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

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A day after watching Cincinnati, Miami and Michigan all end their season in ugly, embarrassing fashion, Notre Dame’s lethargic 29-16 victory over Rutgers doesn’t look so bad. It wasn’t always the prettiest football, and the Irish left a lot of points on the board, but in the end Notre Dame went home happy and ended the season a respectable 9-4.

” A good year, but we want more,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “It’s not enough for us. 9-4 is a good year for Notre Dame, it’s not what we sign up for every year. We wanted a little bit more out of this year.”

We’ll going to spend this week looking back at the Irish season. But before we shift our focus, let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s Pinstripe Bowl victory.

THE GOOD

Lots of Plays. The Irish set a season high in plays and first downs against Rutgers, getting 90 plays off and 31 first downs. The previous high for plays this season was 75, so the Irish making a 20 percent improvement is pretty significant.

After the game, Brian Kelly talked about the decision to run most of the offense out of the spread, crediting Rees for being able to handle the change, considering he hadn’t run the system since 2011.

“He hasn’t run this offense since two years ago,” Kelly said. We were in spread virtually the whole game. He’s so smart. You can go in and run a system with him.

“He just has the ability to pick up all the things that we can do offensively. Today was case and point where we were able to do some things that we haven’t done in a couple years and it looked like it was pretty easy for him.”

Getting the offense to move at a faster pace was something Irish fans were clamoring for all season. With the exception of a few sequences against USC, the Irish rarely did it. While they didn’t cash in on the plays and yards they racked up, it’s a step in the right direction.

Zack Martin. You’ve got to hand it to Martin for keeping the run game moving and Rees protected. The senior put on quite a display during his final game with the Irish, taking home the bowl’s MVP trophy for leading the Irish offense.

After the game, Kelly heaped heavy praise on Martin, calling him his the best lineman he’s ever coached, impressive considering Joe Staley from Central Michigan went in the first round to the 49ers in 2007. But Kelly talked about Martin’s ability to make the linemen around him better.

“I call it the Larry Bird effect. An offensive lineman can make others better around him,” Kelly said. “He does that. He’s made that offensive line. Now, Harry Hiestand is an outstanding offensive line coach, but Zack  Martin needs to have some of that credit placed on him as well, because those linemen play so well because of his leadership. He’s an outstanding and a unique player.”

Martin’s MVP trophy for his performance was the rare time an offensive lineman gets credit in a bowl game. How rare? Consider the last time an offensive lineman won an MVP at a bowl was in 1959, when Penn State’s Jay Huffman won it at the Liberty Bowl. Bear Bryant was coaching against the Nittany Lions in his first bowl game.

Troy Niklas. After not being featured as much the past few weeks, Troy Niklas put together a very nice performance against the Rutgers defense, catching four balls for 76 yards. Niklas was a big play weapon down the field and did a nice job blocking at the point of attack as well. (Even if one block went a little overtime and cost the Irish 15 yards.)

Jesse Palmer raised a few eyebrows when he said during the broadcast that Niklas received a second round draft grade, the same as Tuitt, somewhat surprising considering Troy’s underwhelming body of work. But one look at his size, strength and athleticism and you get the picture on why he makes professional teams salivate.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson caught up with Niklas ($) after the game to talk about the decision Niklas suddenly has to make.

“Coach was like, ‘Well, there’s really not a decision to be made. We think you have first round potential, so you for sure should come back. It’s not even a decision,'” Niklas told Sampson.

Niklas’ draft grade was anywhere from the second round to the fourth, so I tend to side with Kelly on what Niklas should do. But the Irish’s elite tight end placement in the NFL just keeps on rolling.

The Irish Running Game. Both Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston did a nice job on the ground against a Rutgers defense that’s statistically stingy. While the running game was struggling in the first half, the Irish pounded it when it counted, and both backs did a nice job.

Kyle Brindza. The junior kicker made five field goals, tying the NCAA record for most in a bowl game. After missing a 44-yarder into a stiff breeze, Brindza made another clutch fourth quarter kick that extended the Irish lead.

“Kyle Brindza, when we need a kick, he drills one late in the game,” Kelly said. “He is so good in the fourth quarter, regardless of what the distance is. You’ve got to put that guy in, he’s the best kicker. I’ve got to put him on the field, and he goes and kicks the field goal regardless of the conditions.”

Stephon Tuitt. If this is it for the big fella, he had a nice performance. Tuitt’s 1.5 sacks push him into a tie for third place on the career sack list at Notre Dame, even with Victor Abimiri’s 21.5.

I’ve got no new inside information, but I still think Tuitt makes the decision to come back. There are just too many bad plays on tape for the junior this season, who could become one of the dominant players in college football next year… and earn his college degree.

KeiVarae Russell. Great day in coverage for the sophomore cornerback. His three pass breakups were very impressive.

Turnovers and Sacks. Notre Dame hadn’t picked off four passes in a game since Denard Robinson and the Wolverines threw five last year. And the four sacks were a nice effort as well.

The Future. It’s hard not to see how explosive this offense could be next year. Kelly gave a hint at his expectations heading into next season after the game.

“We’d like our offense to have a little bit more multi-dimensional,” Kelly said. “We had five yards rushing from the quarterback who ran 90 plays. If we have a quarterback next year that has the ability to run the ball, we will be difficult to defend.”

(Here’s a hint: Everett Golson can run.)

THE BAD

Special Teams Units. Outside of Brindza, the special teams were awful. You can blame the injuries, but there’s no good excuse for some terrible cover teams, and expect that to be addressed this offseason.

Kelly had to joke about the coverage, complimenting the sky kick the Irish used late to finally slow down the Rutgers return game.

It’s a little simplistic to put this all on Scott Booker, the young assistant that took over special teams duties to go along with coaching tight ends. But perhaps Kelly will turn this unit over to Mike Elston, who could add a coordinator title back to his business card as a reward for staying in South Bend.

Red Zone. The good news? Notre Dame scored seven times. The bad news? Five of those scores were field goals. That helps explain why the Irish had to sweat out a game that shouldn’t have been close. Red zone offense has been the one lagging piece of the puzzle for Brian Kelly in South Bend, and Tommy Rees’ limitations as a runner go a long way towards pinpointing some of the problems.

But you also can’t drop three touchdown passes. Execution seemed to be the biggest thing that bothered Kelly after the game.

“Out red zone offense today was simply catching the football,” Kelly said. “We had great looks, exactly what we wanted. We ran a boot, came out clean, overthrew him. We actually came out with the next play and Troy Niklas fell down. Had another opportunity and didn’t get it to TJ. So I’m really happy with what we did today in the red zone. We just didn’t execute. We’ve got to throw it and catch it down there.”

Again, a running quarterback will be the biggest addition in the red zone, especially considering Golson won’t be seeing things for the first time.

Field Position. How ugly were things? Rutgers had a +14 differential on starting field position, a monster number that’s not usually talked about. According to Bill Connelly of SBNation, teams win 96.9 percent of the time when you’re starting field position is at least +16.

Rutgers wasn’t quite at the magic number, but it was close.

The Atkinson Situation. The Irish were shorthanded at running back after George Atkinson and Jalen Brown were suspended for the bowl game for violating a team rule. Various reports mention that both George and twin brother Josh took to Twitter to protest the ruling, another violation of team rules.

Entering their senior seasons, it doesn’t appear that either Atkinson brother will become a breakout player as many hoped. But it’s a situation worth monitoring how this all shakes out, with Kelly saying he hasn’t decided whether George’s suspension will effect his future with the team.

THE UGLY

The Field Conditions. Come on, Yankees! You had us begging for Notre Dame’s turf!

Chris Fowler’s Choke. Literally. ESPN announcer Chris Fowler needing rescuing at halftime after he started to choke on a chicken sandwich. Luckily his partner in the booth, Jesse Palmer, gave Fowler the Heimlich Maneuver and dislodged the sandwich.

Impressive work by Palmer. Fowler is one of college football’s treasures and a very ugly situation is now something we can laugh about.

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.