Shayne Skov, Tommy Rees

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

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Ultimately, TJ Jones said everything that was needed after the Irish’s 27-20 loss, putting into context the 8-4 season the Irish just completed.

“You’re not great. You’re not terrible,” Jones said of the 8-4 record. “Little better than average, I guess you can say.”

Notre Dame was game for most of the evening against Stanford, but was unable to cash in early chances or make a play down the stretch when it was needed. And as Stanford has done over the past few years, the Cardinal leaned on a power running game and a suffocating defense, daring the Irish to beat them in the fourth quarter.

The Irish couldn’t.

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.

THE GOOD

Hanging Tough. Brian Kelly won’t take moral victories, but I’m inclined to give them one for Saturday night. As I tweeted mid-game, Notre Dame fans needed to remember the moment, because this was exactly what it feels like to be an undermanned team hanging around with a superior opponents.

Offensive line play. Losing Chris Watt could have killed the Irish. Yet just like the week before, the next man in did a very good job. With an interior of Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty and Steve Elmer, the Irish did a great good job protecting the quarterback, holding Stanford to just one sack.

Running the ball was a different story, but even against one of the top run defenses in the country, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston averaged a not terrible 3.7 yards a carry on their 18 touches.

Dan Fox. Gutty performance by the fifth-year senior, who made 15 tackles from his middle linebacker position. Fox started the season banged up, lost his job to Jarrett Grace, then finished the season playing the best football of his career.

Austin Collinsworth. Watching the senior safety get steamrolled in the backfield might solidify the opinion that he’s not physically impressive enough to be anything more than a role player, but 11 tackles and an interception is a nice day at the office.

Collinsworth gave it his all and played the best game of his career.

Matthias Farley. He’s been the whipping boy a bit lately, but outside of one bad missed tackle, Farley brought his lunch box to work on Saturday night and played a solid game as well.

Zack Martin. He might not end up being a first round draft pick, but some team is going to be very happy when they take Martin in next year’s NFL Draft.

You’ve got to scroll WAAAAY down the box score to find Stanford All-American Trent Murphy’s name, with the nation’s leading sacker held to just two tackles.

Just as important as his play on the field has been, Martin has been an anchor both on and off the field for the Irish.

Go ahead and talk about Taylor Lewan as one of the top tackles in the draft. I’d make the argument for Martin, and don’t think I’d have a hard time backing it up with game tape.

Quick Takes:

* Great interception by Bennett Jackson. Picture perfect technique and a clutch play. It’s good to see Jackson finish on a high note, making a play that evaded him earlier in the year.

Tarean Folston looked the part. Next year’s running back depth chart will be tons of fun.

Both James Onwualu and Corey Robinson ended up in the box score. But what makes Onwualu so interesting is that he made a big special teams tackle as well as a clutch reception.

Thinking back to some conversations I’ve had with Onwualu’s high school coach Mike Scanlon, Scanlon always thought James could succeed as a jumbo safety. Looking at the profile of Irish recruit Drue Tranquill, could you put 20 pounds on Onwualu and turn him into a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, like the staff will try to do with Tranquill?

Or is Onwualu too good of an offensive player?

Notre Dame has a weapon in Kyle Brindza. Expect some awards attention for Brindza next season.

THE BAD

Late Interceptions. I was told pregame by someone that would know that nearly 80% of the offensive game plan was put on Tommy Rees’ shoulders, relying on Rees to get the Irish in the right play against Derek Mason’s tough Stanford defense.

Kelly echoed that in his postgame comments, calling Rees’ work presnap masterful.

Unfortunately, when you throw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, nobody remembers your excellent game management for the other three quarters.

Rees had quietly put together a good game against the Cardinal defense, sitting at 14 of 28 with 2 touchdown passes and no turnovers at one point. But with the game on the line, Rees completed just 2 of his final six throws, with two of those misses going to Wayne Lyons.

Stopping the tight end. I’m not sure Devon Cajuste is technically a tight end, but the Irish were done in by Cajuste and tight end Davis Dudchock, who teams for 6 catches and 99 yards on Saturday, the lions share of the Stanford passing game.

With the Irish selling out to hold up against the run, the Irish were vulnerable against the pass, and even in a season where Stanford’s tight ends all but disappeared, they came back and killed Notre Dame on Saturday.

Red Zone offense. Want to get it done against Stanford? You’ve gotta get 7 instead of 3. The Irish weren’t able to cash in their first two appearances in the red zone, settling for Kyle Brindza field goals before cashing in touchdowns to TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels.

Too little, too late.

Third Down defense. Stanford converted 8 of 13 third downs, moving the chains far too effectively, and doing it a few times on some critical draw plays.

I’ve read some criticism today by fans picking on Bob Diaco’s scheme, but it’s hard to take that too seriously when you look at the personnel the Irish were playing on defense, especially with the heart of the unit — the team’s depth — all but gutted.

Rush Offense. It’s hard to be too tough on an offensive line featuring four first-year players, but establishing a ground game in the red zone would’ve been helpful. Getting just 64 yards on 24 carries isn’t good enough.

Critical Decisions. It’s impossible for us to know the progressions of Rees’ reads during the fourth quarter. But the idea to target two first-year receivers with the game on the line isn’t the best.

Throwing the deep ball to Will Fuller isn’t a bad decision. He’s the team’s best home run threat and has shown himself to have great ball skills. But that redshirt freshman CJ Prosise was the intended target running up the seam, and that Prosise was allowed to get bodied off his route, isn’t good. That Rees was so quick to pull the trigger to Prosise also doesn’t make much sense.

With the game on the line, Notre Dame targeted receivers that have caught 11 balls. No, I don’t necessarily think they were the primary read.

But that’s not the way I want to go down.

THE UGLY

The Missed Opportunities. It’s too simplistic and narrow-minded to call this season a lost year. But it’s hard not to think about what the Irish could have been, especially when you think about this team playing with Everett Golson, a full-strength defensive line, and a better idea of the team’s offensive and defensive identities.

The work Notre Dame does from now until the bowl game will be crucial towards building to spring practice, where the Irish will need to develop some key leaders. Don’t expect much from Everett Golson, he won’t be allowed to start practicing until December 20. Depending on the bowl game, that could be just days before the Irish play.

Notre Dame will say goodbye to three captains. They’ll also miss the leader of the offense in Tommy Rees, Danny Spond, a guy who would’ve likely worn a C if he didn’t go down for the year, and key starters like Chris Watt, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.

The roster returns plenty of talent, but leaders will need to emerge quickly– and if that’s Stephon Tuitt (or Louis Nix), the Irish coaching staff will be very happy.

 

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)