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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Second half of schedule continues to look even more impressive

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The back half of Notre Dame’s schedule toughened its outlook over the weekend, suffering only one loss, and that came on the road against the No. 2 team in the country. Overall, Irish foes went 8-3 (not counting Notre Dame’s win at North Carolina) and are predicted to do so again this weekend, with Wake Forest joining the Irish in taking the week off.

Temple (3-3): The Owls may be buoyed by a 34-10 win at East Carolina, led by junior quarterback Logan Marchi’s 321 yards and two touchdowns, but the score is more a commentary on the Pirates’ defense than anything else. East Carolina ranks last in the country in yards allowed per game, making Marchi’s first career 300-yard game and Temple’s 523 total yards effects rather than causes.

Marchi did cut down on his turnover tendencies. After throwing seven interceptions over the past two weeks, he threw only one in the conference victory.

The Owls may make it two in a row, favored by 9.5 points against Connecticut this weekend (12 p.m. ET, ESPNews). A combined point total over/under of 62 hints at a 36-26 conclusion.

Georgia (6-0): The Bulldogs defense stifled Vanderbilt, holding the Commodores to 64 rushing yards while the Georgia rushing attack powered the offense with 423 yards en route to a 45-14 victory.

Senior running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb led the way, as usual, with 288 combined yards on 28 total carries. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm had an efficient day, as well, completing 7-of-11 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason returned from injury during mop-up time to complete all three of his pass attempts, gaining 24 yards.

It will continue to be a breeze for the Bulldogs, now hosting Missouri (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). Favored by a whopping 30.5 points, Georgia very well may prevail by more than a 43-13 margin.

Boston College (2-4): The Eagles continue to play the ACC’s elite close and physically, but they just cannot come out on top. Despite not turning over the ball and committing only five penalties, Boston College fell to Virginia Tech 23-10.

Another of the ACC’s best welcomes the Eagles this week, with Louisville favored by 21.5 points (12:20 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The over/under of 57 indicates an unorthodox score of 39-18. Frankly, Boston College has played everyone relatively close so far — there is no reason to think that stops now.

Michigan State (4-1): When Notre Dame routed the Spartans a few weeks ago, it looked like nothing more than an easy evening against a rebuilding opponent. Michigan State may have rewritten that narrative with its 14-10 victory at Michigan on Saturday.

The Spartans got out to a 14-3 lead at halftime, an important note as the second half was marred by a miserable rainstorm. Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke led Michigan State both through the air and on the ground, gaining 61 yards and a score on 15 carries.

The Spartans now head to Minnesota (8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) to risk their undefeated Big Ten record. A 4.5-point favorite in a likely low-scoring night, Michigan State should come out on the right side of a 22-18 theoretical final.

Miami (OH) (2-4): The RedHawks season took a turn for the worse this weekend. Bowling Green is a MAC doormat, yet Miami lost to them 37-29. The RedHawks looked poised to escape with a close win before fumbling on the plus seven-yard line with less than two minutes left. A Falcons defender picked up the loose ball, and 93 yards later it was an eight-point margin with only 1:21 left.

The season is not yet lost, though, and Miami can right the ship at Kent State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3). Favored by 9.5 points, the RedHawks will undoubtedly be plenty motivated this weekend. Combining the over/under with the spread leads to a 26-17 final.

North Carolina (1-5): Notre Dame knocked the Tar Heels another step down a spiral staircase. The 33-10 Irish victory will likely be a larger margin of defeat than North Carolina experiences this weekend, but even a slim loss could be crippling for the Tar Heels. Hosting Virginia (3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network) just may be their last best chance at another FBS-level victory this year.

Bookmakers do not expect them to manage that. North Carolina is a four-point home underdog against a lower-level ACC opponent. That should give a very clear idea of how far this season might sink. A 55.5-point over/under makes for a 30-25 ending.

USC (5-1): The Trojans cruised past Oregon State 38-10 in Beavers’ head coach Gary Andersen’s final game before resigning. USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-35 passing.

This week will be much tougher on the Trojans. They host Utah (8 p.m. ET, ABC), likely the toughest competition for the Pac 12 South Division title. USC should not have too much trouble, favored by 13 points with a 54.5-point over/under, rounding to a 34-20 result.

North Carolina State (5-1): The Wolfpack has definitively arrived, topping Louisville 39-25 on Thursday to add a second victory over the ACC’s top teams, only awaiting a Nov. 4 matchup vs. Clemson.

North Carolina State gained 520 total yards and averaged 11.5 yards per pass attempt. For a team led by its defense, the offensive explosion was quite noticeable. Junior quarterback Ryan Finley led the way, completing 20-of-31 passes for 367 yards, connecting with three different receivers for at least 99 yards.

The momentum should continue at Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET, ACC Network), where the Wolfpack is favored by a likely-too-slim 12 points with an over/under of 56. A 34-22 final sounds both too close and too generous for the Panthers.

Wake Forest (4-2): The Demon Deacons could not recover from going down 14-0 in the first quarter to Clemson, eventually falling behind 28-0 before closing the gap to 28-14. The Tigers clearly controlled the contest throughout, holding the time of possession edge 35:05 to 24:55 and rushing for 190 yards on a whopping 48 carries.

Florida State may be struggling this year, but by beating the Seminoles, Miami and quarterback Malik Rosier cleared most of their path to an undefeated ACC regular season. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Miami (FL) (4-0): The good news: The Hurricanes beat Florida State 24-20 thanks to a 23-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Malik Rosier with only six seconds left.

The obvious news: This may be a down year for the Seminoles, somewhat devaluing the win.

The forward-looking news: Miami has only one genuine ACC challenge left, Nov. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, meaning an undefeated conference slate and a regular season as a whole are both distinct possibilities.

The bad news: The Hurricanes lost leading running back Mark Walton for the season due to an injury.

They will look to first adjust to Walton’s absence against Georgia Tech this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Favored by just less than a touchdown, Miami will need to handle the triple-option to come out ahead in a supposed 29-23 contest.

Navy (5-0): For the second consecutive week, the Midshipmen needed to come from behind to preserve their undefeated season. This time, that comeback took until there were 15 seconds left, when junior quarterback Zach Abey completed a 16-yard touchdown pass to push Navy past Air Force 48-45. Abey accounted for four total touchdowns in the back-and-forth affair.

This week the Midshipmen may not be so lucky, heading to Memphis as four-point underdogs (3:45 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The 76-point over/under implies another offensive afternoon, perhaps 40-36 in the Tigers’ favor.

Stanford (4-2): The Cardinal slipped past Utah 23-20 in a tough, one might even say gritty, game. Junior running back Bryce Love managed only 152 yards on 20 carries, but his fourth-quarter, 68-yard touchdown run provided the difference.

Stanford turned to two quarterbacks. Keller Chryst completed 7-of-14 passes for 106 yards while K.J. Costello went 6-of-10 for 82 yards.

Whoever takes the snaps against Oregon this weekend (11 p.m. ET, ESPN) will undoubtedly rely on Love to match a 10.5-point spread in the Cardinal’s favor. A 36-25 final may make for a low-scoring #Pac12AfterDark, but that catchphrase exists for a reason. Something is bound to keep it interesting.

Got questions? It’s bye week. Let’s try to answer them.
Later this week, this space intends to run a mailbag. If you have any questions for it, drop them into the comments below. They do not need to be litigated there — and they just might “disappear” if they are — but good ones will be noted and hopefully answered by week’s end.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.