Keith Arnold

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 26:  ESPN College GameDay announcer Lee Corso dons an FSU headress as co-announcers (l to r) Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit comment during the NCAA football game between Notre Dame and Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 26, 2002 in Tallahassee, Florida.  The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Florida State Seminoles 34-24.  (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)

ESPN’s College GameDay coming to Philly for Notre Dame vs. Temple

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The only game of the weekend featuring ranked opponents means that ESPN’s College GameDay will be at a Notre Dame game for the second time this season. Already announced as a primetime, ABC broadcast, Temple will host ESPN’s signature pregame show this weekend, their first since GameDay kicked off over 20 years ago.

ESPN made the announcement via Twitter Monday morning, mulling over their options before pulling the trigger on a trip to Philadelphia instead of heading cross-country to Pullman, Washington, where Mike Leach’s Cougars are hosting No. 8 Stanford.

Once looked at as the eleventh or twelfth most-important game on Notre Dame’s schedule, Saturday could very well be the most important game in Temple football history. It comes at a perfect time for the Irish, who need wins over ranked opponents as they try to distinguish themselves from a pack of other one-loss teams jockeying for College Football Playoff consideration.

Notre Dame opened up 10-point favorites over the Owls, who have one of the nation’s best statistical defenses. The Irish are 6-1 coming off an extra week’s rest under Brian Kelly, their lone loss to USC in 2011.

Bye week snapshot: Secondary

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On paper, Notre Dame’s secondary appeared to be one of the strengths of the team. Veterans at every position. Senior KeiVarae Russell returning to the field. Yet the collection of talent has struggled to play to its potential.

That’s been evident in the up and down play of Max Redfield and the rust on Russell. While Brian Kelly praised the play of senior Elijah Shumate last week, junior Cole Luke has had some uneven moments and injuries have forced Matthias Farley back into the safety rotation, away from the slot cornerback spot he had so much success in last year.

While there have been mistakes that have showed up immediately on the score board or in the stat sheet, the secondary’s performance against USC was a great step forward, and hopefully an indication that a strong home stretch is on the horizon. As Todd Lyght’s defensive backs hope to make November their best month, let’s finish up our bye week snapshots.

 

MVPs (So Far): KeiVarae Russell & Elijah Shumate. 

While most people have spent plenty of time talking about the things that KeiVarae Russell hasn’t managed to do this season, it’s worth pointing out that Notre Dame’s senior cornerback has as many solo tackles as All-Universe linebacker Jaylon Smith. So while Russell’s had some struggles in coverage an waited until USC to make his biggest, most impactful plays of the season, he’s been solid in other facets of the game.

For Shumate, Notre Dame’s strong safety is a key component to stopping the run. Whether it’s crashing down into the box or being a key piece of the plan to stop Georgia Tech and Navy, Shumate’s play has earned him admiration and praise from his head coach, who at times in the past likely wondered if he’d ever see the mental and the physical match up with the New Jersey native.

 

Best Still to Come? Max Redfield & Cole Luke. 

Notre Dame’s two junior starters have the chance to turn the 2015 season into a good one if they finish the year strong. For Redfield, an early-season thumb injury against Texas likely derailed his offseason momentum. (So did trying to tackle the quarterback against the option.) But inserted back into the lineup against USC, Redfield played better than Farley, and gave Notre Dame the athleticism on the back end that they needed against a team of playmaking receivers.

Luke has had some mental lapses in coverage this season—and we saw one of those mistakes cost the Irish defense seven points when he fell for another trick play against USC. But the junior’s game will build with confidence, and given the opportunity to match up and cover on the outside, he’s going to win more battles than he loses.

Both Redfield and Luke can get better, especially if they use the adversity to grow. Luke thrived in coverage last season against a slate of tremendous receivers and he’s capable of making plays that impact football games. The same goes for Redfield, who has been better in coverage than he gets credit for and if he’s on his game he’s capable of impacting the game against both the run and pass.

 

Wait Until Next Year: Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman and Drue Tranquill

We didn’t get a chance to see what Crawford could do, as the nickel back tore his ACL in preseason camp. But the Irish coaching staff all but scrapped their nickel package once Crawford went down, an alignment that likely would’ve been a base alignment against passing opponents and on third down. That tells you quite a bit about what the staff thinks it has in the diminutive cover man, who’ll be ready to make up for lost time come spring.

Coleman has played most of his football on special teams, though is getting an occasional look in coverage. Another freshman, the converted high school running back has been a nice surprise, fighting his way into the mix even with established defenders like Devin Butler and Nick Watkins ahead of him. Don’t be surprised to see more of Coleman after the off week, especially if the Irish put more defensive backs on the field.

Tranquill’s freak injury came half-way into a breakthrough performance against the option. The sledge-hammer safety was a perfect linebacker in the dime package or a specialist against the triple option. We saw the Indiana native make an immediate impact against Georgia Tech before going down before halftime.

With Shumate gone after this season and Russell likely heading to the NFL after earning his degree, these three defensive backs will play a huge part of next year’s secondary. So while they each got something completely different out of this season, the pieces are in place for each to make a move in 2016.

 

Bye week snapshot: Linebackers

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Cole Luke #36 after recovering a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s most athletic group of linebackers in years has been led by All-American candidate Jaylon Smith. Just as he did last season, Smith has filled up the stat sheet, while also managing to make that the least impressive thing he’s done on the field.

Behind him, the play has been good and bad. Captain Joe Schmidt may very well be the nerve center of the Irish defense, but he’s struggled at times making tackles and being in position. James Onwualu and Greer Martini have exceeded expectations.

Against the option, the Irish turned to Martini, who played incredibly productive football in a difficult situation. While Onwualu has shown himself once again to be the type of dependable athlete that the Irish staff can count on in space. But even he was subbed out for Jarrett Grace when the Irish needed to add some bulk against Navy, the fifth-year senior getting a shot after nearly two years of recovery time.

This group’s best football is still ahead of it. For Smith, that’s a scary proposition. For the rest of the linebackers? It’s playing to the bar this coaching staff has set for them. Let’s take a closer look at Mike Elston’s position group through seven games.

 

MVP: Jaylon Smith

No, it’s not particularly close. Smith has answered most of his critics by doing a much better job in the trenches and being a tremendously sound tackler. That’s allowed him to use his cheetah-like athleticism to run down plays and also be PFF’s No. 2 rated OLB in a 4-3.

Smith hasn’t made the impact as a pass rusher that we maybe thought he would earlier in preseason camp. But that’s mostly been because he’s been so useful in pass coverage. A key prospect in the eyes of NFL personnel men, Smith might be playing his final half-dozen games in a Notre Dame uniform. If he is, let’s hope Smith goes out on top.

 

Needs to Improve: Joe Schmidt

All the wonderful leadership attributes and mental abilities don’t take away from what the game tape is telling us (or at least PFF). Schmidt’s struggles have been notable, and he’s having one of the worst graded seasons of any inside linebacker in college football.

There’s more to it than just the numbers. Schmidt hasn’t had the easiest assignments with two option teams mixed in with athletic offenses like Clemson and USC. Add to that the physical limitation that comes with playing through a broken thumb.

But with Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Jarrett Grace all on the sidelines, Schmidt needs to clean up his game. As it’s been mentioned a few dozen-too-many times, Schmidt’s physical limitations make it imperative that he plays as close to assignment perfect as possible. That hasn’t necessarily been the case and the results have hurt the Irish.

 

Sneaky Productive: James Onwualu & Greer Martini

If you were surprised that Jaylon Smith graded out as the No. 2 OLB in a 4-3 system in college football you’d be really  surprised that not that far down the list behind him was James Onwualu. The second-year linebacker, who started his freshman season as a wide receiver ranks as PFF’s No. 15 OLB. That’s really impressive for a guy most had pushed out of the rotation.

Martini’s game just gets better the more you watch him play. He’s an instinctive guy who knows how to do his job. You see that as he thrives against option competition. Physically, he’s got the type of skills that fit in the middle of the defense. It’ll be quite a competition in life after Smith and Schmidt as the next group of defenders fight for starting jobs in 2016. While most assume Nyles Morgan slides inside, Martini is too good of a football player to stay off the field.

Stay tuned.

 

Bye week snapshot: Defensive Line

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Sheldon Day #91 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Isaac Rochell #90 celebrate after making a tackle for a loss of yards against the Texas Longhorns during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s 2015 plans were thrown off when Jarron Jones was injured during preseason camp. But even without a true pass rusher, Keith Gilmore’s position group has done a nice job—getting a leading man performance from Sheldon Day and precocious play from Jerry Tillery.

The Irish are giving up just over three touchdowns a game, ranked 41st in the country with 22.6 points against. While a big game against Navy pushed the rush defense down to 81st in the country, the Irish have been effective making plays behind the line of scrimmage, 35th in the country in TFLs, impressive considering they only have 11 sacks (82nd in the country).

With five games to go and the defense’s best football in front of it, let’s take a look at the defensive line.

 

MVP: Sheldon Day

While his numbers on the stat sheet still don’t match his impact on the field, Day has shown what a good decision it was to come back for his senior season by wreaking havoc in the trenches. Moving inside and out, Day has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player behind the line of scrimmage, even if he’s only managed to convert two sacks compared to his 10 quarterback hits.

Just as impressive as Day’s productivity has been his ability to stay on the field. With the depth chart shorter than ideal, the pressure has been on Day to play the lion’s share of snaps. He’s been able to do that, staying on the field for just about every play that mattered for the Irish defense, all while racking up an absurdly high PFF rating of 29.8, the third-best ranking of any defensive tackle in college football.

 

Impressive Newcomer: Jerry Tillery

Yes, you knew this was going to be Tillery. But even if his stats seem relatively pedestrian, what he’s doing is not. Tillery’s ability to hold his own in the trenches have allowed Day to play like he has this season. And the fact that Tillery is doing this all while still figuring things out—and against two option opponents—everybody who is calling him a special player knows what they’re talking about.

Interestingly enough, Tillery’s best game of the season was against Clemson. That the freshman was able to go toe to toe, especially as a stout run defender against one of the better teams in the country, was huge. Paired with run-stuffer Daniel Cage, this duo has done a tremendous job filling in for Jarron Jones.

 

Secretly Productive: Isaac Rochell (and Romeo Okwara)

Notre Dame’s defensive ends are too often discussed for what they can’t do. Yet both Rochell and Okwara are doing a nice job filling up the stat sheet, with Rochell the defensive line’s most productive tackler and Okwara once again finding a way to lead the team in sacks.

Rochell earns his living as a run defender. He hasn’t shown any productivity as a pass rusher if you’re to believe PFF’s rating system. But with 35 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs, he’s a handful for offensive tackles, and shown himself capable when he’s shifted inside.

Blink and you might have missed Okwara once again move to the top of the sack list. The senior has three sacks among his 16 total tackles, a fairly prolific number that at least helps buoy the one true deficiency of the defensive personnel. Interestingly, Okwara’s mental lapses have been what’s stood out to PFF, not his sacks. His lowest rated game of the season against USC had Okwara taking down Cody Kessler.

 

Waiting His Turn: Jay Hayes

While his Twitter outburst earned him a scolding from his head coach, the ability to save a year of Hayes’ eligibility this season would be huge. After burning a redshirt late last year when Notre Dame had zero depth, Hayes’ frustrations of not seeing the field likely came because he didn’t see the big picture.

Without Sheldon Day next season, Hayes will be a rotational player, playing opposite Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage and likely teaming with Tillery at three-technique. So credit the Irish staff for finding a good way to earn Hayes that year back, even if Notre Dame hasn’t had the best luck with five-year defensive linemen.

 

Showtime posts two free episodes of “A Season With Notre Dame”

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Interested in watching Notre Dame’s doc-series, but don’t have Showtime? Your bye week problems are over.

In a fairly unprecedented move, Showtime has released their two most recent episodes of “A Season With Notre Dame” for free. You can see behind the scenes of Notre Dame’s impressive victory over Navy and their rivalry win over USC.

The series has been a weekly look inside Notre Dame’s football program. It’s featured a behind-the-scenes look at injuries to guys like Jarron Jones, Malik Zaire, Tarean Folston and Drue Tranquill. It’s also given up the sitcom we can’t stop dreaming about—Sheldon & Jerry, who are quite literally (the size of) two-and-a-half men.

Enjoy the two episodes here, or on Sho.com, YouTube or Facebook.

Episode Six:

Episode Seven: