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.

***

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.

***

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.”

***

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.

***

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

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.

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