Notre Dame v Pittsburgh

Five things we learned: Pitt 28, Notre Dame 21

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After looking like a program that had gotten past the maddening inconsistencies of years gone by, Notre Dame’s 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh awoke all the wrong kinds of echoes on Saturday night. Done in by red zone mishaps and maddening inconsistency, the disappointing loss erased any hope for a BCS bid and ripped at scar tissue that had healed for much of the past two seasons. 

On a windy November evening in Pittsburgh, the Irish took a huge step backwards, playing down to their competition, making critical mistakes on both sides of the ball, and forcing Notre Dame into an off week with a horrible taste in their mouth.

“All losses are disappointing losses,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that was especially disappointing in the way that we played and coached.”

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Pitt’s 28-21 upset of Notre Dame.

After playing steady football for most of the season, two horrible passes by Tommy Rees doomed the Irish. 

For most of the season, Tommy Rees has played solid football, putting together stats that sat bizarrely high on national leaderboards for a player so loathed by a fairly vocal sector of Irish fans. But on Saturday night, Rees made two catastrophic fourth quarter mistakes, throwing an end zone interception on 2nd and Goal before floating a pass high over Troy Niklas’ head on his very next passing attempt.

The first pass took points off the board for the Irish. The second all but put them up for Pitt, with Ray Vinopal returning his second straight interception to the Irish 5-yard line. 

“My fault. Bad decision. Bad throws,” Rees said after the game. “You’ve got to be smarter than that and you’ve got to get us out of a play. Those are on me.”

The maddening inconsistencies that Rees seemed to have eliminated lately came back at the worst time for the Irish, especially after starting the second half seven of ten, including a perfect strike on an 80-yard touchdown pass to TJ Jones.

Rees’s accuracy was an issue for much of the night, completing just 18 of 38 passes on the night. While he racked up 318 yards and hit on a handful of long completions, Rees missed receivers all night, throwing some balls late and into coverages that the senior has avoided this season.

Lined up inside the Pitt 5-yard line, you could question the decision to roll Rees to his right, turning an already congested area into a half-field read. But Rees has played too much football to loft a pass to the back of the end zone, a mistake he owned up to in a difficult postgame interview session with reporters.

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A week after starring against Navy, freshman Tarean Folston got lost in the shuffle. 

Tarean Folston scorched Navy for 140 yards last week. He disappeared against Pitt, getting just four carries on Saturday night. The Irish failed to get in any rhythm offensively against Pitt, piecemealing together a running game that featured long runs by George Atkinson and TJ Jones, but was otherwise mediocre against Pitt’s undersized front seven.

Brian Kelly talked about the game plan for running the football, a perimeter driven attack as the Irish tried to stay away from Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and why he chose to give carries to Atkinson instead of Folston.

“There were a couple of times where we felt like George gave us a better opportunity in there because of the kind of runs,” Kelly explained. “We were trying to get the ball on the perimeter. George is a guy that we like when the game is a perimeter game, it fits George’s skill-set, so that’s why you saw him in the game more.”

Atkinson ran for 57 yards on just six carries, breaking a big run around the edge on a quick pitch. But Notre Dame gave nine carries to Cam McDaniel as well, who was completely ineffective with just 22 yards. For those hoping that Folston’s breakout game would rid the Irish from a committee-based approach, it didn’t. Now the Irish head into an off-week trying to answer some tough questions about a ground game that averaged over five yards a carry, but had no identity whatsoever.

For those looking to point fingers at playcalling, especially in the second half, the Irish only ran the ball six times in the game’s final two quarters, gaining a whopping ten yards.

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With a defense already gutted by injuries, the ejection of Stephon Tuitt was a death-blow to the front seven. 

So much for having the starting trio of Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day back together. The group barely lasted a quarter, with the Irish losing Tuitt to ejection after the junior defensive end was flagged for targeting after a helmet-to-helmet collision with Pitt quarterback Tom Savage.

The call was a difficult one to understand, considering Savage dropped the crown of his own helmet as he tried to scramble for a first down. (So was the subsequent replay review, which confirmed the ejection.) But the result was more playing time for unproven reserves like Tyler Stockton, Jarron Jones, and Isaac Rochell, and a Pitt offense that wore out the Irish defense, possessing the ball for over 36 minutes.

The loss of Tuitt forced the Irish into some emergency plans. Linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Romeo Okwara at one point played on the interior of the defensive line in some pass rush looks. But Kelly didn’t lean on the ejection — or the questionable pass interference call against Bennett Jackson (both penalties extended drives that ended in touchdowns) — after the game. 

“Stephon Tuitt not playing in the game, that’s not why we lost this football game,” Kelly said. “That is not why we lost this football game. It had nothing to do with this loss tonight.”

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After peaking each season in November, the Irish’s self-inflicted collapse is all the more confusing. 

Brian Kelly has gotten a lot out of his teams in the month of November. Perhaps that’s what makes this loss so difficult to comprehend, with the mediocre play of the Irish coming out of nowhere.

Many will put this loss on the shoulders of Tommy Rees, but the reality is that there’s plenty of blame to spread around. TJ Jones coughed up a football inside the Pitt 10-yard line. Devin Street got loose in the Irish secondary. And after Prince Shembo strip-sacked Tom Savage, multiple Irish defenders watched a football bounce free and fail to capitalize on a game-changing play sitting right in front of them.

Those are mistakes that just haven’t happened in Kelly’s four seasons in South Bend.

“This really was about our football team going on the road and executing poorly on offense and not being good enough when they needed to be on defense,” Kelly said. “Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That’s why we’re hired. That’s what we do. We didn’t get that from our players tonight. I’m responsible for that. That didn’t happen tonight.”

With a week off before Senior Day against BYU, it’ll be interesting to see what tactics Kelly uses with his team. The scenario of fighting their way into the BCS is gone. Injuries have taken this defense to a critical place. And young players should be given every opportunity to challenge underperforming veterans with little but pride on the line.

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Irish BCS dreams may have fallen dead with a thud tonight, but this senior class will be defined by how they finish the season. 

In the ultimate jinx, I wrote about the potential for the Irish to get to eight wins against Pitt, making it four consecutive seasons reaching that threshold, not accomplished since 1993. That eighth win looks a lot more elusive now, with BYU likely challenging a weakened Irish front and Stanford again looking like one of the elite teams in college football.

The Irish bowl options are a mess. They’ll likely need to wait and see how the dust settles, hoping that either the Big Ten or Big 12 leave some vacancies, or else it could be Christmas in Detroit. Add into the scheduling factor final exams, not scheduled to end until December 20. That could provide another wild card in bowl scheduling, Jack Swarbrick hinted to the South Bend Tribune.

(Another wrinkle in all of this is how the early bowl game effects Everett Golson’s return. A January date would’ve given Golson more time with the team after his return, a date rumored to be sometime in early-to-mid-December.)

But bowl discussions can wait. There are still two very important games left for this team, including an emotional final home game for a senior class that’s been through a lot at Notre Dame. After the game, Tommy Rees talked about the importance of turning the page after a bitter loss and preparing for BYU.

“I don’t know how else to say it, it’s a tough feeling,” Rees said after the game. “We’ve got to regroup, we’ve got to come back as a team, and come back for each other.

“We play for each other. We play for our pride. As seniors, we’ve only got a couple games left here. We play for one another, we play for the university, our coaches. We really just rally as a group and get ready to play.” 

A BCS bid is no longer an option. But beating BYU and taking a shot at Stanford in Palo Alto should be enough to keep this team together. Unfortunately that’s all that’s left right now, consolation prizes after a disappointing and shocking defeat.

 

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Head Coach Jeff Quinn of the Buffalo Bulls looks on during the game against the Baylor Bears at UB Stadium on September 12, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With spring practice finished and the end of the school year in sight, Brian Kelly’s team enters the all-important offseason—a time when the best work goes unseen by the coaching staff. On a squad where the lion’s share of leaders and starters need to be replaced, Kelly’s talked about the identity of this team forming when he and his assistants get out of the mix.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said after the spring game. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way. Especially in May. They go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it.”

One of the storylines that’s gone mostly ignored are the changes to the group in charge of the team while the staff is getting out of the way. While Director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo has long held a premier role atop the ever-evolving org chart under Brian Kelly, the players beneath him have changed. That creates an interesting dynamic this offseason—and possibly one that could actually benefit the Irish in the months to come.

Entering his seventh season at Notre Dame along side Kelly, Longo has worked hand in hand with Kelly since his time at Central Michigan. That relationship is likely why Longo’s been more out front than any strength coach at Notre Dame in the modern era.

 

Treated as a coordinator—and actually listed above Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Mike Sanford on the team’s online roster—we’re heard plenty in seven years of Longo, riding the greatest hits through the “Coat of Armor” era all the way into today’s injury prevention mode.

But Longo’s work this offseason will be aided by an evolving group of assistants in the strength department. Aaron Wellman is gone, the former Michigan strength coach now running the New York Giants’ program. That led to an unorthodox hire by Kelly to fill his shoes, though a telling decision as a young team prepares to ascend into new jobs.

New assistant strength coach Jeff Quinn was an unlikely hire, especially considering his 30 years of coaching experience at the college level. After spending last season as an offensive analyst, Quinn transitions to the strength staff seems like a bizarre new role for a man many viewed as Kelly’s most important assistant in his pre-Notre Dame days.

Quinn last roamed the sidelines at Buffalo, a head coaching position he took over in 2010, a move he made instead of joining Kelly at Notre Dame after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Even though he signed a five-year extension at the close of the 2012 season, Quinn was fired early in the 2014 season after a disappointing start to the year. (An open-records request revealed that Buffalo is still paying Quinn, likely supplementing his decreased earnings as an off-field staffer in South Bend.)

Kelly provided a soft landing for Quinn last year, even if he didn’t fill one of the on-staff openings that reshuffled after Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott left the ranks. And while many expected that keeping Quinn in a supporting role wasn’t as likely through another hiring cycle, the move of the trusted lieutenant to the strength staff keeps another asset under Kelly’s control, even if it begs questions about long-term sustainability.

But adding Quinn to a football-specific strength staff makes sense. It’s a role that already has David Grimes, a former Irish captain and wide receiver and continues to  feature assistant director of strength Jake Flint, who played under Kelly at Central Michigan, earning a scholarship after walking on. That’s a lot of practical football knowledge under one roof, certainly helpful as the offseason focus becomes less and less about leg press and bench press, but more and more about enhancing the knowledge base and athletic skill-set for a young team with plenty of ambition.

So as the Irish coaching staff finally finds time to step away from the 24/7 grind, they’ll be turning over their young team to Longo and his department. And as we’ve seen as Kelly and Jack Swarbrick continue to outfit the Irish program to compete in today’s landscape, these under-the-radar moves should likely pay dividends.

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Wide receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Draft week is finally (almost) here. A football holiday that both college and NFL fans can love equally, it also marks the end of nearly four months of talking heads and manufactured debate, the end of the virtual rise and fall of player stocks with the evaluation and prognosticating industry turning everybody into an expert capable of evaluating their favorite team’s haul.

With Notre Dame poised to send their largest class to the NFL since the heyday of Lou Holtz, it’ll be a busy weekend for Irish fans. Let’s kick off draft week with a look at some of the potential homes for this group of talented former Irish athletes.

 

First Rounders:

Both Cris Collinsworth and Peter King expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to go in the first round. Stanley is a consensus first-rounder, with King seeing the Cleveland Browns pulling the trigger on Stanley at No. 8 and Collinsworth having Stanley staying close to school with the Bears at No. 11. While some speculate that the Chargers could be willing to jump at Stanley at No. 3 (picking him before top-of-the-board tackle Laremy Tunsil), most see Stanley off the board somewhere between eight and 16. Not shabby—back-to-back first round left tackles with Mike McGlinchey trending in the right direction as well.

But the inclusion of Fuller on both these lists is interesting, though maybe not for Collinsworth, who has seen three seasons of Fuller (and heard from his sons quite a bit as well). Collinsworth has Fuller going to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team he knows plenty about. King has the Houston Texans taking a swing at Fuller, pairing him with standout DeAndre Hopkins. It’d certainly be a nice addition for Bill O’Brien and new zillion-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler.

While quite a few thing Fuller will slide into round two or three, it’s interesting that NFL.com’s experts Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein all have Fuller picked in the first round.

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

Perhaps the most impressive thing out there involving Notre Dame’s talent is Mike Mayock’s Top 100. No stranger to Brian Kelly’s program, Mayock has six players in his top 100:

4. Ronnie Stanley
34. Will Fuller
38. Nick Martin
61. Sheldon Day
81. KeiVarae Russell
97. Jaylon Smith

If Smith is around that close to No. 100 he’ll be $5 million richer (thanks to his insurance policy) and he’ll also have many a teams ready to gamble on a talent who was among the five best players in college football but is currently just 3.5 months into a grueling recovery process.

Sheldon Day has found his way into first rounds in some mock drafts, mostly thanks to his incredibly productive senior season. That Russell is at 81 speaks to the talent some think he has, though last year’s game tape doesn’t necessarily match. Mostly I just can’t get over Smith at 97. What devastatingly terrible timing for the Irish All-American—who I’m convinced will have a Pro Bowl career at the next level.

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

A look back at Notre Dame’s history in the NFL Draft tells you one thing for certain: Lou Holtz developed a ton of NFL talent. But Brian Kelly has a chance to put a really impressive class on the board with the 2016 draft, and if the Irish are lucky they could match the double-digits Holtz hit in 1994.

How does that happen? It likely comes down to not just the six listed above, but rather the depth that seems to be the strength of this group.

While Mayock didn’t have C.J. Prosise in his Top 100, there are plenty of evaluators who see something special in Prosise’s game. While returns on him vary, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be drafted—likely by the middle rounds.

From there, getting Chris Brown drafted will be key. His physical traits are another positive, even if his production on the field only blossomed as a senior as the No. 2 option. Then it’s sack-leader Romeo Okwara. The combo defensive end-outside linebacker has a lot going for him in the eyes of talent evaluators—youth (he’s still not 21), not to mention a wide range of skills. He doesn’t flash as an edge rusher, but those years stuck playing as a Dog linebacker for Bob Diaco will do him well now.

Ultimately, to get to ten something good needs to happen near the bottom of the draft. Will a team find safety Elijah Shumate worthy of a draft pick? Perhaps Matthias Farley, fresh off a very impressive Pro Day. Perhaps there’s a team that fell in love with Ishaq Williams, hoping to get a jump on free agency by spending a late round pick on a physical freak who hasn’t played football in two seasons. Jarrett Grace and Amir Carlisle will certainly get their chance to sign with a team before training camp comes around, but it’s a long shot either hears their name called.

It looks like the Irish will probably fall just short of 10 draftees. Unless someone takes a run at quarterback Everett Golson, opening up an asterisk situation if there ever was one.

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John Walters and I discussed Notre Dame’s draft prospects—and a lot, lot more—in our Blown Coverage podcast. Feel free to enjoy. 

 

 

Smith’s surgeon speaks optimistically about nerve issue

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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For the first time since suffering the injury against Ohio State, Jaylon Smith pulled back the curtain on one of the most talked about knees (and nerves) in all of football. USAToday’s Tom Pelissero spent a day with Smith—and spoke with his surgeon, Dallas Cowboys’ team doctor Dan Cooper, about the progress Smith has been making, less than four months removed from the life-altering injury.

Cooper, a veteran of 30-plus years and one of the world’s top specialists in the repair of complex knee injuries, sounded optimistic in his assessment of Smith’s injury. He also addressed the dreaded “foot-drop,” with Smith using an ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) to assist moving his left foot as the nerve slowly returns.

This from USA Today:

A checkup by NFL teams last weekend in Indianapolis showed Smith remains unable to raise his left foot or swing it out to the side because of an issue with his peroneal nerve. But the “foot-drop” isn’t a surprise at this stage, said his surgeon, Dr. Dan Cooper, who is “optimistic that his knee itself will be stable and a good knee and he’ll get all his strength back. And I also think he has a very good chance of getting his nerve recovery back.”

That’s because the lateral damage stretched Smith’s nerve “enough to make it go to sleep, but it wasn’t stretched enough to be structurally elongated or visually very damaged” like more severe injuries, Cooper told USA TODAY Sports. There’s normally a one-month lag time before the nerve regrows at all, and once it begins, the rate is only about 1 inch per month.

“He’s had time for his nerve to regrow 2 inches, and the area of where his nerve was injured is 6 inches above the muscle that it innervates,” said Cooper, who’s also the Dallas Cowboys’ head team physician. “I wouldn’t really expect him to get much innervation back into that muscle for two or three more months. Then once it does – I’ve seen kids who are completely paralyzed like him on the lateral side and not able to pick their foot up at all (that) wind up being totally normal.”

Smith expressed optimism to Pelissero—as he has to everyone he’s come in contact with. He’s also continued to work out diligently, back up to 240 pounds and squatting and leg pressing like an All-American linebacker, not a man roughly 3.5 months post surgery. Smith also performed 24 reps on the bench press during Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

Perhaps more promising, Smith also says he’s making progress with the nerve, feeling tingles down his leg and moving closer to the foot.

“I feel different sensations every day,” Smith told Pelissero. “But it’s a thing where it’s patience, so you don’t try to hype yourself up too much.”