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

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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.

 

 

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.