Why is it that ND’s offense seems incapable (with the exception of Temple and Air Force games) of extending a one-score lead to a two-score lead? Is it complacency? A flaw in tactics or strategy? Lack of fire? Lack of leadership? Here’s what I do know: It’s incredibly frustrating.

Let’s throw out the lack of fire and leadership. I’d also consider schedule. It’s no coincidence that the easy games, Notre Dame has won easily. But I think struggles in the red zone have been part of the problem as well as the evolution of the running back position. Throw in the challenges had by the defense early in the year and it’s pretty tough to pull away from anybody.

@scottiefry: BK is 70th highest paid cfb coach? This article can’t be right.

I don’t think it is, either. Notre Dame is a private institution. They have no obligation to share information like a head coach’s salary. That info was likely taken off the school’s 990 tax form, a document that only tells a fraction of the story for compensation.

If I had to guess what Kelly was making, I think it’d be in the $3.5 million range.

yllibnosredna: Although it’s always a dubious subject to discuss (particularly recently at Notre Dame), I have a question in regards to ND’s most recent recruiting cycles. Despite the fact that ND’s coaching staff has done a tremendous job landing some big-time talent hitting the West coast and the southeast and Texas hard, it seems like ND is whiffing on some big fish in their own back yard. Perhaps not in Indiana (with Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, and Gunner Kiel all signing with ND), but in nearby Midwestern states, particularly Illinois–specifically the Chicago area. Names like Laquon Treadwell, Ty Isaac, and Ethan Pocic come to mind. In this year’s recruiting cycle, Nyles Morgan seems like a long shot, and neither Clifton Garrett nor Jamarco Jones (who attends a Catholic school) really even seemed to consider Notre Dame as a legitimate option. In addition, consensus top 5 recruit Jabrill Peppers, who also attends a Catholic school in a relatively nearby state, never had ND on his radar. I guess I am curious as to why lately ND has been able to grab a guy like Greg Bryant from a secular school in Florida yet is struggling to get a blue chip from a Catholic school in Chicago or the Northeast. Your thoughts?

Let’s work on brevity next time, shall we? But this is a good question and one that probably can’t be answered in a standard mailbag. There is no easy answer to a question like this, and believe me — Chuck Martin thought that he’d do really well in the Chicago area… and still does.

Trying to bunch the Chicagoland area in one basket is pretty foolish, and a guy like Ty Isaac would’ve probably gone to ND if he didn’t feel like he was walking away from his commitment to USC.  Some other Chicago guys, the Irish have come up No. 2. But I agree, they aren’t the pipeline that once was dominated by Holtz.

I had heard from someone inside the football department once that it only takes one bad experience by a player from a region or school to make it tough for anyone else to sign. Demetrius Jones’ high profile departure after one game playing for Charlie Weis didn’t help the Irish in the Chicago Public League. Tee Shepard and Deontay Greenberry not making it work at Notre Dame hasn’t helped in Fresno. But I don’t think there’s anything overly systemic about it, and one player can often open the flood gates.

jmfinsd: We all love Irish Chocolate and Tuitt, but apparently we’re biased. Neither is listed as one of the 12 finalists for the Lombardi award given to the nation’s top lineman (offensive or defensive) or linebacker. How can 2 guys be expected to be top 10 or 20 draft picks, but not be on this list? And while this does nothing to support an argument for Nix to come back do you think this is an indication of the perception of Tuitt that he needs to come back next year to rectify?

I think you’re reaching for something here, but not quite getting it. There are plenty of first round draft picks that aren’t Lombardi Award nominees. It happens every year, just not to Notre Dame fans. If you’re thinking that Nix, who has a final season of eligibility but will be getting his degree in the spring, would want to come back to win a Lombardi Award, you’ve got another thing coming.

As for Tuitt, I still think he’s coming back to school. But again, Notre Dame’s defensive system, and the attention both guys get, don’t make these guys exactly awards bait.

elkona: Keith, you seemed a touch acerbic on the live blog last week. Are the maniacs finally getting to you? Can the bye week not come soon enough?

I tend to get cranky on the live blog… just because. When I actually challenge some people’s antics, it’s because they’ve usually been saying something about five times as ridiculous that I didn’t publish. It’s also escalates quite a bit, especially as the game stays closer and closer.

For grown men and women sitting on their couches watching football and surfing the internet, I always have a hard time with people talking about how “embarrassing” a football team’s performance is, or how “inexcusable” it is that Notre Dame doesn’t dominate every play on every snap of every game.

I’m not going to lie, the bye week will be plenty of fun. But I tend to enjoy the fact based fight against some knuckleheads who can’t even make garage logic work.

rocket1988: Keith, When you go back to Notre Dame what are your favorite establishments to enjoy an adult beverage? Has it changed since you were a student?

Rocket, I’m not picky, but I usually end up at the Linebacker for a drink with friends, especially with its proximity to campus. But I’d love to take a trip down memory lane to Finnegans or reopen The Boat Club for a special engagement, but this whole “work trip” thing and writing makes it tough.

@jfoneill22: Keith, will you be suiting up on the defensive line this weekend?

Jeez, John. I haven’t gained that much weight this month eating craft service, have I?

tburke9601: Who gets the majority of the handoffs this week? And where has Davaris Daniels been the last couple of games? He has been very quiet lately.

I think Folston leads the team in carries, though I don’t think it’s a majority. As for Daniels, he’s been stuck in neutral the past few weeks and I can’t help but think that effort on 50-50 balls like the one that was intercepted before halftime is a reason why.

DaVaris has all the talent needed to take charge and dominate a game. He just hasn’t necessarily decided that he’s going to do it every Saturday, and there seems to be a lack of communication with Tommy Rees, something TJ Jones and Rees have in spades.

MichiganDomer1984: On a scale of 1 – 10 (10 is high), how obnoxiously unrealistic are ND fans in your opinion? Compared to other high brand programs? I am a double graduate and I actually hate a part of our fan base. Am I crazy?

I don’t think you are crazy. Not one bit. I tend to dislike that group, too. That being said, ND isn’t the only group like that. Far from it.

Maybe a good, solid 8.0 for obnoxiously unrealistic. But it is crazy that most Notre Dame fans forgot the Irish ran the table last regular season and have only lost two games with a backup quarterback.

ndgoldandblue: Keith, do you think the running game will have the same kind of success as last week against Navy? Why or why not?

No, I don’t. I think Aaron Donald is why.

Nudeman: QUESTION: For you, as a student and as a writer, what is the lowest point you can remember?

Nude, I’m shocked — SHOCKED! — that you’d focus on the absolute low point.

As an alum and fan, the 2005 Bush Push game was one of the lowest points of fandom. The high and perfection of the game and electricity in the stadium, and then the chaos and sadness of the loss was remarkable.

I’ve lost that kind of fan engagement since doing this for a job, but I think the lowest and saddest moments for me were covering stories like the Declan Sullivan tragedy and Matt James’ passing away on Spring Break.

Those two stories were remarkably difficult and I struggled with them because I connected with the life experiences both young men had and went through, but also because I couldn’t stand watching people so quickly define what the story was.

Neither of those tragedies were black and white, yet some reporting was just looking to assign blame and outrage and then move on. I had a very hard time with that.

Nudeman: BTW, the question on everyone’s mind: Dickasman has been conspicuously absent, of late.
Banned?

Nobody is banned. We are having some problems with comments going into Spam and the WordPress VIPs are helping with that. But there are some words that now get caught in the filter that didn’t before, so everybody will need to clean up the language.

 

Friday at 4: 40 Predictions

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The Notre Dame class of 2021 moved onto campus today. Roommates were met. Lofts were modulated. Mothers cried. These things are as inevitable as summer equaling visits to brewery rooftops, Christmas bringing familial tension, and someone being upset about where the Irish land (or don’t land) in Monday’s Associated Press top-25 release.

Years ago, I managed to move in two days earlier than most freshmen. International students are afforded that luxury. No, I am not from abroad. As has been discussed, this scribe is a Wisconsin native. Rather, my roommate was from Canada, though I will always take great joy in reminding him my green-and-gold hometown is actually farther north by latitude than his Maple Leaf roots.

Two weeks after moving in, I wrote my first football article for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. It was actually purposed for a long-since defunct blog. It included references to “Rudy,” Sly Stallone and initial, but momentary, college friendships. Pretty standard fare, in all of reality, though the ignorance of the AP Stylebook and improper usage of only makes its author cringe in rereading.

That roommate did not notice those errors. Rather, his review was simple and has stuck with me nearly a decade later.

“You shouldn’t have started with ‘I think.’ It made your point weaker.”

He was, and is, right. With all due respect to that fact, arbitrary, varied and debatable predictions may necessitate a weaker stance. Thus, I think … (more…)

Notre Dame unveils Rockne Heritage uniforms

@NDFootball | Facebook
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Notre Dame will wear Rockne Heritage uniforms in the home schedule’s season finale against Navy on Nov. 18. Though they are alternate uniforms, the outfits are far more in-line with the typical Irish weekly attire than most years’ additional uniform designs are.

Clearly paralleling the $400 million in updates to Notre Dame Stadium, “The House That Rock Built,” the uniforms combine the fashion of Knute Rockne’s era with the progress afforded nearly a century later.

@NDFootball | Twitter

“I think it is a unique opportunity with this uniform to celebrate the past while creating the future,” Under Armour Design Director Nick Billiris said in a University release. “That’s why we incorporated some of those elements that harken back to the 1920s and the 1930s when Knute Rockne was there, but we did it with cutting edge fabrics and technology. The whole idea is that this uniform is a time-capsule of Notre Dame football from when Rockne first grew the football program into the national power that it has become today.”

Perhaps most notably, the uniforms will feature a ND monogram unfamiliar to modern fans. It comes from a 1912 sweater, per Billiris.

@NDFootball | Twitter

The helmets will lack some of their weekly shine, with subtle graphics intended to elicit the leather helmets of the 1930s.

Each uniform will read “ROCKNE” across the back nameplate, and will feature an excerpt of his famous “We’re going to get them on the run, and we’re going to keep them on the run” pep talk on the shoulders.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Miami (OH)

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When former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin left Notre Dame for Miami of Ohio, he was departing a team coming off a frustrating, but promising, season for one showed no great potential and any frustration around it would have started with misguided optimism.

Since then, the Irish have gone up and down while the RedHawks have trended in only an upward direction, albeit slowly. That growth will be tested quite bluntly in Martin’s return to Notre Dame at the end of September.

In an effort to desensitize any to the time and channel of that game, they will be mentioned in this space anytime the Notre Dame vs. Miami (OH) matchup is discussed.  Hopefully when that week comes around, no questions will remain about the Irish playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN on Sept. 30.

2016 REVIEW
Miami had one of the most-interesting storylines in the country last season, beginning the year 0-6 before finishing 6-7, becoming the first FBS team to ever follow a six-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak within one season. All six of those wins came in conference play.

That opening series of losses was not simply due to facing superior opponents. The RedHawks choked away a win over Eastern Illinois by getting outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter, losing 21-17. The tail end of the half dozen losses came against MAC division foes Ohio and Akron. Ohio’s head-to-head victory gave the Bobcats a tiebreaker over Miami, hence why Ohio headed to the MAC title game and not the RedHawks when they tied atop the Eastern Division at season’s end, with Akron three games behind them tied for third place.

The swing in the season came in part due to a quarterback switch. Then-sophomore Billy Bahl was putting together a statistically-satisfactory season through five games, completing 55.2 percent of his passes and throwing eight touchdowns, but then he went down with a season-ending injury. Martin first turned to a freshman — who has since transferred from the program — but he did not perform such in the loss to Akron to convince the coaching staff not to start then-sophomore Gus Ragland a week later.

Quarterback Gus Ragland‘s insertion into the Miami starting lineup played a key part in flipping the Redhawks‘ season. (Getty Images)

Ragland proceeded to lead the way in the six-game winning streak, throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in that stretch. With the 6-6 record, Miami headed to the St. Petersburg Bowl, falling 17-16 to Mississippi State. Ragland threw two touchdowns and one interception, going 22-of-30 for 263 yards.

Ragland certainly deserves some credit for the midseason swing, as does Martin simply for keeping Miami upbeat and confident enough to string together a few wins. Yet, it was somewhat a schedule fluke, too. In the six wins, the RedHawks beat only one team that finished better than 3-5 in the conference. The one team earning that exception was Eastern Michigan, not exactly excelling with its 4-4 conference mark.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) LOST
Perhaps even more encouraging than the six-game winning streak was the youth with which the RedHawks rattled off those wins. Offensively, Miami lost receiver Rakeem Williams and his 26 catches for 501 yards and three touchdowns. The yardage qualifies Williams as Miami’s No. 3 receiver last year, but it came despite missing two games due to injury. If healthy, he may not have leapt to No. 1, but he was, for all true intents and purposes, the most dangerous receiver on the team, averaging 19.3 yards per catch.

Defensively, the Redhawks will need to find a new source of a pass rush. While they returned six of their top eight tacklers, the two who left were also the leaders in sacks. Defensive ends JT Jones (No. 6 tackler with 47) and Austin Gearing (38 tackles) combined for 10.5 sacks, eight more tackles for loss and 10 additional quarterback hurries. Add in the departure of fellow defensive end Zach Smierciak and his three sacks, and suddenly Miami is without more than half its 24 sacks from a year ago.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) GAINED
Included in a recruiting class which rated about middle of the pack in the MAC, defensive end Joshua Maize could quickly find himself working to replace some of that lost pass rush. While he was never necessarily a recruit targeted by Notre Dame, Maize — from Deerfield, Ill., a Chicago suburb north of the city and only about two hours from South Bend, Ind. — did visit campus three times.

HEAD COACH
Martin enters his fourth season at the Cradle of Coaches. There are two particular items to note about his return to face the Irish. First of all, Notre Dame deserves some degree of credit for how often it reaches out to former assistants or administrators to offer a scheduling boon. Similar to this contest, the Irish men’s basketball team will visit Delaware this winter to face former assistant Martin Inglesby. Notre Dame does not need to schedule those games, but it is a small luxury afforded former staffers who left on good terms.

Secondly, and related, the Irish schedule would have allowed for Martin’s return in his second or third season with the RedHawks if he had wanted such. Instead, he intentionally put off the game until his fourth season there, hoping to bring a more-respectable team to Notre Dame.

Considering Martin has turned Miami from an 0-12 team the year before he arrived to a genuine MAC title contender this season, it seems appropriate to say he achieved his goal of respectability, if not more than that.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Heaping too much praise onto Ragland could come at a cost. Then again, his record as a starter is 6-1. That praise is earned.

Ragland not only aided the Redhawks offense with his nearly mistake-free passing, but also with his rushing abilities. (Getty Images)

This year, he will lead an offense returning nine starters, including four offensive linemen with a combined 80 career starts. They will be opening holes for a running back by committee attack that fared quite well last season. Including Ragland, Miami’s top-four rushers combined for 1,726 yards. Ragland accounted for 202 of those. Remember, that came in only seven games. All four of those rushers return.

The RedHawks also return four of their top-five receivers, losing only the aforementioned Williams.

Overall, the offensive unit should continue the prolific stretch with which it ended the season. In weeks six and seven last year (the turn from the losing streak to the winning streak), Miami totaled 260 yards in each game. In the following six contests, the RedHawks averaged 409 yards per game.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Aside from the already-discussed pass rush, Miami is returning nearly all of its defense, including eight starters. Most notably, junior linebackers Junior McMullen and De’Andre Montgomery each started 13 games last season, and will now be joined by classmate Brad Koenig, who started six.

On the outside, senior cornerback Heath Harding should warrant NFL notice by the end of the year, and his counterpart junior Deondre Daniels should not be scoffed at, either, having broken up six passes last year and intercepting one more.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Miami is favored to win the MAC’s Eastern Division, though only a touch ahead of Ohio in that evaluation. (The two face off on what should be an annual holiday: Halloween MACTion!)

If Martin can lead the RedHawks to a conference title game in only his fourth season at the helm of what was the laughingstock of the FBS, then he will be well on his way to continuing the tradition of the Cradle of Coaches.

On that note, the Notre Dame vs. Miami game could present a great opportunity for additional homages to the late Ara Parseghian. He got his start at Miami, and obviously reached a legendary status with the Irish.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Yesterday: Michigan State
Tomorrow: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Michigan State

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It was a disappointing 2016 season for Notre Dame followed by a long offseason spent thinking about said disappointment. Compared to Michigan State, though, the going has been smooth. Not only did the Spartans finish a game worse than the Irish last year, even with the victory in their head-to-head matchup, but this offseason has been a tumultuous one for the Michigan State program. Four players have been dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations.

2016 REVIEW
The Spartans started last year ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the AP’s. A year earlier, they had won the Big Ten and made it into the first College Football Playoff. Expectations were high for the 2016 season, higher than a No. 11/12 preseason ranking would belie.

A cruise-control win over Furman followed by a game of two halves victory over Notre Dame lifted Michigan State to No. 8 in both polls, starting to fit more in line with those best-laid plans. Then it all came tumbling down.

The first indications of that collapse came in the final 17 minutes of the 36-28 win over the Irish. Leading 36-7, the Spartans gave up three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. With all the momentum on the Notre Dame sideline, Michigan State finally managed a defensive stop with 3:30 remaining in the game, draining the clock from there.

A week later, the Spartans could not manage to find the end zone in a 30-6 loss vs. Wisconsin, starting a spiral of nine losses in 10 games, the only bright spot being a victory over Rutgers.

Unlike the Irish, Michigan State did not let opportunity after opportunity slip past. Instead, the Spartans were on the wrong end of one-possession games only three times.

WHAT MICHIGAN STATE LOST

Former Michigan State defensive end Malik McDowell (Getty Images)

For a program coming off a 3-9 season, the length of this list illustrates just how much of a letdown 2016 was in East Lansing. Defensive end Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson both heard their names in the NFL Draft, in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. That is just a start, though.

With sophomore receiver Donnie Corley (33 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman) among those dismissed this offseason, the Spartans said farewell to their top four receivers. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor graduated, as well, though his 58.8 completion percentage and 16-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio hardly pushed the offense forward.

Including McDowell and Nicholson, Michigan State also lost five of its top eight tacklers. McDowell managed 5.5 tackles for loss while linebacker and No. 3 tackler Riley Bullough added 6.5 more. Cornerbacks Demetrious Cox and Darian Hicks both make that top-eight cutoff, but more notably contributed a combined 13 pass breakups, too.

WHAT MICHIGAN STATE GAINED
The Spartans signed 24 recruits to finish with the country’s No. 33 class, per rivals.com. That class included 4 four-star prospects, most notably receiver Hunter Rison. Given the exodus of receivers, Rison may be called upon for contributions early in his career, perhaps by his third game in a primetime matchup against a longtime rival.

HEAD COACH
Mark Dantonio enters his 11th season in East Lansing, and a 3-9 season did nothing to the temperature of his figurative seat, especially not a season after coming within one game of appearing in the national championship.

Discounting last season, Dantonio amassed 87 wins in the previous nine years. Rough math obviously indicates that is nearly 10 wins annually. Suffice it to say he had established a high-level program with the Spartans and will look to trend back toward that par this season.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Without a returning receiver who recorded more than a dozen catches last season, and without a quarterback who competed in more than two games, it makes sense to think Michigan State will turn to its running game in 2017. That makes even more sense when considering the Spartans return sophomore left guard Tyler Higby (six starts in 10 games before an ankle injury) and junior left tackle Cole Chewins (three starts in 12 games) to pave the way for running back LJ Scott. The junior gained steam as last season progressed, finishing with 994 yards on 184 rushes, good for an average carry of 5.4 yards.

Running back LJ Scott (Getty Images)

Once Scott establishes the Spartan running game and a theoretical play-action threat, the eyes will turn to sophomore Brian Lewerke. Earlier it was said 2016 starter Tyler O’Connor left room for improvement. That was recognized five games into last season, when Lewerke was given the chance to start despite being only a freshman. A week later, he broke his leg, ending his season and seemingly cementing Michigan State’s struggles. In that brief action, Lewerke did not exactly dazzle, completing 31-of-57 passes (54.4 percent) for 381 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

But he earned enough coaching faith to be given the chance. He will have it again this year.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This seems hard to fathom for a Dantonio-coached team, but the defense might be a Spartan weakness for the second consecutive year. For context, Michigan State allowed 27.75 points and 395 yards per game last season. Now Dantonio looks to replace most of a secondary, possibly relying on a true freshman to start at cornerback in Josiah Scott.

If the Spartan defense does buckle down, it will be on the backs of its defensive line’s interior and its veteran linebacker core. Sophomore tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk saw action early in their debut campaigns, combining for 42 tackles with Williams also chipping in two sacks of the defense’s 11 total sacks. Yes, Michigan State managed three fewer sacks than Notre Dame’s paltry pass rush a season ago.

A level behind them, senior Chris Frey led the team with 96 tackles last year and is flanked by junior Andrew Dowell (fourth with 67) and sophomore Joe Bachle.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Michigan State faces a tough schedule this season, certainly one more difficult than a program looking to rebound would prefer. The Spartans will have to travel to Michigan, to Minnesota and to Ohio State, as well as host Penn State, not to mention Notre Dame.

To top a win total over/under of 6.5, they may need to convert two chances for wins at the end of the season, vs. Maryland and at Rutgers. Naturally, slipping past that season-long metric would set up Michigan State to return to a bowl game. It may not be a return to the College Football Playoff, but capitalizing on extra practice time and then entering an offseason with a win — and much better vibes than was the case this past year — would be the first step to the Spartans returning to Dantonio’s standard.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Yesterday: Boston College
Tomorrow: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?