Five things we learned: Notre Dame 48, Rice 17

109 Comments

The last stormy, humid season opener at Notre Dame Stadium found an infamous place in the Irish history books. Saturday afternoon’s 48-17 drubbing of Rice will be remembered in a much better light.

That’s because the return of Everett Golson took a page out of a Marvel movie’s script. After missing 600 days of football, Golson put on his cape and did his best to make up for lost time, playing a near perfect game as he put up five touchdowns in a breakthrough offensive performance for Notre Dame.

By foot, Golson kept the Owls at bay, scrambling to keep plays alive while single-handedly solving the team’s red zone woes with three rushing touchdowns. Those rushing totals have only been matched by Jarious Jackson and some guy named Hornung, whose stiff-arming trophy sits proudly on display in the football office.

By air Golson was even more impressive, rarely missing a throw as his 14 completions covered 295 yards. Five different Irish receivers caught passes of 25 yards or more, with Golson averaging a hearty 21 yards a completion.

Playing on a new FieldTurf track that favors teams built for speed, the Irish offense paced the attack while Brian VanGorder’s young defense held its own. With an easy victory in the books, let’s look at the five things we learned in the Irish’s 48-17 win over Rice.

 

***

***

 

After two weeks of nothing but distractions, Brian Kelly’s young Irish team took care of business. 

When head coach Brian Kelly named Everett Golson his starting quarterback 17 days ago, he thought he was eliminating the last big storyline of fall camp. Little did he know, but just 48 hours later the Irish football program would be under seige, with four (and now five) players wrapped up in an academic investigation that had some people wondering if the Golden Dome was burning.

The loss of three front-line starters was a blow, with DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams all expected to play critical roles on the field. But Saturday afternoon the Irish showed no signs of blinking, following their head coach’s mantra of “Next Man In” and taking care of business.

“I was really proud of them today,” Kelly said. “I said before we get into talking about the win, I just want to tell you that I’m proud of the way you’ve handled yourself. And that means a lot moving forward. When your locker room has got that kind of resolve, good things are going to happen to you.”

If the academic mess was mostly self-inflicted, the other obstacles faced this preseason haven’t been. Prostate cancer surgery kept offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock from attending the start of training camp. Graduate assistant (and former Irish captain) Kyle McCarthy is also undergoing chemotherapy while still trying to work with the team.

Add in a knee injury to captain and starting safety Austin Collinsworth suffered on Thursday and you’ve got two chaotic weeks that the Irish not just survived, but won in convincing style.

***

***

 

Brian Kelly is a pretty good head coach when he’s got Everett Golson at quarterback. 

It’s worth pointing out: With Everett Golson playing, Brian Kelly is 12-1. Without him, Kelly’s 26-14. That’s the difference between getting a statue and hiring a realtor.

With Golson, the Irish offense became the aggressive, downfield, big play attack that Kelly had quietly been advertising since the offseason. And all credit goes to the quarterback who put aside the distraction of returning to the big stage and simply played excellent football.

Golson barely missed a ball if you take away his throw aways and a few drops, one from C.J. Prosise that cost him an even gaudier stat line. But that’s the magic of what Golson does for the Irish offense, a dual-threat runner with a preference to pass.

Put Rice head coach David Bailiff down as a believer.

“Golson’s just an amazing, amazing quarterback,” Bailiff said after the game. “He was a dynamic player a year ago… He’s taken that year off and you can tell he’s matured. You can tell he’s studied the game.”

Of course, doing it against Rice is a lot different than doing it against Michigan, who comes to South Bend next weekend. But on a rainy Saturday, Brian Kelly showed how efficient his offense is when he’s got Everett Golson behind center.

 

***

***

 

After a year of getting beaten up, Notre Dame’s special teams were special. 

What a difference a year makes. Last year, you couldn’t have blamed the coaching staff from removing any mention of the word special when dealing with Scott Booker’s special teams unit. On Saturday, the Irish return game looked impressive, with both Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant breaking big returns in the punt game and Amir Carlisle breaking a 36-yard kickoff return.

The Irish racked up 80 yards on five punt returns. Last year, the Irish managed just 106 yards all season — surprisingly the best cumulative total of the Kelly era to date.

While Kyle Brindza missed his first field goal attempt and caught a funky hop on his first kickoff that bounced started Rice on the 35, the rest of the rebuilt unit was rock solid, including James Onwualu stuffing Rice’s fake punt attempt short.

The highlight of the afternoon had to be the punt returns by Riggs and Bryant, with three nice returns flipping the field and starting the Irish off with great field position. After a season of getting killed in the “Hidden Yards” ledger, Kelly had perhaps the best special teams day of his career in South Bend.

 

***

***

 

Notre Dame’s ground game looks like the engine to drive the offense. 

Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock found the perfect mix for the running game, and all three backs played great football, even with limited attempts. Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all averaged at least five yards a carry, with Bryant leading the way with 71 yards and his first career touchdown.

The Irish’s 281 rushing yards were their most since the 2012 Shamrock Series victory over Miami. Their 42 rushing attempts showed a willingness to commit to a balanced offense, as the ground game powered the Irish to the finish.

“We don’t have an exact science,” Kelly said for splitting carries. “I wish I could be that smart. But we are really trying to figure out how to get them the carries that they all deserve, and also keep them in the flow of the game.”

With Conor Hanratty getting the surprise start over Matt Hegarty at left guard, the Irish offensive line put a new twist on what Harry Hiestand’s troops would look like up front in life after Zack Martin and Chris Watt. And while Nick Martin got called for two snap infractions (Kelly put those on Golson, not Martin), it was a strong performance by the running game.

 

***

***

 

For one Saturday, the kids on defense were all right.

Sure, there were breakdowns. Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti might turn red during Sunday’s tape session after seeing their coverage mistakes turn into six points. But the Irish’s rebuilt defense played well on Saturday, holding Rice to 367 total yards, and holding up surprisingly well against the run.

Powered by a ground game that led Conference USA last season, Rice ran 41 times on Saturday, but only managed to gain 141 yards with Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell playing well while Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day excelled in the trenches.

“I just really thought that we were going to be able to hold up very well, and Joe Schmidt with Jaylon (Smith) were outstanding,” Kelly said. You’ve got those six guys, if they can hold up against the run, we’re going to be in pretty good shape, and I thought that was going to be the case and it ended up being it today.”

 

Perhaps even better, the Irish broke in a ton of young players. One look at the participation chart forced even the most die-hard fans to occasionally check the roster.

Freshman Drue Tranquill played major minutes. So did Daniel Cage up front. Greer Martini played significant snaps. Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship found their way onto the stat sheet.

Also playing their first minutes were Nyles Morgan and Nick Watkins, while seldom-used veterans like Justin Utupo and Anthony Rabasa saw action.

With little tape to study, Bailiff sounded impressed by the work of VanGorder’s new unit.

“They did a good job of changing their fronts from a four down to three down,” Bailiff siad. “I think it led to some problems just for us identifying what they were doing.

“I thought they did a good job and didn’t make a lot of mistakes today. Tackled well in space. They tackled a lot better than we hoped they would.”

Two breakdowns in the secondary cost the Irish 14 points. Ultimately it didn’t matter on Saturday. But come next weekend when Michigan is in town, the Irish will need to play much cleaner on the back end.

 

 

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia & N.C. St. surge; Boston College & UNC fade

Associated Press
Leave a comment

Going 8-3 last week, Notre Dame’s opponents are expected to do just that again this coming week. (Those numbers do not count either the immediately prior or the imminently coming Irish games.)

Temple (2-2): South Florida finally looked like the team the preseason expected, routing the Owls 43-7 on Thursday. It is distinctly possible the Bulls are just that good, but they had not yet shown it this year. They held Temple to a total of 85 yards, including negative-four rushing yards, and Owls junior quarterback Logan Marchi went from not throwing an interception in his first three games as a starter to throwing four against South Florida.

Life does not get easier for Temple, now hosting Houston at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN. The Owls are two-touchdown underdogs with a point total over/under of 47.5, making for a projection of 31-17.

Georgia (4-0): A 31-3 victory over No. 17 Mississippi State puts the Bulldogs in position to cruise to the SEC title game. Admittedly, Mississippi State is not in the SEC East, but the rout established Georgia as the only genuine team in the division. Furthermore, the Bulldogs held Mississippi State to 103 passing yards.

Georgia showcased a balanced offense, taking 42 rushing attempts for 203 yards and throwing 12 passes for 201 yards.

This week, the Bulldogs head to Tennessee for a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff on CBS. The spread favors Georgia by a touchdown with an over/under of 47.5, making for a theoretical 27-20 conclusion. As tensions flare in Knoxville, that one-possession score seems slim.

Boston College (1-3): For the second consecutive week, the Eagles played a superior opponent even for the majority of the game before getting blown out. Boston College entered the fourth quarter at Clemson tied at seven. Then, the Tigers mimicked the Irish from a week ago, using big plays to spark quite a rout. Three touchdowns in the final six minutes put the Eagles away 34-7.

In many respects, Boston College played Clemson grittily, but the Eagles were outgained 482 yards to 238 and the time of possession favored the Tigers 34:56 to 25:04.

Boston College has a chance at its first win since the season opener in hosting Central Michigan this weekend at 1 p.m. on the ACC Network. The Eagles are favored by nine points with an over/under of 49, indicating a 29-20 final.

Michigan State (2-1): After the 38-18 loss to Notre Dame, the Spartans host Iowa at 4 p.m. ET on Fox on Saturday. Despite the Hawkeyes’ excellent performance against Penn State in primetime, Michigan State is favored by 3.5 with an over/under of 45. Quick math points to a 24-21 result. Based solely on Iowa’s showing against the Nittany Lions, perhaps that spread should point the other direction.

Miami (OH) (2-2): Senior quarterback Gus Ragland led the RedHawks to a 31-14 victory at Central Michigan, completing 11 of 19 passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

Ragland will need to be at his finest to overcome a 22.5-point spread against the Irish at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The 53.5 over/under leads one to surmise a 38-16 final.

North Carolina (1-3): The season continues to get away from the Tar Heels. Losing 27-17 at home against rival Duke will only further frustrations, especially considering North Carolina entered the fourth quarter with a 17-13 lead. The Tar Heels converted only three of 16 third downs and averaged a mere 3.6 yards on 33 rushes.

Heading to Georgia Tech, North Carolina is a 9.5-point underdog with a hefty over/under of 60. The 12 p.m. matchup on ESPN2 could end with such a scoreboard appearance as 35-25 in favor of the option-dependent team.

USC (4-0): Much like Notre Dame’s win over Michigan State, turnovers were the key in the Trojans’ 30-20 win at Cal. USC forced six turnovers, otherwise outgaining the Golden Bears by only 60 yards, 416 to 356.

The game stood tied entering the fourth quarter before the Trojans relied on a strip sack to set up a two-play, four-yard touchdown drive to take a decisive 23-13 lead. Despite the close nature up until that point, Cal attempted 52 passes.

USC now faces the stiffest challenge of its season to date. No. 16 Washington State awaits on Friday for a 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPN. The Trojans are four-point favorites for the end of the short week with an over/under of 64.5. Do not be surprised at all if the Cougars win outright, let alone fare better than a theoretical 34-30 conclusion.

North Carolina State’s Jaylen Samuels celebrates as he scores against Florida State on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)

North Carolina State (3-1): The Wolfpack earned its third straight win. More than that, North Carolina State notched its biggest win of the year, a 27-21 victory at Florida State. The Wolfpack benefited from 11 Seminoles penalties and a turnover, but overall North Carolina State just played a solid game.

To keep that momentum going, the Wolfpack will host Syracuse at 12:20 p.m. ET on the ACC Network. North Carolina State will not need to win by two touchdowns, but a bookmaker’s spread expects the margin to tilt toward the Wolfpack by about 13.5 points with an over/under of 63. Expecting the Orange to score 24 points to fulfill a 38-24 result seems ambitious, and North Carolina State is not exactly an offensive juggernaut. Seems like 63 is a larger number than may be appropriate.

Wake Forest celebrates its game-saving field goal block at Appalachian State on Saturday. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Wake Forest (4-0): The Demon Deacons needed to block a 39-yard field goal with five seconds remaining to win 20-19 at Appalachian State, but a win is a win is a [insert four-beat pause] win. Frankly, the Mountaineers played better. They outgained Wake Forest by 150 yards and possessed the ball by a wide margin of 35:44 to 24:16.

The Deacons can get back to better football by continuing what North Carolina State started. Florida State visits Winston-Salem at 3:30 p.m. ET (on ABC) and is favored by 7.5 points with an over/under of 46.5 points. This all may be odd considering Wake Forest is undefeated and the Seminoles have yet to find a win, but such is the case with preseason expectations and college football. If the book holds, Florida State would win 27-20.

The Deacons may be a trendy pick for an upset this week, but it just seems too obvious.

Miami (FL) (2-0): The Hurricanes overcame a 16-10 halftime deficit against Toledo to win 52-30, even though Miami went only 3-for-9 on third downs. As concerning as a 33 percent third down conversion rate may be, having to attempt only nine third downs speaks to an overall offensive efficiency, further emphasized by 254 rushing yards. The Hurricanes defense allowed only 81 rushes on 35 carries.

The next question will be what are Miami’s ACC intentions? Can they fare better than North Carolina? The Hurricanes travel to Duke on Friday for a 7 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPN, favored by six points with a 57-point over/under. Miami would undoubtedly be okay with a  31-26 victory.

Navy (3-0): The Midshipmen jumped out to a 14-0 lead on Cincinnati and never looked back en route to a 42-32 victory. Navy rushed for 569 yards, as Navy will do, while giving up only 58 yards on the ground on 23 attempts.

Navy now heads to Tulsa to feature that running game on ESPNU at 3:30 p.m. ET. Favored by 5.5 points, the Midshipmen could be looking at the topside of a 38-33 shootout.

Stanford (2-2): Get used to hearing about Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love in this space. It is going to happen all fall. It will probably continue into the fall of 2018.

Bryce Love cannot actually fly. It just sometimes seems like he can. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Love took 30 carries for 263 yards and a touchdown to lead Stanford to a 58-34 win over UCLA. It really was Love leading the way after junior quarterback Keller Chryst was injured in the first quarter. Sophomore K.J. Costello replaced him, completing 13 of 19 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

The Cardinal host Arizona State at 4 p.m. ET on the Pac-12 Network. Favored by 16 points with an over/under of 63.5, this theoretical 40-24 result should be finished before any #Pac12AfterDark swings into action.

Questions for the Week: Ankles, Stepherson and NBC Sports Network at 5 p.m. ET

Getty Images
13 Comments

As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …

Will either, or even both, Josh Adams and Tony Jones be healthy enough to play?
Even if they are, will they?
This past weekend, ankle “stiffness” caught junior running back Josh Adams’ attention during halftime. An immediate X-ray showed nothing of greater concern, but Notre Dame still took the precaution of limiting Adams in the second half of the 38-18 victory at Michigan State.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College on Sept. 16 and did not dress against the Spartans.

The Irish would obviously always prefer to have a full stable of running backs. No Division One FBS opponent warrants a weekend so casual the second-string can comfortably start the game. That said, even if Adams and Jones are healthy enough to compete Saturday, Notre Dame may opt to give them an additional week’s rest, lest those ankle instabilities linger longer than necessary.

Junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Deon McIntosh should be able to bear the load against the RedHawks, especially with the Irish offensive line in front of them.

All this is to say: If Adams and/or Jones do not play this weekend, it is most likely a precautionary measure as much as anything else, but it would still be a notable step forward to see them at least dressed in pads for the occasion.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has yet to see the field this season after a freshman debut of 25 catches, 462 yards and five touchdowns. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Is this the week of Kevin Stepherson’s return?
A recap: The week before his freshman season, Stepherson was one of five Notre Dame players arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession.

A week later Stepherson did not catch a pass against Texas, but he did see action. In last year’s second week, Stepherson caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown, launching into a freshman season in which he caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns. The first two marks were third among Irish pass-catchers (behind then-sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown and senior Torii Hunter, Jr.). Only St. Brown scored more touchdowns.

Stepherson has not seen the field this season.

Now that you’re caught up, one must wonder, could that final sentence change this week?

Who is handling kickoffs, Justin Yoon or Jonathan Doerer?
Freshman Jonathan Doerer was recruited by the Irish with the immediate intention of turning over kickoff duties to the newcomer, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus entirely on placekicking duties. When Doerer fatigued a bit toward the end of preseason practice, Yoon retained the kickoff job for the first two weeks of the season.

On his second career kickoff, Doerer knocked it out of bounds, giving Boston College a boost in field position. His next attempt reached the Eagles 17-yard line, then returned for eight yards. Yoon handled the next five kickoffs.

This past weekend, Yoon sent the opening kickoff out of bounds, granting Michigan State a start at the 35-yard line.

Whoever handles kickoffs, gifting 10-15 yards of field possession by booting the ball out of bounds is rather inexcusable. Even if trying to kick to the corner of the end zone to avoid a particular return threat, that job needs to be executed.

Now in his fourth year at Miami (OH), former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin (left) has the RedHawks at 2-2 and ready to contend in the MAC. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Will Chuck Martin say only good things about Notre Dame?
Spoiler: Yes.

The Miami head coach, and former Irish assistant and longtime close friend of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, has already started with the lauding of his former employer. Some samples from Monday morning alone:

“I’m almost 50 years old and I have not rooted against Notre Dame a day in my life.”

“[Kelly] is the best off-field coach in the world.”

More will assuredly come.

Why in the world is Notre Dame playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network?
First of all, yes, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN will be repeated throughout the week as an incessant reminder. Consider this explanation a minion’s attempt at understanding the time and television slot, not a word from anyone corporate.

The President’s Cup is held domestically only once every four years. When it is, its broadcast value increases dramatically due to obvious time zone alignments. This is one of those years. Thus, NBC is not likely to move the golf property from its flagship station. That explains the NBCSN decision.

Why at 5 p.m. ET rather than the usual time, or even a primetime airing? First, to the latter question, Notre Dame will continue to limit the primetime games to no more than two home contests a year. Moving Miami (OH) into one of those slots would remove Georgia or USC from the high-profile position. That would make no sense whatsoever.

As for earlier in the afternoon, NASCAR XFINITY drops a green flag at Dover International Speedway (Delaware) at 2:30 p.m. ET. Moving the Irish back 90 minutes is a far simpler solution than adjusting a long-scheduled race with 95,000 in attendance.

Will USC’s national title dreams take a bit hit Friday night?
The Trojans travel to Washington State for a 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff. The Cougars are four-point underdogs. Given USC’s struggles at home against Texas earlier in the year, it is not unreasonable to think this matchup could prove to be too much for Sam Darnold & Co.

Just how good is Wake Forest?
The Demon Deacons host Florida State at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Wake Forest is undefeated and exceeding expectations. The Seminoles are winless and desperate.

If the Demon Deacons can find a win (currently 7.5-point underdogs), they will both turn the ACC upside and establish themselves as 2017’s darling upstart.

Monday Morning Leftovers: The long-term effects of Crawford’s punch, limited roster turnover & Yoon’s record approach

Associated Press
27 Comments

Notre Dame is 3-1. Let’s rephrase that.

Notre Dame is only 3-1. This season could still go multiple directions. But if — IF — it continues to trend upward, one moment from this weekend may stand the test of time as the demarcation point between a successful 2017 and a new Irish head coach in 2018. When junior cornerback Shaun Crawford peanut-punched the ball away from Spartans junior running back LJ Scott at the goal line in Saturday night’s second quarter, Crawford certainly altered the game.

That is the very smallest effect of that heads-up play.

It may have altered the trajectory of the entire program. Until coming weeks play out, that claim needs to remain in the conditional verb tense. If the time comes where removing that particular phrasing is appropriate, the statement will not be one of exaggeration. It was that big of a play.

If granting that premise, and acknowledging the usage of “program” implies its reach could extend past this season, a look at Notre Dame’s travel roster from this weekend raises an eyebrow.

The listing included 72 names, complete with a number of walk-ons. If looking at the scholarship players, the strictest of readings finds only 11 names whom the Irish should not plan on having around in 2018.

The obvious, players currently in their last year of eligibility: linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, tight end Durham Smythe, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and receiver Cam Smith.

The almost-assuredly headed to the NFL: left guard Quenton Nelson.

The very-unlikely to be asked back for a fifth year: offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne, receiver Austin Webster and quarterback Montgomery VanGorder.

Of those 11, only seven contributed to the 38-18 victory over Michigan State.

Obviously there will be other departures, either due to transfer or early entry into the NFL Draft or perhaps injury, but the point is: Much of this team will be back in a year. Even more pertinently, the rout of the Spartans was done with youth, as contrary to the norm as that may be. It seems safe to assume that youth has yet to reach the ceiling on its potential.

Among those contributors, it is time to start a Justin Yoon record watch. It is preemptive, but the junior kicker has reached a point where any week he could essentially set the Notre Dame career field goal percentage record, though he remains a bit further from the mark being recognized.

Entering the season, Yoon had made 28-of-34 field goal attempts. Thus far this year, he has added 5-of-7 to the ledger, making for an 80.49 percent career rate. John Carney (1984-1986) holds the Irish record at 73.9 percent. If Yoon makes four of his next nine attempts, he will break that mark. Technically speaking, he will not set the record until he has indeed taken nine more attempts, notching the minimum requirement of 50.

Notre Dame has turned 19 trips into the red zone into 17 touchdowns to date. By no means has the Irish offense needed to rely on Yoon. By no means is this mention a subtle expectation of that changing. It is simply comprehensibly feasible to think Yoon might make four field goals in one weekend. After all, he has twice made three in one game.

It seems distinctly possible Notre Dame will not face the most-talented opposing running back on its schedule until the season’s finale week at Stanford. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

One of those occasions came against Stanford in 2015. Taking a look at this year’s Cardinal, it held on for a win against UCLA late Saturday night. The 58-34 shootout sparked two thoughts. First of all, junior running back Bryce Love is really good. Let’s skip finding creative adjective and memorable phrasing and instead get straight to that point. He is really, really good.

In four games this year, Love has taken 73 carries for 787 yards, averaging 196.75 yards per game and 10.8 yards per rush.

Those numbers are absurd.

Secondly, Stanford is already almost certain to fall short of preseason projections. The over/under win total number for the Cardinal was nine. At 2-2 currently, the over is still within reach if Stanford wins out, but that would require beating winning all of, in chronological order, vs. Oregon, at Washington State, vs. Washington and vs. Notre Dame.

On the other side of that spectrum, Wake Forest is poised to surpass expectations. The Demon Deacons are 4-0 after blocking a potentially game-winning field goal by Appalachian State on Saturday. Wake Forest has gotten off to the strong start in large part thanks to its defense, allowing only 11.5 points per game.

Notre Dame fans can take that to mean Irish first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, formerly in that same role with the Demon Deacons, did not have much of a determining effect on that defense’s success, or they can see that stifling unit’s continued growth as a sign of Elko’s developmental contributions to the individual players.

Anyway, the over/under win total of Wake Forest was 5.5. The Deacons could still fall short of that, but they would need to manage only one win from trips to Georgia Tech and Syracuse as well as a visit from Duke, while also not pulling off any surprises.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Kelly on Wimbush’s accuracy, receivers’ hands & needed secondary improvements

Getty Images
17 Comments

Notre Dame’s greatest successes this season have come when relying on its running game. It would stand to reason the Irish would turn to their ground attack to set the tone from the outset of a pivotal matchup against a physical opponent. Instead, Notre Dame opened with the pass in its 38-18 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. The first five plays from scrimmage were passing attempts from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, completing four of them for 62 yards.

This was all very intentional, especially a week after Wimbush struggled with accuracy.

“Getting the quarterback off with some quick throws, some easy throws to get into a rhythm was important,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “I wanted to make sure [offensive coordinator Chip Long] got some openers for [Wimbush] in his first nine plays that were high percentage completions for him to get into a rhythm, which he did.

“… It was orchestrated or planned or constructed that way, whatever word you want to use.”

Wimbush finished 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown, a marked improvement from his 11-of-24 for 96 yards at Boston College.

“It’s not uncommon when you go through the volume you do in preseason camp and all the throwing that sometimes the ball drops a little bit,” Kelly said. “… [Wimbush] is throwing the ball perfectly.

“We wanted to get him some completions, no question, and we set him up that way.”

A few of Wimbush’s completions were aided by excellent catches by his targets. Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, junior running back Dexter Williams and sophomore receiver Chase Claypool all made difficult catches. Following the 49-20 victory over the Eagles last week, Kelly had been critical of both Wimbush’s accuracy and the lack of playmaking from the receiver corps.

“I knew that we needed to step up our play in supporting [Wimbush],” Kelly said. “He had to throw it better. We had to catch it better.”

With that in mind, Kelly and the coaching staff made it a point in this week’s practices to remind the receivers a pass needs two participants. The onus was not on only Wimbush to improve.

“There wasn’t a time where if a ball was not caught there was not a comment about how important it is for us to focus on the football and catch that football,” Kelly said.

“… We’ve got some guys that are gaining some confidence out there. I think you’ll see a better rapport as the season goes on here between Brandon and the receivers and confidence grow in that regard.”

Josh Adams & ankle ‘stiffness’
Notre Dame was already without sophomore running back Tony Jones due to a sprained ankle suffered a week ago. In the second half Saturday, junior running back Josh Adams took some time off, as well. Kelly said Adams felt “some stiffness” in his ankle at halftime, which led to a precautionary X-ray. The X-ray did not reveal any issues, but the Irish were content to rely on Williams unless it was “absolutely necessary” to reinsert Adams. With a three-possession Notre Dame lead, that situation never arose.

Adams handled a total of two rushes in the second half, one for a loss of a yard and the second for a three-yard gain. He finished with nine carries for 56 yards.

Room to improve
Michigan State attempted 53 passes, 12 more than the most the Irish had seen yet this year. This was in part due to Notre Dame’s quick and sizable lead, and it was in part the Spartans’ game plan, expecting the Irish to be ready for a known running focus.

Despite limiting the Spartans to only 6.51 yards per pass attempt, the influx of opportunities to defend the pass showed Kelly and his staff improvements waiting to be made in the secondary.

“We have to play with a little bit more of a sense of urgency in terms of down-and-distance, recognizing game situations,” Kelly said. “There is some improvement there for us.

“We have to do a better job with understanding passing off routes, underneath coverage, inside-out on slant routes in terms of down-and-distance.”

In other words, the Notre Dame secondary has yet to genuinely need to know where the first-down line is on a given down. On a second-and-seven, the concern is as much about a 15-yard route as it is a six-yard route. On a third-and-seven, the defensive back needs to be prepared for the seven-yard route more than anything else, expecting the pass to come in that area, while still protecting against the big play.

Exposure to those situations helps build that awareness. Saturday night provided some of that exposure, and now the Irish will set to developing those instincts.

“[It] gave us a real good snapshot of the things we have to focus in on and work to improve this week.”

On Miami of Ohio
If Notre Dame does not make those improvements, Redhawks senior quarterback Gus Ragland is the type of passer who can reap the rewards. Before the season, Kelly often described the first four Irish opponents as physical foes, ground-oriented. Now through those four, the focus will shift somewhat toward defending the pass. Ragland will be the first test.

To date, he has completed 52.1 percent of his passes this season for 881 yards and eight touchdowns compared to two interceptions. Ragland has averaged 7.53 yards per passing attempt.

In a 31-14 win over Central Michigan this weekend, Ragland threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns on only 11-of-19 passing.

The Redhawks are led by former Notre Dame assistant and longtime Kelly confidante Chuck Martin.

“We have a lot of respect for Chuck,” Kelly said. “Obviously I know him quite well. He’ll have his team ready.”