Five things we learned: Stanford 17, Notre Dame 10

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Different week, same nightmare.

Notre Dame’s fifth loss of the season may have unraveled differently than the previous four, but the end result was the same—a late-game rally that came up short and a few very large questions for the man in charge of the program.

Stanford ended their two-game losing streak by scoring 17 second-half points to top the Irish 17-10. And on an evening where you could’ve excused both sidelines from showing the apathy that seemed to surround this game, both teams played desperate for a win, with the Cardinal swarming DeShone Kizer on the game’s final snap.

“This is a bitter pill to swallow,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “I love those kids in there. They had great energy. They wanted to win. They did everything that they knew in terms of what they felt like they could do to win, and they just came up a little short again.”

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

DeShone Kizer may be in a slump, but Brian Kelly is over-thinking his quarterback position. 

DeShone Kizer played poorly. Before he returned to the field for the game’s final drive, Kizer was just seven of 16 for 99 yards, with two interceptions, including a game-changing pick-six that starting the second half’s swing.

But he’s still Notre Dame’s best option at the position, even if Kelly had to see Malik Zaire one more time to know it.

Looking for a spark, Kelly turned to Zaire. And instead of turning the offense around, the senior backup put together three series where the Irish went three-and-out, safety, three-and-out, seven plays for a grand total of minus-nine yards.

“That was a head coaching decision,” Kelly explained postgame. “I just felt like it was important to try to get some energy back. We lost some energy, and I thought going to Malik would do that.”

The move backfired, with the offense shutout in the second half and Stanford controlling the clock and possession of the football. And while the struggles were hardly exclusive to either quarterback, Kizer’s return to the game wasn’t enough to bail the Irish out—an impressive drive done in by Solomon Thomas and the Stanford defense in the shadow of the north end zone.

Zaire’s time in South Bend has been star-crossed. A job lost by injury, two depth chart battles ending with him on the outside looking in. But fairness isn’t a tenet of major college football. And doing what’s fair isn’t helping the team.

So in a season where Kelly desperately searches for a rabbit in every hat, he once again came up empty when he tried calling Zaire’s number, taking three possessions away from the one quarterback who gave the Irish their best shot to win the game.

 

Sam Mustipher’s snapping has become a problem. But the whole offensive line is in a slump. 

The hurricane was gone. But Sam Mustipher’s problems were not. And the Irish center had another tough day at the office, sailing a snap by Zaire that gave Stanford two points and another by Kizer that cost the Irish 11 yards.

On the sideline, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand huddled, likely deciding whether or not to insert sophomore center Tristen Hoge into the lineup. They didn’t, and Mustipher got back on track. But with another fire brewing during a season filled with flames,  after the game Kelly said all the right things about his embattled center.

“Listen, Sam is a great kid. He wants to do it right. He feels terrible. But we’ll just keep working at it, and it’s just an unfortunate situation,” Kelly said.

Mustipher’s shotgun struggles might have been the ones to stand out, but he wasn’t alone. Hunter Bivin had a difficult matchup all evening in at right guard for Colin McGovern, and Stanford’s three sacks felt like double that with Notre Dame’s quarterbacks constantly under siege.

Notre Dame gained just 307 yards, a few long runs and a 33-yard completion to Torii Hunter buoying that total. And a week after having no answer for the NC State front four, the Irish offensive line struggled against Stanford as well.

 

Jarron Jones is back to playing like Jarron Jones. And developing into a leader while he’s doing it. 

Fifth-year senior Jarron Jones made the game’s most impressive play, putting his blocker on roller skates, steam-rolling his way to quarterback Ryan Burns, sacking, striping and recovering the fumble he forced. It was an incredible display of raw power and athleticism, and a continued uptick for Jones as he plays his way back into a dominant force.

A season that started with Jones only being a part-time participant has turned into a final season where the Rochester native returns to the form that had so many excited before injuries ruined his 2015 before it started. But more interestingly, Jones’ postgame comments showed a commitment that Kelly applauded postgame, and leadership traits that weren’t always observable now seem to be the fuel that will drive Jones through the home stretch of his final season in South Bend.

“No matter how hard things get, I mean, I’ve never even been in this situation before. No matter how hard things get, we’ve got to stay the course,” Jones said.  “We’ve got to still believe in our coaches, believe in each other. Believe that we can get each other out of this and all we have to do is push each other, love each other and play for each other, which we did today.”

 

Notre Dame’s young defense took another step forward–even if it doesn’t make the loss sit any better. 

The young Irish defense that replaced Brian VanGorder and restructured their scheme went nine-consecutive quarters without giving up an offensive touchdown. And while that kind of progress sure feels empty after a demoralizing loss, Greg Hudson has infused an energy into a unit that was left for dead in September, and has managed to transform itself even while it relies on multiple freshmen in the secondary.

The Irish held Stanford to just 296 yards. While Bryce Love found some success, his 23 carries for 129 yards paced the evening, the defense played well enough to win for the second-straight week, a risk-averse strategy helping to eliminate some of the inconsistencies that doomed VanGorder’s unit.

“They’re learning a lot as we go, so we want to minimize big plays, which I think we’ve done a really good job of keeping the points down,” Kelly said.
“The thing that I wanted to do when we made the change was keep the points down and limit the big plays.”

Hudson has managed to do that, relying mostly on a three-man front. He’s found a way to get to the quarterback and protect his back-end, the secondary willing to give up the underneath throw to avoid the one over the top. And on a Saturday night where the Irish lined up Troy Pride, Julian Love, Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott and Donte Vaughn for major snaps, the experience that group is earning will hopefully pay off in the future.

 

Brian Kelly hasn’t lost his football team. But this team goes into the off week hoping this is rock bottom. 

This is a team in search for answers. Because even with energy, effort and enthusiasm, Kelly’s football team isn’t winning games. That leaves this team looking inward, a week off hopefully offering some breathing room and a chance to slow down a snowball that keeps rolling.

“We’re going through a tough spot. But they’re committed to wanting to get through this together,” Kelly said. “Their attitude is incredible, their commitment is incredible. I love coaching this group.”

Kelly spoke of holding this group to a “high standard,” partially an explanation for postgame performance and fiery sideline behavior that’s drawn scorn, particularly as the focus turns to the head coach amidst the most difficult run of Kelly’s time in South Bend. But as the walls close in, there didn’t appear to be any fractures in team unity.

“If everybody out there doesn’t think we love each other and play for each other, then I don’t know what kind of game they are watching,” Jones said postgame. “I felt like this was the most energetic game we’ve ever had, in my four years here.”

That sentiment was echoed by captains Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter and James Onwualu as well. It’s often accompanied by a frustration that has all parties—head coach, players, and likely administrators—wondering when things will turn.

So as the university breaks for a week, the football team will trudge on, searching for answers and doing it as united as a 2-5 team can be.

“I told the guys, this is the no-apology zone. Nobody needs to apologize to anybody,” Kelly said.  “It’s one of those things where everybody knows where we’re at.

“We’re 2-5, and we’re going to get reminded of it by everybody in the country about a million times. We’re 2-5, I’m 2-5, everybody is 2-5, so no one needs to apologize. What we need to do is coach better and execute better, and that will cure a lot of things.”

 

 

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)