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.

 

 

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…)