The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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Notre Dame beat Boston College 19-16. The game was as ugly as the final score indicates.

Some will say there’s no such thing as a bad win. We’ll find out if that’s true Tuesday evening, when the College Football Playoff Committee—the only arbiter of value—makes their weekly rankings announcement.

Will the Irish inch up the board, considering Ohio State lost to a Michigan State team juggling backup quarterbacks? Will they get jumped by an Iowa team who has made a season of winning unimpressive in close games, or Oklahoma, who needed to stop a two-point conversion to beat a TCU team decimated by injury?

You can’t blame Brian Kelly for not caring. Notre Dame’s head football coach understands it won’t do anything to help.

“The committee is out of my hands. It’s out of our players’ hands,” Kelly said postgame. “All we want to do is put ourselves in a position to be considered. We feel like we need to win another game to still be considered. We’re one of the top four teams after last week. We’ll see where we stand this week. We’ve just got to keep winning games. We’ve got another game against a nationally-ranked team which will give us an opportunity.”

With that, let’s get on with it. It’s a good, bad and ugly that only a mother could love, as we do our best to erase this game from the memory bank and move on to Stanford.

 

THE GOOD

Winning. The Boston College football program’s DNA was formed thanks to pulling off upsets like Saturday night’s. This isn’t a team or a school that’s known for sustained excellence or winning championships. Rather it’s the loud-mouth brawler with a big right hand—the loser of many, many fights, but always the winner of a few really big knockouts, the epitome of fearless muscle with a puncher’s chance.

So if there’s something positive to take from the win, it’s that Notre Dame did everything it could to present a knockout shot and the Eagles still couldn’t land it. Five turnovers. Red zone futility. Horrific mistakes and decisions by players who until that point had been largely responsible for leading the charge.

That’s what made Kelly happiest postgame. A team that found every way possible to step on the landmine stuck together and managed to win. And did so against a team that would’ve made their season by taking the Irish down.

Here’s Kelly from Sunday’s teleconference when asked about his reaction to the victory. Expecting disappointment? Think again:

“I couldn’t have been more proud of my football team, the way they handled themselves, especially, you know, on the offensive side of the ball and the reaction that our defense had.

“Look, we had five turnovers, plus the one kickoff return, six sudden changes and our defense didn’t give up anything. They gave up three points in those sudden changes. That’s the a great mentality to have defensively.

“And then from an offensive mentality, five turnovers and three in the red zone, I never saw one guy point a finger. I never saw any bickering. Nobody was pointing fingers. All they were doing was we were moving to the next play. They were pulling for each other. It’s just a pleasure to be able to coach this group of guys that just persevere.

“Look, it wasn’t our cleanest game, there’s no question about it. We can’t play this way against Stanford and expect to win the game. But as a coach the satisfying moments are when your team is united, when your team plays together, when there’s no pointing fingers and they just keep playing together. And that’s probably for me the most satisfying thing as a coach when you see that happen and those dynamics come together on the sideline.”

That’s the right kind of attitude to take away from the debacle.

 

Matthias Farley. I already singled him out in the Five Things, but I might not enjoy a football player on this team more than Matthias Farley. He’s a guy who has gone through the grinder. He’s been thrown into the fire and found his way out—one of the more unlikely captain stories in recent memory, and that’s including the walk-on that joins him at the coin toss.

Farley’s four critical plays on special teams—downing two punts near the goal line, making the tackle on a fake punt and recovering the onside kick—were likely the difference in a game that ended up just a three-point win.

“He was given the game ball,” Kelly said Monday. “He’s been that kind of player for us all year, the onside kick, stopping the fake punt, downing the ball inside at the ten yard line. He plays the game wherever he’s called.

“That’s why he’s a captain. That’s why he’s really the guy on special teams that makes big plays for us, and a valuable member of our football team.”

 

Chris Brown and Amir CarlisleTwo veteran receivers made big-time plays. Brown’s TD catch was a beauty. Carlisle’s fearlessness across the middle is majorly underrated. Both guys will be missed in 2016.

 

Fenway Park (the turf, too!): I was very surprised the playing surface was as good as it played on Saturday night. Nightmares from Yankee Stadium lingered in my head, but credit needs to go to the grounds crew at Fenway Park for doing an incredible job.

There were only 36,000+ fans at the game, one of the smallest crowds at a Notre Dame football game in recent history. But from all reports, it was an amazing experience.

 

THE BAD

Where to begin? (Where to end?)

Do you really want to read this? Because here is a (far from complete) laundry list of guys who made mistakes on Saturday night. (Cobbled mostly from memory, because rewatching any more of the offensive performance will make it difficult for me to sleep at night…)

DeShone Kizer made some bone-headed red zone decisions, was majorly inaccurate with the football, dropped an extra point snap and generally looked like a redshirt freshman for the first-time in his redshirt freshman season. His offensive line wasn’t much better—though Nick Martin jumped on a fumble that prevented another big turnover, the guys in the trenches got whipped in the run game, outside of three nice gainers. You want fumbles? Well we’ve got ’em. C.J. Prosise, come on down! Josh Adams—not by the goal line, young man. Back to CJs, Mr. Sanders did his best Davonte Neal impression, muffing a punt, a kickoff, and technically getting away with a second punt before Kelly put in Will Fuller to catch Boston College’s final kick. The All-American Fuller got in on the act, too. He dropped a crucial third-down conversion that would’ve helped ice the game and then for good measure a deep ball that was a likely touchdown, too. (I’m sure I’m forgetting a few other major mistakes, but let’s keep rolling on.)

Defensively, things were better. (Playing Boston College helped.) But still, the Irish once again took a nice performance and through a gigantic smear across the front of it. It came courtesy of a blown zone-read QB keeper—from a quarterback whose only skill is literally running the zone-read keeper—essentially letting the Eagles run their way back into the game. Both Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield bit hard on the run fake, and if I’m putting the blown assignment on anybody, it’s Redfield. (Again.) Joe Schmidt had another free run at a quarterback on a blitz and ran right through it. His teammates cleaned things up, but the fact that Schmidt has two sacks this season—not six—is a little surprising. Cole Luke got lost in coverage, giving up a big gainer to a team less accomplished than Knute Rockne’s with the forward pass. Elijah Shumate got targeted on the game’s final drive, beaten inside on a slant after it looked like he was playing nickel back. And the Irish turned walk-on quarterback John Fadule into Steve Young—though he dropped his head and tried to run over one too many defenders, with Schmidt knocking him into next week. (Worried about something next week? The Irish are getting bludgeoned by QB scrambles.)

Did we talk about the red zone? Do we have to?

After looking like world-beaters against Pitt, the Irish found new ways to mess things up. Kizer’s first-down throw to Alizé Jones was a brain-bender. Can’t do it. The screen pass? Oh boy. It looked great in the Music City Bowl when it beat LSU, but Kizer just can’t throw that ball, not into a wall of guys wearing the wrong jersey. After implementing some slick play-action passing against Pitt near the goal line, the Irish somehow thought it was a good idea to go toe-to-toe in the trenches with B.C. Not sure if that was character building or what, but let’s just say that this team has plenty of character, but not a ton of ability to push around a run-defense like the Eagles—and that was before Adams fumbled.

This might feel like piling on. And it very well could be. But it’s much better to be tough on players in victory than it is after a loss. (For those who say a late season performance like this is unacceptable—go check out how some SEC teams played during their pre-Thanksgiving FCS “Cupcakes.” Then go relax. It’s over and the Irish won.)

 

 

THE UGLY

Losing C.J. Prosise & KeiVarae Russell. Keeping the focus on next Saturday, not having Prosise is a crippling blow to the offense. While he didn’t look like the same guy we saw through the first two-thirds of the season even before he rolled his ankle, Prosise’s game-breaking speed and dual-threat ability would’ve been huge against a Stanford defense that’s a shadow of the units we’ve seen over the past few years.

Russell’s loss also forces the Irish to do some serious shuffling. While Kevin Hogan doesn’t have the game-breaking receivers he’s had in the past, finding a cornerback who can play in Brian VanGorder’s man-scheme hasn’t proven easy. Now he’ll have to make things work with a trio of guys he hasn’t trusted outside of garbage time.

For Russell, if this is the end—and he sure seems to point to it being the end—it’s a sad finish for him. But we need to tip a cap to the cornerback who showed a lot of fortitude, handling his business back home in Washington before returning to Notre Dame to earn his degree and play a key role for a very good football team.

Was he perfect this year? No. But his confidence was the type of leadership and self-belief that had to infect this team, considering the amount of man-hours lost to injury and the ability to step in and continue winning. He didn’t have a ‘C’ on his jersey, but there might not have been a better leader on this team, especially considering the big, game-defining plays Russell made against USC and Temple.

***

Here’s what Russell posted along with this photo:

“All I ever wanted to do when coming to Notre Dame was WIN.. As a starter I was apart of 31 games WON out of the 37 I started, so I can say I’m a winner. Sucks to end for me when we are so close! But gotta keep a high head and be the best teammate possible from the sideline. During war some individuals must go down. And still, the motto of the soldiers must remain the same. To my ND bros, #AccomplishTheMission!
#CollegePlayoffs #Top4 #OneMore #TheReturnPT2 #Adversity #NEEDaRing #Thejourney”

 

 

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)