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Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes drowned by Hurricanes

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Notre Dame will not want to return to Hard Rock Stadium for a long time. It will also want to avoid gold necklaces.

Miami trotted out its “turnover chain” three times in the first half Saturday night, which means, more to the point, the No. 7 Hurricanes forced three turnovers and scored 17 points off them, part of a 27-0 first half. No. 3 Notre Dame didn’t get within Miami’s 35-yard line until the closing minutes of the third quarter, finally scoring a touchdown to avoid the shutout in the 41-8 rout.

“Miami was the better team today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We didn’t see this coming, obviously. We felt like we were prepared to play at a high level. We did not.”

The Hurricanes stymied the Irish offense all night, but especially so in the first quarter. Notre Dame split 18 plays evenly among rushes and passes, gaining 20 yards on the ground and 30 through the air. Miami, meanwhile, gained 143 yards in the frame, running the exact same number of plays as the Irish.

Notre Dame finished with 130 rushing yards on 31 carries (sacks adjusted), well below its averages and an inconsistent enough output to limit the rest of its offensive approach.

“We never really got into a good rhythm,” Kelly said. “We got behind the chains, we were very predictable, and [the Hurricanes are] really good. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

“We just never really got into the kind of rhythm necessary to sustain.”

The Irish at least found some traction in the second quarter, and their defense continued to keep the score closer than the contest genuinely was. Considering Miami led 27-0 at the break, its total of 194 yards was unusually low. Three turnovers created efficient scoring, efficient and devastatingly disheartening for Notre Dame.

“I don’t know that I ever felt that things get away from you as much as you’re not executing,” Kelly said. “You need to. That’s a really good football team.

“… The makeup of this football team, Miami, is built on turnovers. The one thing we couldn’t do was turn the ball over.”

A total of four turnovers led to 24 Hurricanes points.

“Notre Dame, without a doubt, is a great team,” Miami head coach Mark Richt said. “It’s obvious. It just got away from them. I never would have predicted what happened, but it happened and I’m thank for it.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s second interception came halfway through the second quarter. On a quick drop, he sailed a quick slant route, making it look like Hurricanes sophomore cornerback Malek Young was the intended target. Young ran the gift back to the Notre Dame nine-yard line.

“I think [Wimbush is] still developing as a quarterback and tonight was not a night to run the football over against a quality football team,” Kelly said.

There is no excusing the throw. It could not have been much more off-target. On the next drive, Kelly turned to sophomore quarterback Ian Book in search of a spark, though one might wonder if Wimbush needed at least a few minutes to clear his head, as well.

With Book at the helm, the Irish offense very well may be more consistent, but it also has a much lower ceiling. Wimbush’s ability to fire the ball deep downfield on any play or run equally as far without a moment’s notice keeps a defense at a disadvantage. At least, it does most of the time. When trailing 20-0, some play-making is needed. Every potential piece of it should be on the field.

As soon as Notre Dame felt a need to turn to Book — an understandable one given Wimbush was 2-of-10 for 30 yards with 13 yards rushing to that point, finishing 10-of-21 for 119 yards and one score with 45 rushing yards — its chances of a comeback dropped drastically. Miami made that decision necessary.

Kelly did return to Wimbush in the second half, but by the time he took the field, that lead had expanded to 34-0. Only so much was going to be done.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Wimbush’s second interception spurred a quarterback change. It nearly spurred the night into blowout territory, a scenario eventually inevitable. The Irish defense delayed that decisiveness for a bit with an impressive stand after the turnover.

Miami needed to go all of nine yards for a 24-0 lead.

“We put [our defense] in a bad situation,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to get an accurate picture of them.”

Due to a delay of game penalty, the Hurricanes actually went backward, settling for a field goal and a mere 20-0 advantage.

That defensive stand may not seem like much, and in the end it wasn’t, but it is an example of the defensive performance all night long. Quick changes are especially difficult for most defenses. Allowing a touchdown would have reflected more poorly on the offense than it would have on the defense, in all of reality. Nonetheless, Notre Dame stood its ground.

It gave the best it could on that side of the ball, and that might have been plenty if not for the repeated and costly offensive mishaps.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Book’s day ended with an interception returned 65 yards by Miami freshman cornerback Trajan Bandy for a touchdown with only 22 seconds before halftime. Book’s day may have ended during the intermission, anyway, but the telegraphed pass sealed the change back to Wimbush.

“I felt at halftime our best chance at really rallying and really trying to get Brandon to play through it, if you will, was the best course of action,” Kelly said.

On that drive, Book had the Irish offense moving, covering 54 yards in eight plays. There was a viable chance at a touchdown before halftime. Reaching the break trailing only 20-7 would have been a remarkable feat, and one that could have been built upon.

Instead, Bandy erased any thoughts of that, any thoughts of Book leading a historic comeback and any thoughts of now-two-loss Notre Dame making the College Football Playoff.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
As much as the Irish defense was not the primary problem Saturday night, it also did not give its offense much to build on. It forced no turnovers. It allowed the Hurricanes four scoring drives of eight plays or more, including a nine-play, 90-yard tour de force to open the second half.

Miami sophomore running back Travis Homer rushed for 52 yards on that drive, including a 40-yard counter that Kelly distinctly remembered after the game.

“Let’s give Travis Homer some credit,” Kelly said. “His acceleration through the hole, he may be as fast as any back that hits the hole that we’ve seen. We were a step behind him.”

Homer finished with 146 yards on 18 carries, leading the way for a Hurricane rushing attack that finished with 237 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries. Once the defense set up a substantial lead, Miami successfully ground down Notre Dame with a running game reminiscent of the Irish approach for much of the season.

“He’s a great competitor, great speed, great vision, really able to make the cuts,” Notre Dame senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “When we didn’t fit right and didn’t execute, he was able to make those cuts and get vertical.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Entering the weekend, the Irish had outscored their opponents in points off turnovers by a margin of 108 to 10.

Miami outscored Notre Dame in points off turnovers 24 to 0.

Combine that with the inability for the Irish rushing attack to find its footing against the Hurricanes’ ability to do exactly that, and this blowout is about summed up.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
From Notre Dame fifth-year left tackle, captain and straight-shooter Mike McGlinchey:

“You have to give all the credit in the world to them. Obviously we have to play a lot better than we played tonight, but Miami came out ready to make plays and they made them.

“They played a hard game and they kicked our ass.”

SCORING SUMMARY

First Quarter
4:01 — Miami touchdown. Braxton Berrios seven-yard reception from Malik Rosier. Michael Badgley PAT good. Miami 7, Notre Dame 0. (8 plays, 58 yards, 3:04)
2:33 — Miami touchdown. Rosier 16-yard rush. Badgley PAT good. Miami 14, Notre Dame 0. (2 plays, 32 yards, 0:36)

Second Quarter
13:27 — Miami field goal. Badgley 23 yards. Miami 17, Notre Dame 0. (9 plays, 48 yards, 2:37)
5:56 — Miami field goal. Badgley 30 yards. Miami 20, Notre Dame 0. (4 plays, -4 yards, 1:24)
0:22 — Miami touchdown. Trajan Bandy 65-yard interception return. Badgley PAT good. Miami 27, Notre Dame 0.

Third Quarter
10:30 — Miami touchdown. DeeJay Dallas four-yard rush. Badgley PAT good. Miami 34, Notre Dame 0. (9 plays, 90 yards, 4:30)
0:12 — Notre Dame touchdown. Alize Mack 14-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Wimbush run for two-point attempt. Miami 34, Notre Dame 8. (10 plays, 80 yards, 4:47)

Fourth Quarter
4:00 — Miami touchdown. Dallas four-yard rush. Badgley PAT good. Miami 41, Notre Dame 8. (8 plays, 30 yards, 4:50)

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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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

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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

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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.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees