Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, LSU 28

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The snickering started early. After choosing to receive, Notre Dame fumbled the opening kickoff. They burned their first timeout before running a play. And when Malik Zaire got tracked down in the backfield on his first attempted run, a tidal wave of social media chatter left the Irish for dead.

But the next 59-and-a-half minutes told a different story.

Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl may have only pushed the Irish to 8-5, a slightly better than mediocre finish to a season that started with such high hopes. But after Kyle Brindza’s field goal tucked inside the left upright after Les Miles attempted twice to recall the ghosts that haunted the Irish’s senior kicker throughout most of the season, the outpouring of emotions from a young Notre Dame team told a much different story.

The Irish won perhaps the most important eight-victory of a season in recent memory, sending Notre Dame into the offseason on a high note as they prepare to mount a playoff run in 2015.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

With Notre Dame’s offense needing to win in the trenches to have any chance at victory, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line carried the day. 

Much has been said about the up and down performance from Notre Dame’s offensive line this season. After losing Zack Martin and Chris Watt from the 2013 unit and reshuffling the starting five in September, the front five hasn’t played with the aggression many expected from a young but talented group.

That wasn’t the case on Tuesday afternoon.

Against the SEC’s top defense, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line helped the Irish possess the football for an astounding 37 minutes, controlling the clock, the football and dictating terms to one of America’s most physically impressive defenses.

Notre Dame ran for 263 yards against LSU, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. That’s a number that would’ve been assuredly a typo had you not seen the game, but behind 51 attempts — both Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston breaking the 20 carries — the Irish offensive line showed a physicality that took even the broadcast crew by surprise.

“Say what you want about Notre Dame failing against the SEC and the SEC being too physical,” ESPN’s Rod Gilmore said. “Not up front with this offensive line today. Notre Dame’s offensive line has been dominant with the big boys of the SEC.”

After the game, Notre Dame’s head coach said it best.

“We dictated the outcome by controlling the football,” Brian Kelly said.

 

Who cares about what comes next? Paired together, Malik Zaire and Everett Golson found a way to win the football game. 

Want an idea of how much this game meant? After leading his teammates to victory in his first start, Malik Zaire brushed away tears as he did his first postgame interview as a winning quarterback.

Zaire talked about those emotions after the game.

“Just the whole season, being a little bit frustrated in terms of pondering my place on this football team,” Zaire said, when asked about his mindset as he basked in the victory. “Being able to still stay focused, still stay tuned in even when things around me weren’t going the way that I felt I could contribute to the team.

“Life is about these opportunities that we get each and every day and taking advantage of them. I’m thankful for that lesson and I didn’t want to ruin it for this football team coming off the losses we have.”

While Golson certainly took a backseat to Zaire on a chilly afternoon in Nashville, he played a critical role in the victory as well. The senior returned to the field to help drive the Irish offense to a game-winning drive, returning to the field after taking a nasty hit on a wild third-down conversion to Will Fuller that required a medical injection to help numb the pain.

“I thought Everett was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Nobody really knows this, he got hit pretty hard on the play that he made. He had to go in and get a shot, the first time he’s ever done that since he’s been here at Notre Dame. To come back out and play, I was really proud of him.”

While the idea of a soap opera-like quarterback controversy is catnip to a media that needs something to talk about over the next nine months, it’s worth taking what Kelly has said for the past month at face value: He built a game plan to beat LSU.

“This really was just about this game,” Kelly said. “Playing both of them, my focus was about winning this game. And we’ll figure out the quarterback situation come January.”

That was made possible by both quarterbacks putting the team first and trusting the guy that brought them to South Bend.

“I thought they played very well and I thought they played well because they played together and they played unselfish,” Kelly said. “They trusted what we called. The big word for us was trust. Let us call the game. Trust what we’re calling. Trust what we’re doing. And we’re going to get you there. I thought that was pretty evident from Everett and from Malik.”

 

While it wasn’t always pretty, Brian VanGorder’s defense got the stops it needed and helped win the football game. 

After getting sliced and diced by just about every offense it faced since Florida State, Notre Dame’s much-maligned defense did enough to win the football game. Held together by duct tape and glue, Brian VanGorder’s young unit made enough big plays to help the Irish emerge victorious.

Every little play mattered. An opening three-and-out after the Irish scored first? Critical in winning the time of possession. Getting a big stop before halftime? Game defining (even if it seemed mighty close on replay).

Sheldon Day returned to recover a critical fumble. Max Redfield emerged from the doghouse and made a team-high 14 tackles. If the defensive performance was about finding a way to win, then getting too wrapped up in Leonard Fournette’s dominant performance is missing the point.

The defense made the plays they needed to make, keeping an opponent under 30 points for the first time since VanGorder’s unit led the Irish to victory over Stanford in early October. And the return of Day and Cody Riggs, a month off — not to mention a change in coaching strategy — clearly helped.

“We were beat up and tired late in the season. Getting a break really rejuvenated our football team, particularly our defense,” Kelly said. “And quite frankly, we kept our defense off the field. We did a better job, I did a better job coaching. And I think that helped in this respect, we didn’t have to put our defense in some tough positions.”

 

Brian Kelly outcoached Les Miles. 

While some Notre Dame fans spent the day pining for Michigan’s new head football coach, the guy roaming the Irish sidelines put together one of his finest performances since coming to South Bend. Brian Kelly pulled a rabbit from his hat, putting together a masterful game plan as the Irish completely outfoxed Les Miles and his coaching staff.

Kelly hit every right note en route to the tight victory, utilizing multiple personnel sets on offense, two quarterbacks perfectly and a game-winning drive that reframes the next nine months completely. While Irish fans spent December wondering if a mutiny was on the horizon, the football team they had left for dead pulled out a victory against a team that took Alabama to overtime and didn’t lose a football game outside of the SEC West.

While the massive adjustments to the schematic game plan came too late to salvage 2014, those that wondered what Notre Dame could possibly get from playing in a bowl game saw clearly just how well the much-maligned staff prepared their football team.

“That’s all we talked about. We really talked about this more being a life lesson for handling adversity,” Kelly said about preparing his team. “We had some adversity. Everybody was down on Notre Dame and our kids and we can’t do this and we can’t do that. I said, ‘That’s going to happen in life.’ You just have to believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing, stick with it and trust what you’re doing.’ And if you do that, you’re going to be okay.”

Against a college football coach who has done a better job than anyone assembling talent outside of Tuscaloosa, Brian Kelly reminded all those who hadn’t already left him for dead that he didn’t forget how to coach.

 

After a season of heartbreak, a win in the Music City Bowl feels like poetic justice for the 2014 Irish. 

If you’re looking for a perfect season finale, even the end of Breaking Bad doesn’t have anything on the ending of Notre Dame’s 2014 season. In letting Kyle Brindza boot the game-winning field goal after struggling so mightily throughout this season, an Emmy-winning writers room couldn’t have scripted a better finish for an 8-5 season.

Nothing came easy for this team. Not even summer school.

But while this team might not have known well enough how to win, it certainly didn’t know how to quit. And the victory over LSU was proof of that.

And while most eyes turn immediately to 2015, it’s worth tipping your cap to a senior class that did the little things needed to make sure Kelly got an eighth victory, making him Notre Dame’s first head coach to win eight or more in his first five seasons.

In his final collegiate game, Cam McDaniel’s one carry came on a blown audible by Malik Zaire. But you saw the senior captain going head up with Leonard Fournette on kickoff coverage, making a tackle early in the game by stepping in the way of a freight train.

Ben Koyack finished his career as well. After struggling as a blocker at times this season, Koyack held his own in the trenches when the Irish desperately needed him, then came through with a clutch third-down conversion to move the chains with under two minutes left in the game.

Cody Riggs returned for a game that could only hurt his professional chances. But there he was nearly intercepting a pass with one hand on the opening drive and making one of the underrated plays of the game, tracking LSU’s John Dairse across the field in man coverage and forcing him out of bounds before the goal line with seconds remaining in the second quarter. (The Tigers would fail to convert their fake field goal attempt.)

Christian Lombard gave his health to this football team. So did Austin Collinsworth. Justin Utupo went from bottom of the depth chart to the bottom of the pile after being called to action as the defense lost man after man.

A four-loss November and dropping five of six to close the season is still difficult to conceive. But this team deserves every bit of celebration tonight in Nashville, closing out the year with the most improbable of wins.

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)