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.

***

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 positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)