Matt Cashore - USA Today

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 23, BYU 13

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before an emotional Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly made sure the message to his team was very clear.

“We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again,” Kelly said after the game. “But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.”

And win they did, turning a frigid Saturday afternoon filled with wind and snow into a wonderful final chapter for the Class of 2013.

No, things didn’t turn out the way they could’ve for this group. But backed by a ground game that rushed for 235 yards, and a great defensive performance by a severely wounded unit, the Irish beat BYU for the second straight season in South Bend.

The victory sends the senior class out of South Bend with a win, and more important leads Notre Dame into Palo Alto with nothing to lose.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during the Irish’s 23-13 victory.

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Needing to get back into character, Brian Kelly called on the 2012 game plan to cement a victory. 

The Irish had a bye week to wash away one of the more disappointing Saturdays in Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. They also had a chance to go back and look at what’s worked, putting together a vintage 2012 performance.

In weather that demanded a strong running game, the Irish rushed for 235 yards, equaling the passing game total. Even without Louis Nix, the defense played physical in the front seven while the secondary refused to give up the deep ball. And Kyle Brindza came up with a clutch special teams kick, booting a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

A week after being its own worse enemy, the Irish found its long-missing identity.

“This is the way we’ve got to play football,” Kelly said. “This is Notre Dame football. This is the way we need to play. This is what we’re capable of playing. It’s a much more physical brand of football that we are capable of playing, and quite frankly, our team did that and they responded accordingly.”

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Battered and bruised, Bob Diaco’s defense put together an impressive performance. 

Louis Nix took the field on Saturday, but only with the help of crutches to hug his mother at midfield. Kona Schwenke did his best to play through a high ankle sprain, but succumbed to the injury early. But Jarron Jones came out of nowhere to play inspired football, racking up seven tackles, a batted down pass, and a clutch field goal block.

After being plagued by inconsistencies all season, Bob Diaco’s defense looked an awful lot like the group many expected, limiting BYU to just 13 points. Senior Dan Fox was all over the field, leading the Irish in tackles with nine, including a sack of Taysom Hill and a pass breakup.

Stephon Tuitt looked every bit the All-American, notching seven stops of his own, a sack of Hill and three quarterback hurries, including the destruction of the pocket on the Cougars final fourth down attempt. 

Against one of the most difficult rushing attacks in the country to slow down, the Irish gave up 247 yards on the ground, but refused to give up the big play down field that has plagued this team.

“We gave up some things to hold up big plays,” Kelly said after the game.”We weren’t going to let them get over the top.”

The underneath stuff did lead to the Cougars converting 11 of 20 third downs. But the Irish defense stiffened in the red zone, allowing just one touchdown in four appearances inside the Irish 20.

Even with a group battered and bruised, Diaco’s defense managed to do more than just survive against the up-tempo BYU attack, holding the Cougars to just 13 points, matching their season low.

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In a season where the running game has gone missing, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson stepped up. 

With the wind swirling early and conditions far from ideal for the passing game, everybody in the stadium expected Notre Dame to try and establish the running game. But not that many expected it to work so convincingly.

The Irish establishing the ground game early with Tarean Folston and George Atkinson, before Tommy Rees hit DaVaris Daniels over the top for a 61 yard touchdown. On a day where Notre Dame absolutely needed a quick start, the offense did exactly that.

All afternoon the running attack pacing the Irish offense, even when Matt Hegarty subbed in for Nick Martin after the junior center hyperextended his knee. (Conor Hanratty also started in place of Steve Elmer, though both played.)  

While both Folston and Atkinson ran for at least six yards a carry, Kelly called on junior Cam McDaniel to carry the load down the stretch, and McDaniel answered the bell with 117 rushing yards on 24 carries. It was McDaniel’s first 100-yard game and the most carries in his career.

When asked after the game about the running game, Kelly talked about the decision to put the game on the Texan’s shoulders.

“Cam is more of a downhill, inside the tackle north and south runner,” Kelly explained. “The game style fits him, and I don’t want to box him into a particular kind of runner, but he’s a physical inside runner, and so he and Tarean got a lot of carries inside out.  And George really helped us out a lot today, too, with some good, physical running, as well.”

A season after leaning almost exclusively on the ground game to beat BYU, the Irish were able to win the football game thanks to a consistent rushing attack, utilizing all three backs in a must-win.

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With the best game of his career, Jarron Jones might be the guy to replace Louis Nix at defensive tackle. 

While the future of Louis Nix hasn’t been determined, in all likelihood we’ve seen the last of Irish Chocolate at Notre Dame. But the wide spread panic about Nix’s replacement might have been quelled Saturday evening as Jarron Jones played a dominant game at the point of attack.

The sophomore defensive lineman shifted inside to nose guard almost out of necessity, making good on his coach’s early-week premonition that good things were coming for Jones.

“Jarron we felt like was coming on, and he played exceedingly well and I’m really happy for him,” Kelly said. “But we thought this was something that when we recruited him that he was capable of, and he showed that today.”

Getting that out of him hasn’t always been easy. Jones talked about the challenges he faced keeping focus and delivering the type of effort that gave the coaching staff faith in the sophomore from Rochester, New York.

“Just me being young and not focused,” Jones said, when asked about the early struggles he’s faced. “It was all over the place. It was in the classroom, it was also just me in general, I kinda saw myself like, ‘Where’s my life going?’ That’s when I kind of realized I needed to tighten the screw a lot.”

That tightening was on display this afternoon, with Jones making multiple plays at the point of attack and showing the type of promise you’d expect out of the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder with elite recruiting offers.

Injuries have pushed Jones’ time to now, one year ahead of even his own schedule. But when I asked him after the game if he wanted to be the guy to fill Nix’s shoes next season, the answer was clear.

“I would love to be that guy,” Jones said. “Obviously playing nose guard today, that was a lot of fun. This game was a lot of fun.” 

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In a season where things didn’t quite go according to plan, Senior Day played out picture perfect. 

No, they weren’t playing for a BCS birth. But every player made available after the hard-fought victory had just about the same thing to say about leaving Notre Dame Stadium a winner.

“Words can’t describe how good it feels to win your last game here,” Tommy Rees said after the game. “That’s four years in a row for us, which is awesome, and unless you’ve experienced it, it’s a pretty special feeling.”

It’s the goal of every football player to leave a program in a better place than where they found it. And to that measure, this class has fulfilled that goal.

“They set a consistent mark of success, in terms of winning at home, which is a big, big deal for us,” Kelly said after the game.  They won 20 out of their last 23 regular‑season games as a core group.  All those numbers go towards consistency and that’s really what we’re looking for.”

On Monday, Kelly brought his team back from an off-week with a full-contact ones versus ones scrimmage. It was there that the head coach knew his team was going to be just fine this weekend.

“We had a great week of practice. I thought our Monday where we went ones versus ones and banged it around, I could just sense right there that we were going to play pretty good today,” Kelly said.

And on a cold, wintery day, the Irish won. It wasn’t perfect. But the Irish left Notre Dame Stadium for the last time a winner.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

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

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.