Notre Dame ‘dominates’ Wolfpack 35-14

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The Irish 35-14 victory over No. 14 North Carolina State was maybe five minutes old, if that. Junior running back Josh Adams — he of the burgeoning Heisman campaign bearing his uniform number, “33 Trucking” — was asked to describe No. 9 Notre Dame’s mindset.

Adams offered one word to all inside the stadium.

“Dominating.”

It certainly fit Saturday, just as much as it did last week.

This might start to sound familiar, perhaps even repetitive, though still welcome to Irish fans.

For the second consecutive week, the Irish welcomed a top-15 opponent to Notre Dame Stadium. For the second consecutive week, they did not turn over the ball, they wore down the opposing defense, and they never allowed the offense to find a rhythm.

“We don’t talk about winning,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “Winning is not even part of our vocabulary. We didn’t talk about winning any games this year.

“It’s about the mindset that we’ve created to dominate our opponent. Winning is not even part of the equation with this group.”

As much as a 35-point afternoon against one of the nation’s toughest defensive fronts deserves notice, the Notre Dame defense’s ability to shut down the Wolfpack attack possibly warrants even more. North Carolina State scored only one offensive touchdown, the other coming on a punt block recovered in the end zone. Adjusting for sacks, it rushed for 56 yards on 23 carries, a mere 2.4 yards per carry, and gained all of 263 total yards.

“It’s got to be one of our best performances in some time defensively,” Kelly said. “… A lot of respect for North Carolina State. That’s a good football team, but our team was up to the task today.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Coming out of halftime trailing 21-14, the Wolfpack received the opening kickoff and commenced marching down the field. A nine-yard Ryan Finley completion followed a 12-yard run by senior Jaylen Samuels. Two plays later the senior Finley connected with sophomore receiver Kelvin Harmon for 20 yards to cross into Irish territory. Six plays and 38 yards brought up a 3rd-and-10.

North Carolina State opted for strategy and a hard count. The hope was to draw Notre Dame offsides and take a shot downfield. Worst-case scenario, the Wolfpack would cut the third-and-long to third-and-five.

“We had a hard count called, with no play called,” North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said. “Just something that a lot of spread teams do. If they jump, we snap it, roll out, take a shot.”

Senior center Garrett Bradbury thought the Irish jumped. Perhaps junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery moved, but he stayed shy of the neutral zone, meaning he was not offsides. Bradbury thought otherwise, snapped the ball, and the Wolfpack line stayed in its pre-snap pose, trying to emphasize the presumed penalty. No flag was thrown.

“I can’t criticize the officials unless you want to pay the fine for me,” Doeren said. “I can’t. I’d love to tell you what I thought, but I’m not going to do that.”

Thinking he had a free play, Finley threw a 15-yard pass toward Harmon. At this point, that theoretical worst-case scenario should be revised to something much more drastic. Notre Dame sophomore cornerback Julian Love jumped the route and, thanks to a convoy from sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes and senior linebacker Nyles Morgan, proceeded 69 yards for a touchdown.

Love admitted he wondered if the Irish had jumped offsides, but he still played to the whistle, especially when the opposing quarterback has yet to throw an interception this season and the chance to snap that streak was suddenly presented.

“It was definitely on my mind, all of our minds,” Love said. “But we weren’t going to do anything extra. We were going to play our game and play how we’ve been training.”

Playing that game gave Notre Dame a 14-point lead when North Carolina State thought it had set up a free shot toward the end zone.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Following Love’s touchdown, Samuels returned the ensuing kickoff to the Irish 42-yard line. A quick score would put the Wolfpack right back into the game with the majority of the second half remaining. Again, Finley led a methodical drive. This time, a near-turnover did it in.

On a 2nd-and-9 from the 14-yard line, a snap caught Finley off guard. Samuels picked it up and looped around a few defenders to avoid a 10- or 15-yard loss, but the play still cost eight yards. Finley then completed a bubble screen for 16, bringing up a fourth-and-one.

Down two touchdowns, Doeren opted to go for it. Irish freshman defensive tackle Myron Tagovaioloa-Amosa beat his block at the point of attack and junior linebacker Te’von Coney used that aid to bring down Samuels for a loss of one and a change of possession.

“I thought we would get the first and score a touchdown,” Doeren said. “That was a big play against us. It’s like a turnover.”

Notre Dame’s offense managed only nine yards in a three-and-out, but the Irish defense’s stop in its own red zone halted the last North Carolina State threat of the day.

PLAY(S) OF THE GAME
Most NFL receivers, not to mention ballerinas, would be envious of the body control displayed by fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe on an 11-yard reception in the second quarter. For being a speedster, sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson showed an equally-impressive toe-tap a play later on an 11-yard touchdown reception to give Notre Dame the 21-14 lead it would carry into halftime.

In finding Smythe, Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — who finished with 104 yards and two touchdowns on 10-of-19 passing — worked through his progressions, past Stepherson and past junior Equanimeous St. Brown. He stayed patient, not taking off to try to run for the needed six yards on third down. Finally, he spotted Smythe approaching the sideline.

“I was extremely confident when I caught the ball,” Smythe said. “There’s always that little seed of doubt when they bring the review, but luckily I looked up at the video board and was assured.”

Stepherson made it two review-necessary snags in two plays with his leaping touchdown grab, though that necessitated little such reading of coverage from Wimbush.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
His long touchdown runs receive the most hype — and are the impetus behind the “long haul” theme of the burgeoning “33 Trucking” campaign for the Heisman Trophy — but Adams does much more than that. He finished with 202 yards and a touchdown, a notable 77-yard touchdown.

On his other 26 carries, Adams wore down the Wolfpack defense. In mentioning him here, equal acknowledgement needs to be paid to his offensive line, which knows the demoralizing effect it can have on the opposition.

“We take a ton of pride in that,” senior left guard and captain Quenton Nelson said. “We take pride in the 10-yard runs and the five-yard runs. Sometimes we’re even on our guys and it doesn’t break for a 70-yard run, but we just keep pounding play after play and it eventually opens up and happens after wearing their defense out.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame rushed for 318 yards. If accounting for sacks, that figure rises to 325 yards on 52 attempts.

The previous seven Wolfpack opponents averaged 30 rushing attempts per game, preferring not to repeatedly run into a wall. The most yards gained on the ground were the 133 by FCS-level Furman in a 49-16 loss.

“We approach each and every week preparing to dominate our next opponent, whoever that may be,” Adams said. “They’re going to bring the house, so we have to prepare likewise.

“Each and every guy on the team did a great job of bringing that mindset on Monday and carrying it throughout and, of course, to the game. … We just tried to play all four quarters and bring that mindset to dominate.”

Dominate they did, and it started on the ground.

QUOTE AND CHUCKLE OF THE EVENING
As Adams delivered his first mention of “dominating” on the field in a post-game interview with Notre Dame reporter Mike Monaco, a head popped up on the video board between Adams and Monaco. With a big smile on his face, there was Love, Saturday’s defensive star.

Fitting, considering Love apparently likes to watch Adams on the video board.

“He’s electrifying,” Love said. “It’s fun to watch him. I can’t look away from the when he’s on the field. [Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght] is yelling at me to pay attention to the board, and I’m just like, come on coach, that’s Josh.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
10:05 — North Carolina State touchdown. Germaine Pratt punt block recovery. Carson Wise PAT good. North Carolina State 7, Notre Dame 0.
9:36 — Notre Dame touchdown. Durham Smythe 25-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina State 7. (2 plays, 60 yards, 0:29)

Second Quarter
14:48 — North Carolina State touchdown. Harmon 15-yard reception from Ryan Finley. Wise PAT good. North Carolina State 14, Notre Dame 7. (7 plays, 71 yards, 2:46)
9:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush three-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina State 14. (14 plays, 72 yards, 5:11)
5:30 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 11-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, North Carolina State 14. (8 plays, 60 yards, 2:18)

Third Quarter
12:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Julian Love 69-yard interception return. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, North Carolina State 14.
4:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams 77-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, North Carolina State 14. (2 plays, 77 yards, 0:16)

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.