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

103 Comments

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.”

 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

Getty Images
6 Comments

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

Getty Images
26 Comments

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

Getty Images
7 Comments

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

Getty Images
4 Comments

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…)