Five things we learned: North Carolina State 10, Notre Dame 3

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Mother Nature won.

Technically, the box score will read North Carolina State out-lasted Notre Dame 10-3. But with Hurricane Matthew twirling its way through the Southeast, the Irish and the Wolfpack were the latest and greatest example that sometimes—national television viewing window be damned—an act of god is no place for a football game.

But that didn’t stop the action on Saturday afternoon. And in the end, NC State made one less storm-infested mistake than the Irish, coming up with the game’s biggest play when Pharaoh McKever pushed his way through Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, blocking Tyler Newsome’s fourth-quarter punt as Dexter Wright scooped it up from the slop and took it in for the game’s deciding score.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Throwing a football in a hurricane is not advisable. 

DeShone Kizer has, and will continue to have, many wonderful weekends throwing the football. This was not one of them.

Kizer completed just nine of his 26 throws, a red zone interception to freshman safety Jarius Morehead one of the few that didn’t end up splashing to the ground. The elements were just too much for Kizer—and at times, his receivers—to overcome, dropped passes and wobbly misses less the exception than the rule.

All of that makes you wonder why Notre Dame’s coaching staff—a group with roughly 50 years of play-calling or coordinating experience—would continue to throw the football. Postgame, head coach Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to second guess the decision to air the ball out, though he did acknowledged the game plan.

“I feel like we let them down,” Kelly said of the staff’s plan for his water-logged team.

Getting behind the sticks didn’t help. First-down success was few and far between, a few runs short-circuited by Sam Mustipher snaps, missed blocks and blitzing defenders. But after building just a little bit of success on the offense’s final drive with the game on the line, Notre Dame’s offense went down with a dropped pass, dropped pass, Kizer scramble and tackle, and the final, fateful, 4th-and-8 blown shotgun snap.

That’s a game plan for the recycling bin.

 

The special teams nightmares continue. 

For the fourth-straight game, Notre Dame’s special teams have been responsible for an opponent scoring a touchdown. And this Saturday, that proved fatal.

“We give up a flipping blocked punt for a touchdown,” Kelly said. “That’s the difference in this one.”

Perhaps the most startling thing about the punt block was that it seemed almost accidental. An individual effort, not a designed block, was the difference in the game, with McKever powering through Luatua and Weishar before throwing his arm up and getting a hand on Newsome’s punt.

But that’s been life for Scott Booker’s unit. Even if NC State’s special teams battery had far more problems in the elements than Notre Dame’s, the Irish managed to lose on a punt that started with a perfect snap and didn’t feature an opposing team that came after the kick.

 

The Irish offensive line lost the battle in the trenches. 

Brian Kelly did his best to ignore the offensive line’s struggles last week, talking about the 40-point average and the 500-yards a game. Well, on a Saturday where the battle was in the trenches, Notre Dame’s front five got whipped.

DeShone Kizer was under duress all afternoon. The Wolfpack sacked Kizer five times, Bradley Chubb getting three of them, and totaled eight TFLs on the afternoon. They held the Irish to just 59 yards rushing on 38 official attempts. And stat after stat points to the dismal offensive performance—just 113 total yards, 1 of 15 on third downs, 0 for 2 in the red zone—all start up front.

Sam Mustipher had a horrific day snapping the football, whiffing on a wet ball that led to a turnover, air-mailing Kizer a few times with high snaps and eventually ending the game with a premature roller that sunk the Irish’s final offensive play.

A group that features high-end talent, but features four of five starters in different jobs than the ones they had in 2015, clearly lost the battle on Saturday.

 

The offense wasted a great defensive performance. 

If we’re looking for building blocks, it’s the performance of the defense. While the Wolfpack had some success running the football, for the most part the Irish defense stiffened when they needed to, Notre Dame losing a football game without surrendering an offensive touchdown.

Of course, give an assist to the weather. And give another to the field conditions. But also tip your hat to the effort the young Irish defense gave, especially a front seven that held its own.

Jerry Tillery had nine tackles, including a TFL. Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal paired for a dozen more stops. Devin Studstill was active and a secondary that started freshmen Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Studstill didn’t give up any big plays down the field.

With Stanford coming to town and looking to challenge the Irish defense in the trenches, there’s at least confidence and a performance to build from. And if that’s the silver lining, expect it to be used to turn this team around for another big challenge in a hurry.

 

With a fourth loss before mid-October, the goal needs to be finding a way to a bowl game.

Brian Kelly’s young team needs a pat on the back, not a kick in the tail. Because this weekend is on the coaching, not the players. And Kelly acknowledged that after the game.

“Kids were in great spirits, great energy. I feel terrible that we let them down,” Kelly said.

Kelly talked about the decision to be in rugby punt, not a standard three-man wall, as one of the major differences. But outside of that one decisive play, it was Dave Doeren that made the adjustments first, not Kelly and his staff.

It was the Wolfpack who went to the wildcat and had success in the running game. It was NC State that had the Irish on the ropes for most of the afternoon. And it was Eli Drinkwitz who found some creative ways to engineer yards when the Irish continued to try and call failed zone-read runs and hitch routes like it was an everyday Saturday out there, not a category two hurricane.

Say what you want about the decision to be play through the eye of the storm as stadium lights swayed, rain torrentially fell, and field conditions became more and more unplayable, but it was the same for both teams. And with multiple scoring opportunities going up in smoke as fumbles and turnovers piled up, a young football team needed a coaching staff to devise a game plan that could find a way to mitigate Mother Nature, if only just a little.

But they didn’t. And now the Irish return home as a 2-4 football team. They stare down Stanford and Christian McCaffrey next. And after a much-needed week off they take on Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC, all football games that the Irish could just as easily lose as win.

Notre Dame needs four wins over the final six games to get this program back on track. They need the postseason momentum and the late-season practice that could help jump start spring drills.

Kelly pulled that rabbit from the hat in his first season when he rallied the troops from a 1-3 start. Staring at 2-4, he has an even bigger hole to dig out from.

The odds of doing it look long from this vantage point. But find a way to get to six wins and you very well could find something to celebrate this season.

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.