Matt Cashore - USA Today

Five things we learned: Stanford 27, Notre Dame 20

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STANFORD, Calif. — Like many Notre Dame losses, you can look at the Irish’s 27-20 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Stanford in a variety of ways. The pragmatist sees a beaten Irish squad hang with one of college football’s most physical teams while ravaged by injuries. The optimist sees a young stable of talent that’ll be much better for the opportunity. But the realist can’t help but see a team defined by these 60 minutes — heart, effort and character usurped by back-breaking mistakes and missed opportunities.

As Notre Dame falls to 8-4, Brian Kelly made it clear that as important as it is to see the silver lining, the life of a football coach isn’t defined by anything but the bottom line.

“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said after the loss. “I’m very disappointed that we weren’t able to come up with a play and win the football game. We didn’t come down here to play a close game.”

That the Irish did play a close one says a bunch about this team. Unfortunately, that they still ended up losing says just as much.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during the Irish’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.

***

With a beat up defensive front, Tyler Gaffney and the Stanford ground game was just too much to handle. 

With Louis Nix watching from in front of his computer, Stanford decided to put the game in the hands of its power running game, challenging the Irish’s beat-up defensive front to hang with the Cardinal’s impressive offensive line. 

Ultimately, the Irish couldn’t do it. Stanford ran for 261 yards on the ground, powered by senior running back Tyler Gaffney, who carried the ball 33 times for 189 yards and a touchdown.

After the Irish held strong for most of the second half, Gaffney iced the victory was an impressive final carry, dragging along a handful of Irish defenders for a hard-earned first down.

“This one was pretty special,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of Gaffney’s performance. “When we get a lead, we get into the fourth quarter, they know what’s coming, we know what’s coming. That last run might have been his best run ever. There wasn’t a big hole. He squeaked through it. There was a guy after the hole. He took that guy for a ride.”

There were a lot of positives in the way the Irish defensive front battled for much of the second half, keeping the Irish in the game by keeping the Cardinal out of the end zone, but ultimately the Cardinal’s 51 carries at over five yards a crack was just too much.

***

With the game there to be tied, senior quarterback Tommy Rees just couldn’t get it done. 

With Notre Dame miraculously down just seven points in the fourth quarter, the Irish had two drives to try and tie the football game. Both ended in Tommy Rees interceptions.

The senior quarterback did a lot of good things against a Stanford defense that’s one of the toughest against passers in the country, but when it came down to crunch time, the Irish quarterback threw two critical interceptions that killed the Irish’s chances for winning a close game.

“Our offense kept us in it,” Kelly said. “We just needed to make another play. We had an opportunity. We just couldn’t get the ball to Will (Fuller) when we needed to.”

The interception that Rees threw to Fuller will likely go down as the quintessential Rees interception, a severely under-thrown deep ball that Rees just couldn’t physically get enough on.

The interceptions will keep Irish fans from seeing a solid football game Rees had played until then. In a game where the Irish offense put a ton on the quarterback’s shoulders, Rees played before the snap as well as he ever has.

“Tommy did a great job with double checking, checking,” Kelly said. “There were some things going on out there. I thought he was masterful in a lot of things that he did today. He had them on their heels at times and he got us in some really good looks.”

On a night where Rees passed Jimmy Clausen in the Notre Dame record books for career touchdown passes, the veteran showed that while he couldn’t necessarily do all that was asked of him, he certainly would go down trying.

“I just love the way the kid competes out there,” Kelly said. “As a coach, what you appreciate is when somebody gives you all he has. He threw that ball as far as he could throw it to Will Fuller. Can’t get it any further than that. That’s just Tommy. He gives you everything he has.”

***

On a big stage, DaVaris Daniels put together an impressive football game. But he also showed how much work he still has to do. 

The Irish will say goodbye to veteran wide receiver TJ Jones after the bowl game, with the senior catching six balls for 56 yards and a touchdown against a stingy Stanford secondary. But playing against an elite defense and an excellent secondary, DaVaris Daniels showed that he has the goods to be next year’s No. 1 wide receiver, and potentially give even more to the Irish offense than Jones.

Daniels caught five balls for 79 yards and a touchdown, getting behind the Cardinal secondary for an impressive touchdown that reminds you just how talented the Chicago native can be. But for as tantalizing as Daniels’ skills appear, it’s also clear that the veteran receiver needs to advance his football game in the offseason.

“He does some really, really good things,” Kelly said. “He’s coming. I mean there’s a lot of good things out there for him. He does a really nice job. He’s just got to continue running his routes, and every single play is where his focus needs to be. That’s the next level for him, it’s that consistency.”

That consistency was demonstrated by TJ Jones this season, with the senior elevating his game from complementary piece of the offense to leading man. As Daniels heads into bowl practice and the offseason, he’ll need to reacquaint himself with quarterback Everett Golson, and take his game from sometimes to always, especially if the Irish want to build around some very talented offensive playmakers.

***

With the loss of Chris Watt, the Notre Dame offensive line just keeps getting younger and younger. 

Listening to Brian Kelly after the game, you got the feeling that whatever fell senior left guard Chris Watt, it was something far more serious than aggravating a PCL tear that Watt was playing through.

Watt’s loss is a serious one, pushing both Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer into the starting lineup. After starting the season with four upperclassmen along the offensive line, the Irish will now start ironman Zack Martin next to four first-year contributors. Yet they weren’t overwhelmed by the moment, a stark difference from the last time Notre Dame visited Stanford.

“They gave us a chance to win,” Kelly said of his beat-up offensive line. “They battled and held their own. It could have been ugly.”

The Irish struggled to carve out a run game, gaining just 64 yards on 24 attempts. But Tarean Folston gave some life to the Irish run game, picking up momentum in the second half while running for 50 yards on 14 carries. Probably more important than that was the excellent protection they gave Rees, giving up just one sack and holding national sack leader Trent Murphy to just two tackles.

“I’m very proud of our young guys,” senior captain Zack Martin said after the game. “When you’re out there in the third and fourth quarter, we have four guys who never started this season, on the road against an opponent this this, it speaks volumes to the way we prepare.”

The experience Elmer, Hanratty, Ronnie Stanley and Matt Hegarty gained late this season will serve the Irish well next season.

***

Notre Dame may not have won on Saturday night. But they finish the season a better team than they began.

Brian Kelly and his players refuted the idea of moral victories so often Saturday night after the game that you would be wise to believe them. Yet it’s hard not to tip your cap at the effort the undermanned Irish played with against a Stanford team that just couldn’t shake Notre Dame.

Senior linebacker Dan Fox made 15 tackles, elevating his play to levels unseen these past two weeks. After being bounced from the starting lineup early this season, Fox has carried the Irish defense through November.

“I really can’t wait to watch him play one more game,” Kelly said of Fox’s efforts. “Because he’s playing good football.”

Fox wasn’t alone leaving it on the field. Austin Collinsworth had another interception, making 11 tackles while playing just about the entire game with a safety position short Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate. Collinsworth isn’t Zeke Motta or Harrison Smith, but he played as well as you could ask on Saturday night.

Kona Schwenke played with an ankle that was heavily wrapped. Ishaq Williams returned even with a knee injury that robbed him of a month. And even with Stanford keying on Stephon Tuitt, the junior was a bear for the Cardinal to handle.

“Stephon Tuitt is one of the three top defensive linemen in the nation. He’s phenomenal,” Shaw said, before paying Louis Nix the ultimate compliment. “The best defensive lineman in the nation didn’t play tonight.”

There’s a maxim about horseshoes and hand grenades here somewhere, but not all 8-4 regular seasons are created equal. And as you watched the wounded Irish team walk towards the team bus, you saw a lot of guys that have had injuries rob them of a full season.

“Obviously you’re never happy at 8-4,” Martin said after the game. “We’re disappointed with the season. But, you know, we got the right guys here and the right guys that bought into Coach Kelly’s system. As long as they do that, they’ll be fine.”

If you’re looking for a measure of this team, perhaps Kelly gave his most candid evaluation in some of his closing comments.

“We’re better in November than we are in September,” Kelly said. “I’d like to take this team and look at it where were you in September compared to where you were in November and we’re a better football team.”

When asked what that means, Kelly was perfectly diffusive.

“I guess I’ve got to find a way to get better in September.”  

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.