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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.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)