Five things we learned: Notre Dame 28, Wake Forest 7

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For Notre Dame’s 2015 team, there will be victories that are remembered. And then there will be wins like Notre Dame’s 28-7 victory over Wake Forest.

On Senior Day, an emotional Irish team took the field after 27 seniors hugged mom and dad and came to grips with the fact that this might be the last time they play football in Notre Dame Stadium. Then they went out and won an ugly, never-in-doubt football game against a Demon Deacon team that dominated the time of possession, but couldn’t manage to get in the end zone more than once.

Notre Dame moved to 9-1 on the season, a victory that can’t be called dominant but certainly was never in question. So while talk of “style points” weren’t necessarily answered, Notre Dame managed to hand Wake Forest their second-most lopsided loss of the season—giving up points only after a Deacs drive was kept alive on a phantom roughing the snapper call.

With Romeo Okwara and Jaylon Smith leading the defense and freshman Josh Adams supplying the biggest play of the game—a 98-yard touchdown run that’s the longest in the history of Notre Dame Stadium—the Irish will  celebrate Senior Day in style.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Wake Forest kept the ball from Notre Dame’s offense and controlled the clock. But they still lost by three scores. 

Notre Dame’s high-powered offense suffered through a power outage on Saturday. The Irish managed just 282 yards of total offense, a number that looks even less potent when you take away Adams’ 98-yard touchdown run.

But Brian VanGorder’s defense stepped up when it mattered most, holding down the fort and even supplying a score of their own to help the cause.

No, the big plays didn’t disappear. Wake Forest made a few in the passing game and had success on the ground as well. But in the red zone the Irish defense held strong, holding the Demon Deacons to just one score on four attempts, turning the game on its head with a critical 4th-and-goal stop that turned into a game-changing score just two plays later.

Dave Clawson’s gameplan worked to perfection, keeping the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands and holding them to a season-low 49 plays. But Wake Forest could get points out of their possessions, and staying clean in the turnover column helped turn a white-knuckle offensive performance into a comfortable victory.

 

Romeo Okwara is emerging as the pass rusher Notre Dame desperately needs. 

Romeo Okwara’s recent run has given Notre Dame an unexpected edge rusher. The senior added three sacks to his season total, jumping to nine on the year as he disrupted Wake Forest’s passing attack almost single-handedly. That’s the type of season-long production Notre Dame fans could only hope for, and Okwara has done it with three games still to play.

With Daniel Cage unable to go on Saturday, the Irish defense shifted Isaac Rochell inside to play tackle and mixed and matched the best they could. That forced Okwara to play more snaps, with Andrew Trumbetti opposite Okwara along with seldom-used reserves Doug Randolph and Grant Blankenship.

The rushing defense seemed to suffer—we saw Trumbetti crash hard and miss his assignment on a big zone-read gainer, with other run fits slightly off. But the pass rush never slowed, Okwara picking up the slack with a hat trick a week after notching two sacks. (He nearly had his hands on a fourth sack, but committed a facemask penalty that was mistakenly called on sophomore Jonathan Bonner.)

Okwara seems to be turning into the football player many expected when he hit campus as a 17-year old freshman, all raw tools and still figuring out the game. While roster deficiencies at defensive end and outside linebacker made it impossible for Okwara to redshirt, Brian VanGorder is getting the type of play he desperately needs in this scheme, taking some pressure off Sheldon Day as well.

“It’s one of those things where he came onto campus as a 17-year-old that just really was a raw player,” Kelly said. “He’s grown in a very short period of time this year into the kind of football player that I think has a huge growth potential in front of him. We’re just seeing that maturation process kind of come together.”

 

He’s still a freshman, but Josh Adams is another big play weapon for Notre Dame. 

Backed up next to their goal line and needing a DeShone Kizer sneak just for breathing room, Josh Adams broke the game open. The true freshman burst off the right side, high-stepped out of a tackle and unleashed a stiff arm Earl Campbell would’ve been proud off, setting a stadium record and essentially winning the game as he pushed the Irish lead to three scores before halftime.

What was amazing about Adams’ 98-yard run was  that it could’ve easily been 140 yards—he was running away from everybody, his blockers included, as the freshman showed the type of top-end speed that has the Irish coaching staff believing they have their next great game-breaker at the position.

Both Adams and Prosise have broken 90+ yard touchdown runs this season. While the senior sat out for precautionary measures, Adams ran for 141 yards on 17 carries, his long run buoying a yardage total that didn’t tell the story of how tough the sledding was inside the tackles.

Setting aside the struggles Notre Dame’s offensive line had, it’s worth marveling at how different the Irish backfield looks. Not just from what was expected this year—Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, with Prosise getting a chance to contribute—but compared to the personnel that was here when Brian Kelly showed up.

In 2010, Cierre Wood broke a 39-yard run against Western Michigan. It was Notre Dame’s longest run since Robert Hughes went 46-yards in 2007. Since then, the Irish have made incremental progress.

Jonas Gray supplied a big play in his 79-yard score against Pitt in 2011, and George Atkinson had home run potential. But the biggest difference between this backfield and any in the last decade is the pure potential to go the distance on every touch.

Prosise has showed that by making big play after big play. Adams helped keep that going, his 141 yards keeping him at an astonishing 7.8 yards per carry.

 

James Onwualu may have suffered a significant knee injury. How Greer Martini and the Irish defense fill that hole remains to be seen. 

Junior linebacker James Onwualu suffered a significant knee injury early in the game, with an MRI coming tomorrow to determine the severity of it. The third starter in a linebacking corps that usually only mentions Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, Onwualu is still a key cog to the defense, especially with a nickel grouping still figuring itself out.

Filling in capably was Greer Martini. Martini made four tackles and also filled Onwualu’s role stretched out to the hashmark, forced to play in a cover scheme that doesn’t necessarily play to the 245-pounder’s skillset.

While Boston College is a perfect game to play with a jumbo-sized SAM linebacker, Onwualu serves as a Swiss-Army backer, capable in coverage and getting better each week in the trenches. He had an early TFL in his only stop before he knee bent backwards with what Kelly deemed a potential MCL injury.

Notre Dame’s had decent injury luck of late, though the defense looked and played differently without Cage in the middle. We saw how little the margin for error is up front with Cage out. The secondary is already a high-wire act. So digging into the linebacker depth chart this week for answers is the next thing to figure out.

 

 

Seniors leave Notre Dame Stadium a much more dangerous place to play. 

Let’s tip our cap to the seniors. A class not many had high expectations for ended 2015 6-0 in Notre Dame Stadium, the 21st win for the group that matches the record set by the class of 1990 and 1991. (I’m not sure if you were following the Irish back then, but those teams were pretty good.)

That’s probably the best measurement of what this class did. And it was certainly something Brian Kelly appreciated, taking over a program that had become a pretty easy place for opponents to win.

“It’s always great to get a win for your seniors in their last home game,” Kelly said after the game. “They certainly have left a great legacy here at Notre Dame, with 21 wins… no senior class has ever won more games at home.”

The years before Sheldon Day and company got to South Bend, the Irish struggled at home. In 2011, they loss a mind-melting opener to USF. They also laid an egg against USC in their first night game in decades. The 2010 team lost to Michigan, Stanford and Tulsa at home. Charlie Weis faired no better. His final 2009 season saw him lose to USC, Navy and UConn at home. In 2008, they lost to Pitt and a nightmarish game to Syracuse.

But Kelly’s 2012 team went unbeaten at home. In 2013, only No. 14 Oklahoma beat the Irish. Northwestern and Louisville sullied the last month of the 2014 season, but this group rallied to defend their turf, finishing they home record with just three losses and two undefeated seasons in South Bend.

Night games. FieldTurf. Piped-in music. Kelly made it clear he thought all would help the Irish win more. And thanks to this 2015 class, he’s been proven correct.

 

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…)