Pregame Six Pack: Hunting for the Hoos

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After a very impressive opening night victory over Texas, Notre Dame packs up and takes flight, heading to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the first time in school history to take on the Cavaliers. A week after Mike London’s team took a tough opening loss to UCLA, the home team will try to rally at Scott Stadium.

With the Irish another double-digit favorite, many expect Notre Dame’s momentum to roll right into an early-season showdown with Georgia Tech. But as we’ll soon get to, winning on the road has been a challenge of late, and it’s as good of a time as any for the Irish to put their road woes behind them and start the season 2-0.

With the first of Notre Dame’s six ACC opponents on tap for a Saturday afternoon start in Charlottesville, let’s get to the pregame six pack.

 

Road woes? Time to end those. 

Popular stat this week: Notre Dame hasn’t won a road game since beating Air Force in 2013. Unpacking that stat a bit, it’s both understandable and yet a little bit unnerving.

Last year, the Irish lost on the road to Florida State, Arizona State and USC. While they won three times outside of Notre Dame Stadium beating Navy, Syracuse and Purdue, games all played in neutral sites.

In 2013, Notre Dame finished the regular season with a loss to Stanford. Just a few weeks before that was the disappointing road debacle against Pitt. So while this is hardly the losing streaks we used to hear about when Michigan State or Boston College came onto the schedule, it’s a legitimate (although short-term) trend, and one that you can expect Brian Kelly will let his team know about.

A Notre Dame loss on Saturday would be a shock—even for Virginia fans. But sandwiched between an opening night date with Texas and a Top 15 matchup against Georgia Tech, this Saturday’s afternoon kickoff has all the makings of a trap game.

 

Welcome to Virginia, Irish. Everybody’s excited to have you. 

Saturday will be Notre Dame’s first visit to Charlottesville for football, and just the second time the two programs have played each other in football. The last came in the 1989 Kickoff Classic, when the No. 2 Irish, fresh off a national championship, handily beat a Virginia team that ended up with 10 wins.

While the Mike London era has brought a sense of apathy to the Wahoo fanbase, this game seems to standout from others. And this quote from Jerry Ratcliffe of the Charlottesville Daily Progress pretty much captured it:

“The game sold out in 25 minutes, surpassed in recent UVa history by only Taylor Swift’s concert and the Cavalier baseball team’s unexpected hosting of a NCAA Super Regional en route to its national championship.”

Finishing behind Taylor Swift and former Notre Dame baseball assistant coach Brian O’Connor’s national championship baseball team? The allure of the Irish is alive and well.

 

Game tape confirms what we saw last Saturday: The Cavaliers expect a stout defense. 

Yesterday, we talked about needing to see more from Notre Dame’s defense, with their dominant performance against Texas just a single datapoint. But when asked about Notre Dame’s front seven and the linebacking corps led by Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, London knows his offense is in for a challenge.

“I believe that their front seven is very formidable.  Guys that are again athletic and fast and we just played a team that was really fast, really athletic,” London said, comparing the Irish defense to UCLA’s.

“You look at Notre Dame from guys up front and the linebacking corps, they’re capable of running and running out of mistakes. It’s going to be important for us to be on schedule, stay on schedule, try to do things that we can that are our strengths and control the football a little bit and make sure we use those players or those schemes that can help us be successful.”

Last week, former five-star running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell had a big game catching the ball out of the backfield, reeling in eight catches for 100 yards. While the power ground game that Virginia hoped to deploy stuttered, after watching Texas try unsuccessfully to catch the Irish with a speed attack, the Cavaliers will try to slow it down and grind things out.

We’ll see how successful that strategy turns out.

 

Where should we expect to see improvement from Malik Zaire? How about as a runner. 

After jumping into the national spotlight with a near-perfect game throwing the football, quarterback Malik Zaire’s game is already in midseason form. But as we look for areas for him to improve, Zaire the zone-read, option quarterback needs to do a better job with his decision making and reading the play.

Kelly was asked about Zaire’s day as a runner. And needless to say he wasn’t all that impressed with his nine carries for 16 yards.

“He should have been nine carries for 60, 70 yards, maybe more. There’s a lot of room for improvement in there,” Kelly said. “He’s very capable. He knows where he needs to get better in that. So the fundamentals of working in his reads, and it’s all very correctible and things that we’ll get straightened out this week.”

We saw a few misses by Zaire, most notably a fumbled meshpoint with C.J. Prosise and allowing Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson to nearly decapitate Josh Adams. Zaire also did a bit too much bouncing for my liking, trying to beat players to the outside instead of getting north and south against the defense.

I expect the ground game to be on display Saturday afternoon, especially with rain scheduled to hit Charlottesville right around kickoff. So while that could slow down the passing game, it should put the crosshairs on Zaire to be a good read-option triggerman, something he’s more than capable of doing.

 

There’s a lot of familiarity with Notre Dame on the Virginia sidelines. 

It may be the first visit to Charlottesville for Notre Dame’s football team, but the Cavaliers coaching staff has plenty of familiarity with the Irish football program.

We already mentioned former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. Spending the 2008 and 2009 seasons working for Charlie Weis, Tenuta left South Bend when Weis was relieved of his duties and spent some time at North Carolina State before returning to his alma mater as defensive coordinator.

Another former Weis assistant coaches for the Cavaliers with defensive line coach Jappy Oliver working for Mike London. Oliver filled that role for Weis’ first four seasons, but was replaced by veteran Randy Hart after the 2008 season. Oliver has a Grand Valley connection with Brian Kelly, coaching the defensive line back in 1988 when Kelly was just a graduate assistant. He also worked with Irish coaching analyst Jeff Quinn at Buffalo as his defensive line coach, one of many stops in a long coaching career.

Virginia offensive line coach Dave Borbely spent four seasons working with Bob Davie in South Bend. Before working at Notre Dame, Borbely coached the offensive line for former Irish coach Ty Willingham at Stanford.

 

Don’t look now, but the emphasis on the running game is happening in a hurry. 

Lost amidst the stunning accuracy Malik Zaire displayed last Saturday was the fact that Notre Dame ran the ball 52 times against Texas. The comes after finishing the 2014 season with 51 rushing attempts in the Music City Bowl.

That’s the first time Notre Dame has run the ball over 50 times in consecutive games since the 2005 season, when they ran it 50 times in a lopsided win over Purdue and then 52 times in the narrow loss to USC.

Tallying the two-game total of 103 carries, it’s been since 2001 since Notre Dame has run the ball more in two consecutive games, dating back to a two-game, late-season stretch against Boston College and Tennessee. The Irish lost both those football games.

Just about everybody expected the Irish to emphasize the run this season, especially as Zaire got his feet wet. Well, Zaire threw the ball better than everybody thought he would, and Notre Dame still ran the ball more than they have in a decade.

So far, so good.

 

 

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)