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.”

 

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

Associated Press
6 Comments

Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

rivals.com
23 Comments

Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

Getty Images
14 Comments

Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

Associated Press
39 Comments

Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?