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.”

 

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…)