Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Miami 27

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It’ll likely be relegated to the online supplement of the coffee table book memorializing the historic Notre Dame-Miami rivalry. But that doesn’t take away from the drama in the Irish’s 30-27 victory, a win that had all makings of a nightmarish year-in-review for Brian Kelly’s squad, until a young Irish roster rallied after giving up 27 unanswered points, sealing the win on the game’s final play.

But as Brad Kaaya laid pinned under a stack of bodies as the clock mercifully hit 0:00, the Irish finished off a much-needed victory—especially gratifying after spending the midsection of the game finding new ways to give it away.

These sixty minutes embodied the Irish season. There were moments of brilliance—a quick start and dominating first quarter that had Irish fans thinking back to the 2010 post-bye week jumping of a ranked Utah team.

But then—of course—there were the next 40 minutes, a toxic brew of stalled-out offense, self-inflicted mistakes and special teams implosions, with the Irish giving away a 20-point lead to find themselves trailing 27-20 with under seven minutes remaining after C.J. Sanders gift-wrapped Miami’s go-ahead touchdown, muffing a punt inside his own 5-yard-line, the cherry on top of the Irish special teams implosion.

But even with the collective stomach of the stadium queasy and remote controls tossed around ND Nation, Brian Kelly’s team found itself, scoring the game’s final 10 points to pull out the win.

“No one was surprised,” Kelly said of his team’s late-game resolve. “They were just happy as heck that it’s finally over, that they got through it in a close game, that they found a way to win.”

That the Irish did, earning their third victory of the season and keeping those bowl eligibility alive to fight another week.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Jarron Jones was unblockable today. 

Notre Dame’s fifth-year senior earned not just the game ball on Saturday, but probably a few job offers for next year. Because the 330-pounder absolutely dominated the trenches, looking like the Jarron Jones many of us thought would emerge after his coming out party against Florida State two seasons ago.

But Jones has traveled a long road since then, injuries turning him into a shell of his former self. But after the tweak in defensive scheme and a renewed commitment to being a senior leader, the Rochester, New York native supplied what could be used as his NFL Draft sizzle reel on Saturday alone, a one-man wrecking crew as he racked up seven solo tackles and an astounding six tackles-for-loss, dominating Miami center Nick Linder.

“I think that was as good of performance that we’ve had in a while here. Jarron was outstanding. He was awarded the game ball,” Kelly said postgame. “What stands out to me more than anything is that when your senior is playing his best ball, that says a lot about how he feels about coming to work every day, getting better, regardless of the record. I think that’s a real positive for our program and for him individually. He was a beast today.”

You saw that buy-in on Jones’s face postgame after the Stanford loss, an emotional veteran proudly defending his team. From the sideline after the victory, Jones talked about the goal of getting to the postseason, the win a huge first step for the team.

“It lifts us up. It lifts us up in a big way,” Jones told NBC’s Kathryn Tappen. “We’ve got to win out to go to a bowl game, so we’ve got to keep pushing, keep it moving.”

 

DeShone Kizer got a huge monkey off his back. 

Notre Dame’s junior quarterback hasn’t been having much fun lately. Stuck amidst the longest losing streak of his lifetime—at any level–Kizer didn’t hide his relief postgame.

“I feel like this whole stadium is off my shoulders,” Kizer said. “The last couple games in this stadium haven’t gone the way we wanted them to. But to come out and get this done the way we did today was awesome.”

Kizer’s play was a big part. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns. He threw no interceptions. He got the ball out in rhythm, making big plays both down the field and also on quick routes, spreading the ball to 10 different receivers on Saturday, with the offensive staff deciding that up-tempo would be the best way to slow down a Miami defense that came into the game as the top team in the country in tackles-for-loss.

“Really, really pleased with some of the play within the play,” Kelly said of Kizer’s game. “For me, my eye is focused on rhythm, timing, getting the ball out of your hand. And I thought it was the best since he’s been here, in getting the ball out of his hand.”

That was necessary, as the Irish offensive line still struggled at the point of attack against the Hurricanes. And while Kizer’s been victimized by his own success (and maybe the echo-chamber that has his name still climbing the rungs of mock draft ladders everywhere), Kelly tried his best to praise the game his quarterback played, while reminding everybody that he’s still a work in progress.

“He’s not flawless yet. So, sorry guys. He’s not flawless yet,” Kelly said. “He’s got some work that he’ll continue to work on, but he was really good today. He did a lot of really good things today.”

 

Notre Dame’s special teams nearly lost this game for the Irish. 

Notre Dame’s special teams continue to be horrendous.

(Pause for emphasis)

Scott Booker’s unit didn’t cover itself in glory on Saturday. Two critical mistakes on punt returns gave Miami the ball back and a go-ahead score. They got out-schemed on an onside kick with freshman Jalen Elliott looking like he forgot the rules of the game. And they got another Tyler Newsome’s punt blocked for good measure, enough mistakes to drive the Irish’s early-game momentum into a brick wall.

The special teams didn’t cost the Irish the football game. And to their credit, they actually executed when it was needed, as Chris Finke broke off a huge 23-yard punt return to start the Irish in Miami territory on the game-clinching drive that ended with Justin Yoon booting a game-winning chip shot with 3o seconds left.

But at this point, Irish fans likely yearn for the days of John “Fair Catch” Goodman back returning kicks, hoping that a no-joy approach will at least kill any chance of disaster. Because Sanders delivered a ton of that, making the worst decision of the evening that resulted in seven points for the other guys and also failing to keep Troy Pride away from a short punt that flipped possession and kept Miami alive.

Kelly tried to keep things positive postgame, understandable because the Irish broke their losing streak. And as Kathryn Tappen reported from observing Kelly’s conversation with Sanders after the punt-touchdown debacle, he didn’t undress the sophomore, but stressed being decisive, something Kelly echoed after the game.

“We have to be more confident. We’ve got really good players who care a lot and have a lot of pride in what they do every single day,” Kelly said. “I just need to reinforce with those guys to be more decisive. They’re coming on the other end of that.”

 

Notre Dame’s defense continues to make gigantic strides in life after Brian VanGorder. 

Brian Kelly has talked about some of the limitations that come with the main objectives of not giving up big plays and simply limiting the points. But at this point, Kelly should look at what the results have been—a completely transformed defense that looks nothing like the unit that was a four-alarm fire under Brian VanGorder.

Saturday, Notre Dame’s defense dominating the trenches. They held the Hurricanes to just 18 net rushing yards and had five sacks and 12 total TFLs on the evening, beating Brad Kaaya to a pulp and slowing down some skill players who looked like very tough matchups for Notre Dame’s three freshman cornerbacks.

After the game, Kelly took a moment to respond to the criticism of his team’s pass rush (“We do sack the quarterback here at Notre Dame”) while also crediting his restructured defensive staff for their game plan.

“We knew, more than anything else in this game, that we had to attack the line of scrimmage,” Kelly explained. “I thought it was an outstanding game plan that our defensive coaches put together, and that was we really needed to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage.”

To do that, the secondary had to hold up in coverage. And they did, with Cole Luke nearly taking an interception to the house and Dante Vaughn and Julian Love making some very big pass break-ups.

With Nyles Morgan cashing in nine tackles and two more sacks of his own, this defense is starting to play like we thought it could before the season started, a frustrating footnote considering the early-season futility we saw under VanGorder.

 

Some fans will write this off as a meaningless victory. But Brian Kelly views it as a building block for the future of his program. 

Don’t tell Kelly—or his team—that this win didn’t matter. So some will (somewhat understandably) scoff at this victory, Kelly views it as a first step towards getting this young roster on track to build the mindset of a champion.

After the game, Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach talked about what a win does for this team, allowing them to avoid another week of toxicity that’s been difficult for his young team to ignore.

“It just meant that we’re not going to have to go through this again,” Kelly said. “We were all going to have to listen to, ‘Okay, the locker room is falling apart,’ a bunch of baloney, and we’d have to go through all this again.”

This staff believes in the process they’ve laid out. But they also understand that you need to see success if you’re going to keep preaching that the wins will take care of themselves if you just put in the work.

“We were still going to do the same thing. The attitude would have been great. Their preparation would have been great,” Kelly said. “But they were going to have to figure out how to win a football game late, and that meant they had to execute better, they had to play all phases better at the end, and they did.”

Scoring the game’s final 10 points helped. So did some luck—DeShone Kizer miraculously recovering Durham Smythe‘s goal line fumble—averting disaster that would’ve been the third critical mistake made by a senior on the afternoon (Torii Hunter’s olé block on 4th-and-1 joined by Mike McGlinchey’s inexplicable false start).

But a win is a win. And coming back from the brink is something that this young roster needed to badly pull off.

“Now they know how to do that,” Kelly said of the late-game win. “Now there’s a lot more confidence in that room that they believe that they can do it, and if they just pay attention to the little things and are more decisive, they’re going to win.”

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover