Five things we learned: Virginia Tech 34, Notre Dame 31

72 Comments

Behind center and ready to play a hero, Malik Zaire awaited the snap. Little did he know the clock was already running.

Seven of the 13 precious seconds remaining in the fourth quarter ticked off the field as the senior surveyed the field, the Irish still needing a nice gain to make a game-tying field goal even possible. And after Zaire left the pocket looking to make a play, even a completion wouldn’t have made a difference. He was out of time.

A fitting final snap of the season in Notre Dame Stadium if there ever was one.

Notre Dame’s fast start and 17-0 lead were not enough, as the Irish fell for the seventh time this year, with Virginia Tech rallying to win 34-31. After scoring on four of their first five drives and exploding for 24 first-half points, DeShone Kizer and the offense cooled off, punting on six of their next seven series as the Hokies offense rallied for the win.

A young Irish defense fought valiantly but gave up four scoring drives in the second half. Kizer’s couldn’t replicate his first-half success.  And any hope of stealing a bowl appearance with two wins against the season’s toughest back-to-back is finished.

So as the lights go out on Notre Dame Stadium for the final time this season, let’s find out what we learned.

 

A gutty effort by DeShone Kizer wasn’t enough to get it done. 

In what might have been his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, DeShone Kizer showed plenty of heart. But he didn’t play well enough to win the game.

Kizer completed 16 of 33 throws for 235 yards and two touchdowns. He led the team in rushing attempts with 16, earning all 69 yards he gained. But when the Irish needed to move the chains and win the game late, the Irish came up empty twice.

Of course, not all of that is on Kizer. A strong wind made accuracy a major challenge. The offensive line that protected him well for the majority of the game, struggled down the stretch. And a perfect deep ball that Kizer lofted down the sideline slid through Equanimeous St. Brown‘s hands, a game-changing catch that never was.  On a Saturday where the Irish offense needed to carry the team to victory, Kizer was just three of 15 in the second half, with Bud Foster’s defense shutting down the Irish in the game’s final 30 minutes, save Josh Adams’ 67-yard touchdown run.

Kizer was unwilling to discuss his future postgame, only that he had a decision to make after the season. But he reportedly hung around on the field after the loss, perhaps taking things in one last time before declaring for the NFL Draft, a decision the smart money already thinks is made.

After taking two clear head-shots that deserved personal foul calls, Kizer clearly left it all on the field. Unfortunately, there were a few missed plays out there as well, and they ended up costing the Irish.

 

Notre Dame’s young secondary couldn’t keep pace with Virginia Tech’s talented receivers. 

Someday a few years from now, Notre Dame fans will look back at the challenge Donte Vaughn, Devin Studstill and Julian Love faced on Saturday and reminisce that games like this helped forge the unit into something better. Until then, it’ll just be called growing pains.

Asked to go toe-to-toe with perhaps the best trio of receivers they’ll face all season (or at least until next weekend), the young defensive backs had some tough assignments, with Isaiah Ford catching seven of his 10 targets for 86 yards and Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges bringing in touchdown catches. Add in a long catch and run by slot man C.J. Carroll that went for 62 yards and the Irish were unable to make a big play against the Hokies passing attack—other than the gift-wrapped interception that bounced through the hands of Phillips and into the arms of Drue Tranquill.

The Irish defense had multiple opportunities to go out and win the game, but came up short. After holding the Hokies to just 135 yards in the first half they gave up 284 yards in the second, with 206 of those coming through the air. (That doesn’t count the 15 yards that came on a questionable pass interference call on Cole Luke, a play that Kelly thought Luke played perfectly.)

 

We knew the young secondary would have its hands full. Ultimately, it was the Hokies that won the aerial battle.

 

Once again, a fast start can’t make up for a soft finish. 

As we’ve seen far too often this season, Notre Dame’s fast start wasn’t enough. And after being one of the best coaches in America when playing with a lead, the Irish have been disastrous this year, blowing a 17-zip start and a 10-point halftime lead.

Asked to put his finger on the issue, Kelly couldn’t identify one thing.

“We had some balls that were catchable that we didn’t catch. I just don’t think we executed quite as well offensively,” Kelly said. “We weren’t as sharp in the second half as we were in the first half.”

It helps that Virginia Tech got its act together. After Jarod Evans gave away a fumble and the Hokies stumbled out of the gates, head coach Justin Fuente rallied his team—even as a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost his team an offensive series. Evans led the charge, the massive quarterback the most effective ball-carrier for the Hokies run game, a challenging personnel matchup especially with a fullback on the field that forced the Irish out of their preferred five-man secondary.

For Kelly, it’s another tight loss. A coach who built his reputation on winning games late and doing the job in November is now struggling to find solutions at a critical time of the year. A loser of just 13 one-score games in his first six seasons, he’s lost seven in this season alone.

This one as painful as the rest, his young team giving up the game’s final 13 points to go home a loser.

 

It should be back to the drawing board for Notre Dame’s offensive leadership. 

Last season, the Irish deftly handled the trio of Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford atop the org chart on the offensive side of the football. This season? Quite the opposite.

Because after another hot start to the game—triggered by some pretty impressive Xs and Os and play scripting—it was Virginia Tech that made all the winning adjustments, with Notre Dame’s offensive trio unable to counterpunch after the Hokies game back from halftime.

After reluctantly giving up play-calling last season and seeing the team put up its most explosive numbers ever, this football team’s schizophrenic nature has to be driving Kelly crazy. And after leaning on NFL talent like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, this team just hasn’t been able to find the right formula for clutch, late-game play.

When asked about the offensive coaching structure and the decision to give-up play-calling, Kelly steered clear of any second-guessing.

 

“I’m trying the best I can to offer some solutions, but you really have to trust in the play-calling and the execution quite frankly is part of that,” Kelly explained. It’s play-calling, it’s execution, and we had some opportunities that we didn’t convert.”

With his career at a crossroads, expect the head coach to reevaluate the hierarchy. And if you were a betting man, you’d have to assume that Kelly will go back to betting on himself.

 

 

There’s a young team with a promising future in South Bend. But finding a way to shake off this nightmarish season will be Brian Kelly’s largest challenge. 

Eventually it sounds like a broken record. Even the head coach acknowledged it after the game.

“These kids are wonderful kids. I’m just at a loss for words as to what to tell them,” Kelly said. “It’s just been a difficult year. They’ve worked so hard. They play so hard. They’ve been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the fourth quarter.  Unfortunately, it’s just one of those years. I haven’t had one like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach. It just hasn’t gone their way.”

Like we’ve seen all season, the positives have been there. Big plays from Chase Claypool and Chris Finke. Huge games from young defenders like Te’von Coney and veterans like James Onwualu and Jarron Jones.

But as the Irish look for the successful recipe for winning football, they too often have come up just short—with a different culprit seemingly each week. Missed blocks. Ten penalties (and a few crucial ones missed.) Red zone miscues that turn seven points into three. And a crunch time mistake that turns into a fatal mistake.

“I just love our kids. I love the way they battle. We’re going to wake up from this nightmare,” Kelly said, before joking that he hoped he’ll wake up 11-0.

He won’t. And any relief from this nightmare won’t come this November, not with a trip to Los Angeles next weekend that’ll require his players to provide the motivation, now that Notre Dame’s bowl dreams are dashed.

But beyond that, this will be on the head coach. And after assuring himself his first losing season since he rebuilt Central Michigan’s football program, the focus will be on the man on charge. Because he’s got a talented group of players. Now he desperately needs to teach them how to win.

 

 

 

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

Getty Images
10 Comments

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

Associated Press
50 Comments

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

@NDFootball
6 Comments

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

Getty Images
12 Comments

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