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.

 

 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)