Five things we learned: Michigan State 36, Notre Dame 28

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Brian Kelly’s football team isn’t ready for primetime. Not when the offense lays an egg and the special teams implodes. Not when the defense gives up plays big, small, and everywhere in between.

But the Irish have heart. And after it looked like Notre Dame was going to get run out of its own stadium in the most disappointing loss of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, they didn’t—gallantly marching back and bringing the home crowd to life, as Michigan State’s seemingly insurmountable late third-quarter lead of 29 points was down to just one score with enough time for some late-game magic by DeShone Kizer.

But the Irish lost their second game of the season, falling to Michigan State 36-29. And while there are no prizes for good efforts, they never got closer than the ball in DeShone Kizer’s scorching hands with under four minutes to go and the Spartans’ on their heels.

But instead of rolling the dice on Kizer and the offense on 4th-and-7 at their own 32-yard line, Kelly punted with 3:37 left, putting the weight of the game on his defense. And from there, Brian VanGorder’s unit did what it has done for much of his tenure in South Bend—put themselves in a position to succeed, only to implode— a broken coverage on 3rd-and-7 icing the game for the Spartans.

The loss is a dagger for the Irish. With their playoff goals officially dashed, it’s back to the drawing board for Kelly and his young team.

Here’s what we learned:

Notre Dame’s touted offensive line got handled by Michigan State’s front seven. 

Before the Irish offense went up-tempo and vertical against the Spartans, they tried to go toe-to-toe in the trenches. And it didn’t work.

Notre Dame’s running game was nonexistent on Saturday night, the Irish picking up just 57 yards on 25 official attempts. A week after Josh Adams looked like he was on the ascent, the Spartans had him stuck in neutral, just 29 yards on 12 carries.

The Irish offensive line, a group that some thought was the best in the nation heading into the season, had its lunch handed to them by Malik McDowell and the Spartans front seven. Kizer was harassed early and often, the pocket collapsing and several blitz pickups missed.

Three games in, Notre Dame’s offensive front is still searching for its identity. And after struggling in an unfriendly environment against Texas, they were exposed on their home field on Saturday night.

Another good opponent, another big score against Notre Dame’s defense. 

With 36 points allowed to Michigan State, the Irish defense let another quality opponent put up a big number on them. Add in Texas’ 37 in regulation, Ohio State’s 44, Stanford’s 38 and Pitt’s 30, and only Nevada, Boston College and Wake Forest have failed to hit 30 since the Irish held Temple to 20 points last Halloween.

The Spartans put up 501 yards of offense. They ran for 260, averaging five-yards a touch. They owned the time of possession, holding the ball for just shy of 38 minutes. And they converted third downs, with Notre Dame failing to get off the field in the first half before breaking down completely in the third quarter.

With most doing their best to discount Texas’ success in the trenches to scheme or tempo, Michigan State spent a few plays playing with pace before settling down and slugging it out. And they won going away, the handful of nice stops made by Irish defenders erased by bad run fits or schematic breakdowns.

It’s a familiar song, but one that still haunts. Another good opponent, another big number put up against the Irish.

A young secondary needed Cole Luke to step up. Instead he might have played the worst game of his career. 

Notre Dame’s young secondary fought hard. But their leader struggled, and Cole Luke’s tough Saturday night ultimately doomed the Irish defense.

The best defensive back on the Irish roster didn’t play like it Saturday night. And after two weeks watching Nick Coleman wear a bullseye, the football seemed to find Luke, often times ending in a big Michigan State play.

The Spartans flipped the game’s momentum when Luke was beat on a long touchdown, Donnie Corley ripping the ball out of Luke’s hands, turning what looked like an interception into a touchdown. The senior missed a key open-field tackle in the red zone that turned into a touchdown for the Spartans and was a critical part of the blown coverage on 3rd-and-ballgame late in the fourth quarter.

There’s no replacing key pieces like Shaun Crawford or Max Redfield, two building blocks whose absence is certainly felt with true freshman now playing in their place. But Luke’s struggles, especially coming against a critical opponent, doomed the Irish, and now force the veteran to rebuild his confidence before the season goes sideways.

A team that needed to do the ordinary things well didn’t—and the mistakes proved costly.  

On a frustrating Saturday night where many Irish fans are throwing hand grenades and waiting for daylight to look for any real answers, Kelly probably encapsulated his team’s problems best.

“We’re sloppy as a football team. There is not a referendum on who’s got to carry who, or the defense can’t do that,” Kelly said. “We’re too sloppy overall as a football team… Two huge mistakes on special teams and the difference in the game was eight points. So we gotta clean up the whole deal. So this is everywhere, and this is on me. We gotta clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.”

A kickoff return for touchdown overturned on a holding call. A blown punt return that one play later turned into a Michigan State touchdown. Those tend to be forgotten when the defense is giving up big plays and the head coach is deciding to punt instead of roll the dice with his quarterback.

The Irish aren’t good enough to win sloppy. And they proved it Saturday night.

Notre Dame’s not just playing for the future. This coaching staff will be coaching for their jobs, too. 

Brian Kelly isn’t going to address the status of his defensive coordinator. But in his attempts to repeatedly fall on the sword for his team’s loss, Kelly’s commentary on the blown assignment that allowed the defense to convert on third-and-long might as well have been directed straight at VanGorder.

“We’re in a position we gotta make that play, obviously. They got two verticals, pretty standard deal… and we’re not in good position,” Kelly explained. “That’s poor coaching. We’re not coaching it well enough.

“Obviously if our players can’t execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top and the safety coming underneath, that’s on me. That falls on my shoulders, and we’re not getting that done. So we’re either not capable of running that coverage or we’re not coaching it well enough, one or the other, so I gotta do a better job.”

Ultimately, Kelly’s the man in charge of his program. And he’s also the one who put his defense in VanGorder’s hands. And that decision hasn’t looked like a good one since VanGorder’s defense befuddled opponents early in his first season, with no game tape to prepare from.

But scheme is one thing, personnel is another. And even as the Irish reload a roster that lost more talent than any one team since the Holtz era, this staff will likely be evaluated—and retained–by its ability to teach and improve this young roster.

Because Kelly isn’t going anywhere. And while he’s yet to fire a coach in his time in South Bend, course correction isn’t something he’s afraid of.

“Those are the guys we have. We can’t trade em. They’re not getting cut. We recruited them. I told our staff, ‘Those are our guys, so we’ve got to get ’em better. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays,'” Kelly said emphatically.

“Those are our guys that are going to be out there next week against Duke, and they’re going to have to make some tackles the following week against the next opposition. So we can cry all we want about what we didn’t do, but we gotta start doing it.”

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…)