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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.

Irish land blue-chip OL Aaron Banks

aaron-banks
Tom Loy, Irish 247
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Notre Dame received the commitment of 4-star offensive tackle Aaron Banks on Friday afternoon. Picking the Irish over a national offer list that included Michigan, Tennessee, and local programs USC and UCLA, the 6-foot-7, 335-pound Banks reminded all that even if the Irish only won four games this season, Harry Hiestand is still one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country.

Banks made the commitment from a ceremony at his high school in El Cerrito, California. And when he picked the Irish, he added to Notre Dame’s impressive offensive line haul, joining Dillan Gibbons, Joshua Lugg and Robert Hainsey — a key piece of the puzzle moving forward.

Banks is a consensus 4-star recruit and a Top 200 prospect. He took an official visit to Michigan in November, but has been a long-time target of Hiestand’s, visiting South Bend in September and welcoming Brian Kelly and Hiestand into his home after the USC game.

As a big recruiting weekend gets started at Notre Dame, the annual Echoes Awards will serve as the beginning of an important home stretch for a program without a bowl game. As Kelly still looks to lock in a defensive coordinator, not to mention other staff changes still in the air, Banks takes back some of the lost momentum, a key commitment heading into a holiday dead period before a furious finish leading into the first Wednesday in February.

Banks is No. 18 in the Irish recruiting class. He’s an early-enrollee, ready to hit campus within weeks and compete on the interior of the offensive line during spring ball.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”