The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. BYU

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For the fourth straight season, Notre Dame sent its seniors out with a victory, a wonderful change from the Charlie Weis era where the Irish lost their two final home games in devastatingly painful fashion.

But on Saturday, the Irish put together a complete victory, a late-season win that felt like a great pitcher grinding his way through an October baseball game. Very rarely did it look pretty, but while the Irish didn’t have their best “stuff,” they got out of Saturday with a crucial eighth victory.

It may have taken a few weeks longer than they wanted, but hitting the eight-win threshold shouldn’t be taken for granted. That’s four seasons in a row where Notre Dame has won eight games, a feat not accomplished in South Bend in 20 years.

Before we turn our focus to Stanford, let’s take a quick stroll through the good, the bad and the ugly from the Irish’s 23-13 victory over BYU.

THE GOOD

The running game. Just what the doctor ordered. As we mentioned all week, the Irish knew they needed to run the ball and they did exactly that, putting together a great performance by both the front five and the three Irish ball carriers.

It was a positive day on the ground for Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson, with all three running hard and picking up positive yardage. McDaniel did the heavy lifting down the stretch, doing his best to be a wrecking ball between the tackles to help seal the game.

McDaniel’s 24 carries were a career high. Folston got 13 carries, breaking a 43-yarder and scoring a touchdown. Atkinson averaged seven yards a carry on his six touches, and more importantly didn’t have a negative play.

DaVaris Daniels. The junior wide receiver started the scoring off with a big catch over the top of BYU’s defense. His 107 receiving yards were the first time he went over the century mark since his big day against Purdue, and also the first time he’s caught more than five passes since mid-September.

While there were still some inconsistencies by Daniels, Kelly talked about the evolution of Daniels as a wide receiver, and his ability to fight through the grind of a season.

“I think he’s a young man that — I think the wide receiver has that tendency to get those soft tissue injuries that I think they have to acclimate themselves to not being 100 percent,” Kelly said. “Maybe it’s not a great analogy, but they’re thoroughbreds in the sense that they want to run and they want to feel great all the time, and quite frankly sometimes they’ve got to get by at 80 or 85.  And TJ has been able to do such a great job of understanding that, and I think TJ was very similar to Double‑D early in his career where he’d get banged up a little bit and it would affect his psyche and the way he played.

“I think Double‑D is getting through that now and understands that he’s not going to be necessarily 100 percent all the time, and he’s got to play through those things. I think we’re at that point now with the week off, he felt really good, obviously physically, as well. But I think that’s what we’re seeing with him, the grind of a long year. He’s not going to be 100 percent and he’s got to fight through those things.”

If we credit Daniels for anything, it’s for being up on his pop culture. After scoring his long touchdown, Daniels pulled his celebration right out of the new Hunger Games movie.

TJ Jones. No, he didn’t score a touchdown. No, he didn’t go for 100 yards. But Jones played big in his final game at Notre Dame Stadium, playing through the emotion of a very bittersweet Saturday for Jones and his family.

“I told myself, ‘Don’t cry,'” Jones said after the game. “I knew it was going to be emotional. I knew my mom was going to tear up and any time she does, it makes me tearup too, so I tried to hold it back and not get too emotional before the game.” 

Jones was able to catch five balls for 95 yards, another good day at the office, especially in the weather conditions. It would’ve been great to see him go into the record books along side Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija, but the win probably felt mighty good.

Matt Hegarty. A really impressive game for the junior reserve center, thrown into the fire after Nick Martin’s knee injury late in the first quarter. Hegarty had to go head-up with two massive nose guards, acquitting himself quite well.

“I thought he did a pretty good job,” Kelly said of Hegarty’s play. “Certainly going in there first time, you know, against a 320‑pound guy on his nose, he did not go against a four‑down where he was uncovered. He had somebody on his nose virtually the entire three quarters that he was in there, snapped the ball without any mistakes.”

Kyle Brindza. Notre Dame’s kicker showed just how clutch he is with a key game-clinching 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. With the temperature likely in the teens, even if the kick was wind aided, Brindza stepped up and drilled a beauty in a pressure packed situation.

That’s now 11 of 12 in the fourth quarter for Brindza on his career, who also showed some street-cred going sleeveless out there. After the game, Brindza talked about not wanting to let down the seniors by missing a key kick, and actually lobbied Kelly to take the kick.

“They said to punt and I said, ‘What are you guys talking about? This is my field goal range,'” Brindza said. “They asked me if I was sure and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He has confidence in me and I have confidence in myself, so I’m always in his ear, but he doesn’t mind.”

Dan Fox. What a great way to go out for the senior from Ohio. Fox had nine tackles, including two TFLs, one being a sack of Taysom Hill. Both Fox and Carlo Calabrese had great afternoons, with Calabrese chipping in seven tackles as well.

Jarron Jones, Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt. We already hit on Jones and Tuitt last night, but it is worth mentioning again. Another sneaky-good performance by Sheldon Day, who has come back from his ankle injury with a vengeance.

The home crowd. It was an uneasy Saturday around campus before the game, with nobody really sure of what would happen. But the crowd was energized from start to finish, and celebrated the senior class with a ton of respect.

The student section’s late-game chant of “Tommy, Tommy!” was a really impressive display that clearly meant a lot to Rees in the postgame press conference.

THE BAD

Nick Martin’s knee injury. What a tough break for the junior center, who looked to have potentially avoided a serious injury when he walked off the field under his own power, but will now miss the rest of the season with knee surgery.

“Nick has a significant knee injury,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He’ll be out for this game, and he will not be able to play in the bowl game. We’re still getting a little bit more information.  We had an MRI. I’ll probably have a little bit more specific details, but he’s out for the season.”

It had to be a difficult moment for Zack Martin, seeing his brother down with an injury, ending their playing time together.

Tommy Rees’ fourth quarter interception. Rees threw the ball to Troy Niklas a little late, and BYU safety Craig Bills made an impressive one-handed interception. It’s the wrong time to start a late-game interception trend, and Rees will need to clean that up before Stanford on Saturday evening.

A bit of good news: The weather forecast for Palo Alto on Saturday is high-50s with a zero percent chance of precipitation and only light wind. Much better conditions than Rees has faced the past two games.

Safety Play. Austin Collinsworth got beat badly on a slant route near the goal line, something you just can’t give up. (He also fielded a blocked field goal, a no-no, but understandable considering the ball went straight into his arms.)

Matthias Farley continued his shoddy tackling, letting fullback Paul Lasike run through him for a huge 46-yard gain. Farley might have actually helped Lasike stay on his feet, with the former rugby player regaining his footing after coming into contact with Farley.

Eilar Hardy got the start and made eight tackles. Max Redfield chipped in three of his own, too. Change is a brewing at the position, but it’s also very possible that both Collinsworth and Farley are playing through a few injuries that’ll need an offseason to fix.

THE UGLY

This stays empty after a hard-fought victory.

Blue-Gold Game Primer: Who, what, when, where and why

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WHO? Notre Dame’s offense (Blue) against its defense (Gold).

WHAT? Spring games are often misconstrued as actual games. They are, in all of reality, the 15th and final practice of spring. Thus, the time on the field cannot exceed two hours, and the second half will consist of only two 12-minute quarters with a running clock.

WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, and this should, again, have a strict two-hour time limit, so do not arrive late if genuinely wanting to watch.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, hosting its first Blue-Gold Game without construction afoot since the Campus Crossroads project began following the 2014 season.

NBCSN will broadcast the game, which will also be available at NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

WHY? A cynic might wonder why the 15th practice is opened to tens of thousands of fans and held in Notre Dame Stadium at all. The obvious reasoning is two-fold. Giving the public a look at the team and any possible progress does not endanger the fall’s game plans as some might fear. Instead, it engenders good will and creates a buzz around the football program during a slow period, rather than stretch from January to August with nothing but silence and a few recruits signing National Letters of Intent.

Secondly, and more importantly, those tens of thousands of pairs of eyeballs offer another litmus test for each of the players, especially the young and inexperienced. There is no reason to think rising-junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg might struggle with that kind of pressure, but there is equally little reason to think he will thrive in it. By no means will today’s atmosphere be comparable to Sept. 1’s, but it is closer to that than a normal practice would be.

MEANINGLESS STAT: Actually, all Blue-Gold Game stats are meaningless. Last year, Ian Book threw for 271 yards on 18-of-25 passing, adding a touchdown with no interceptions. Meanwhile, defensive end Daelin Hayes reached the quarterback three times.

During the actual 2017 season, Book threw for 456 yards on 46-of-75 passing, matching four touchdowns with four interceptions. Hayes notched three sacks in 13 games.

The point is to remind all not to focus too much on today’s stats, but instead notice schemes, orders of appearance and designed alignments.

BY HOW MUCH? In a game with offensive scoring as usual and defensive scoring hinging on touchdowns (six points), forced turnovers (three points), three-and-outs (three points), an overall stop (two points) and tackles for loss (one point), the edge may actually fall on the defense’s side, and not only because it returns nine starters, compared to the offense’s six.

Consider, even when the offense scores a touchdown, the odds are the defense logged at least one tackle for loss on the drive, making the touchdown drive a net-6 for the offense. Meanwhile, whenever the defense forces a stop, it gets those two points plus another likely tackle for loss. Every two such possessions match each offensive touchdown. Three-and-outs and forced turnovers should quickly create a margin of victory.

And yes, that was approximately 125 words too many spent on handicapping this intrasquad scrimmage.

SOME PREDICTIONS: Book will star. Notre Dame’s safeties will make two interceptions, leading to a summer of unearned hype. Rising-senior receiver Chris Finke will score a touchdown.

AND IF YOU WERE CURIOUS … The Shirt will be green this year, as was announced Friday evening.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Wimbush’s accuracy, finally five offensive linemen & Jay Hayes’ destination
As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety
Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions
Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Football announces Blue-Gold Game format
How improvement in the Irish secondary will look
Brock Wright on track
It’s not just coaches that make big bucks
2018 NFL Draft narrative busters
Dear NFL: Go ahead and get rid of the kickoff

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.