The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

156 Comments

Most coaches institute a 24-hour rule. After a win or a loss, you’ve got 24 hours to put the game in the rearview mirror and move past it. That might be a little bit tougher for Brian Kelly and his team this Sunday, with the loss among the most frustrating in the Kelly era.

“Our mantra is, ‘You can’t start winning until you stop losing,’ and we did things tonight that cause losing,” Kelly said after the game.

The loss to Pittsburgh is a painful third of the season, likely pushing the Irish out of the polls as well as BCS consideration.

Let’s get on with the good, the bad and the ugly of Saturday’s 28-21 loss to Pitt.

THE GOOD

Jaylon Smith. The freshman is the Irish’s most consistent defensive player just ten games into his career. Smith added 11 tackles on Saturday night, one behind the line of scrimmage, to lead the team. While other veterans continue to have miscues and miss making plays in open space, Smith seems to just keep getting better, racking up stats at a position where very good players (Danny Spond, Prince Shembo) did most of their best work off the stat sheet.

TJ Jones. Jones made six catches for 149 yards, including a 80-yard touchdown. He also came to life in the running game, breaking loose on a 35-yarder that was one of two big gainers in the ground game.

The “good” rating should come with an asterisk after Jones coughed up the football inside the Pitt 10 when he was stripped after a long completion, but Jones kept his head in the game and continued to make plays.

That’s seven consecutive games for Jones with a touchdown catch, inching him closer to Golden Tate and Jeff Samaradzija’s record of eight games.

Ben Koyack. While referees took away a 39-yard touchdown catch and awarded the Irish the ball inside the 1-yard line, Koyack’s continued his emergence in the passing game with four catches for 76 yards, career numbers for the Oil City, Pennsylvania native who was playing within 100 miles of his hometown.

If there’s a bright spot that’s developed offensively this season, it’s the tight end position. Both Koyack and Troy Niklas will become indispensable weapons for Everett Golson next season.

George Atkinson. While most Irish fans probably didn’t want to see him out there, Atkinson played a nice game, getting some yardage on a kickoff return and running well enough in the running game. He averaged 9.5 yards per carry on his six touches, hitting the edge of the Pitt defense that was stout on the interior with Aaron Donald.

Kyle Brindza. Brindza must’ve showed Kelly something in pregame that had him believing that the junior kicker was able to make a 55-yarder at a stadium among the toughest in the NFL to make field goals.

But as a punter, Brindza was excellent, averaging 46.2 yards a punt, including a 56 yard rocket. Brindza very nearly had Pitt pinned inside their 1-yard line but the ball appeared to have hit the goal line before checking up.

Sheldon Day. You’ve got to be really impressed by the work Day did on Saturday night, coming back from another ankle tweak to make three huge tackles-for-loss, and really play well after Stephon Tuitt was ejected.

Both Day and Louis Nix outperformed Pitt’s Aaron Donald, who was held to just one assisted tackle, while Day made five solo stops and Nix had five total tackles.

THE BAD

Brian Kelly and the coaching staff. Far more football games are lost than won, and after making a career of letting the other guys do it, Brian Kelly’s squad gave one away. Kelly talked about the incredibly poor execution and acknowledged across the board how the team failed.

“I think what I’m most concerned about is the inability to put together a consistent effort tonight in November,” Kelly said. “We’re 10 games into the season. There’s really, for me, no reason why, and I take full responsibility for this as the head coach, that there’s no reason why we don’t execute at the level that we should in November, and that didn’t happen tonight.”

The offense was never able to get into a rhythm. That’s a coaches job, and while the ground game was tough sledding with Donald in the middle, six rushing attempts in the second half (for a whopping ten yards) isn’t even close to good enough.

Other head-scratching decisions include rolling Rees to his right inside the 5-yard line, and the disappearance of Tarean Folston.

If there’s one silver-lining in all of this, Kelly made a very important point during his postgame comments, and we’ll likely see a change at a few key positions that continue to underperform.

“We’ll go in Monday and put this behind us from a film standpoint. We won’t put this behind us from an evaluation standpoint, but we’ll put it behind us in terms of the game itself,” Kelly said. “We’ll weight train on Tuesday and then I’ll kind of make my decision as to how we move forward the rest of the week.”

Tommy Rees. There’s no sugar-coating Rees’ late game performance, especially the two interceptions that he threw to Pitt safety Ray Vinopal. Taking points off the board for the Irish and all but putting them on the board for the Panthers in a matter of two passing attempts, Rees took a huge step backwards after looking like he had steadied the ship offensively in the third quarter.

After the game, Rees answered some difficult questions for a guy that acknowledged letting his team down.

“I take accountability and responsibility,” Rees said. “When you put your defense in compromising situations like that, it’s hard for your defense to make stops. It starts with me. It starts with our senior leaders. We’ve got to come back better. There were definitely little things that we need to do in order to win games.”

There have been enough words dedicated to Rees over the past four years in the comments and columns here. But it was a really tough Saturday at the office for the Irish’s senior quarterback, who will play his final game at Notre Dame Stadium against BYU.

Bad tackling. Nobody is going to make every tackle, but at this point in the season there’s every reason to think Matthias Farley is playing himself out of a job with his sloppy tackling. The junior safety who filled in heroically last season after the Irish lost Jamoris Slaughter has made too many opponents highlight reels, missing key tackles as the Irish’s last line of defense.

That bad tackling bug has spread to cornerback Bennett Jackson, who was among the Irish’s most physical players at the boundary cornerback. KeiVarae Russell also had some big swings and misses from his field corner position, struggling to shed blocks and make plays.

Safety Eilar Hardy was third on the team with seven tackles on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if he spends more time playing in the season’s final two games.

THE UGLY

Stephon Tuitt’s ejection. Football is a dangerous game and it’d be reckless if the NCAA and its officiating crews didn’t take steps to try to make the game safer. But Tuitt’s ejection is proof that on-field referees shouldn’t have the power to make game-changing, subjective judgment calls that result in ejection for a rule nobody really understands.

When Tom Savage took off running for the first down, he stopped being a defenseless quarterback. When he dropped the crown of his helmet and lowered his shoulder into Tuitt, he gave Tuitt no other option but to lower his body into tackling form to stop the 230-pound quarterback from getting the first down.

That an ACC crew could flag the hit, consider it ejection worthy, then have that belief upheld by a replay committee shows the complete failure of a rule change that had noble intentions. Just like last week against Navy, referees killed the Irish with game-changing penalties, in this case taking the Irish’s best defensive player off the field for a hit that shouldn’t even draw a flag.

Credit Brian Kelly for being so diplomatic last night about the officiating. If I were in his shoes I certainly wouldn’t have been. Between Tuitt’s ejection, a pass-interference call on Bennett Jackson that didn’t seem to exist and should have been nullified by Matthias Farley’s tipped pass, and the gift first down at the end of the game that replay someone confirmed, it was a bad day for the guys in the stripes.

Losing. Look, I get it. Losing stinks. It really stinks. And losing in a way where it’s pretty clear that your team did more to let the other team celebrate than your own, that’s a good reason to start howling at the moon.

During a live-blog, I “get the opportunity” to see a real-time look at the thoughts and feelings of Irish fans as they watch the ebb and flow of a football game. It’s unhealthy. It gives me anxiety, and I only cover the team. There is far more anger in football fans than joy, a sad thing considering we’ve only got two more games in the regular season and only get 12 or 13 chance to watch this team play. That anger and frustration has been there not just this season, but in all five that I’ve covered — yep, even last year’s.

I 100 percent understand anonymous internet griping as a way to stay sane. But I don’t understand the venom that’s often spewed at college kids, especially those participating at Notre Dame, student-athletes that do so many things the right way.

Getting mad at Matthias Farley or Dan Fox for missing a tackle? Going postal when Tommy Rees throws a terrible interception? I get it. But calling out kids that have more commitment to a cause and pride in their work than the person typing should force everyone to take a long hard look in the mirror.

A college scholarship is a wonderful thing. But I’m not sure it’s worth some of the outrage that spews out of a fanbase that takes pride in cheering for a team that’s “different” and “does things the right way.”

Because after games like Saturday night, it’s pretty clear that it’s a one-way street for a lot of fans.

 

 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

Getty Images
4 Comments

Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

Getty Images
25 Comments

Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

Getty Images
17 Comments

Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

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

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

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

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

61 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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