Five things we learned: Notre Dame 44, Army 6

31 Comments

In a season filled with unpredictable results, Notre Dame’s one-sided victory fit the bill. Because even if the Irish had the Black Knights over-powered and out-manned at every position, their 44-6 blowout victory wasn’t one many saw coming.

But a week after Navy’s triple-option kept the Irish offense off the field, Notre Dame’s defense responded. And lined up against the nation’s No. 6 defense, the Irish physically dominated with a 38-point first half that made for a extraordinarily comfortable final 30 minutes.

In a Shamrock Series game that lacked any distinguishable storylines, the Irish—to their credit—made sure this one featured no drama. And after C.J. Sanders took back the opening kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown, the Irish forced a punt, scored on their next drive, and were on their way.

In a much-needed easy win, the Irish got their fourth victory of the season. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Army isn’t Navy. But the Irish did a much better job of dictating terms. 

Fast starts are the name of the game against a triple-option opponent. And with C.J. Sanders spotting the Irish an early special teams score and the Notre Dame’s defense breaking serve on the first series, the Irish made sure they didn’t allow last weekend to repeat itself.

Of course, playing Army helped. So did a few early yellow flags—thrown against the Black Knights but kept in the referees’ pockets against the Midshipmen.

But credit is owed to the team who sprinted out of the gate and ended this football game before halftime. And scoring on all six first-half drives (five touchdowns) while forcing Army to punt on their first two touches made certain that the latest Shamrock Series game in San Antonio was just as one-sided as the series debut back in 2009.

 

DeShone Kizer’s confidence is growing just in time for two games that’ll test him the most. 

We knew Army’s defense hadn’t played many tough offenses on their way to a statistically dominant season. But that doesn’t take away from DeShone Kizer’s impressive afternoon. Notre Dame’s junior quarterback played another efficient game, throwing for three touchdowns while completing 17 of 28 throws and running for 72 yards as the Irish offense rolled.

Once again, Kizer played distributor. This time, with the Notre Dame offense without senior captain Torii Hunter, he spread the ball around to 11 different receivers, as Hunter’s replacement, freshman Kevin Stepherson, paced the attack with five catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. (That number would’ve looked a lot better had Stepherson reeled in a well-thrown deep ball that went through the freshman’s hands.)

A second-half red zone interception ruined an otherwise perfect day, but Kizer continues to make improvements, with the offense incredibly efficient on third downs, converting 10 of 13 as Notre Dame won the possession battle, controlling the ball for over 34 minutes.

“He’s maturing as a quarterback. He got the game ball,” Kelly of Kizer postgame. “I liked his leadership all week. I liked his toughness.”

 

An additional week of preparation and a simplified scheme helped the Irish slow down Army’s triple-option. 

The chess match that Ken Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper won last week flipped the other way this weekend. And simplification of the defensive scheme might have helped. Postgame, Army coach Jeff Monken said the Irish played them with just one coverage scheme and alternated between two fronts. That’s down from the five different looks that Monken saw Irish throw at the Midshipmen on tape.

Some of that was because Army quarterbacks Chris Carter and Malik McGue can’t throw the football like Will Worth. The Irish surviving in man coverage all game certainly helped the front seven. A big part of that was the trust the staff continued to put in freshmen like Julian Love and Donte Vaughn.

Love slid to safety and delivered another solid game—a goal-line interception and a tackle for loss highlights for the true freshmen. Vaughn did a nice job not being noticed (always a good feature for a cornerback against an option team), tipping a ball that Cole Luke nearly intercepted on one of Army’s eight passing attempts.

More important than the play of the young secondary was getting off the field. A week after Navy kept possession of the football by converting 12 of 18 third and fourth-down attempts, the Black Knights were just four of 14 on the same two critical downs.

Postgame, captain James Onwualu, who led the Irish with 13 tackles and a sack, was asked about what made the difference. Familiarity was a big key.

“I think it’s more of just getting guys used to it,” Onwualu said. “Having that back to back helped a lot.”

 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame won the special teams battle. 

We’ve been tough on Scott Booker’s special teams unit. But Saturday it was the Irish who preyed on a deficient third phase. So between the opening touchdown and taking advantage of Army’s inability to kick and punt, Notre Dame had a rare win in all phases of the game.

Sanders opening touchdown was a nice start. But don’t discount the Irish learning from their previous mistakes, with Durham Smythe routinely fair-catching an Army pooch kick that tried to catch the Irish napping was a win.

So a nice day by Chris Finke returning punts, no attempts by Tyler Newsome and the Irish routinely winning the field position battle all added to a rare clean day on special teams.

 

It wasn’t flashy. But a win in the Shamrock Series lets the Irish continue to fight for their postseason life. 

There are no grand declarations after a victory over Army. Especially in a game where Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken pointed out the obvious—these two teams don’t really belong on the same field. But as the university puts to rest (temporarily) their annual barnstorm, a win over Army on Veterans Day weekend reminds everybody—on a week where sports certainly took a backseat—that games against the service academies have a different importance as well.

“We play these games for a reason,” Kelly said after the game. “Navy and Army are tough teams to play. But when you’re done playing the game, there’s just a natural respect for how they do their business. In the classroom, out of the classroom, their preparation, their sacrifice. And then to go on the football field and compete against them and share in signing the alma mater together, it makes it a special event.”

A fourth win at least guarantees that this won’t be a historically terrible season. And getting out of the game healthy ensures that Notre Dame will be ready next week to battle a Virginia Tech team that just saw how difficult it is to stop the option themselves.

The win does little to advance any cause—big or little, macro or micro. But it does allow a young team the chance to build confidence against the option for next year and go into Senior Day with some positive momentum.

You can only win one game a Saturday. And in a season where the Irish have found new and depressing ways to lose them, a win is a win is a win. And with the triple option behind them, Onwualu said it best postgame to Kathryn Tappen.

“We’re going to have to get back to playing normal football.”

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

Associated Press
58 Comments

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

Getty Images
50 Comments

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

Getty Images
13 Comments

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

Associated Press
6 Comments

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.