Five things we learned: Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27

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With the clock ticking below half a minute and Notre Dame’s offense tossing away precious seconds as backup quarterback DeShone Kizer tried to get the Irish back to the line of scrimmage, Kizer made the wisest decision of his young football career when he turned to Will Fuller to bail the Irish out of season-destroying calamity. The sophomore looked left and saw Fuller streaking down the sideline, delivering a perfect throw to a receiver who was inexplicably in single coverage. Fuller pranced into the end zone for his fourth score of the season and Brian Kelly’s team escaped Charlottesville by stealing a victory in the game’s last dozen seconds.

That’s the good news.

The bad? Well, where to start?

Kizer was thrust into the role of hero after starting quarterback Malik Zaire fractured his ankle on a run up the middle, ending the junior’s season in mid-September. In consecutive weeks, the Irish have now lost pillars of the offense, with the Irish M.A.S.H. unit now including starting running back Tarean Folston, Zaire and nose guard Jarron Jones.

If Zaire’s hard-luck injury was the worst of the news, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the afternoon was the performance of Brian VanGorder’s defense. The Irish surrended 27 points to Virginia’s offense, taking a unit that looked inept last week in the Rose Bowl and turning them into world-beaters.

Leading the way for the scrappy Cavaliers was quarterback Matt Johns, who had his way with the Irish secondary, exploiting the continuous man-coverage looks that VanGorder threw at him. Johns nearly played the home-team hero in Scott Stadium when the Hoos scored with just 1:54 left in the game.

But Fuller could not be stopped. And while the Irish emerge 2-0, in seven days, Notre Dame went from having all the ingredients of a playoff team to a team quarterbacked by one very big question mark.

Notre Dame escapes the Commonwealth of Virginia with a surprisingly hard-fought victory. But Kelly’s football team will return to South Bend with a slew of questions that didn’t exist when the sun came up.

Let’s find out the five things we learned.

 

Without Zaire, Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock will need to reinvent Notre Dame’s offense. 

Let’s not lose sight of the big picture: DeShone Kizer rallied Notre Dame to a victory with a game-winning touchdown drive in his very first two-minute drill. That’s pretty special.

But as the dust settles on the Irish’s 34-27 victory, Notre Dame’s coaching staff might as well sweep up what’s left of the Irish’s offense and chuck it into the recycling bin. It’s time to rethink some things.

Saturday afternoon was hardly a good one for the Irish’s play-calling collaboration, with Notre Dame’s schematic design nearly as poor as its execution. After missing only three throws on Saturday, it took four passing attempts for Zaire to miss three times, with the Irish starter off from the start.

The entire Irish offense seemed off its game minus C.J. Prosise and Fuller, converting exactly zero of its ten third-down attempts, consistently losing in short yardage situations and having little success in the red zone. Want a recipe for losing football? Jon Tenuta might have slipped Betty Crocker into the Irish playbook.

With Kizer behind center, the Irish will likely reboot the offensive game plan for the season. Gone is Zaire and his ability to carry a significant part of the load in the running game. Enter Kizer, a 6-foot-5 quarterback who can run the football but certainly doesn’t make for the ideal zone-read signal caller. Especially with only true freshman Brandon Wimbush behind him.

When Kelly brought in Mike Sanford from Boise State, he attracted the rising star with an opportunity to have a seat at the table and “turn things upside down.” Well Zaire’s injury did all the turning upside down the Irish ever needed. Now Sanford, Denbrock and Kelly will need to rearrange things and find a way to cobble together an offense that still has elite pieces.

Kelly has done that before, most notably at Cincinnati when he rode five different quarterbacks to a Big East title. But Notre Dame isn’t playing the Big East this season. And to survive the short-term, this coaching staff is going to have to earn its salary.

 

The offense shouldn’t be the only group rethinking their game plan. Brian VanGorder’s unit needs to take a hard look in the mirror. 

Just a week ago, Virginia fans would’ve packed the moving vans for head coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, chipping in enough gas money to make sure the duo took its vanilla scheme outside state lines. On Saturday, Fairchild had the Irish defense on a string, consistently wreaking havoc with motion, formation shifts and play-action passing.

After spending all offseason talking about how ten returning starters had a better understanding of what VanGorder’s scheme demanded, the Irish reverted back to a unit that found ways to get as little as possible for their production. The Irish struggled in man coverage against Virginia’s wide receivers and playing woeful defense in the red zone. They made Matt Johns look like a big-time quarterback and failed to take advantage of multiple 50-50 balls that hung dangerously in the air.

Now 15 games and two offseasons into VanGorder’s scheme, it’s time to start wondering if the former NFL defensive coordinator is getting the most out of his personnel. We can talk all about the mad scientist designs and his exotic schemes. But they don’t matter if the Irish continue to struggle to execute.

Communication issues seemed to plague the Irish all afternoon. On a critical 3rd-and-short in the first half, Drue Tranquill ran straight into Jaylon Smith, the collision leading to a Virginia first down. The very next play, the Irish got beat over the top for a touchdown, a trick play that young, inexperienced teams fall for, not a defense like Notre Dame’s.

Add to that the difficulties the Irish had playing Virginia’s Canaan Severin straight up, and you can help but project those struggles forward, especially against teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC.

The focus shifts as soon as the Irish get back to South Bend, with VanGorder taking on Paul Johnson’s triple option and the Georgia Tech coach out to settle old grudges. So for now, maybe we can give the Irish defense the benefit of the doubt and say hey were just looking a week ahead. But a unit that looked like world beaters just a week ago played poorly on Saturday, and it’s time to examine some of the bedrock assumptions for the defense.

 

C.J. Prosise looks at home as a feature back. 

Playing in front of family and friends, C.J. Prosise put on a show on Saturday, running for 155 yards on 17 carries. Breaking the 100 yard barrier by halftime, Prosise responded to Zaire’s season ending injury by matter-of-factly running 25 yards for a touchdown on Kizer’s first snap and extending the Irish lead to double digits.

No, the lead didn’t last. But the Irish found their new offensive engine in Prosise, with the senior playing just his second game as a running back looking up to the task.

As you’d expect, Kelly didn’t put much on the shoulders of his freshmen backs, never wanting to do so in road games. And while the Irish struggled in short yardage (we’ll get to that in a second), Prosise found big lanes early and often and could’ve put up a monster number had the Irish offense found a way to stay on the field by converting some third downs.

With Folston and Zaire gone, there’s no other option to trigger the ground game. But Kelly’s big spring decision—one that looked like a head-scratcher to many, me included—has paid off big time, with Prosise now Notre Dame’s first offensive option.

 

Harry Hiestand’s offensive line is going to have one uncomfortable Sunday. 

Lost in all the snickering about Jon Tenuta the last seven days, Irish fans forgot that Virginia’s defense was one of the more disruptive in the ACC last season. Forcing turnovers and making big plays behind the line of scrimmage, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator did plenty of good things for a Cavaliers team that was searching for positives in 2014.

After a tough Saturday last weekend in Los Angeles, the Virginia defense gave the Irish fits, especially in the passing game. They made five tackles for loss and had two sacks, disrupting the passing game from the opening bell. And while it’s hard to take many positives out of blowing a victory in the game’s final seconds, Tenuta’s defense was incredibly disruptive on Saturday, slowing down the Irish offensive juggernaut in short order.

No, they couldn’t stop Will Fuller. But they certainly gave Harry Hiestand’s offensive line their share of problems.  Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line coach will likely spend the evening breaking down tape and showing his troops a lot of plays where improvement is desperately needed, especially with a new quarterback behind center.

The point of attack was won too often by the Cavaliers. And the interior of the offensive line struggled too, especially in short yardage. A week ago, center Nick Martin was Notre Dame’s highest-rated offensive lineman, according to ProFootballFocus. I don’t expect that to be the case after the tape gets graded.

It’s hard to be too tough on this group when the Irish ran for 253 yards and 7.4 yards per carry. But Tenuta wreaked havoc in the passing game with pressure and the Irish receivers struggled to find space working against the Cavalier’s secondary. That all stems from line play.

Mediocre isn’t going to cut it next weekend against Georgia Tech, especially when moving the chains and controlling the clock will be vital. So Hiestand and his guys need to get back to work.

 

 

It may not have helped, but Brian Kelly tried his best not to let the Irish start flat. 

Yes, he’s the head coach. But I’m not sure how much blame you can give Brian Kelly for Notre Dame’s lethargic start. Kelly did everything he could to jump-start the Irish, including a bold fake field goal that went for Notre Dame’s first touchdown.

You watch football long enough, and trap games start to feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. You see it coming. I see it coming. We all see it coming. Unfortunately, the college kids laughing in the car and passing around the snacks and the Big Gulps don’t realize things are going to go very wrong until it’s too late.

Kelly looked like a cagey baseball pitcher, doing his best to work through the early innings without his fastball. As the Irish bumbled their way through the early going with two blown timeouts and a field goal operation that took a delay of game penalty, Kelly pulled a rare rabbit out of his special teams’ hat to score the Irish’s first touchdown.

On a day where touchdowns weren’t easy to come by, those six points (the two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful) came in handy. And with the Irish now looking to ham-and-egg their offense with Kizer (and true freshman Brandon Wimbush) in the two-deep, Notre Dame’s head coach needs to be as cunning as ever.

We saw that on display last week when he burned two timeouts before halftime and waited out Texas kicker Nick Rose for a long-range miss. So hopefully the sixth-year head coach has learned some magic (and maybe some dark arts) from friend Bill Belichick, as the Irish are going to need every edge they can get.

For all the Irish fans who’re certainly grumbling about Notre Dame once again letting an average team hang around, her Lady’s team hardly has a monopoly on that habit. Arkansas just nuked its season with a loss to Toledo. Auburn slid by Jacksonville State thanks to an FCS punter and an overtime score. Even Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team looked sluggish for three quarters against Hawaii before pulling away late.

A win is a win is a win. Dominating Texas and sliding by against Virginia counts the same in the history books. But after starting this season with great expectations, Kelly now needs to find a way to squeeze every ounce of goodness out of this team if the want to achieve their goals.

 

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…)