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Five things we learned: Navy 28, Notre Dame 27

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It looked like just another careless mistake—this one only caught by replay officials during an extended commercial break. But the result was another Notre Dame special teams calamity that ends up being the difference between a win and a loss.

The Irish’s 28-27 loss to Navy has many culprits, but none more striking than the 12th man on the field for Scott Booker’s special teams. And of all the catastrophic special teams blunders that have infected this season, this time it was Notre Dame’s inability to field a properly-sized unit that re-routed the football game.

Beause the 4th-and-6 mistake caught after a long TV timeout turned a Navy punt into a five-yard penalty, returning the Midshipmen to the field as they converted the 4th-and-1. That gift allowed Navy to put together their longest scoring drive of the season, a 16-play, nine-minute opus, a clock-eating, game killer that gave the Midshipmen just enough points to pull off the upset.

As the Irish fall to 3-6 and lose their first game to Navy since 2010, let’s find out what we learned.

 

When push came to shove, Notre Dame’s defense couldn’t get off the field. 

With the game on the line and the young Irish defense asked to get a stop, they couldn’t do it. Navy made all the big plays down the stretch, converting third and fourth downs to win the football game.

The Midshipmen converted eight of 13 third downs. They converted four of five fourth downs. And those chain-moving plays allowed Navy to hold Notre Dame to just six offensive possessions, the lowest in a college football game since 2008, when the Midshipmen held Northern Illinois to the same number.

At no time were those conversions more critical than in the fourth quarter. After Notre Dame’s special teams gift, the Mids capped off their nine-minute drive with a 27-yard rushing touchdown by Will Worth, a 3rd-and-7 conversion that began a string of clutch plays for the Navy offense.

After Brian Kelly decided to kick a field goal to pull the game to within a point, Navy ate the game’s final 7:28, never giving the Irish the ball back, even as Kelly used all three of his timeouts to try and control the clock.

The defense had their chances. After getting a break on Donte Vaughn’s downfield coverage, Navy drew a pass interference flag on Nick Coleman, the sophomore out of the doghouse after Julian Love left the game with a head injury. Coleman had a chance to make a play on the football, but instead ran through the receiver, moving the chains on third down with a pass interference penalty.

From there, the Navy did it again and again, gaining six on 3rd-and-7 before converting a Worth sneak on 4th-and-1.

Even as the Irish managed to get Navy behind the chains, the Mids fought their way out of it. With the Irish burning their timeouts and turning 2nd-and-9 into a 4th-and-6 for the ball game, Worth found senior receiver Jamir Tillman for the game-clinching catch. It was Navy’s fourth conversion on fourth down that afternoon, a brutal back-breaking efficiency that allowed Navy to end the game in victory formation.

 

With just six opportunities to score, DeShone Kizer missed one too many times. 

Early in the second quarter after the defense turned over Navy with a fourth-down stop, DeShone Kizer missed his chance to go for Navy’s throat. The junior quarterback got the matchup he was looking for—freshman Kevin Stepherson against a linebacker. But Kizer air-mailed the throw, missing long when Stepherson had nobody close to him, turning an easy touchdown into an incompletion. Two plays later, the Irish would punt.

Kizer did a lot of good things on Saturday afternoon, completing 19 of 27 throws for 223 yards and three touchdowns. But being accurate with the football wasn’t one of them.

With the Navy secondary beat up and the Midshipmen defense selling out to stop the run, Kizer missed early and often with some easy possession throws. While he fought his way through the tough afternoon by converting a few critical third downs with his legs, it was missed pitch and catch opportunities—and blown reads—that ended up costing the Irish.

Kizer spoke earlier in the week about the need to convert opportunities. And even if the Irish only punted once, two of those six drives ended in field goals, the inability to get seven points costing the Irish in the end.

With just four games left in Kizer’s season, the talk with only amplify about the junior’s stay-or-go decision at year-end. And while most pundits see Kizer as a first-round talent and the prevailing wisdom around the program leads you to believe this will be at for him at the college level, there’s an awful lot of tape that leads you to believe that Kizer isn’t ready to step in at the NFL level—especially when it comes to accuracy.

Completing 70 percent of your throws is hardly the game to make this point. But in four of nine games this season Kizer has completed less than 60 percent of his throws. Add last year’s games at sub-60 percent against Clemson, Boston College, Stanford and Ohio State and that’s enough film to punch holes in the narrative that Kizer’s a premier quarterback, ready to change an NFL franchise’s fortunes.

That’s not to say Kizer won’t be the Irish quarterback to break Notre Dame’s cold streak at the next level. But before anybody punch’s the Toledo native’s ticket into the first round, he’ll need to show that his accuracy is ready for the challenge of the next level.

 

 

 

In an evenly matched football game, Scott Booker’s special teams let the Irish down. (Again.) 

 

Each team had 21 first downs. Two yards separated the two teams offensive totals. Third down conversions, red zone attempts and yards per play were all closely aligned.

That’s what makes Notre Dame’s latest special teams nightmare so maddening. And that’s what makes the decision to keep Scott Booker in charge of this unit so difficult to contemplate moving forward.

Brian Kelly won’t likely fire his second assistant mid-season. But a week after watching C.J. Sanders give away a touchdown and Jalen Elliott brain-cramp in the middle of an onside kick attempt, Devin Studstill’s 12-men penalty is the latest self-inflicted mistake to cost the Irish dearly.

Kelly said after the game that two referees told him that Studstill had gotten off the field in time. The replay booth disagreed. And the head coach made it clear that he didn’t hold the referees accountable for the momentum changer.

“Navy won the game. I’m not here to cry over that call,” Kelly said.

So even if the rest of the special teams performance was fairly anonymous—it was Chris Finke in for Sanders on the punt that didn’t count—it still found a way to change this game. And at this point, we’re running out of excuses to make for Booker’s unit.

 

Another tight game, another coaching decision that went the wrong way for Brian Kelly.

With the Irish facing a 4th-and-4 and down four points in the fourth quarter, Kelly decided to trot out Justin Yoon to kick a 31-yard field goal. That brought the game to within one point, and necessitated the Irish defense to get a stop—one they couldn’t get.

After the game, Kelly was asked about the decision to take his offense off the field and put the game on his defense’s shoulders.

“I certainly thought about going for it. In hindsight, we didn’t get the ball back,” Kelly said in his postgame comments. “Even if they scored a touchdown we’d still have the opportunity to score and get the two-point conversion.”

That logic seemed understandable in real time, considering Kizer’s struggles and the Irish ground game’s modest production. But even without the benefit of hindsight, another conservative coaching decision gives you the feeling that maybe even the head coach has become gun-shy during this nightmarish run.

Notre Dame’s sixth one-possession loss follows the trend of coin-flip sequences that haven’t gone Notre Dame’s way. But at this point, you’ve got to wonder what Kelly is waiting for—the stats to change, or his team to go out and seize the moment.

Not going for two against Texas in overtime of the season opener is one thing. Not trying to rip back the lead in the middle of a mostly meaningless November game against Navy is another.

So if the head coach’s edict for his team is to play fast, play loose and play to win, it’s time for the coaching staff to do the same thing. And with a chance to take the lead and play aggressive, Kelly went the other way—and lost.

 

One team executed their game plan. The other team goes home with their sixth loss.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo won his third game against Notre Dame, clinching a bowl bid for the Midshipmen with the clutch victory. And after the game, all the kind things Kelly could say about his teams effort and passion were eclipsed by his praise for the Midshipmen.

“They executed flawlessly. It’s what we expect every time we play Navy,” Kelly said. “They made the plays necessary late.”

Those plays took the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands. That flawless execution included an incredible 12 of 18 conversion rate on third and fourth down. And with the Mids doing everything right and the Irish doing just enough wrong, the loss adds another black mark to a season that most wish would just end already, a bowl berth now requiring the herculean task of beating Army, Virginia Tech and USC.

Just days after putting the emphasis on a strong November, the Irish now go back to the drawing board. They’ll need to fix their safety play against the option to beat Army. They’ll need to get their offense on track to keep up with Virginia Tech and USC. And they’ll need to make all the right moves on the coaching front to get Kelly’s program back on track after this multi-car pileup.

 

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