Dan Fox

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.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.