Pregame Six Pack: Keys to stopping Tech’s offensive juggernaut

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The objective is straightforward. Accomplishing it? That’s much more difficult. As Paul Johnson and his Georgia Tech team travel to South Bend, they bring with them an offense that’s provided sleepless nights to opposing coaches all around the country.

Johnson’s triple-option attack stresses defenses in ways others do not. Its ability to be both singular and multiple, simple and yet complex; it starts to feel like we’re discussing a Sherlock Holmes villain, not an offensive scheme concocted in a long-ago era of football and improved upon by Johnson over the last two decades.

So while Georgia Tech leaves half of the offensive menu largely untouched (so far, Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas has thrown the ball 13 times this season, the same as DeShone Kizer), the challenge is a singular one, and will likely determine the path Brian Kelly’s football team will travel this season.

As we crack open this pregame six pack, we’re going to focus on six key members*  of the Irish who will play a large part in determining if Notre Dame sings the alma mater undefeated, or if the home crowd heads to the parking lot with frowns on their faces.

 

JAYLON SMITH

Notre Dame’s defensive star needs to be one on Saturday. Last year against Navy, Smith only made six tackles. Against Georgia Tech, that number should double if the junior is on his game.

Also playing a factor is where Smith lines up. After being taken out of certain plays schematically, Notre Dame’s staff has made certain that whatever the Yellow Jackets plan on doing, they’ll need to accomplish it by going through Smith.

“We’ve made sure that regardless of the situation, Jaylon is going to be central to what happens on the field on Saturday,” Kelly said on Tuesday.

That should mean a move to the middle for Smith, likely in tandem with Joe Schmidt. And while that’ll mean tougher sledding in the trenches for a linebacker who is still learning how to shed blockers and excel in the interior, Smith’s other-worldly athleticism and skills need to be on display.

 

DESHONE KIZER

Making his first start, Kizer carries the weight of the Irish offense on his shoulders. But this week Kelly and the Irish offensive staff did their best to tell Kizer he was just one-eleventh of the equation.

“We want to make sure that he understands that he’s got a lot of good players around him,” Kelly said. “He needs to just be who he is and we’ll take advantage of what his skills are.”

That’s easier said than done. Kizer’s life has been turned inside out this week. After shuffling through his first year on campus as just another football player, the biggest news heading into spring football was that Kizer would see the field…as the holder.

But after the transfer of Everett Golson and the injury to Malik Zaire, Kizer is now the starting quarterback on a Top 10 football team.

“I’m trying my hardest to make it as normal as I can,” Kizer told Jac Collinsworth this week for our Stay Gold podcast. “Obviously there’s some things you just can’t get around… It can become overwhelming at times, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job trying to push myself into my academics and push myself into preparing for Georgia Tech, trying to ignore some of the extra stuff that comes with the position.”

If Kizer’s on-field performance is anything like his game-week remarks, the Irish offense won’t miss a beat. From the moment he took the podium after Notre Dame’s win over Virginia, everything that’s come out of Kizer’s mouth has been a really impressive display for a young kid seeing and doing things for the first time.

Now it’s time for him to parlay that into a heady afternoon on the football field, with Kelly’s continual reminder to simply stay within himself.

“He doesn’t need to come in here and put everybody on his shoulders and say I’m going to save the day for Notre Dame when Malik goes down,” Kelly said. “We have a system here in place. Just do exactly what we ask you to do and you’re going to be fine.”

 

THE OTHER SAFETIES (DRUE TRANQUILL & MATTHIAS FARLEY)

You thought we’d spend a few hundred more words on the play of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate? (Believe me, I could…) No, the safeties that I’m most interested in are sophomore Drue Tranquill and graduate student Matthias Farley. Both will likely play critical roles in the defensive game plan, asked to make plays in space and tackle the pitch man on the edges of the defense.

Tranquill’s size and speed has quickly made him a useful cog in Notre Dame’s sub-packages, with Brian VanGorder utilizing Tranquill in dime packages and as a blitzer. On Saturday, expect to see Tranquill around the line of scrimmage, asked to come up and tackle from the edge, a 225-pounder who should be able to run with Georgia Tech’s backfield.

Farley’s role might come at the expense of Redfield’s, with the veteran a nearly forgotten part of the defensive scheme last season against Navy. But when he got his chances, Farley did some serious damage, notching two sacks of Keenan Reynolds (the only two of the game) and five tackles in limited minutes.

Notre Dame’s secondary needs to tackle better. They need to do their jobs better. And while Farley doesn’t have the athleticism that Redfield does, he has two working hands and a head on his shoulders that should help keep missed tackles—and mental mistakes—down.

That’s a critical piece of the puzzle for the secondary this week, with everybody tasked with a different objective. And the game plan demands excellence from this group if the Irish are going to pull out a win on Saturday.

“They’re all going to play a role in our success. And they’re all going to have to tackle well and they’re all going to have to be so locked in on their keys,” Kelly said, when asked about the back-end of his defense.

After a tough weekend at the office against Virginia, can this group rally to stop a Georgia Tech offense that was 76 spots better in scoring offense in 2014?

“The answer to that question will not be evident until Saturday around seven o’clock,” Kelly said with a smile.

 

SHELDON DAY

Notre Dame’s returning captain on the defensive line needs to wreak havoc and lead from the front. Against an offensive line that’s done a dominant job run blocking and controlling the point of attack, Day needs to fill the stat sheet, but also drag along with him Isaac Rochell, Daniel Cage, Jerry Tillery and defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.

There are so many factors that’ll determine whether this game is won or lost. But it’s hard to find a position group more important than the defensive line. After looking like a unit that wore down last week against Virginia’s offensive line, how Keith Gilmore’s position group handles the non-stop challenge of the Yellow Jacket’s ground game will be fascinating.

Day will shift inside and out, asked to do everything from tackle the dive, stop Justin Thomas and destroy blockers to free up the linebackers behind him. And just as important, he’ll have to stay healthy against an offensive line that utilizes a cut-blocking scheme to trigger some elements of its ground attack.

(Before you say it, let’s get this out of the way: It’s legal. Get over it.)

Day is four years into his college football career, one that started in Dublin against a Navy offense running a similar scheme. As he plays his two final games against the triple-option, taking all his acquired knowledge and leading his position group with a big afternoon is a key to victory.

 

NICK MARTIN

Color me unimpressed by the short-yardage performance of Harry Hiestand’s group last week. And while the Irish are averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry and 233 yards a game running the football, none of it will matter if the offense can’t convert on 3rd-and-short.

Martin is the leader of the unit and triggers the point of attack. Earlier this week, he made it clear that he understands that the problems the Irish had up front and knows they need to be corrected by Saturday afternoon.

“As an offensive line we talk about where to find the obvious run and the obvious pass,” Martin said Wednesday, when asked about the struggles on third down and in short yardage situations. “And plain and simple we haven’t been good enough in that situation. Good thing is every week’s new, every week’s different. You can’t dwell in the past, you can only learn from it and move on from there.”

There will be opportunities to exploit Georgia Tech’s defensive line. The Yellow Jackets gave up a shade over five yards a carry last season, a dreadful 105th in the country in that category. And while defensive coordinator Ted Roof returns most of his defense, they are still susceptible up front, as long as the Irish offensive line puts together a complete game.

There is a lot on Martin’s shoulders this week. Communication with a first-time starting quarterback. Making sure the chains move and protections get picked up. But as a fifth-year player and a returning captain, that’s part of the gig.

Everybody inside Notre Dame Stadium knows it’ll be important for the Irish ground game to hold its own. It’s Martin’s job to make sure the offensive line imposes its will.

 

BRIAN KELLY

Enough about the subplot between Paul Johnson and Brian VanGorder. This game will come down to the head of the Irish football program getting the most out of his team and out-coaching Johnson.

That means finding solutions on defense. It’ll mean orchestrating a better offensive game plan than the one in Charlottesville. And it also requires a victory on special teams.

“We don’t have big margins for error in any one of those three areas. Guys need to be locked in,” Kelly said on Thursday. “The challenge this week was to be a smarter football team. A more efficient football team. And then (have) a great will to win. We need to bring that as well.”

Kelly has shown an ability to rally his team. And in many ways entering Notre Dame Stadium as an underdog will be helpful, though it’s hard to think anybody in the Irish locker room needs added incentive to play well.

Contrary to public opinion, Notre Dame doesn’t need to be perfect to beat Georgia Tech. But they need to be very good and very efficient.

As we look back on past victories, this game calls to mind the Irish’s impressive Shamrock Series win over Arizona State in 2013. The defense held their own against the Sun Devils’ high-powered attack. Tommy Rees engineered an efficient day in Dallas. And the special teams executed, with Kyle Brindza making three second-half field goals, including a 53-yarder.

A victory over Georgia Tech will go a long way toward providing a road map to the lofty places the Irish want to go. A defeat? Well it could very well do irreparable harm to mission objectives that still stand intact, even after five dispiriting injuries.

Kelly is viewed as an elite coach in college football circles. Days like Saturday are where he’ll earn that reputation. So if the Irish are going to win against the Yellow Jackets, the troops aren’t the only ones who’ll have to do a great job. The man leading the charge needs to push all the right buttons, too.

 

 

 

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…)