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Turnovers tip toward Notre Dame in a 38-18 victory at Michigan State

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Statistically, Notre Dame did not outplay Michigan State in the 38-18 Irish victory Saturday night. After all, the Spartans outgained Notre Dame by 142 yards. Even if ignoring the fourth quarter when the Irish had the game in hand, Michigan State matched Notre Dame.

One thing made the difference.

Rather, three things, as in two fumble recoveries and an interception.

“The story here is defensively we were taking the football away,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “… Rushing yards don’t really matter much, passing yards don’t matter much when you can take the football away and capitalize on it in the red zone.”

Indeed.

Notre Dame averaged 4.79 yards per carry on 39 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Irish converted eight of 14 third downs, a season-high rate of 57.1 percent. They reached the red zone four times and scored four touchdowns on those drives.

But the game hinged entirely on those three turnovers.

“Obviously, with those turnovers, being minus three [in turnover margin] in the first half createda b ig 14-point swing, number one,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “… Ultimately, the turnovers are what crushes you.”

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3), preventing a Spartans touchdown in Saturday’s second quarter. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame led only 21-7 with Michigan State driving. This was still a genuine contest as Spartans junior running back L.J. Scott headed toward the end zone with 6:23 remaining in the second quarter.

Instead, Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford caught Scott at the end of his 15-yard rumble for the goal line. Inches before he crossed it, Crawford punched the ball loose, a move he later directly attributed to studying film of former Chicago Bears defensive back Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Crawford tracked down the ball in the end zone, turning a touchdown into a touchback.

He quite literally prevented a touchdown. Notre Dame got the ball back. Five plays later Irish junior running back Dexter Williams scored from 14 yards out, opening up the margin to 28-7. Michigan State would not get within two possessions the rest of the night.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Obviously, the play of the game is Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble. Rarely is one single play worth six points. Other moments lead up to it or a subsequent success could have replicated the effect. In this instance, however, Crawford’s savvy was worth exactly six points all on its own. Not to mention, it then led to an Irish scoring drive.

Honorable mention should certainly go to sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s 59-yard interception return for a touchdown. Love jumped Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke’s throw so cleanly there was never any doubt about his arrival in the end zone once he secured the ball. Thanks to the defensive highlight, Notre Dame led 14-0 before even five minutes of the game had passed.

To be sure to mention the third turnover of the evening, pictured above, senior linebacker Greer Martini chased Lewerke to the sideline, popping the ball loose as he tackled the quarterback. Irish sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes landed on the fumble at Michigan State’s 24-yard line. It took all of six plays for Notre Dame to gain the 24 yards, culminating with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush finding Williams in the end zone from eight yards out, bringing the score to the aforementioned 21-7.

Crawford’s stellar defensive play came on the ensuing Spartans drive.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Michigan State received the kickoff to start the second half. Trailing 28-7, a definitive touchdown drive would have returned some intrigue to the evening. The Spartans alternated three Scott rushes for a methodical 17 yards with Lewerke darts downfield, completing an 18-yarder to junior tight end Matt Sokol and a 20-yard pass to sophomore receiver Trishton Jackson, Michigan State did not need much time to reach the red zone.

On a third-and-six from the 20-yard line, Lewerke had some time to find a receiver. Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara made sure it was not too much time, notching a two-yard sack.

The yardage of the loss was not important. Ending the drive shy of the end zone was. The Spartans opted for a 40-yard field goal, but cutting the Notre Dame lead to 18 did not have much of an effect on anyone’s urgency.

Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s sole passing touchdown Saturday night came when he found junior running back Dexter Williams along the sideline after Wimbush evaded pressure. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
A week ago, this space would not give this nod to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush despite his rushing for 207 yards and four touchdowns. To be fair, that was primarily a credit to junior running back Josh Adams’ work against Boston College.

Today, Wimbush gets it. He rushed for only 57 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, but out of the gates he attacked the Spartans with his arm. Finishing 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown through the air may not sound like much, but it was enough of a threat to keep Michigan State’s defense on its heels.

“We can probably move on about he can’t throw it,” Kelly said. “He’s just got the ability to do a lot at that position.”

The first play from scrimmage was a 10-yard completion to sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. Every play of the 78-yard drive was a pass attempt until the final two plays, both Wimbush carries, the latter a 16-yard touchdown run on a designed draw.

A week ago Wimbush managed only 96 passing yards. On the opening drive at Michigan State, he threw for 62. Any plans the Spartans had of forcing him to beat them with his arm went out the window. Wimbush clearly was up to the task.

STAT OF THE GAME
More accurately, it is a stat of the season.

Through four games, Notre Dame is allowing 18.25 points per game. No matter who the opponents have been, that is a promising number for 2017 through four games.

Last season that mark was 27.83. To provide more context, consider some of last year’s “better” performances. For outlying purposes and weather acknowledgements, discard the six points the Irish allowed Army and the 10 scored by North Carolina State in a literal hurricane. Notre Dame’s next best four defensive performances by points allowed were against Nevada (10 points), Stanford (10), Miami (27) and Navy (28). Those average to 20.5 points per game.

UNEXPECTED FACT OF THE NIGHT
Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh led Notre Dame in carries with 12, gaining 35 yards and scoring a touchdown. His increase in workload was a result of the Irish enjoying a comfortable lead and sophomore running back Tony Jones spending the evening in street clothes due to a sprained ankle.

Adams took nine rushes for 56 yards. Williams needed eight carries to gain 40 yards and a score. By no means did either struggle, but neither will complain at a night light on bumps and bruises yet complete with a victory.

“[Adams] is our bell cow, if you will, and we’re going to continue to utilize his physicality at the position,” Kelly said. “We think Dexter Williams is a great complementary back in terms of what he can do, and you saw what Deon was capable of. He runs hard. He’s a tough kid with a burst. [Jones] wasn’t able to go but we’ll get him back most likely next week.

“We think we’re very fortunate that we’ve got some depth at that position.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Statistics can lie to you.” — Dantonio.

He is not wrong.

SCORING SUMMARY

First Quarter
13:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush 16-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan State 0. (7 plays, 78 yards, 1:55)
10:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Julian Love 59-yard interception return. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 0.
6:33 — Michigan State touchdown. Darrell Stewart four-yard reception from Brian Lewerke. Matt Coghlin PAT good.  Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 4:00)

Second Quarter
9:32 —Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams eight-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan State 7. (6 plays, 24 yards, 2:23)
4:47 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 7. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:34)

Third Quarter
11:13 — Michigan State field goal. Coghlin from 40 yards. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 10. (9 plays, 53 yards, 3:38)
7:46 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh nine-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Michigan State 10. (8 plays, 62 yards, 3:19)

Fourth Quarter
4:51 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 46 yards. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 10. (10 plays, 66 yards, 5:01)
3:09 — Michigan State touchdown. Gerald Holmes 25-yard reception from Lewerke. Two-point conversion good, Cody White reception from Lewerke. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 18. (7 plays, 71 yards, 1:35)

Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium

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As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …

Will Cam Smith be healthy enough to get back on the field?
The fifth-year receiver suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week, limiting his reps throughout the week and keeping him from playing Saturday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That absence may have held more of an effect than was anticipated by anyone.

Certainly, Notre Dame’s receivers totaling three catches for 11 yards is not solely a reflection of Smith not being on the field. It is a sign of bigger issues, but that does not mean Smith would not have aided the cause. With his institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from their days together at Arizona State, Smith has been consistent. His seven catches for 54 yards come from running clean, disciplined routes.

Getting him back onto the field could alleviate a slight bit of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues. By no means would this eradicate the concern entirely, but even a small step in the right direction would be a welcome trend for the Irish at this point.

If Smith remains sidelined, did Chase Claypool do enough to maintain his spot as a starter?
Kelly answered this question Sunday, but it had already been worked into this concept’s draft and emphasizing it seems a valid decision.

Claypool will continue to see time, though more so at the boundary receiver position than the slot spot he worked at throughout spring and preseason practices. Of those three catches for 11 yards the receivers managed against Boston College, Claypool accounted for two receptions and eight yards.

“He was assignment correct,” Kelly said. “We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”

Along with Claypool, there was also some Michael Young innuendo last week. Will the depth chart now reflect that?
When Kelly discussed coming changes at receiver before the trip out east, he mentioned Claypool by name. He also seemed to imply another unexpected option could emerge.

“Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position,” Kelly said Thursday. “But we really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all the experience but have a higher ceiling.”

At that point, Kelly knew Smith was injured, though perhaps he was still questionable to play. Kelly also presumably knew senior Freddy Canteen would need season-ending shoulder surgery this week. Those two bits could explain the first half of that paragraph.

The second half suggests Claypool would have company in the inexperienced with a “higher ceiling” category. With sophomore Javon McKinley intended to preserve a year of eligibility this season, freshman Michael Young is the most-likely candidate.

That presumption could be quickly confirmed in the Notre Dame depth chart this week.

How badly is Tony Jones’ ankle sprained?
Exactly a week ago, this piece wondered, “Through two games, are the Irish really still this healthy?” Through three games, the answer has become no.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College, only x-rays confirmed no further damage. As a running back, that injury can obviously be more than a nuisance and waiting for Jones to return to full health before playing him makes sense. If that takes longer than a week, it should lead to a bit more playing time for junior Dexter Williams. (more…)

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

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As Notre Dame struggles to find contributing receivers, the option have diminished by two. Irish coach Brian Kelly said graduate student Freddy Canteen will undergo season-ending surgery this week to repair a torn labrum and sophomore Javon McKinley is likely to preserve a year of eligibility this season.

Canteen started Notre Dame’s first two games before injuring his shoulder against Georgia. The Michigan transfer made one catch for seven yards. He does have another season of eligibility remaining, making a 2018 return likely, though not guaranteed.

In Canteen’s place, the Irish will turn more to sophomore Chase Claypool, though that may have been the case, regardless. Claypool made two catches for eight yards in Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory over Boston College on Saturday.

“He’s big, he’s physical, he’s got speed,” Kelly said of Claypool. “He needs to continue to grow at that position. We just like that he blocked very well for us. He was assignment correct. We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”

Kelly said Claypool will see time more on the outside of the field, rather than Canteen’s position in the slot. That alignment could hint at increased usage of the already often seen two tight end packages.

McKinley saw action in six games during his freshman season, recording no statistics.

“We didn’t get enough of his year last year, so I try to save a year under those circumstances for those guys,” Kelly said. “… If they’re still growing, still learning — I don’t want to accelerate them through the program unless they are squared away in terms of all of your traits.”

With or without Canteen and McKinley, the Irish still need to find reliable receivers, currently a vacuum best-exhibited by the passing total of 96 yards amassed against the Eagles. (more…)

Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush

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Perhaps after Saturday’s ground-based successes, Notre Dame will deliver more of the same moving forward. Entering the season with a promising but unknown commodity at quarterback, the Irish may have needed a few weeks to learn what exactly would and would not work when facing live competition.

“I really didn’t know how this offense was going to be from the quarterback position in terms of where [junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush] was going to take it until we actually got into a few games,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory at Boston College. “Now I think we know what part of the library we need to move toward, and we’ve got plenty of offense.

“We can start to really focus in on the things that he does really well, and that’s where this offense will continue to grow and develop.”

Wimbush does many things well. Currently chief among them, as illustrated Saturday, is evade defenders as he works his way down the field.

Saying the Irish will rely on their running game moving forward because it fits Wimbush’s skill set is not a shot at the quarterback. The Notre Dame rushing attack hinges on him being a contributing factor.

“You’ve just got to find a way to find something that’s working for you,” Wimbush said. “It happened to be my feet during this game.”

It was not only his feet, it was any Irish ballcarrier’s feet. It took a group effort to rush for 515 yards on 51 carries, setting a modern-era school record for average carry at 10.1 yards.

Wimbush went for 207 yards on 21 touts. Junior running back Josh Adams needed only 18 rushes to gain 229 yards. Classmate Dexter Williams took six attempts for 50 yards. Sophomore Deon McIntosh used his four closing opportunities to gain 24 yards, and sophomore Tony Jones gained five yards on two carries.

The one of those warranting the most notice is Adams. He gained in big chunks and small ones. He broke tackles. He reached for extra yards. (more…)

Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books

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Winning if by ground, losing if by air. Thus, seven by ground, none by air.

That is, Notre Dame scored all seven of its touchdowns via rush in its 49-20 victory over Boston College on Saturday. After struggling through the first half relying on both the passing and ground games, the Irish held a mere 14-10 lead at the break. They then found and stuck to their strength to pull away with increasing ease.

“We didn’t stop the run,” Eagles coach Steve Addazio said. “We did not stop the run, and that was a huge deal in that game.”

Yes, yes it was.

“We didn’t make a lot of plays in the first half,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We came in at halftime and went up to the offensive line and said, ‘Look, we need you to take over this football game. You’re our veteran group.’

“They really responded. Really proud of the way they controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half.”

It may be difficult to overstate how the afternoon shifted once Notre Dame devoted itself to the running game. At halftime, the Irish had converted only three of nine third-down attempts, also failing on one fourth-down attempt. They had outgained Boston College by only 43 yards, 271 to 228.

Beginning with the third Irish drive of the second half, the focus was singular, and the scoreboard’s gradual changes reflected it. Prior to that point, Notre Dame clung to a 14-13 lead, its defense holding Boston College in check while the offense sputtered. For example, the first two Irish drives of the half combined for seven plays, 11 yards and one turnover.

Alternating with those two drives, the Notre Dame defense prevented the Eagles from capitalizing on a turnover — holding to only a field goal — and then forced a turnover on downs in Irish territory.

With the ball back, the third Notre Dame drive after halftime gained 65 of its 70 yards on the ground, seven of the nine plays being designed rushes, including junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush finding a lane in the defense for 46 yards and a first-and-goal. Three plays later, sophomore running back Tony Jones scored from a yard out, and the rout commenced.

“It all started with our offensive line in terms of being able to run the football,” Kelly said.

Wimbush finished with 207 yards on 21 carries. Adams took 18 rushes for 229 yards. Junior running back Dexter Williams chipped in 50 yards and two scores on only six carries. Jones finished with five yards and a touchdown on two attempts. Even sophomore Deon McIntosh found 24 yards on four carries.

The Irish finished the day nine-of-18 on third-down attempts and outgained Boston College by 211 yards, 611 to 400.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Either one of those defensive stands could qualify here. Boston College could have, perhaps should have, retaken the lead on both occasions. For that matter, the Eagles could have retaken the lead and then subsequently extended it. Keeping in mind the complete ineffectiveness of Notre Dame’s passing attack Saturday, a theoretical two-possession deficit may have been too much to overcome.

The first threat came when Wimbush fumbled on the fourth play after the break. That drive began with the potential of the Irish going up two possessions themselves. Instead, the turnover gifted Boston College possession only 32 yards from the end zone. A quick rush from junior running back Jon Hilliman brought the Eagles into the red zone. At that point, Notre Dame’s defense seemed to decide enough was enough. The following three plays netted Boston College negative three yards (including a false start penalty), leading to a successful 41-yard field goal.

The Irish still had a lead, the aforementioned 14-13 margin.

But, again, the offense stalled. On first-and-10, Wimbush found junior running back Josh Adams for a whopping one-yard reception. On second-and-long, Adam was stopped in the backfield. He never had a chance at gaining the needed 14 yards on third down. The three-and-out again gave the Eagles beneficial field position, again put the defense in a difficult position and again stalled any version of momentum.

A soon-to-follow fourth-and-one on the Notre Dame 30-yard line showed just how little the defense seemed to mind.

Freshman defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa won the initial push on the line of scrimmage, invalidating Boston College’s intended point of attack. The rest of the Irish defense swarmed Hilliman — senior linebacker Nyles Morgan and junior linebacker Te’von Coney were credited with the tackle. The danger was averted.

“Our defense really ignited us with a fourth down stop, got some energy,” Kelly said. “When you make plays, obviously that creates an energy, and we were able to score. I thought that was a pretty big turning point in the second half.”

Notre Dame had the ball back.

Commence rout.

Shaun Crawford’s interception helped stymied an Boston College comeback hopes long enough for the Irish offense to genuinely pull away during Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Again, look to the defense. In fact, look to the possession immediately following Jones’ touchdown. The Eagles were trailing only 21-13. Freshman quarterback Anthony Brown looked for a mid-range route, perhaps one that could break loose for a big gain, positioning Boston College to come within one point or tie up the game.

Instead, Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford won the battle for the pass, pulling in his second career interception.

“We went over those plays a number of times throughout the week, and I was in perfect position,” said Crawford, who added another interception and a fumble recovery by the end of the day. “… We knew they had nothing to lose, they were going to try all their tricks, and [in the] second half we made adjustments. We came out strong.”

Following Crawford’s first interception, Adams took the next snap for 36 yards to the Eagles 39-yard line. Wimbush immediately connected with fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe for 33 yards to get to the six-yard line. Two plays later, the score was 28-13.

Rout in progress.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Wimbush found the end zone four times, but this honor should go to Adams. His 18 carries for 229 yards included runs of 64 and 65 yards, setting up two of Wimbush’s touchdowns.

The second of those came a few minutes before the half, leading to the 14-10 advantage. If Notre Dame had entered the break trailing 10-7, the locker room psyche would have undoubtedly been much different than it was.

Adams’ run restored some of the Irish confidence.

STAT OF THE GAME

Brandon Wimbush’s fourth and final rushing touchdown Saturday pushed Notre Dame’s rushing statistics over the top into historical territory. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Notre Dame rushed 51 times for 515 yards. That equals an average of 10.09 yards per carry. A few items to note about those numbers.

— The Irish threw for only 96 yards on 27 attempts, an average of 3.56 yards per attempt.

— The modern-era record for Irish yards per carry in one game was 10.0, set in 1942 when Notre Dame rushed 25 times for 250 yards in a 13-13 tie against the Naval Station Great Lakes. That record, obviously, is no longer.

— The modern-era record for Irish yards in one game is 597 yards, set in 1969 against Navy. Anytime that mark warrants pertinent mention, it is a reflection of just how strong the Notre Dame ground attack was for a day.

— Per Notre Dame, and fitting with common sense, this was the first time in program history two individuals rushed for more than 200 yards in one game.

“The offensive line did a [great] job again and opened up lanes for myself, Josh Adams, Dexter and Tony, and even Deon got in there at the end and got a couple yards there,” Wimbush said. “When you’re running in the open field, it feels great to open up a little bit and obviously have that red jersey off of you.”

QUOTE OF THE AFTERNOON
Heading into Saturday afternoon, much time had been spent discussing how tough Boston College seems to always play Notre Dame. Recent results prove some validity to the point. When mentioned early in the week, Kelly met the thesis with a “Heck yeah [they do.]”

With that background, the thumping stands out.

“Playing Boston College is always a challenge for us at Notre Dame,” Kelly said afterward. “It’s always one that we expect their very, very best, and we get it …

“We were able to break them, and it’s hard to do.”

QUESTIONABLE COACHING DECISION OF THE AFTERNOON
Boston College senior defensive end Harold Landry came off the field for entire series at a time in an apparent attempt to keep him rested for a productive fourth quarter. Seemingly whenever that occurred, Notre Dame found space for a long run. Both of Adams’ 60-plus yarders came with Landry sidelined. When Wimbush broke loose for that 46-yard run to set up the third Irish touchdown, Landry watched from his coach’s vantage point.

Not only did his absence play a part in Notre Dame’s first three touchdowns, but the rest also did not produce its desired effect. When Wimbush opted not to shovel a pass to senior tight end Nic Weishar and instead race for a 65-yard touchdown, his fourth score of the day, the greatest obstacle was Landry. The NFL prospect was waiting in the backfield, likely playing a role in Wimbush not tossing to Weishar.

Rest or no rest, Landry did not slow Wimbush.

SCORING SUMMARY

First Quarter
7:52 —Boston College field goal. Colton Lichtenberg from 38 yards. Boston College 3, Notre Dame 0. (10 plays, 32 yards, 4:16)
6:28 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush two-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Boston College 3. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:24)

Second Quarter
11:59 — Boston College touchdown. Charlie Callinan 22-yard reception from Anthony Brown. Lichtenberg PAT good. Boston College 10, Notre Dame 7. (9 plays, 85 yards, 3:01)
1:57 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush one-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Boston College 10. (7 plays, 92 yards, 1:55)

Third Quarter
11:25 — Boston College field goal. Lichtenberg from 41 yards. Notre Dame 14, Boston College 13. (5 plays, 9 yards, 2:19)
5:04 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones one-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Boston College 13. (9 plays, 70 yards, 2:36)
2:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush three-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Boston College 13. (4 plays, 75 yards, 1:34)

Fourth Quarter
13:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Wimbush 65-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Boston College 13. (5 plays, 83 yards, 1:59)
9:02 — Boston College touchdown. Callinan 14-yard reception from Brown. Lichtenberg PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Boston College 20. (14 plays, 75 yards, 4:39)
6:23 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams three-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 42, Boston College 20. (2 plays, 35 yards, 0:28)
4:57 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 15-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 49, Boston College 20. (5 plays, 33 yards, 1:16)