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.

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

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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.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“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, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.