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

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For those complaining about a decided lack of style points in Notre Dame’s win over Temple, remove the name from the opponent’s jersey. Had the Irish won a night game on the road against a ranked opponent in a sold-out NFL stadium, most would view it a success.

Just look at the team’s surrounding the Owls in today’s AP poll—there’d be a lot more smiles in ND Nation had the Irish beat No. 22 UCLA or No. 24 Mississippi State, the two teams that bracket Temple in the rankings. But the Owls are one of college football’s newest gate crashers, and while Matt Rhule’s team certainly silenced the skeptics last night—as evidenced by only dropping one spot in the polls to No. 23—they’ll need to prove that last night wasn’t the high-point of their season if the Irish want to cash in points on this tight victory.

Still, Notre Dame’s escape left both sides of the aisle with someone to yap about. Those that want to appreciate the mental toughness of this Irish team and their ability to play at their best when the stakes are highest certainly have more ammo. The complainers received plenty of gas for their bonfire as well, another game filled with red zone mistakes, missed tackles and defensive question marks that make you wonder how the Irish can survive a November spent mostly on the road.

A date at Pittsburgh is next, another sloppy-track and aggressive defense that’ll test the Irish’s toughness. So while we’re not done talking about Saturday night’s thrilling win, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s 24-20 victory.

 

THE GOOD

DeShone KizerThe sophomore quarterback earned the game ball, a fitting tribute to the player who served as the engine of the Irish offense. Kizer’s 79-yard sprint for a touchdown was essentially the majority of Notre Dame’s ground game. And while his two interceptions in the first half kept Temple in the game, all you can ask for a quarterback is to not let his previous mistakes continue to beat him, and Kizer put them away and played with a steady confidence, especially with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter.

 

KeiVarae Russell. Good cornerbacks get beat. Right now, Russell is a good cornerback who still needs to get better. But he’s making progress and he’s now flipped two-straight games on their head by making huge plays.

Russell’s confidence has never been shaken—even if it maybe should have been. So after Russell gave up a fourth-down conversion that felt like a back-breaker, most Irish fans wanted the Seattle-native to run and hide. But Russell went the opposite way, breaking off of his coverage and sliding underneath Temple’s intended receiver with an acrobatic interception that essentially sealed the game.

Two games, two big-time, game-changing plays. Yes, this defense needs more consistency out of Russell and position mate Cole Luke. But with interceptions all but impossible to come by for this defense, Russell iced the game with a clutch play.

 

Sheldon Day and the Front Four. Notre Dame’s biggest advantage was at the line of scrimmage, with the Irish defensive line dominating Temple’s blockers. Sheldon Day started fast and spent the evening wreaking havoc. His 2.5 TFLs continue a hot stretch for him, and he forced a fumble as an edge rusher as well.

Day wasn’t alone in putting together a big day. Isaac Rochell was unstoppable early in the game. Romeo Okwara very quietly put together another big statistical evening, three TFLs and a sack, all while being asked to do everything from rush the passer to drop into coverage.

Given the chance to start at nose guard, Daniel Cage showed his size and held down the point of attack, notching a TFL as well. Even better? Everybody came out healthy and ready for another Saturday that’ll be essentially “man ball” with Pitt looking to run the football and win the line of scrimmage.

 

Will FullerIt was a relatively quiet game on the stat sheet, but Fuller came through in the clutch with the game-winning touchdown in front of his hometown crowd. And while Temple did a nice job with him in coverage, Fuller managed to draw another pass interference penalty and show some patience converting underneath passes.

Fuller’s speed took a dent in the sloppy conditions, and he struggled at times with coverage that very kindly could be called “physical.” Both both of those situations—the mediocre field conditions and the physical defense—will be in effect next week, with Pat Narduzzi likely hoping to bully Notre Dame’s skill players like he tried to do as defensive coordinator at Michigan State.

 

Alizé Jones. Don’t look now, but Notre Dame’s tight end position might be coming alive. With Temple’s defense expecting just about every other receiving threat to do damage, it was the Irish’s talented freshman who made one of the biggest plays of the game-winning drive.

Jones ran a corner route and DeShone Kizer hit him in stride, as the freshman rumbled for 45 critical yards to set up the game-winning score. Yes, it was the only catch of the game for the position. But Jones spent some time attached to the formation as a blocker, taking valuable snaps that could point to an ascending player heading into November.

Want to find a way to open up the red zone? Throw it to the tight end. And if Jones is the guy capable of doing it all, he’ll continue to get the opportunities, especially after making a big play to help Notre Dame win on Saturday.

 

Quick Hits: 

It was fun to see Jaylon Smith make some very impactful collisions. The 240-pound linebacker still runs like a deer, but he certainly packs a punch when he squares up a ball carrier.

Senior Chris Brown was a steady force for the offense. He paced the Irish receiving corps with six catches for 72 yards.

For as tough as the running was for C.J. Prosise, the senior still managed five catches for 43 yards. The screen game was close to a few big plays, too.

 

THE BAD

Boom & Bust defense. It’s not worth regurgitating what I wrote last night. But the only thing that’s consistent about this defense is the fact that it’s maddeningly inconsistent.

Upon rewatching this performance, it wasn’t all bad. And there was probably more good than I thought last night. But it’s hard to see how Notre Dame only managed two sacks, even as it destroyed the Owls up front. And it’s just as hard to see how the Owls matched Notre Dame’s big plays, considering their quarterback was running for his life.

If there’s one thing that’s really hamstringing this defense, it’s the inability to play in the nickel. When Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti are dropping back into zone coverage—and it’s not a one-time trick—you’ve got some personnel issues. And with the safety depth chart plundered and not a lot of trust in a third cornerback, the Irish are limited when teams try to spread them out.

 

The offensive line play. Again this is a redundancy from last night. But Notre Dame’s front five needs to win at the point of attack, especially in the run game. Temple’s front seven nearly matched Notre Dame’s last night, putting together six TFLs, a surprising number considering the Irish’s power advantage up front.

With Pitt coming to town, there’s little chance Pat Narduzzi’s going to change his DNA and lay back against the Irish offense. And after starting quickly with a nice opening drive Saturday night, the Irish need to show consistency on the road, something that’s been difficult to do.

 

Quick Hits: 

Brian Kelly expected Joe Schmidt‘s production to be better in the season’s final five games. Against Temple the senior captain middle linebacker made just two solo stops, though broke up a pass in coverage. But once again, it felt like Schmidt was a step slow to make plays, leaving many Irish fans wondering how Nyles Morgan would fare in the same situation. I still don’t think Schmidt’s coming off the field, but it’s time for some production after some quiet games.

There’s taking advantage of opportunities… and then there’s Nicky Baratti‘s play on 4th-and-1. The seldom-used safety was put in a tough spot in space against Temple running back Jahad Thomas, and the Owls running back cut hard inside Baratti and cruised into the end zone.

Punter Tyler Newsome has had some very good games for Notre Dame this season. Last night wasn’t one of them.

Notre Dame’s skill players looked a step slower all night. Probably because of the slop they were playing on…Remember when people wanted that type of natural surface in Notre Dame Stadium because of, ugh—tradition?

I’ll wait to see what the grades come back as, but Steve Elmer had another tough day, especially on some noticeable missed blocks against Matt Ioannidis.

 

THE UGLY

Brian Kelly didn’t want to expand on his comments from last night on his sideline incident with assistant strength coach David Grimes. The former Irish receiver works under Paul Longo and seemed to be expressing his opinion to a referee as Longo did his best to keep things calm.

From what we saw on ABC’s broadcast, Kelly didn’t think Longo was doing enough–and he forcibly moved the young assistant, creating quite a stir that even had Sheldon Day thinking he should step in.

Per JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago, here’s what Kelly said after the game (link has video included):

“David was going to get us a 15-yard penalty, so I had to control the sideline,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen. He got a little too close and I backed him up out of the way to make sure that we didn’t get a 15-yard penalty.”

Whatever comes of the incident, Kelly doesn’t plan on discussing it with the media, nor does he think any of the snap judgments out there have much merit.

“They don’t know what happened. It’s typical of those that are just looking at the video without having any of the information,” Kelly said Sunday. “Only those that are clearly near the situation that have all the information can make those judgments. It’s an internal matter, and we’re handling it internally.”

For what it’s worth, in UND.com’s ICON trailer, Grimes is in the locker room after the game, standing right behind Kelly as he addresses the team. Let’s hope this is just one of those incidents where things got intense on the sideline, and everybody moves forward considering it a lesson learned. (This wouldn’t even be a story if this was still the Lou Holtz era…)

 

That Officiating Crew. Man, it wasn’t a banner night for the guys in stripes. While the AAC crew didn’t reach the level of idiocy that the crew working the Miami-Duke game did, both coaches were left scratching their heads last night, a sign that there was some questionable officiating.

Rhule’s in-game complaints seemed a bit more for theatrics. His defensive backs were playing Notre Dame in a very physical fashion, and for every pass interference call that was made, Irish coaches (and fans) could probably point to a handful more.

Conversely, Kelly was asked about an offensive pass interference call against center Nick Martin and he all but threw up his hands on Sunday. Between that, the terrible targeting penalty called against Elijah Shumate, and the penalty against Nic Weishar, Kelly said it best today without getting too close to drawing a fine.

“There were a lot of things that I can’t give you answers for from that crew that worked the game,” Kelly said.

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.