Five things we learned: Notre Dame 24, Temple 20

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In front of an electric crowd watching the biggest game in Temple history, one team played with nothing to lose and the other found new ways to do it. Yet the Owls upset bid was not meant to be, stopped two minutes short by a late touchdown pass from DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller and a clutch interception by KeiVarae Russell. After some final-play hysteria on a night filled with it across college football, Notre Dame escaped Philadelphia with a 24-20 victory.

Kizer’s heroics came after two first-half interceptions. Fuller’s touchdown catch was an exclamation point after a relatively quiet return to his hometown. And Russell’s interception came after he was beat in man coverage multiple times, a tough night for Notre Dame’s cover men.

The Irish looked like a different football team than the one that traded punches with USC. But that’s the state of this football team, especially on the road. But after some twists and turns and taking Temple’s best shot, Kelly liked the toughness his team showed, especially against a home team that looked like it had a date with destiny as the second half turned its way.

“We’ve got a group that’s veteran and they believed they were going to win as well. We’ve been a fourth quarter team all year and we made a play when we needed to,” Kelly told ESPN’s Heather Cox. “We had too many missed opportunities in the red zone but we showed great resiliency against a very very good football team.”

As the Irish head into November 7-1, let’s find out what else we learned on Halloween night.

 

The game played out to Matt Rhule’s blueprint. But Notre Dame still found a way to win. 

Ask Brian Kelly—or anybody who has watched Notre Dame football for more than a few days—how Temple was going to make this a football game and they’d have said something that mentioned scoring points in the red zone and limiting turnovers.

Well, Notre Dame not only didn’t do a great job scoring points in the red zone, but they also managed two turnovers inside Temple’s 20-yard line. That kept Temple in the game in the first half, with the Owls starting the third quarter trailing by just four points.

The Irish started the third quarter quickly, forcing punts on the Owls first two possessions and getting a field goal on their first drive. But from there the Owls controlled the pace of the second half with their offense. A game-changing 14-play, 78-yard touchdown drive pulled Temple even in the fourth quarter.

The Irish responded by going three-and-out, with Tyler Newsome’s 35-yard punt giving Temple excellent field position. The Owls next eight-play drive took nearly four minutes, pinning the Irish in a corner and down three points with under five minutes to go.

Fuller and Kizer made sure that Temple’s dreams would be dashed, with the Owls safety late to react to a perfect throw from Kizer to Notre Dame’s best offensive weapon. But Rhule and company nearly pulled off the upset, and did so thanks to offensive miscues and a defense that just couldn’t get off the field.

 

Notre Dame’s boom or bust defense very nearly cost the Irish the season. 

On paper, the Irish played a fine game defensively. Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell wreaked havoc all night. Jaylon Smith played like an All-American and KeiVarae Russell’s clinching interception is two-straight victories where the senior cornerback made a game-defining play.

But the stat sheet doesn’t have eyes. And anybody watching Brian VanGorder’s defense has to wonder if this unit has what it takes to be a part of a team that aspires to play for a national championship.

Temple had 11 possessions. Six of those were less than five plays—clear victories for Notre Dame’s defense. But after that is where this group gets maddening. It’s beginning to feel like once the chains move, this defense finds a way to get in trouble. Whether that’s the 94-yard touchdown drive the Owls put together or the 14-play drive that tied the game.

When it’s time for a big play to be made, too often its the guys not wearing blue and gold making the big play. On Temple’s first scoring drive, it came on a 3rd and 14 pass conversion. Temple’s 94-yard drive included a 50-yard run by Walker and a third-down pass interference call against Cole Luke.

After stuffing Temple three times from the 1-yard line, Nicky Baratti ran right by a chance to make a game-changing play. On Temple’s go-ahead score, Brian Kelly could be seen screaming “Do Your Job!” at a defense that crashed hard on a zone read, allowing P.J. Walker to run the ball nearly into field goal range.

After watching Bob Diaco’s defense bend but hold strong in the red zone, we’ve seen VanGorder’s seemingly do the opposite. And while there are personnel deficiencies that even the best defensive coordinator would have a hard time masking, this team gets very little out of its best efforts, undone by critical mistakes and big plays.

Ultimately this season is going to come down to the 11 guys playing defense needing to  do a better job of collecting themselves after adversity strikes, and finding a way to make in-drive adjustments. Because right now, once the opponent finds a way to move the chains, it usually spells doom for Notre Dame’s defense. And that’s no way to win football games.

 

DeShone Kizer threw first-half interceptions that reminded you he was a (redshirt) freshman. But his late-game poise should have you very happy. 

DeShone Kizer’s first interception was the type of rookie decision that haunts coaches. His second was the type of bad-outcome play that had Notre Dame fans thinking of the turnover plague that ruined the 2011 and 2014 seasons.

But Kizer is no ordinary first-year quarterback. And the young signal-caller once again put the Irish offense on his back and won the game for Notre Dame, propelling the ground game and coming up clutch on the game-winning drive.

“He made a huge play when he needed to,” Kelly said after the game. “We mounted a big drive when we had to come up big.”

That big play was a rocket-shot that Kizer threaded to Fuller in the end zone. But before then, Kizer’s work in the zone-read run game kept Notre Dame in the football game, and burned Temple for crashing down at the line of scrimmage to stop C.J. Prosise.

Kizer’s 79-yard touchdown run was the second-longest by a Notre Dame quarterback in school history, outdone by only a Blair Kiel score on a fake punt. His 143-yard rushing day was against an Owl rush defense that showed itself worthy of a Top 10 ranking. And while the two interceptions certainly make his stat line look less than stellar, Kizer made some big-time throws under duress, showing the type of unflappable nature that let the Irish offense muster the confidence to march down and score a game-winner.

What happens after this season behind center is anyone’s guess. But as Kizer continues to play really solid football, his confidence and personality have turned the DNA of this offense.

 

With some very good defenses still on the schedule, Notre Dame’s offensive line needs an identity check. 

For the second time on the road this season, Notre Dame’s offense was thrown completely out of whack by an attacking defense that forced the Irish to be one-dimensional. At Clemson, a rain storm (and a stout Tiger defense) helped explain it. But against Temple, the Owls undersized but athletic front seven ruined multiple drives and took C.J. Prosise out of the football game.

At this point, Notre Dame has conceded that Kizer is their best short-yardage option. But that’s less about Prosise learning how to run inside the tackles and more about the Irish front five struggling at the point of attack.

Once again on Saturday, Steve Elmer struggled with an active defensive tackle who beat him with quickness. Captain Nick Martin heard his name called for the wrong reason, the last man onto a pile that cost the Irish 15-yards at a critical moment. And while Ronnie Stanley still profiles as one of the first offensive linemen off the NFL draft board this spring, it’s telling that Notre Dame becomes overly right-handed when it’s time to run the football in short yardage situations.

Credit Temple for great defense. But don’t expect things to get easier moving forward, as Pitt, Boston College and Stanford all have Top 40 rush defenses. Harry Hiestand’s troops need to get their running backs downhill, with Prosise bottled up too often in the backfield or running parallel with the line of scrimmage.

Finesse is a dirty word for offensive linemen. But this group needs to show in November that they’re the type of group that wants to battle it out in the trenches, not rely on attacking the perimeter.

 

On another chaotic Saturday in college football, Notre Dame’s latest fourth-quarter comeback shows the Irish have the heart of a champion. 

Fixing the mistakes comes later. And it’s much easier to do after a hard-fought victory. But after a second-half where it looked like Notre Dame was going to let one slip through their fingers, both the offense and the defense came up clutch in the game’s final minutes.

Against one of the best fourth quarter teams in college football, Notre Dame made one more big play than the Owls.

“I’m really proud of the way our team played in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said postgame. “Making a play when we needed to, both on offense and defense.”

Notre Dame now has 13 fourth-quarter comeback victories under Brian Kelly. That’s a long way from the finding-a-way-to-lose program that cost Charlie Weis his job during a heart-breaking 2009 season and had many actually sane Irish fans wondering if Notre Dame was cursed.

So while the missed tackles and the blown blocks certainly had Irish fans pulling their hair out, it was business as usual for a football team that is really difficult to beat. The Irish overcame a sloppy field. Even sloppier tackling. And the loss of safety Elijah Shumate to a targeting ejection.

Even as tempers flared on Notre Dame’s sideline as Kelly pushed assistant strength coach David Grimes, the chaos didn’t infect a team that needed a win and is flying home excited to see where it stands when the Playoff rankings come out Tuesday night.

It’s hard to win in college football. Even harder when you make some of the mistakes the Irish made on Saturday night. But in the end, Notre Dame walked away a winner, taking Temple’s best shot and delivering one more than the Owls to win the game.

 

 

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”