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.”

 

Irish land blue-chip OL Aaron Banks

aaron-banks
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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Notre Dame received the commitment of 4-star offensive tackle Aaron Banks on Friday afternoon. Picking the Irish over a national offer list that included Michigan, Tennessee, and local programs USC and UCLA, the 6-foot-7, 335-pound Banks reminded all that even if the Irish only won four games this season, Harry Hiestand is still one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country.

Banks made the commitment from a ceremony at his high school in El Cerrito, California. And when he picked the Irish, he added to Notre Dame’s impressive offensive line haul, joining Dillan Gibbons, Joshua Lugg and Robert Hainsey — a key piece of the puzzle moving forward.

Banks is a consensus 4-star recruit and a Top 200 prospect. He took an official visit to Michigan in November, but has been a long-time target of Hiestand’s, visiting South Bend in September and welcoming Brian Kelly and Hiestand into his home after the USC game.

As a big recruiting weekend gets started at Notre Dame, the annual Echoes Awards will serve as the beginning of an important home stretch for a program without a bowl game. As Kelly still looks to lock in a defensive coordinator, not to mention other staff changes still in the air, Banks takes back some of the lost momentum, a key commitment heading into a holiday dead period before a furious finish leading into the first Wednesday in February.

Banks is No. 18 in the Irish recruiting class. He’s an early-enrollee, ready to hit campus within weeks and compete on the interior of the offensive line during spring ball.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”