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.

 

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

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

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

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

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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