The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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Notre Dame beat Navy by 17 points, the final quarter a comfortable finish in a series that doesn’t always afford one. And with victories over both the Midshipmen and Georgia Tech, the coaching staff’s work over the offseason achieved its desired result.

Yes, the game was sloppy. Notre Dame was gashed by the fullback dive, a struggle that felt a little bit like a regression, especially with everybody seemingly understanding that Job No. 1 is, and always will be, stopping the fullback.

So while Quentin Ezell awoke the ghosts of Vince Murray and Alexander Teich, the defense tightened up in the second half. And winning the turnover battle decisively helped make up for a less explosive Irish offense, with the Midshipmen able to keep Notre Dame from breaking a play of longer than 30 yards.

It’s time for USC. So let’s put the triple-option to bed with the Good, Bad and Ugly and then get ready for the Trojans.

THE GOOD

Forcing Turnovers. Navy turned the ball over three times after having just one turnover through the first four games of the season. That played a huge factor in the victory, allowing the Irish a considerable margin for error on offense as they struggled early to score points.

Elijah Shumate made an excellent interception to seal the deal. Jaylon Smith was opportunistic when an option pitch fell through the hands of Chris Swain. And a key strip by Nyles Morgan led to Devin Butler recovering the opening kickoff of the second half and turning the game on its head. (Butler had to fight through a scrum to secure the ball, after missing an easy opportunity when the ball originally popped out.)

The Irish won the turnover battle for the first time since 2012. Not surprisingly, that allowed the Irish to get Navy off-schedule, and the result was some breathing room during the fourth quarter, with the Irish controlling the football and the game clock with three consecutive drives of 10 plays or more to end the game.

 

Getting Out Injury Free. On Sunday’s teleconference call, Brian Kelly confirmed what we thought we saw on Saturday—the Irish survived against Navy’s offense with no major injuries. Kelly credited that to good luck, but also talked about the continual work against the SWAG team, who cut block against the starting defense the week of the Georgia Tech game as well as this week.

“We had no injuries again—knock on wood—this week to anything below the waist for any of our linemen,” Kelly said. “They’re a little sore, obviously, but no major injuries there, again, for playing two very physical teams that play the triple option.”

Jerry Tillery did sprain his elbow, though Kelly said the freshman will wear a brace and continue to play. Nick Martin tweaked his ankle, though returned to play. And Kelly talked about how nice it’s been these past few Sundays after a nightmarish start to the season.

“My 1:30 (Sunday) meeting with the doctors has been my most anxious time of the year,” Kelly quipped. “So the last couple of weeks, the last two, three weeks have been pretty good. Hopefully, that trend continues because we get USC this week, and then we get a week off. So that’s going to be helpful as we move into the back end of the season.”

 

Robby Regan. Notre Dame’s freshman walk-on was awarded the game ball after Saturday’s victory. That a high school athlete better known for his wrestling ability was able to play such a significant role in the first half of the Irish season without ever taking the field says something about his value to the team.

“The guys love him. He sang the fight song,” Kelly said Sunday. “That’s the first time we had a true freshman stand up, and he got the game ball and sang the fight song, and there was a huge roar from the team.”

Regan helped give Notre Dame their best practice look at the option. And while he’ll never be Keenan Reynolds or Justin Thomas, he makes decisions at game-speed, something vital to the team’s preparation.

After surviving a week of getting pounded by Notre Dame’s starting defense, Regan became the first walk-on in Kelly’s memory to ever receive a game ball.

 

Justin Yoon. After looking really shaky earlier in the season, Yoon jump-started the Irish with a career-long 52-yard field goal as the first half expired, and was pure on every one of his other kick attempts, too.

After drilling a big field goal at Clemson in the rain storm, Yoon seems to have regained his confidence and the momentum he had going during fall camp, something he talked about after the game.

“Trying to get my momentum as a freshman wasn’t easy. A freshman going on the football field for the first time is a big spotlight, and that’s a difficult experience,” Yoon said. “I’ve progressed through the games, my teammates have put their trust in me. That’s the biggest thing.”

 

Jarrett Grace. We touched on this postgame, but Grace’s role meant more to the team that just a veteran backup making some big plays when his number was called. Inserted into the game to try and add some bulk to the Irish defense, Grace played big minutes, something that Kelly couldn’t help but marvel at during the Sunday teleconference.

“It was as meaningful for him as it was for me, just to know what he’s gone through and to be called upon to come in and play a very important role for us,” Kelly said. “If you watched him last year in August and September, you’d say there’s no way he’s going to be able to play again…

“To see him get out there and play on Saturday was pretty gratifying that he could get out there and help us.”

Kelly mentioned that in Grace’s introduction before speaking at the pep rally, he only had highlights from special teams. He knew that was selling him short, perhaps a good final reminder that the Cincinnati native could help this defense play smash-mouth football.

“He was one of our speakers at the pep rally, and all they showed him was on special teams, and I was like, dang, he’s much more than that.”

 

Quick Hits: 

* Another option opponent, another monster day by Greer Martini. Notre Dame’s sophomore linebacker has been a wonderful weapon for the Irish in triple-option games, mostly because of his ability to do his job.

“He’s got a really good understanding of his job and he’s a disciplined player, so when we ask him to do his job, he’s going to get it done,” Kelly said. “He just fits really well with the scheme that we’re employing and so it’s just a really good fit.”

* He already earned mention in our Five Things yesterday, but Sheldon Day‘s been incredibly disruptive, as we saw with nine tackles and two TFLs.

* Another game, another monster day from C.J. Prosise. While some want Prosise to get the national attention they feel like he deserves, it should be enough that he’s filling the stat sheet while also learning what he’s doing.

Prosise still isn’t the natural inside the tackles runner you might want a 220-pounder to be, but his ability to get to the edge and run through tackles is really, really impressive.

* It doesn’t seem fair when DeShone Kizer buys time rolling out and then finds Will Fuller. Not too many defenses can stop that type of scramble drill, and Kizer’s ability to keep his eyes down field is really impressive for a young kid.

* Coming into the game Navy was one of the best 3rd down teams in the country. Notre Dame’s defense held them to just 2-of-11.

 

THE BAD

A tough start. If you were thinking the Irish were in for a long Saturday after going three-and-out and then letting Keenan Reynolds slice and dice the defense in under 80 seconds, you weren’t alone. (I was with you.) But credit this group for showing resilience.

Kelly talked about not letting that start get in the way, especially after a good week of practice.

“I thought we responded very well offensively. And I think that response in scoring right away, kind of settled everybody down,” Kelly said.

 

Interior running struggles. Notre Dame attacked the perimeter yesterday, with C.J. Prosise getting to the edges via the quick pass or outside handoffs. But the Irish seemed to struggle running north and south, disappointing against a defense like Navy’s.

Alex Bars started for the first time, as Quenton Nelson’s ankle wasn’t ready to be tested. Nick Martin will need to get healthy after a tweaked ankle. But against USC, the Irish will need to be able to move the point of attack, something they didn’t necessarily do consistently against the Midshipmen.

 

Consistency in the secondary. It didn’t take long for Max Redfield to be replaced by Matthias Farley, especially after Redfield missed tackles while overrunning his alley. And while Elijah Shumate’s interception was a great step forward and Navy’s quarterbacks completed just three of six throws for 22 yards, the performance of the back end of the defense is still the one thing holding this defense back.

Kelly talked about what he wants to see from his secondary, and how two games against option competition might have actually been part of the problem this year.

“I still think consistency in the back end of our defense,” Kelly cited when asked where the team needs its best growth. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s kind of difficult. We played two option teams over the last four weeks. It makes it hard to continue to evolve defensively. I think that’s probably the area that we want to see continued growth is the back end of our defense.”

With USC’s talented skill players coming to town and the Irish just a season removed from getting absolutely demolished in coverage at the Coliseum, all eyes will be on Shumate, Redfield, KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke next weekend.

 

THE UGLY

Call it a big victory or call it mutual respect, your choice. This section is staying empty after a 17-point win.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL