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.

 

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…)