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.”

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

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Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.