Miles Boykin

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Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Defensive counter to Navy’s option helps Irish put Miami in past

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Getting a team to heed the details necessary to counteract Navy’s triple-option attack is challenging enough. Getting Notre Dame to do it on the heels of its letdown at Miami a week ago made it even more difficult.

“The bigger shift this week was mentally get [the team] away from the Miami game to the Navy game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That was a bigger challenge this week [than preparing for the option], quite frankly.”

Finding that focus allowed Notre Dame to handle the Midshipmen 24-17 on Saturday, despite hardly possessing the ball, including only 6:24 of meaningful time in the second half. It may have been a victory by only seven points, but it was a return to the level of execution the Irish displayed all season long before heading to south Florida.

“If there’s one game we’d like to have back, and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team, for Miami,” Kelly said. “Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game and maybe lost a little bit of concentration.

“Other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I’m pretty pleased with our football team.”

To slow the triple-option, Kelly and defensive coordinator Mike Elko relied on a variety of looks from their defensive front, forcing Navy to make the adjustments the Midshipmen usually impose upon their opponents. In doing so, Notre Dame narrowed Navy’s offense from the triple-option to largely leaning on a quarterback sweep. Junior Zach Abey finished with 87 yards on 29 carries, not the efficiency the Midshipmen need for success.

“Our plan was really good about changing things up with our fronts and who had pitch, who had QB, and that made it difficult for them,” Kelly said. “… It really just became how the fullback was loading on our cornerback.”

That cornerback was often sophomore Troy Pride, usually a reserve. In order to better utilize sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s physicality, Kelly moved Love to safety and inserted Pride into the starting lineup. Along with a crucial fourth-quarter interception halting a Navy drive deep in Irish territory, Pride made six tackles.

“Troy Pride had to play physical for us,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy who was a wide cornerback [back-] pedaling most of his time here. Now he had to go mix it up. He played real well, real physical.”

Though he finished with 14 tackles, Love will remain at cornerback this season, but Kelly acknowledged he very well could be Notre Dame’s best safety.

“If we could clone him, I’d like to do that. … Could he be our best safety? Yes. He’s definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.”

On receiver injuries
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is in the concussion protocol after landing on his head/neck in the first quarter. Sophomore Chase Claypool could have returned to the game Saturday despite a banged up shoulder, but the Irish had found a rotation Kelly felt comfortable with at that point, leaning on sophomore Kevin Stepherson and junior Miles Boykin.

Claypool finished with two catches for 28 yards. Stepherson had five receptions for two scores and 103 yards. Boykin added 33 yards from two snags.

Things To Learn: Wake Forest offers a look into Notre Dame’s defensive future

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Two-thirds of the way through an undeniably successful season, not much is left to be learned from a home game against a middling — on the rise, but still middling — ACC opponent. Notre Dame relies on a run-oriented offense to provide points while its defense causes enough mayhem to prevent them. The day an opponent scores more than 20 points against the Irish will be a day to note, a first for the season. If a team holds junior running back Josh Adams and the rest of Notre Dame’s rushing attack in check, it will be the first time in nearly two months.

There is little reason to expect Wake Forest to pull off either of those feats Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

If there is any reason to foresee that, it stems from a sense of familiarity. The Demon Deacons know the principles of the Irish defense thoroughly. They are familiar with Notre Dame’s scheme, its intent and the intricacies to its defensive approach. Wake Forest runs the same attacking design.

Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko held the same position with the Deacons from 2014 to 2016 before answering Brian Kelly’s call this past offseason. Amid staff turnover at Minnesota, Jay Sawvel left the Gophers to take Elko’s role in Winston-Salem, keeping much of Elko’s successful operation in place since the personnel was already both used to and ready for it.

“There’s a lot of similarity to the defense that we’ve seen in the past,” Kelly said Tuesday. “It’s still about personnel, and their personnel, in terms of the safeties and corners, is emerging.”

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson knows where the holes are in Elko’s scheme. That is, if there are any holes. He knows Elko’s tendencies. Likewise, Elko used to coach a defense against Deacons senior quarterback John Wolford in nearly every practice.

“It’s similar to two teams that play each other, know each other that well,” Kelly said. “It is a very similar kind of scenario.”

What could an Elko defense look like with years of learning his system and with players recruited specifically for it?
The answer to this pondering hinges on too many variables and involves too wide a scope to genuinely be answered in one Saturday afternoon, especially considering Wake Forest cannot claim the defensive dominance it did the last few seasons. However, a few nuggets may be gleaned.

The Deacons still focus on the same things Elko has Notre Dame keyed into. More specifically, Wake Forest controls the line of scrimmage by getting behind it as often as possible. The Irish boast one of the best offensive lines in the country, but the Deacons have 22 sacks this season as part of a nation-leading 74 tackles for loss (9.25 per game). If Wake Forest brings down Adams in the backfield, it will be a surprise because that has happened to the Heisman candidate so rarely this season. It could also be considered a positive sign for Notre Dame’s future under Elko.

That penetrating attack is led by senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor. Including 6.5 sacks, he has 14 tackles for loss this year, along with five more quarterback hurries. Ejiofor’s first season of action corresponded with Elko’s first season with the Deacons. The young pass-rusher notched two sacks and 12 tackles in 10 games. In Elko’s final season with Wake Forest, Ejiofor brought down the opposing quarterback 10.5 times and made 50 tackles in 13 games. Some of that progression was assuredly natural growth. Some of it likely tied to Elko, as well.

Perhaps this is reaching for a comparison, but Ejiofor arrived in college holding 216 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. As a fifth-year senior, he is now listed at 275 pounds and 6-foot-4.

Irish sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (right, diving) has already emerged as a needed contributor this season, but much more promise could still be in his future. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Elko’s first season at Notre Dame corresponds with the first season of notable action for Irish sophomore defensive ends Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. None of them were as slight as Ejiofor coming out of high, but all could, even should, benefit from Elko’s coaching as Ejiofor did. (At 220 pounds, Okwara was most similar to Ejiofor, though boasting more length.)

If Ejiofor finds his way to sacking Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, do not bemoan the moment too much. It may be a precursor of good things to come for the Irish.

Speaking of Wimbush, can he complete a true deep ball?
Perhaps can is not the proper verb choice. Wimbush certainly has the arm strength for it; he has yet to find the touch for the task. Presuming this weekend is the blowout many expect, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long have thus far this season chosen to use such a situation for a drive or two of passing reps for the first-year starter. Taking a shot downfield when up 14 or even 21 would not be considered poor taste.

Wimbush did throw a 54-yard touchdown to junior receiver Miles Boykin against Miami (OH), but even that pass was half a stride behind Boykin, allowing the defender to catch up to him. If the line of scrimmage had been three yards further back, Boykin would have been down a yard short of the end zone even though he had more than a stride’s advantage on his defender.

At some point, Wimbush hitting sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson streaking down the field would serve to aid the quarterback’s confidence — it is a very difficult throw, seeing it succeed once may help the mental cause in the future — and it would put the threat on the radar of future opponents. Forcing Miami (FL) or Stanford to prepare for that vertical concern would further open up the field for Notre Dame’s offense.

These are the advantages afforded by 14-point first-half leads or 21-point advantages midway through the third quarter. Admittedly, if Wimbush and Stepherson were to connect on the route with a large lead in the fourth quarter, it could be considered poor sport, style points being overrated these days. (That is not a tongue-in-cheek comment. There is no tangible difference between five degrees below zero and 25 degrees below zero. There is no bettering of a win by running up the margin from 28 to 42 points.)

While discussing speed threats, how is Dexter Williams’ ankle?

It has been awhile since Notre Dame sophomore running back Dexter Williams’ right ankle allowed him to make a cut as decisive as this against Michigan State back on Sept. 23. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Junior running back Dexter Williams brings raw speed to the Irish running game, pure and simple. When removing his big-play capability, the viability of playing Williams decreases greatly. As long as he cannot trust his right ankle to provide that pop, Williams serves little purpose in the Irish running back rotation.

If Williams gets another eight carries this week, as he did in the 35-14 rout of North Carolina State, then that may be the necessary proof his ankle is ready for the season’s final quarter. He will be needed more against the Hurricanes’ defensive front than this weekend, so if he sees limited action, presume it is an attempt to gain further health before the test in Miami.

Lastly, when and where will chaos strike?
Some things are inevitable, Mr. Anderson. Anarchy will strike college football in November. It could happen in South Bend. It could be in Iowa City. Maybe it will wait a week to reappear in Jordan-Hare.

As a rule of thumb, if wanting Notre Dame to make the College Football Playoff, cheer for all Irish opponents and cheer against every higher-ranked Big 12 team. With that in mind, upsets in the following five games may not necessarily count as anarchy, but they would serve to help Notre Dame’s cause, nonetheless.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s best-case and worst-case CFP scenarios

— No. 7 Penn State at No. 24 Michigan State, 12 p.m. ET, FOX.
— No. 4 Clemson at No. 20 North Carolina State, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC.
— No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 11 Oklahoma State, 4 p.m. ET, FS1. (Cheering for the higher-ranked Big 12 team, Oklahoma, would not be an upset by the book, only by the ranking. Oklahoma State is favored by a field goal.)
— No. 13 Virginia Tech at No. 10 Miami, 8 p.m. ET, ABC. (Unlike the game above, cheering for the Irish foe, Miami, would be cheering for an upset by the book, not by the ranking. Despite taking a lower rating on the road, Virginia Tech is a 2.5-point favorite.)
— No. 19 LSU at No. 2 Alabama, 8 p.m. ET, CBS.

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)

Kelly on Notre Dame’s sideline ‘fight’, Chip Long’s play calling and shuffling WRs

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Perhaps it was during Saturday’s one-possession loss when Irish coach Brian Kelly most saw the differences between the 2017 Notre Dame team and its immediate predecessor, even though the close defeat was awfully reminiscent of a year ago. If that was the case, it took some distance from the moment for Kelly to realize, or at least properly voice, that insight.

“I just loved our sideline,” Kelly said Tuesday while discussing the fourth quarter against Georgia. “Being able to walk up and down the sideline and sense their fight, how they felt about the game. Just a different feeling for me, and one where at the time it’s hard to articulate those thoughts and feelings right after a game.”

Immediately after the 20-19 defeat, Kelly was asked a similar question about the close loss evoking memories from 2016’s dismal 4-8 finish. At the time, Kelly offered only a curt response.

He acknowledged the dynamics of that situation during his weekly press conference previewing the upcoming opponent.

“I probably could have handled it a little bit better, but in the heat of the moment, my thoughts were on the game itself,” Kelly said. “I stay in the present. In the present, I really like the way our team is put together.

“I don’t think much about last year. I think about how our team played on Saturday. So my vision and my eyes are on how that team showed grit and toughness, didn’t back off. We needed to make another play, no question. But our defense gave us three shots with 8:30 and less to go in the game to win it. We needed to make a play.”

That play could have come from slightly different play calling, but Kelly insisted he was pleased with the game called by offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Just like a better block from fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, better self-discipline by sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara or better play diagnosing from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush all could have made the difference, a play call or two different from Long might have changed the outcome, as well. Then again, just like McGlinchey’s blocks for most of the evening, Okwara’s overall pass pressure and Wimbush’s touchdown run, Long’s play calls were part of what had Notre Dame so close in the first place.

“We had plenty of opportunities to score enough points to win the game through play calling,” Kelly said. “We would have liked a couple plays back here and there. We could have called a couple of better plays here and there, maybe executed better here and there.

“We look at it as an ‘all’ thing. In other words, we needed to coach a little bit better, make a couple more plays. We walk away as a group, meaning players and coaches alike, that maybe one more good play call, maybe one more good play, and we can win the game.”

Speaking of Okwara’s personal foul, Kelly put the onus on Okwara for giving the referee the opportunity to make the close call.

“We just felt like it’s too close to put an official in that position,” he said. “… It’s just a learning experience for Julian. He felt terrible. We told him, one play does not make this game.”

Finke starts; Canteen injured
The or designation between junior receiver Chris Finke and senior Freddy Canteen has been removed, raising Finke to clear-cut starter status. That is at least in part due to a shoulder injury suffered by Canteen. The Michigan transfer lost more than a season of playing time at his former school due to a shoulder injury, so exceeding caution very well may be exercised in this instance. Kelly described Canteen as “doubtful” this week, hence sophomore Chase Claypool slots in as Finke’s backup with junior Miles Boykin taking Claypool’s position on the two-deep behind junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

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Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Offensive line notes; Irish ‘begging’ for No. 2 WR

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Mike McGlinchey may have put Notre Dame’s loss Saturday night entirely on his own shoulders for a missed block on the final Irish snap, but Brian Kelly disagrees with that sentiment.

The Notre Dame coach felt no need to specifically console his fifth-year left tackle after the 20-19 defeat to Georgia, largely because that late-game mistake was just one of many in a game of 60 minutes.

“I’ve never felt like there’s one play that determines a game,” Kelly said Sunday. “There were a number of things that — if we could have made a run on the third down on the series before, if we don’t have a late hit, if we make a play on that third down flip with [sophomore defensive end] Daelin Hayes, a better call here or there offensively. … I’ve never felt there’s one singular play.”

Bulldogs senior defensive end Davin Bellamy’s fumble-causing sack ended any Irish hopes of a comeback. How Bellamy did that is far from complicated: He simply beat McGlinchey with a pass rush.

“Their guy was better on that play,” Kelly said. “That’s why, when we get in that moment, our guys have to believe that their training has put them in a position to obviously make that block and be there for him.”

Kelly struggled to assess the Notre Dame offensive line as a whole, presumably not wanting to oversimplify an undoubtedly complex evaluation. He did acknowledge the pass protection difficulties, giving up three sacks of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

“What we have to do better is we have to sustain box and be more consistent in pass protection,” Kelly said before adding another piece to that element of the game. “… When we run our offense, a lot of the decisions post-snap are based on what the quarterback is seeing.

“Whether he’s giving it out, pulling it, checking it to the other side, sometimes those decisions ae left up to the post-snap reads. Brandon is learning those things. Going against Georgia, that’s a pretty good defense to learn a lot [from].”

In a departure from a week ago and all of last season, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was not the Irish quarterback’s primary target. Certainly, Wimbush would have preferred to connect with his most dangerous receiver more often than twice for 16 yards, but the Bulldogs made preventing such a priority. (more…)