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And in that corner… The Ohio State Buckeyes

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Notre Dame isn’t playing in the College Football Playoff. But any worry that the Irish were headed to a meaningless bowl game this January was dismissed when Notre Dame matched up with Ohio State. Urban Meyer’s 11-1 team fell short of defending their title when they lost to Michigan State in November, tumbling to the three seed of the Big Ten with the Spartans in the playoff and Iowa getting the Rose Bowl bid.

That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes aren’t the class of the Big Ten. They’ve got a collection of talent that rivals any program in the country. Ohio State has the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, led by All-American Joey Bosa. They’ve got the Big Ten’s best running back in Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett starting at quarterback (finally). And with Meyer’s staff filled with three former Brian Kelly assistants, there’s no shortage of connectivity between two programs vying for Midwestern supremacy.

To get us ready for the Buckeyes, we welcome in Bleacher Report’s Ben Axelrod. Now the Big Ten lead writer for B/R, Ben is a prolific tweeter, a Columbus native and Ohio State graduate. It’s tough to find anybody who knows more about the Buckeyes. At a busy time of year, Ben brought his A-game.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Is it possible to have a disappointing 11-1 season? Or perhaps more to the point, is it possible for an 11-1 team to underperform?

When you return as many starters from a national title team as the Buckeyes did and are expected to be even better than the year before, I think it’s definitely fair to call this season a disappointing one for Ohio State. The Buckeyes schedule was very manageable and they lost one of the two games they couldn’t afford to lose — on their own home field to a backup quarterback no less.

I will caveat this by saying that if your program is in a place where an 11-1 season that ends with a New Year’s Day Six bowl game is considered a “disappointment,” then your program is in a pretty good place. But all things considered, Ohio State didn’t live up to its expectations this season.

 

Let’s start with the biggest news of the past few weeks—the suspension of Adolphus Washington. He’s played more snaps than any other defensive lineman. He’s a top-five DT per CFF. And his replacements up front are a pretty clear step behind him. How important is this in the grand scheme of things, and how do you see the new Buckeyes defensive brain trust replacing him?

Anytime you lose a first-round talent, you’re obviously losing something and Adolphus Washington is no different. Washington had one of the better years of any play on the Ohio State defense and is still a player who could hear his name called in the first round of the draft.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that if there’s anywhere on their roster they could afford a hit, it’s on the defensive line. Not only is Ohio State deep up front, but it’s versatile as well. I’d anticipate that you’ll see Joey Bosa sliding inside to replace Washington and freshman All-American Sam Hubbard replacing Bosa outside, at least for the better part of the game.
It won’t be as dominant as the “rushmen” lineup the Buckeyes have used featuring Washington, Bosa, Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, but it should still give Ohio State plenty of pass rush ability without leaving itself susceptible against the run.

Offensively, this team seemed to grossly underperform. Is it as simple as putting it on the quarterbacks? Outside of Ezekiel Elliott, did this group reach expectations? And if not, what do you pin it on—quarterback choice, coaching turnover or something else?

The quarterbacks were definitely a big part of Ohio State’s struggles this season and the entire situation was something that seemed to hang over the entire team throughout the year. Between Urban Meyer’s indecisiveness and J.T. Barrett’s arrest, we were at a point where even heading into November, no one knew for sure who the full-time quarterback was.
An injury plagued wide receiver corps didn’t help either, nor did an offensive line that seemed to underperform compared to how it played in the playoff. But with the talent Meyer has recruited and the history these quarterbacks have already established, there’s no real excuse for the Buckeyes to have ranked 104th in the country this season.

 

Notre Dame’s offense is probably the best unit Ohio State will have faced this year—and it might not really be close. Is there an area you expect the Irish to attack?

It’d have to be up the middle. Ohio State’s secondary is good enough to hold its own and even without Washington, you would have to think the pass rush will be there. The Buckeyes have struggled against the run at times this season and the loss of Washington won’t help there. Even if Bosa is willing to do so, I can’t believe he’ll be Ohio State’s primary defensive tackle against the Fighting Irish.

Running quarterbacks in particular are something the Buckeyes have struggled with the season, so the more Notre Dame can get DeShone Kizer involved on the ground, the better its chances will be.

 

Even if the passing game is a bit of a work in progress, Ohio State’s running attack has been prolific. Do you see the Buckeyes trying to grind down Notre Dame’s front seven, or testing their secondary—a clear weakness for the Irish defense?

Meyer will always try to do a bit of both, but based on how Ohio State played against Michigan, I’d anticipate the ball being in either Elliott’s or Barrett’s hands for the majority of the game. That was definitely the best the Buckeyes offense has played all season and it probably wasn’t a coincidence Elliott and Barrett combined for 351 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
If Meyer can find some weaknesses in the secondary, he’ll definitely do his best to exploit them and Jalin Marshall has emerged as a quasi-deep threat, but regardless of what the Fighting Irish present, I’d expect Ohio State to rely on a heavy dose of its run game.

 

Urban Meyer is 49-4 in his time at Ohio State, doing historic things since showing up in Columbus. He’s done it against a watered down Big Ten and a conference with only Michigan State playing to its potential. But it’s still remarkable. How do you grade his performance this season?

In my opinion, it’s definitely the most disappointing of Meyer’s four seasons at Ohio State, which really doesn’t say much. The first year, he went 12-0 with a pretty lackluster roster by the Buckeyes standards, but wasn’t eligible to play in the postseason. In 2013, they went 12-0 in the regular season and were a win in the Big Ten title game away from playing in the BCS national title game. In 2014, he won the first College Football Playoff with a third-string quarterback. Even this year, heading into championship weekend, the Buckeyes felt like they had a chance with enough chaos to crash the playoff again.
This year, the quarterback situation was something Meyer had never dealt with before and even he’d admit he could’ve done better with it. I also think there’s something to the thought that a lot of these players already had their legacies established last winter and have been looking ahead to the NFL ever since. This may have been the most talented team Meyer has coached, but it also presented him with the most challenges. That Michigan State loss is going to sting him for a while, but through four years, Meyer’s track record in Columbus speaks for itself.

 

Fill in the blank:

If Ohio State beats Notre Dame, the key on offense is ______________ and the key on defense is ___________.

If Notre Dame beats Ohio State, the Buckeyes offense wasn’t able to ______________ and the defense failed to __________.

 If Ohio State beats Notre Dame, the key on offense is connecting on shots downfield and the key on defense is containing Deshone Kizer on the ground.

If Notre Dame beats Ohio State, the Buckeyes offense wasn’t able to establish Ezekiel Elliott and the defense failed to hold its own in the ground game.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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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

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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

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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

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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…)