Five things we learned: Notre Dame 19, Boston College 16

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Notre Dame’s tenth victory of the season may have been its worst. The Irish leave Fenway Park with a 19-16 win over Boston College and the Frank Leahy Trophy, but do so after four fumbles, five turnovers and at least as many dropped passes.

If Brian Kelly told us that November is what separates pretenders from contenders, it might be time to check IDs as the Irish board the charter flight back to South Bend. Because while Notre Dame still might be a lock for the College Football Playoff if they beat Stanford next Saturday, they come into the season finale playing their worst football of the season at a very inopportune time.

“We have to play better football game,” Kelly said postgame, already asked about the season finale in Palo Alto. “We know we’re going to get blown off the field if we turn the football over five times.”

That didn’t happen on Saturday night, mainly because Boston College’s offense was incapable of blowing anybody away. The Irish defense still managed to give up an 80-yard touchdown, but other than that played a sound game, limiting the Eagles as they dominated in the trenches.

Yet the Irish won, and it never really felt close—even as the Eagles were attempting an onside kick down three points late. That’s a testament to the resiliency of this football team, a group that’ll have to overcome two more sizable hurdles.

Heading to the season finale, the Irish look wobbly. Running back C.J. Prosise suffered a high ankle sprain—and that was after two fumbles and some hesitant running. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell suffered a stress fracture in his foot on a play where his big hit jarred loose a fumble.

Add to those injuries DeShone Kizer‘s worst game as a college football player and there might be more questions than answers heading into the regular season finale.

Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame 19-16 victory.

 

Notre Dame-Boston College very nearly transformed into the nightmare 2002 matchup.

A few eyebrows went up when Notre Dame decided to throw on the green jerseys against Boston College. They belonged to Irish fans who remembered all too clearly the debacle the last time Notre Dame decided to roll out green jerseys against the Eagles in November.

Ranked No. 4 in the country and unbeaten back in 2002, head coach Ty Willingham surprised his team with green jerseys before kickoff. The undefeated Irish surprised everybody by then playing like a team with their collective bar money riding on a Boston College win, fumbling a ridiculous seven times and giving away five turnovers, including a gift-wrapped 71-yard interception from Pat Dillingham to linebacker Josh Ott as Boston College managed to shock the Irish with a 14-7 upset.

Some have said walking into iconic Fenway Park feels like walking into a time machine. Well on Saturday night it felt like Notre Dame swapped one No. 4 team for another from 13 years ago, doing just about everything they could to keep Boston College in the game and keep points off the scoreboard.

Notre Dame committed four turnovers in the first half, matching their Hurricane-soaked 30 minutes in Clemson for a season worst. DeShone Kizer threw a terrible end zone interception then followed it up with an even dumber throw when he lobbed a moonball off his back foot into the center of the field. Both throws targeted freshman Alizé Jones—not Notre Dame’s All-American candidate Will Fuller, who ended up dropping a sure touchdown pass and a critical third-down conversion.

It wasn’t just Kizer who looked bad. Prosise wasn’t right even before his two fumbles and ankle injury. Josh Adams committed the cardinal sin of fumbling on his way into the end zone, the Irish lucky the Eagles didn’t return the score a touchdown. Throw in a muffed punt by freshman C.J. Sanders and the nightmarish first half was something we haven’t seen since approximately 2007.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Notre Dame was winning by 10 points throughout most of these shenanigans. And you have to credit Brian Kelly for having a sense of humor during his halftime interview with NBC’s Kathryn Tappen and in his postgame comments with Liam McHugh, Hines Ward and Jonathan Vilma. (Believe it or not it was Boston College head coach Steve Addazio who was the man who lost his cool on the sideline, given a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call for berating officials.)

The Irish won. But for a while it sure felt like this was another one of those Boston College games.

 

The bad evening started early for DeShone Kizer—who finally played like a freshman. 

Notre Dame marched down the field on their opening drive, exploiting a few breaks in the Boston College defense before they arrived at the goal line ready to punch in a touchdown. And that’s where it started going wrong.

Kizer rolled right, had a choice to throw or run, and instead lobbed a pass to freshman Alizé Jones that was easily intercepted by the Eagles’ John Johnson. Kizer’s next appearance in the red zone needed replay to overturn a fumble where Boston College ripped the ball from his grip just after his knee touched down.

It didn’t get much better from there. We already hammered Kizer for his back foot looper to the middle of the field, but add in an extra point snap that bounced off both of his hands and after showing wisdom beyond his years for the entire season, Kizer looked and played like a freshman unable to shake a crisis of confidence.

Kizer completed 20 of 38 passes, throwing for 320 yards but giving away three interceptions—two inside the 5-yard line—on the evening. He was inaccurate on short routes, struggled to connect on the deep ones (that weren’t dropped) and otherwise looked flustered by a Boston College defense that won in the trenches.

But after the game Kelly took a glass-half-full approach, knowing that his young quarterback will learn from his tough night at the office.

“Today was one of those days that will be a great benefit to him,” Kelly said. He learned some things today that you can’t sometimes get in practice.”

He won’t face a defensive front like that against Stanford, as Kizer was consistently put in 2nd-and-long situations. But with just a week before some very bright lights are put on the Irish as they’ll have to prove they’re worthy of a playoff spot, Kizer will need to play like the guy we saw earlier in the year.

And Kelly sounds confident that he will.

“I think he’ll take today and be better because of it,” Kelly said.

 

The injury to KeiVarae Russell puts Notre Dame’s secondary in a very precarious situation. 

Brian Kelly confirmed that senior KeiVarae Russell suffered a stress fracture against in the fourth quarter. That leaves Notre Dame’s secondary with one less proven commodity at a time when they’ll likely need the veterans cover skills and ability to tackle.

How the Irish counter this loss will be fascinating. Junior Devin Butler “won” the nickel cornerback job out of training camp. But the Irish lost confidence in that package so much that the Irish stayed out of that personnel package until they could get wide receiver Torii Hunter cross-trained.

Freshman Nick Coleman has received praise from Kelly. Sophomore Nick Watkins looks the part, though he’s been lost in the wash—two straight seasons where the talented cornerback seems to have found his way into the dog house.

Russell’s season hasn’t lived up to the hype that we gave it. Part of that is the media’s fault—we all believed Russell was capable of being a shutdown cornerback, probably because KeiVarae himself was so persuasive and good at telling us he would be.

But for any faults Russell may have, he was Notre Dame’s best playmaker in the secondary. And while there’s no timeline on the injury, we saw what this did to Cody Riggs’ season last year. If the injury is anything like Riggs’, there’s a likelihood that Russell will be back for the postseason. But it’s highly doubtful he’ll be on the field next weekend.

It looks like Todd Lyght’s job just got a lot harder.

 

Matthias Farley’s clutch special teams play helped ice the game. 

Boston College lined up for an onside kick, miraculously down just three points with dreams of ruining another Notre Dame season. The Eagles’ quick kick managed to catch a few people off guard, Boston College head coach Steve Addazio calling for a posse, middle-kick approach instead of the standard high bouncer towards the sideline.

But Matthias Farley made sure there would be no turf-ripping celebration for Eagles players. The senior captain and special teams ace attacked the bouncing ball, hopping on the football shy of 10 yards and essentially ending the game with the type of calm and clutch play that he’ll be remembered for in years to come.

Farley earned the game ball for his efforts—his one tackle not on defense, but rather on a critical fake punt that only Farley properly diagnosed. Add to that two downed punts in the shadow of Boston College’s goal line and the field position victory the Irish won handily helped the offensive mistakes not hurt quite as badly.

That’s a credit to Farley. The Swiss-Army knife in the right place at the right time once again.

 

After a season led by Will Fuller, it was seniors Amir Carlisle and Chris Brown that carried the Irish to victory. 

Notre Dame’s other guys iced the victory for the Irish. Senior receivers Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle were the playmakers on Saturday, with both scoring touchdowns and making big plays when the Irish needed them.

Carlisle seemed to be the only guy not infected by the drops or fumbles in the first half. He was the early target for Kizer, working open from the slot and finding big plays down the field.

Brown also played huge. The senior went for 104 yards on six catches, none better than the ball he snatched away from a Boston College defender, showcasing the type of athleticism the former triple-jump champion has shown in spurts.

After a season with Fuller carrying the load and making all the big plays, both Brown and Carlisle picked up the slack after Fuller’s disappeared at times in the first half and suffered some late-game drops.

“I thought our two seniors really stepped up big for us. Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle had big games for us,” Kelly said postgame. “I think each and every week those guys are factors. It’s just we’re going to look to Will if we can, and if he’s in a situation where we can’t get him the ball, those two guys are really good players, as well.”

 

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

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UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

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ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.