And in that corner… The Michigan Wolverines

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A week after both Notre Dame and Michigan took their opponents to the proverbial woodshed, they’ll do battle one more time, with both proud programs hoping to do the same to their nemesis.

In a game that’s one of the premiere matchups in college football, the lights will shine bright over Notre Dame Stadium as Brian Kelly tries to even things up with Brady Hoke. While Hoke’s seat in Ann Arbor may be warming up after a significant regression the past two seasons, he’s beaten Brian Kelly in two of three matchups.

With a primetime kickoff and the game a key September barometer for success, the last scheduled meeting between both teams will likely be even saltier than usual, in a rivalry recently defined lately by close and heart-wrenching games.

Getting us ready for action is Bleacher Report’s Adam Biggers.

 

Let’s get this first question out of the way: How strong is the hatred coming from Michigan’s side of this “rivalry.” As strong as it is for Michigan State? That “team from Ohio?” (After being in Ann Arbor last year, I’ve got to think strong to quite strong at the very least.)

There are a lot of Notre Dame alums and fans in Michigan, so Wolverines fans have the experience of running into one of three enemies at every turn, especially those in Ann Arbor, who are minutes away from the borderline of savage society (just kidding, Ohio!).

Saturday, the No. 1 enemy will be Notre Dame—the only team that should exist for the Wolverines this weekend.

 

Outside of the revenge/upset storyline, how much can you learn from the Wolverines beating an Appalachian State team that was 4-8 in the FCS last year? Change the name to another directional school and would there be as much excitement about the impressive victory?

Michigan did what it had to do, so I’m not going to get too excited about the 52-14 victory. Brady Hoke’s staff had a solid game plan. The players did their jobs. The O-line held tight, the D-line pretty much owned the trenches. Everything that a Michigan fan wanted to see was clear and present at The Big House.

At the end of the day, the Wolverines removed a thorn from their side, but I don’t think they’re looking at it as some monumental accomplishment. But I know for a fact that they’re geared up for Notre Dame.

Jake Ryan told me that the game will be a real test for the defense. I agree. It’ll also be one for the offense, which didn’t dazzle me for four quarters this past weekend.

 

That said, this was Doug Nussmeier’s debut as offensive coordinator and playcaller and all reports had to be rosy. The Wolverines offense racked up 560 yards on 55 plays. The running game plowed its way to 350 yards, at an astounding 9.7 yards per touch. Devin Gardner completed 13 of 14 passes with three touchdowns to Devin Funchess.

Is Nussmeier in walk-on-water territory after Game One? Is there a grain of salt with all of this? After Al Borges’ offense torched the Irish last year, just how terrified should Notre Dame fans be of the Michigan offense come Saturday night?

Hahaha. No. Not yet. Not even close.

However, to say that Michigan fans are happy about his presence would be an understatement. Watching Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess play catch during the first half of the season-opening win over Appalachian State was a welcome sight; likewise with Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, who combined for 285 yards and three touchdowns.

It appears that guys whose names start with “D” are going to be stars this fall. Doug Nussmeier could very well be next.

But let’s wait and see how he does against Notre Dame before going bonkers over bonking the Mountaineers.

 

Greg Mattison tweaked his role in the defense, coaching linebackers now as he and Mark Smith switch roles. There looks to be a lot of talent returning. After Mattison (or the moment) seemed to overwhelm Everett Golson in 2012, how do you think the Wolverines will attack the Irish offense?

Michigan’s defense is going to throw everything at everyone, regardless of helmet color, jersey creed or nationality. Michigan fans should prepare for what could be Mattison’s best defense yet—and that’s saying a lot, considering he brought the Wolverines from the cellar to top-25 contention (defensively) in his first year.

Respecting Golson’s athleticism, I’d imagine that he’ll have a linebacker glued to him for much of the game, anticipating his every move. I’m also going to guess that Notre Dame receivers won’t get a lot of breathing room.
On media day, Jourdan Lewis and Blake Countess, both corners, told me that they were more than confident in their secondary.

That’s a great sign, obviously. A defense is only as strong as its last line of…well…defense.

I like the D-line, especially with Brennen Beyer, Ondre Pipkins, Willie Henry and Matt Godin, among a few others, looking like they’ll be all hustle in 2014. During Week 1, the Wolverines gave up 153 yards on the ground. I wouldn’t think that they’d be too keen on letting sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant getting remotely close to that. If there’s one “weakness” evident after the opener, it’s run defense up the middle—that has to be buttoned down quickly, which shouldn’t be a problem. You can bet that Mattison’s pumping film right now.

 

If you were Brian Kelly, how would you attack the Wolverines defense? On the ground, where Michigan gave up a 100-yard rushing game? Through the air? Brady Hoke might be on the hot seat, but he’s beated Kelly three of four times.

Well, as kind of mentioned above, I’d go up the middle until the Wolverines stop allowing positive yardage. Again, this area needs to be tightened up before Saturday; it’s the most concerning aspect of Mattison’s unit so far.

 

What’s your gut tell you about Saturday night? Notre Dame opened as a six-point favorite in a game that really favors the underdog. In the last game until both ADs can kiss and make up, what are the keys to victory?

Keeping emotions in check will be huge. Neither team can afford an ejection, especially of a star player or even coach, so it’s important for both sides to remain relatively calm—which is easier said than done, considering that this is it (as of now, anyway).

Staples of solid defense, such as winning first and thirds, creating turnovers and limiting the big play are always a good place to start. If I’m Kelly, I want to make sure that Green and Smith are cold. Once warmed up, they can go through walls.

When I asked Smith if he and Green proved anything Saturday, Smith told me this: “[Derrick and I are] powerful runners. It’s going to take more than one person to bring us down.”

These guys are focused and ready to do damage. The Irish have to find a way to cap them—not to mention Devin Funchess—if they want to ensure victory. I see this one going down the final moments, with Michigan slipping away by less than a touchdown.

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You can get more from Adam on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.