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”

 

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.