Will Fuller, B.J. Goodson

The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

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For a variety of reasons, Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss stings a little bit more than usual. The self-inflicted mistakes. The horrible start in an electric environment. The dropped passes and the missed blocks. Not to mention the two failed two-point conversions.

On a night where Notre Dame needed to bring close to their best to leave Death Valley a victor, they brought nothing near it for the game’s first 45 minutes. And while they very nearly fought their way into overtime, it wasn’t enough to emerge victorious.

“If you told me we were going to turn the ball over four times, I would tell you that we were going to lose,” Kelly said to open his postgame comments. “You wouldn’t have to be a genius to figure that out. We turned the ball over four times and we lost.”

With that, the Irish drop to 4-1 on the season, and need to immediately turn their focus to Navy and their triple-option maestro Keenan Reynolds. So let’s put this one in a body bag and do our best to move on as we tackle the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

DeShone Kizer. The sophomore quarterback showed a lot of pose and resiliency on Saturday night, able to keep his cool when many of his teammates couldn’t seem to do the same. Kizer lead the Irish to a furious fourth quarter comeback that came up just short when he called his own number on a run-pass option play on Notre Dame’s second failed two-point conversion play.

“At the end of the day, we want to be a championship team, but champions don’t lose,” Kizer said after the game. “It sucks that we end the game the way we do after fighting back the way we fought back.”

Kelly had positive things to say about his sophomore quarterback, who threw for 321 yards, a large portion of those coming in the fourth quarter, when everybody in the stadium knew he’d be throwing the ball.

“I’m really proud of him. I’m proud of the way he competed,” Kelly said. “He played well enough for us to win, let’s put it that way.”

 

C.J. ProsiseNo, he couldn’t get on track in the running game—held to just three yards in the first half. But Prosise once again showed he was the team’s most reliable playmaker, getting loose out of the backfield and notching a 100-yard receiving game on just four catches.

Yes, his fumble to begin the second half didn’t help. But Prosise’s evolution as a football player—contributing big things even when the ground game was stuck in neutral—was a nice step forward. Keeping him involved in the short passing game could be a huge part of this offense moving forward.

 

Max Redfield. We’ve spent a lot of time demanding the former 5-star recruit start playing like one. And on Saturday night, I thought he did. Redfield led Notre Dame in tackles notching 14, including an astounding 11 solo stops. Kelly talked about Redfield’s performance on Sunday.

“This past weekend [was] probably played his best game since he’s been here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “There’s a standard for him now on film for how he can play this game and hopefully we can continue on this track.”

Most wondered if the safety play was going to be Notre Dame’s demise on Saturday evening, especially matched up against Clemson’s talented skill talent. Redfield took a major step forward on Saturday night, playing physical as a tackler, a nice step forward considering the cast on his hand.

 

Resiliency. No moral victories. But I was impressed by the resolve this football team showed, especially when they seemed so overwhelmed early in the football game.

If the Irish end up getting into a beauty pageant for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it’s worth noting that their one loss is a narrow defeat on the road, against what looks like one of the ACC’s top teams.

Of course, a close loss doesn’t matter if Notre Dame loses again. And Kelly shared that message with his captains postgame, acknowledging that there’s zero margin for error now.

“I met with the captains after the game and told them what they need to do to continue to work towards their goals and what their vision is for this football team,” Kelly said. “You can’t lose another game. You know, you’re on the clock now. Every single weekend you’re playing elimination football.”

 

Fifty-three minutes of defense. We touched on the play of the defense in our Five Things, but it’d be unfair to not mention it here. Outside of the first two series, Notre Dame’s defense played very well.

Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell were tough in the trenches. Jaylon Smith was active at linebacker. Cole Luke made up for some early missed tackles with a game-turning interception and when Clemson got conservative in the fourth quarter protecting a lead, the Irish defense held strong.

“We can’t go on the road and be tentative defensively to start a game. After that, we played the kind of defense we expect to play here,” Kelly said postgame. “We played well enough after that first quarter, if you don’t have four turnovers.”

 

THE BAD

The first seven minutes. Notre Dame lost this football game not because Brian Kelly made a few controversial decisions on two-point conversions, but rather because the Irish showed zero composure in the game’s opening minutes.

Nothing went right in the game’s first seven minutes. Not on offense, not on defense, nor on special teams. And the result was a 14-point hole that Notre Dame just couldn’t dig itself out from.

This didn’t seem like a football team capable of a horrendous start. But Notre Dame didn’t answer the bell, and allowed Clemson’s crowd—and aggressive defense—to dictate terms for the first 30 minutes.

 

The turnovers. Kelly’s comments said it best. Notre Dame wasn’t winning a game where they turned it over four times. Worst still, it seemed like Irish ball security was faulty in critical times, with youngsters and veterans alike making the mistakes.

“If I knew, we certainly would’ve coached it more. But you’re talking about veteran players and rookies,” Kelly said. “[C.J. Sanders] looks dynamic on the first return, then turns it over…  Arguably two of your most veteran and decorated players, C.J. [Prosise] and Chris Brown, they know how to hold onto a ball, and they turn it over. And then DeShone tries to force a ball in there… If you turn it over, we’re not going to win games.”

 

The Drops. Yes, it was slippery and miserable out there. But it was for both teams. Notre Dame’s heralded receiving corps dropped a half-dozen passes, a crippling set of miscues that left a lot of yards (and points) out there.

Kelly calculated that the Irish left roughly 125 yards on the field, a number that certainly would’ve added to DeShone Kizer’s yardage total and would’ve turned Saturday night into a different outcome.

Corey Robinson has been known for his velcro hands. On Saturday, two drops arguably cost the Irish a touchdown and a must-have two-point conversion. Will Fuller was held to two catches, letting a third down conversion go through his hands. Fuller’s drop highlighted the one deficiency in his game, something former NFL director of college scouting Greg Gabriel pointed out on Twitter last night.

It was Fuller and Chris Brown who started some of the trash-talk opportunities with their Twitter comments. They couldn’t back it up this week.

 

The Offensive Line. This was probably the most disappointing part of Saturday night. Notre Dame’s offensive front got absolutely mauled in the first half, getting zero push and giving up nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Clemson’s defensive ends had seven TFLs themselves. Yes, the Tigers loaded the box and played aggressively downhill. But there wasn’t a single soul inside or out of the Notre Dame program that didn’t expect that.

After being able to dictate terms through four games, the Irish turned into a one-dimensional, finesse front five. We spent all offseason saying that wouldn’t be the case with this group. While they were playing in mud and slop and in conditions that were deafening, the Irish just couldn’t establish the running game early, a necessity to winning.

With the game on the line and Kizer showing confidence in his offensive front, Notre Dame chose to run for the tie. They couldn’t get it done.

 

THE UGLY

The pain of losing. It’s been since November since Notre Dame lost a football game. And in those 10-plus months, we forgot what it was like to watch a team fail to win.

If you’re looking for people to blame, you had a fun night. Most have turned to the man atop the program. They’ll say Kelly failed to prepare his team, or blew the game by chasing points. They’ll cite a seven-figure salary when complaining about unoriginality near the goal line or a failure to read a two-point conversion chart.

In hindsight, it’s certainly hard to argue with the detractors, especially when two Justin Yoon extra points would’ve pushed the game into overtime. (Then again, if Corey Robinson reels in a wide-open two point try, Yoon’s kicking for the win.)

Yet in torrents of rain and a game that seemingly went wrong at every early turn, Notre Dame nearly pulled it out. And that says a lot about the program Kelly has built, as much anything Kelly did wrong from his spot on the sidelines.

In a close football game, many of the 50-50 decisions that are made determine the difference between winning and losing. But focusing on the minutiae distracts you from the autopsy results.

Notre Dame lost because of the blunt force trauma that comes from four turnovers. And from a half-dozen dropped passes. Not to mention an offensive line that couldn’t win at the point of attack and a slow start by the defense.

So while everybody’s looking for someone to blame, that’s the pain of losing. And we might have all forgotten that over the last 10 months.

 

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)