James Gardner

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Things We Learned: Notre Dame is focused, but continues to struggle in the secondary & with Wimbush’s accuracy

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — It was decisive. It was never in doubt. It was efficient.

The 52-17 Irish victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday was exactly what it should have been, and that made it different.

This space poised the Thursday question, “Will Notre Dame stay focused on the RedHawks?” A year ago, the answer would have been a definitive no, though it should have been a shrill yes. Consider this weekend’s 59-minute, 35-second rout a demarcation of certainty that times have changed.

Even the Irish knew this was not a sure thing.

“It’s huge for us,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said afterward. “This was a big week for us. We were going to see if we were mentally tough or not. We went out against an opponent that we were supposed to, on paper, beat. That’s not always how it goes.

“We had to come in mentally tough and go out and execute at a high level.”

Notre Dame did.

It can be left that simple. If insistent on more-specific metrics, the Irish committed five penalties for 60 yards Saturday, not much of an increase over the beforehand season average of 48.2 penalty yards per game. Notre Dame did not commit any turnovers. The defense allowed only one play of more than 30 yards. (More on that 34-yard RedHawks touchdown pass in a bit.)

All of these are indications the Irish focus did not stray. The scoreboard was another clear sign.

“We preach all the time we don’t want these up-and-down performances,” junior defensive tackle and game ball-recipient Jerry Tillery said. “That’s how you get beat. We were able to impose our will on this team consistently and that was our goal from the start.”

This is what should be expected. Good teams win in blowouts when the opportunities present themselves. That is exactly what Notre Dame just did. There is no need to nitpick the performance.

But if insistent on nitpicking and looking at items that were not egregious, because in a 52-17 victory, nothing is actually egregious …

The Irish secondary is not yet ready for true aerial threats.
First of all, let’s give credit where credit is due. RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner could be playing for most Power Five teams. His five catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns, including the aforementioned 34-yarder, are not the most terrible reflection of Notre Dame’s secondary, but they are tangible proof of an area needing improvement.

“We tried to defend the back shoulder, and we thought we were in some pretty good positions for back shoulder throws,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They made some good throws down the field, quite frankly. We were in position one time where I thought it could have gone either way on a couple of calls here or there, but we were competing for the ball.”

No one in collegiate football excels at covering 6-foot-4 athletes with strong hands. That is why it has become such a passing-oriented sport. But Notre Dame struggles more than most.

Both Gardner’s touchdown catches were over senior cornerback Nick Watkins, who up until this weekend had quietly put together an impressive season. Gardner twice pulling in passes despite Watkins’ defense illustrates the greatest weakness in the Irish defense. As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Notre Dame concern, offensive or defensive.

Yes, it is even more concerning than Brandon Wimbush’s inconsistent accuracy.
The junior quarterback’s (in)accuracy remains questionable. He finished 7-of-18 for 119 yards passing. To the quickest memory, at least two of those incompletions were wise throwaways. Perhaps more were, but however many can rightfully have that justification, Wimbush still falls short of an expected completion percentage.

“It’s an apprenticeship,” Kelly said. “We’re still learning as we go, but [Wimbush is] making some really good progress.”

Perhaps the Irish rushing game grants Wimbush some leeway. Actually, it certainly does. But this could be of great concern if and when Notre Dame needs to convert a two-minute drill.

For that matter, it should be of worry well before then. Wimbush lucked out of an interception in the second quarter Saturday. The phrase “lucked out of an interception” has been used to describe his passes many times this season, to the point even this scribe is starting to consider it a trite wording. Yet, it remains accurate.

Much of any Irish success thus far this season has derived from the ability to avoid turnovers offensively while creating them defensively. The moment Wimbush’s luck runs out, that ratio quickly evens out and a 70-3 points off turnovers differential in Notre Dame’s favor may become an anomaly rather than a reliability.

Hello, Mr. Stepherson.
Yes, sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson played. He lined up wide, as Kelly said he would. He even caught a pass.

That reception lost three yards.

Stepherson was targeted three times, the first two coming on back-to-back snaps. One of those Stepherson dropped. The other fell to the turf due to either an overthrow or a misrun route.

“We weren’t able to get him the ball in the first half,” Wimbush said. “But just want to get him a couple of touches and get him up to speed with what we’re trying to do on the offensive side of the ball.”

At least Claypool is consistent.
Once again returning to Thursday’s wonderings: “Will Chase Claypool be a consistent No. 2 option?”

If the answer is no, it is because in time Claypool may challenge junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for top target honors. Claypool finished with 28 yards on only two catches Saturday, but they were both vital receptions.

The first converted a fourth-and-11 which led to the second Irish touchdown. The other was the fourth Notre Dame score.

Wimbush dodged the question when asked if Claypool may be the best jump-ball receiver on the Irish roster, but that does not make it any less a viable concept.

“I’ve had a couple opportunities to throw them up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys, 6-5, all big bodies, all able to go up there and do what Chase did today. When those guys get the opportunity to go do that, they definitely go do it. I have tons of weapons out there.”

Kelly gave Claypool a touch more credit, though not asked as specific a question. When wondering if Notre Dame has established its preferred receivers yet, Kelly included Claypool in the two-man subset of known commodities.

“We feel a little bit more comfortable on the perimeter with Claypool and [St. Brown],” Kelly said. “We’re still a work in progress with some of the other receivers. … We’re still evolving. We’re getting closer, but no, I’m not ready to tell you that we’re solid in our first three guys yet.”

Notre Dame puts Miami (OH) away early and often

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The Irish did what good teams do, they blew out their opponent. From the outset, No. 22 Notre Dame (4-1) made the matchup with Miami (2-3) a clear mismatch Saturday evening en route to a 52-17 victory.

Not even half a minute into the game, Irish junior running back Josh Adams found the end zone on a 73-yard rush. Quite literally, it was a rout from the get-go. By the end of the opening quarter, Adams had scored again, on a 59-yard run featuring three broken tackles, and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush notched both a rushing and a passing touchdown.

“Coach [Brian] Kelly challenged us in the early week to not put a face to a team — whether it’s USC, whether it’s Georgia, whether it’s Miami of Ohio — you just want to go out there and execute,” Wimbush said. “We took care of business tonight, and I think we could have even put some more points up on the board.”

After Adams’ second score brought Notre Dame’s lead to 21-7 and Wimbush then connected with sophomore Chase Claypool for the receiver’s first career touchdown, the RedHawks would not again close the gap to fewer than three possessions.

“We certainly didn’t run into a bad Notre Dame team,” RedHawks coach and former Irish assistant Chuck Martin said. “They have a very good team this year. They’re playing the game the right way, and they’re only going to get better, I think.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The RedHawks were not quite set to score, but they had moved 37 yards on only one play, partly thanks to a personal foul on Irish junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Miami seemed only a few plays away from tying the contest at seven. RedHawks senior quarterback Gus Ragland threw a downfield pass for junior receiver James Gardner on a second-and-nine from the Notre Dame 36-yard line, hoping to expose some of the vulnerable Irish secondary.

“We’re like everyone else, we’re going to be dreamers,” Martin said. “We came in with a crazy aggressive plan. We’re going to try to attack and whip it around, hopefully catch them in pressures and get the ball on the seam and try to get them back on their heels.”

Rather than set up a red zone possibility, the pass found Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini. He recognized the play’s design from practicing against it specifically during the week. Not only did Martini pull in the pass at the 22-yard line — after quite a bobble, as it seems the ball was closer to him than even he had expected — he also then returned it 42 yards, to immediately put the Irish in scoring position. Apparently some of his teammates did not deem that good enough, though.

“The guys were kind of giving me [grief],” Martini said. “I should have housed it, but I got caught down from behind. … I haven’t had the ball in my hand since high school, so that was a little bit weird.”

If Saturday’s outcome was ever in doubt, Wimbush’s one-yard touchdown keeper seven plays later eased those concerns, giving Notre Dame a more-comfortable-than-it-sounds 14-0 lead.

PLAY OF THE GAME

It may seem the easy way out, but the play of the game came on its second snap. As much as Martini’s interception finalized the evening’s tone, Adams’ 73-yard jaunt first set it. For that matter, Miami feared something just like that would occur.

“We wanted to get the [coin] toss,” Martin said. “We wanted to get the ball first. I didn’t want their offense on the field first. I didn’t’ feel like that was the best matchup, even though our defense has totally outplayed our offense.”

Instead, the Irish won the toss and chose to receive. Wimbush took a deep shot for fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, one Smith probably should have caught but let get away from him. After that pass hit the turf, there was no longer really any other option for play of the game. Adams saw to that.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Considering the final score, retrospect may deem it a small moment, and perhaps its allure stands out more to a certain segment of the football analytics crowd than to many others. Three plays after Martini’s interception and return, the Irish had totaled a loss of one yard, now facing fourth-and-11 from the 37-yard line. Kelly did not send out either senior punter Tyler Newsome for a coffin corner pooch punt or junior kicker Justin Yoon for a 54- or 55-yard field goal attempt.

Notre Dame went for it.

Setting aside any and all fandoms, or lack thereof, it was an excellent call. And it paid off. Wimbush connected with Claypool for a 21-yard gain and Wimbush’s first completed pass of the day (on his fourth attempt). Adams then gained seven yards and Wimbush ran for eight before scoring from the one-yard line.

A field goal would not have been the strong statement needed to collapse any Miami pipe dreams. A punt would have negated much of the impact of Martini’s play. Going for it on fourth down led to Notre Dame putting the game out of Miami’s reach. Literally, after that, Yoon’s two field goals would have been enough to provide victory.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
His chances Saturday may have been limited by injury and/or precaution for the second week in a row, but Adams made a memorable impact, nonetheless. Somehow — and perhaps those consistent nicks have something to do with it — he remains unrecognized by many as one of the country’s better ballcarriers.

“Josh has got to start to get some kind of national recognition for the kind of season that he’s having,” Kelly said. “He is a load. He’s a big, physical runner who gets in the open and then runs away from people. So this is a special back who’s having a special year.”

STAT OF THE GAME
The 45-14 halftime lead may have caught the eye, but the more impressive halftime figure was Notre Dame’s average yards per play: 9.2. The Irish were averaging 9.7 yards per rush on 23 carries.

Notre Dame finished with a per play average of 8.1 yards. To offer some context, in last week’s 38-18 triumph at Michigan State, the Irish averaged 5.9 yards per play.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Brian Kelly: “We’ve got really good players that we want to feature, and a commitment that I made to change the focus of the offense toward a much more physical approach to running the football. We’ve got really good players, so making sure that we utilized our strengths.

“Our strengths are we’ve got two guys on the left side that are going to be playing on Sundays as well as a very good center, right guard, and our right tackles are coming along, as well. …

“Maybe I just woke up one morning, hit my head and came to my senses and said, let’s go to our strengths and run the football.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
14:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams 73-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Miami (OH) 0. (2 plays, 73 yards, 0:25)
11:36 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush one-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Miami 0. (7 plays, 36 yards, 1:43)
7:59 — Miami (OH) touchdown. James Gardner 34-yard reception from Gus Ragland. Sam Sloman PAT good.  Notre Dame 14, Miami 7. (8 plays, 73 yards, 3:37)
6:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 59-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Miami 7. (4 plays, 71 yards, 1:53)
0:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool seven-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Miami 7. (5 plays, 30 yards, 1:35)

Second Quarter
12:50 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 14-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Miami 7. (5 plays, 57 yards, 1:20)
10:09 — Miami touchdown. Gardner 14-yard reception from Ragland. Sloman PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Miami 14. (5 plays, 57 yards, 2:41)
6:09 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 43 yards. Notre Dame 38, Miami 14. (8 plays, 44 yards, 4:00)
0:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 54-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Miami 14. (5 plays, 81 yards, 1:42)

Third Quarter
6:40 — Miami field goal. Sloman from 38 yards. Notre Dame 45, Miami 17. (9 plays, 49 yards, 3:36)

Fourth Quarter
8:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh 26-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 52, Miami 17. (7 plays, 87 yards, 2:20)

And In That Corner … The Miami RedHawks and former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin

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Notre Dame has not faced Miami (OH) in more than a century. Irish fans can be forgiven for not knowing much about the RedHawks aside from their head coach looking a bit familiar. To offer a quick education, let’s turn to Brady Pfister, beat writer for The Miami Student:

DF: Starting with football-specific questions, senior quarterback Gus Ragland leads the way, first entering the scene halfway through last season. It would be hard to top his initial debut — throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions over a six-game winning streak — but how has he fared this season in the face of those somewhat high expectations? His statistics (881 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions in four games) certainly bode well, though a completion percentage of 52.1 may leave something to be desired.
BP: Head coach Chuck Martin’s offensive design makes it hard to evaluate Ragland based on his numbers. Miami wants to establish a run game to open up the downfield passing game later on, so the 52.1 completion percentage is in large part a result of the multiple deep shots the ‘Hawks tend to take throughout the course of a game. Either Ragland’s man catches the pass for a big gain, or no one catches it at all.

Ragland has been the steady hand these RedHawks have needed to compete in every game they have played. He controls the offense well, makes good reads, and puts his receivers in positions to make plays. Last week at Central Michigan, Ragland took his performance to another level, throwing for 217 yards for two touchdowns while adding another score on the ground. If Ragland plays like he did against the Chippewas, the Miami offense adds another level of potency, but if he simply manages the game, then the ‘Hawks can struggle to truly play up to their potential.

Notre Dame has yet to face an offense with a truly threatening passing attack. Miami’s may not be the most vaunted in the country, but it might be more focused that way than any of Temple, Georgia, Boston College or Michigan State. Specifically, Irish coach Brian Kelly has worried about his secondary’s approach to down-and-distance situations. Does Ragland have the experience, even veteran savvy, needed to expose that possible Notre Dame vulnerability?

Miami senior quarterback may be the best pure-passer Notre Dame has faced yet this season. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

As much as these plays may come from Ragland’s, the emphasis should be on his targets. For a defensive backfield lacking confidence, having James Gardner, Jared Murphy and Ryan Smith can cause headaches, having proven to be able to make tough catches Ragland sends their way. However, if the Irish take advantage of their talent on the defensive side of the ball, they can turn touchdown passes into interceptions, allowing them to pull away. For Miami to compete in this game, Ragland needs to connect on some potentially risky downfield passes.

Ragland prefers to target junior receiver James Gardner. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, Gardner will tower over whatever Irish cornerback lines up opposite him. Is that how he has found his way to 294 yards on 16 catches this season?
Whether it be in the red zone or blazing past corners for deep balls, Gardner is a reassuring presence for Ragland. If the ball is anywhere in the vicinity of the big man, chances are he’s coming down with it. In the ‘Hawk’s week 2 matchup against Austin Peay, Gardner played a huge role with two deep touchdowns, but his snaps were limited the following week against Cincinnati. Late in the game, the RedHawks were in the red zone in need of a score, but were unable to make big catches in the end zone. I truly believe if Gardner was on the field, Miami would have been able to turn those incompletions into a touchdown.

Defensively, it seems Miami may have the defensive backs to capitalize on Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s inexperience and accuracy questions. The RedHawks already have six interceptions this year. Should that be a viable Irish concern?
Absolutely. Miami’s strength is its staunch defensive backfield, which refers to itself as “The Mob.” Leading the way is fifth-year cornerback Heath Harding, the vocal leader of the team as well as a disruptive force on the field. Harding, a top-10 prospect at his position in this year’s draft class according to multiple scouting experts, has collected 22 tackles this year and is excellent in run support. Joining Harding is senior safety Tony Reid. He has a knack for coming up big and is always around the ball. Reid has made 23 tackles on the year while being a part of three turnovers, all coming in just one quarter. Unfortunately for Miami, it will have to go without Reid in the first half Saturday due to a targeting penalty in the second half of last week’s matchup at Central Michigan. (Oddly enough, Reid incurred a targeting penalty against Central Michigan in 2016, as well.)

Before going macro, what might have I missed that Notre Dame fans should be aware of before this weekend?
Running backs Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith provide a potent running back duo. Are they going to put up huge numbers each and every week? No, but if Notre Dame does decide to lock in on Gardner and Miami’s receivers, the RedHawks are just fine with feeding Young and Smith.

Junior linebacker Junior McMullen missed last week due to injury, but senior backup Sam Connolly had a career day in his place with nine tackles and an interception. Between McMullen, Connolly and senior Brad Koenig, the Miami defensive second unit has depth, versatility and proven production.

On a broader scale, Miami’s momentum from last year’s second half seems to have dissipated quickly. That 0-6 to 6-6 story was quite something, even with the one-point St. Petersburg Bowl loss to Mississippi State. Now at 2-2, with losses to Marshall and Cincinnati, is that momentum all gone? Or is there still great hope since both of those were non-conference defeats?
The 2-2 record at this point definitely is not what RedHawk fans were hoping for. What makes it even more disappointing is both losses were very winnable games. Special teams blunders cost the ‘Hawks at Marshall. Even more frustrating though is the loss to in-state rival Cincinnati. For the majority of the game, Miami was controlling the ball, making stops on defense and looked to be on its way to its first win over the Bearcats since 2005. Then, Ragland threw a pick-six with a few minutes to go, giving Cincinnati the lead for good.

There is still momentum with this team. It is only four or five plays away from being 4-0, have faced only one MAC opponent and have experienced players in Harding, Ragland and Reid who know how to overcome tough losses. That ability to bounce back was displayed last week at Central Michigan. The ‘Hawks jumped all over the Chippewas early and cruised the rest of the way.  If Miami had come out flat last week, that would have been a major sign the RedHawks don’t have the toughness to live up to expectations. That was not the case. This team can still do big things and take the next step.

Entering the season there was distinct conversation of the RedHawks making a run at the MAC championship, at the least the Eastern Division. Is that still an expectation?
Yes. The two losses thus far are undoubtedly frustrating, but Miami finds itself 1-0 in conference play. It does not have to face the top two teams in the MAC West, Western Michigan and Toledo, this year and start off with struggling Bowling Green and Kent State following the trip to South Bend. The matchup that likely will decide the MAC East is a Tuesday night Halloween collision between the ‘Hawks and Ohio in Athens. In 2016, the Bobcats took the MAC East crown because of their head-to-head win at Miami. I would not be surprised if this year’s game has similar ramifications in deciding if Miami can finally get back to the MAC title game.

Let’s turn to Chuck Martin. This space does not usually spend undue amounts of time on an opposing coach, but he holds particular interest for Notre Dame fans for obvious reasons. He is now in his fourth season in Oxford. Safe to say the honeymoon is over, but he still is enjoying versions of success. What are Miami fans’ expectations of Martin?

In his fourth season with the RedHawks, it may be getting to be time for Chuck Martin’s team to show some success. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Martin has always been a realistic coach. When he arrived in December 2013, he did not promise overnight resurgence. Rather, he spoke of an incremental rebuild to get the right type of players in his program to play his style of football. The rebuild has not been flashy, yet Miami has steadily improved in Martin’s three years, from 2-10 to 3-9 and 6-6.

This is the year it all needs to come together for Martin. He has a veteran quarterback with weapons around him along with a defense filled with playmakers. Miami has been very patient with Martin, giving him time to make the program his own. Now it is his time to deliver. He did so last year by rallying to rattle off six straight wins to make a bowl game. He will need to do so again this season in order to keep himself off the hot seat.

You spend more time around him than anyone here does. What sense do you get of his long-term plan? Again, this is a weighted question in Irish eyes.
With many coaches in the MAC, you can tell they are trying to build a flashy program in order to get head coaching offers two or three years down the road with bigger schools. Martin has never appeared to be this kind of coach. His goal first and foremost is to “Graduate Champions,” a motto used throughout Miami athletics referring to developing the athlete in order to equip him or her to make an impact after sports. In hearing him talk at press conferences, it is apparent Martin cares deeply for his players as men, not just athletes. Through and through, Chuck Martin has seemed committed to Miami football. If a Power 5 school came calling after this year, would he consider a move? Probably. But I do not believe his sole purpose at Miami is getting that call like other MAC coaches.

The spread this week has risen to more than three touchdowns. Let’s presume you expect Notre Dame to win — if you don’t, please, say so. Can the RedHawks keep Saturday close enough to provide some second half consternation for Notre Dame fans?
Talent-wise, it is a mismatch. Martin explained it in a distinct way, saying Notre Dame is the team in the school yard that gets the first 85 picks, leaving Miami with what’s left. This is not to say that the RedHawks lack talent, but it is a tall task for a MAC team to compete with the ability, strength and speed of the Irish.

On the other hand, Miami is a team set up to keep games close by holding the ball to keep potent offenses on the sideline. This bodes well for the RedHawks in a game where they are outmatched such as this one, so don’t be surprised if the game is still competitive going into the second half.

While we are at it, let’s go ahead and ask for a score prediction. This is the internet, after all.
I think Miami is able to put some drives together early to make things interesting and keep the Irish offense off the field. With the knack the ‘Hawks have for causing turnovers, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a while for the Irish to fully pull away with the halftime score sitting somewhere around 17-7.

Late in the third quarter, the speed and strength of Notre Dame should take over. Miami is headed in the right direction and remains hopeful for a MAC championship, but there’s just too much talent to overcome in this one.

Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Miami 10