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Talking Irish: Week One recap with JJ Stankevitz

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The Avengers. The DC Universe. If this summer has taught us anything, it’s that people love superheroes uniting and merging universes.

(Or the exact opposite.)

Anyway, partner in crime—and member of the NBC/Comcast universe—JJ Stankevitz and I joined forces for what I hope will be an enjoyable new feature. Its the two of us chatting about Notre Dame football, something we already do pretty much non-stop this time of year, me here at Inside the Irish and JJ over at CSN Chicago.

So with a disappointing Texas game behind us and the home opener just around the corner, let’s roll out our first weekly installment.

Hope you enjoy.

Keith: I’ll be the first to admit it, I was surprised that Notre Dame lost last weekend. I looked at everything and just couldn’t figure out how this was a 2-pt line. Did you see this coming?

JJ: I mean, I predicted a Notre Dame 30-23 win, so I guess I didn’t.
But I’ll say this: That was mostly predicated on me not thinking Texas’ offense was going to be good enough. But as soon as Buechele led that first scoring drive and the 18-wheeler package started humming, I wished I could’ve gone back and re-done my prediction.

I still probably would’ve picked ND to win, but I would’ve gone with Texas scoring more points. There was just so much uncertainty going into that game.

Did Texas’ offense surprise you, Keith, or did Notre Dame’s defense disappoint you? Or somewhere in between?

Keith: It’s got to be somewhere in between — but I was super surprised at the defensive line play — namely, that I thought the guys up front got whipped, and they got whipped by a group that was banged up entering the game. Texas’s push at the point of attack really surprised me.

I’m less surprised by Buechele actually — while everybody started writing the legend, I secretly hoped we didn’t just give birth to another Tate Forcier. What do you do with the DL?

JJ: I mean, the stats don’t lie — ND was better with four down linemen than three. So I go with four.

Keith: I can’t claim to be a tape-breakdown expert, but it certainly wasn’t Andrew Trumbetti’s finest performance.

JJ: Whether that would’ve solved everything, we don’t know, but Brian Kelly admitted Tuesday he would’ve had more big bodies in against the Swoopes package. But even with four DLs there, they needed to generate a more consistent push.

Keith: That weakside DE position took exactly 5 minutes to be exposed as a problem.

JJ: I’d expect to see a lot of Jay Hayes there when he’s fully healthy. He took most of the first-team reps at that spot during the spring and preseason practices open to the media and looked solid enough there.
That being said, I don’t expect to see him this weekend, do you?

Keith: At this point, I’d have the guy with his foot elevated between now and next Tuesday, hoping he’s ready for a slugfest in the trenches against Michigan State.

JJ: If he’s healthy, he’ll play – no reason to hold out a guy who’s 100%. But it’s a short week and Nevada isn’t exactly a star opponent, so I could see him getting limited snaps. But you gotta get him some work so his first real test since 2014 won’t be against that bruising Michigan State side.

Keith: Remember, he was “healthy” heading into Texas, too.

JJ: I guess to put a wrap on the defense: Are you confident it can pull together and be good enough for Notre Dame to still have a successful year?

Keith: Successful yes. But I’m not sure what that means anymore. I had 10 to 11 wins as possible for this team.

JJ: I realize that was a loaded question, ha.

Keith:  And I really did think the defensive would play much, much better.
Now I probably have taken a step away from the ledge when it comes to Brian VanGorder, and I actually think BK is right to be preaching patience here — he’s breaking in SO many new players and doing it without a safety who was probably one of the three most important people on this defense, but this team will only be as good as its defense. And right now, that’s not very good.

JJ: Look, you can win a lot of games with your offense bailing out an underperforming defense. But you can’t contend for a playoff spot with that.

Keith: I think that’s true. Maybe Oklahoma would disagree — at least last year — but underperforming is one thing. What those guys did on Sunday night wasn’t underperforming.

JJ: The Big 12 is a different animal with that, though. Underperforming was last year’s defense.

Keith:  I’ll leave my defensive comments at this: I’m worried about not just the scheme, but the personnel. That’s what was more surprising to me. That ND’s guys were getting blown off the ball and their DBs were getting torched vertical.

JJ: There are a few individual players who looked good Sunday — Nyles Morgan and Shaun Crawford come to mind — but the whole defense has to be better.

But you raise the question: Can it?If the personnel isn’t there, and the scheme isn’t there, then what is? I guess we have 11 games to find out.

Keith: That’s essentially the big rub on the Brian VanGorder defense. What do you hang your hat on? This is starting to feel pretty “Tenuta-ish.”

***

Keith: So DeShone Kizer announced that DeShone Kizer would be the team’s starting quarterback. What do you make of the decision? And what do you think of BK having Kizer handle it?

JJ: That it was obvious? The way it was handled made sense.

On one hand, Kelly and Kizer talked, and it was clear Kizer was going to be the starter. Kizer was the only QB who talked to the media on Wednesday, so if he didn’t say anything about being the starter and delayed the announcement to Thursday, it would’ve raised far more questions than ND would’ve wanted.

But on the other hand, if Kelly came out Wednesday and briefly told us that Kizer was his starter, it’d be making a bigger deal out of it than I think anyone wants. It was clear Kizer outplayed Zaire and was going to be the starter, so don’t make a big deal out of it and let Kizer say it and move on.

Long story short: Having Kizer announce it was the path of least resistance and most common sense. I was fine with it.

KA: I couldn’t agree more. Nothing diffuses this like having Kizer talk about it. It also keeps all of us from picking around at BK, asking him how Malik took it, blah blah blah…

What do you think happens with Malik? I tend to think he’ll still get a series against Nevada in the first half. If only to get the bad taste out of his mouth.

JJ: It’s hard to not feel sorry for the kid, right? It’s a tough situation.

Keith: This feels pulled straight from Friday Night Lights or something.

JJ: He *should* be starting. He would’ve in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, and probably should’ve in 2014, in retrospect. But then he wins the starting job, gets hurt, and a guy who’s turning into a first-round pick right before our eyes comes along and takes his spot.

Keith: But the flip of that is: Damn — DeShone Kizer is good.

JJ: He’s so good!

Keith: This is a guy who Brian Kelly praised on Signing Day for being: Tall. Big. And Tall — in that order.

JJ: Bruce Feldman had a good look back at his recruiting process over on Fox Sports this week. Kizer was about as unimpressive in the Elite 11 as possible because he wasn’t solely focused on being a QB then.

But Kizer talked about it Wednesday and said something interesting — that being a three-sport athlete in high school was the best thing that ever happened to him. Not only did he gain other mental/physical skills from playing basketball and baseball, but it delayed the information dump about being a QB until he was mature enough to handle it.

So instead of having all this stuff thrown at him at age 16, he’s getting it at age 19, 20, and understands it better and is mature enough to handle it now. And we’re seeing him develop into a guy who could be a legit Heisman contender and first-round pick.

Keith: Pete Carroll once told me that he preferred recruiting multi-sport athletes. He thought they could be molded much better at college.

JJ: I’ve had a number of people in MLB front offices and clubhouses tell me they like multi-sport athletes more, too. So what was your favorite play Kizer made Sunday night? The somersault TD throw to ESB, the 29-yard TD run, the scramble-and-throw TD to Torii Hunter or the teardrop to Adams?

Keith: The throw to Adams, for sure. And honestly, I don’t think he played his best game. And I think the receivers were a big part of the problem.
I thought the offense came unglued once Torii Hunter got hurt. And it was because they had three or four kids lined up out there that didn’t seem to have a clue as to what they were doing.

JJ: Agreed. I think it was on the possession after that ridiculous two-point blocked PAT score where Kizer threw incomplete to Kevin Stepherson on third down. Having Hunter there would’ve been huge for that drive.

***

Keith: What do you want to see this weekend?

JJ:  First and foremost, Notre Dame’s defense has to get some positive momentum behind it. Nevada nearly lost to Cal Poly, which went 4-7 at FCS last year, so even though they’ve made back-to-back bowl games Brian Polian doesn’t quite bring the strongest side to South Bend.

This is a good opportunity for Notre Dame’s defense to get the bad taste out of its mouth from Texas and hold an opponent to, ideally, under 20 points. No explosive plays, make some third down stops, and hold them to a reasonable YPP average. Second, just for Kizer to continue to develop a rapport with the young WRs, especially assuming Hunter is out. Make sense? What about you?

Keith: Mostly good defense and a non-competitive game. I think this team can still achieve all of their goals. But they have to win. And they need to get themselves prepared for a tough run in the schedule. But defense first and foremost. And no broken plays.

JJ: Yep yep yep. Selfishly, I would like to not have six or seven re-writes of my game story, as was the case on Sunday.

Got a prediction? I’ll go first: Notre Dame 52, Nevada 24

Keith: I like that number. I think getting to the 50-point mark should be the goal — and to do it in regulation time.

Can I steal your score? That’s pretty solid.

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…)