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Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium

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Notre Dame will return to Yankee Stadium next season. Considering that will be the 27th Irish trip the Bronx, it is not that much of an outlier. The schedule of kickoffs at Notre Dame Stadium, however, does break from the norm with two an hour earlier than usual and three under the lights.

The Irish will host Syracuse on Nov. 17 in a return of the Shamrock Series at Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame most recently visited the venue in the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, a victory over Rutgers, and in a 2010 win against Army, also a Shamrock Series occasion.

That game will kick off at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC. By not being a primetime game, as has usually been the case with the home-away-from-home contests, it allows NBC to pick up a third primetime game at Notre Dame Stadium. The contract between the school and the network allows for five night games in every two-year window. With no Shamrock Series game this past season and subsequently only two night games, that leaves three chances for 2018.

Sept. 1 — v. Michigan — 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Sept. 8 — v. Ball State — 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Sept. 15 — v. Vanderbilt — 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Sept. 29 —v. Stanford —7:30 p.m. ET on NBC
Oct. 13 — v. Pitt — 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Nov. 10 — v. Florida State — 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Nov. 17 — v. Syracuse at Yankee Stadium — 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

With only one true home game following the Oct. 20 bye week, Notre Dame may once again be exposing itself to the tires of travel down the homestretch.

Notre Dame also released its 2019 and 2020 schedules, which to this memory, had not yet been seen in final form, though still without broadcast times.

2019
Sept. 2, Monday, Labor Day — at Louisville
Sept. 14 — v. New Mexico
Sept. 21 — at Georgia
Sept. 28 — v. Virginia
Oct. 5 — v. Bowling Green
Oct. 12 — v. USC
Oct. 26 — at Michigan
Nov. 2 — Virginia Tech
Nov. 9 — at Duke
Nov. 16 — v. Navy
Nov. 23 — v. Boston College
Nov. 30 — at Stanford

2020
Sept. 5 — v. Navy in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Sept. 12 — v. Arkansas
Sept. 19 — v. Western Michigan
Sept. 26 — at Wake Forest in Charlotte, N.C.
Oct. 3 — v. Wisconsin in Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.
Oct. 10 — v. Stanford
Oct. 17 — at Pittsburgh
Oct. 31 — v. Duke
Nov. 7 — v. Clemson
Nov. 14 — at Georgia Tech
Nov. 21 — v. Louisville
Nov. 28 — at USC

Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, & the early signing period

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The second half of Notre Dame’s schedule finished the season with a 51-22 overall record and featured four ranked opponents, not to mention an under-the-radar Wake Forest team and Navy’s triple-option attack. For six consecutive weeks, the Irish had another distinct challenge awaiting them every Saturday.

Thus, the month-plus off between last week’s loss at Stanford and the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU is a welcome reprieve for No. 14 Notre Dame.

“We probably got a little tired at the end with the six weeks in a row of really tough, quality competition,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “It was a long year for our football team, starting back in January.”

Kelly then clarified he was not referring to a physical exhaustion. The diminished November should not be tied to a new strength and conditioning regimen. Rather, Notre Dame tired in a less tangible manner.

“There were no questions about where we were physically as a football team,” Kelly said. “Emotionally and mentally, we had a long year.

“I remember addressing the team the Monday of the Stanford week with so much on the line — a 10th win and a New Year’s Six [bowl game] — and it looked like they were in biology class. They were staring at me like, really? There was no juice, there was no excitement. They were tired mentally.”

As he has for much of the year, Kelly put the onus on himself. While recruiting over the last week, he said he spent much of the travel downtime pondering how to lighten that load and pace better in 2018.

Some of the weariness was indeed physical. Kelly acknowledged junior running back Josh Adams will “benefit greatly” from the layoff before facing an opposing defense again.

The Irish will fit in 15 practices preparing for the bowl game, beginning this weekend before sending the team home for three full days at Christmas. Notre Dame will then reconvene in Orlando, Fla, on Dec. 26. Allowing the team time at home for the holiday is arguably the greatest perk of landing in the New Year’s Day game rather than the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28.

“It’s great that we can get some work in here, then get a break for our players during Christmas so they can spend Christmas home with the family and then meet back up at the bowl site,” Kelly said. “Playing on New Year’s Day is really good for our football team.”

Some things in this world never change, such as LSU having high-end talent. Luckily [for Notre Dame] some things do, and Leonard Fournette (No. 7) is no longer the Tigers’ leading rusher. Instead, start learning the name Derrius Guice. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
— Of course, facing the No. 17 team in the country is a stiff yet welcome challenge. While this is hardly the same version of LSU that the Irish faced in the 2014 Music City Bowl (a 31-28 Notre Dame victory), Kelly sees one key aspect of the Tigers program that has not changed.

“There’s a lot of similarities in terms of the body types that they bring to the table, but the schemes are a little bit different,” Kelly said, then noting offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, both widely-respected in the coaching ranks. “What Dave does on defense is different, and then certainly what Matt does, he has kind of opened up the offense a little bit.

“More schematically, they are a little bit different, but the kind of athlete LSU is attracting, still great players on both sides of the ball.”

Senior captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill echoed Kelly’s comments regarding mental fatigue, citing last season’s 4-8 debacle as having a tangible effect in its own way.

“Any way you dice it up, it was a long season,” Tranquill said. “Having not gone to a bowl the season before, you start your preparation for the next season earlier, and we got after it in winter conditioning and spring ball and fall camp and into this season.”

To hear Tranquill describe “knowing the stakes of each game” in the second half of the season, one might wonder if a loss in mid-October may have allowed Notre Dame to play looser in November. Obviously, that is nothing but ponderings unless there really are infinite universes with each and every possible permutation of existence occurring within one of them.

Notre Dame senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill will have a decision to make regarding returning for a fifth year or heading to the NFL Draft. (Getty Images)

— Kelly declined to name which players requested feedback from the NFL regarding their draft status, but Tranquill said he was among the group. The feedback usually comes in shortly before the bowl game.

“What I can get better on, what they perceive as my strengths or weaknesses,” Tranquill said he hopes to learn. “… I don’t know that [it] necessarily will [affect his decision]. Obviously it’s feedback and you’ll take all the feedback you can get.”

To anyone skeptical of Tranquill’s chances in the Draft, there may be a point, but it should be remembered this is a player who has suffered two major knee injuries in his career. If he has a chance at an NFL career, he should not put it off for a year, especially not when he will already have an engineering degree in hand.

— A change to bowl preparations this year, the Irish coaching staff has to focus on recruiting even more in December than ever before thanks to the first early signing period, held Dec. 20-22. Notre Dame’s coaches have always spent the week immediate after the season making in-home visits. That may be more of an emphasis over the next three weeks, as well. That should, theoretically, allow for a more proactive January.

“It’s busier now,” Kelly said. “What it will do is it will allow us to focus on [current high school juniors] a little bit more in January than we’ve had in the past.

“We expect, if our players are committed, they’ll sign in December. If they’re not committed, they won’t … which frees up that time I’m normally on the road in January chasing these guys down for a February signing to really focus on [next year’s class], then the remaining spots that we have left.”

— Kelly indicated if one of the 18 current Irish commits were to not sign in December, he would see it as a sign the player needs more wooing.

Long-time commitment and consensus four-star running back Markese Stepp (Cathedral High School; Indianapolis) came to that decision even earlier, announcing he was reopening his recruitment over the weekend.

Notre Dame still has consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith (Lee County H.S.; Sanford, N.C.) in the class, not to mention a well-stocked depth chart already on campus.

— This is perhaps a thought to be explored further following the season, taking into consideration where teams land in the final AP or Coaches’ polls, but with LSU becoming the seventh currently-ranked opponent on Notre Dame’s schedule, it seems safe to presume it has been some time since the slate featured so many, including three currently in the top 10.

Notre Dame’s best-case and worst-case CFP scenarios

Associated Press
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A poll the eve of November does hardly a national champion crown.

It does, however, create a prism through which to view the rest of the season. Notre Dame’s No. 3 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff selection committee poll released Tuesday night puts the Irish in a good position. It is certainly preferable to Clemson’s slot at No. 4, and the peace of mind chasm between No. 3 and No. 5 is akin to the gap between Notre Dame and its last six opponents.

The sky-is-falling view — the one coming in just a few paragraphs — should not change that. Oklahoma fans are wracking their minds with fret today. If the Sooners win the Big 12, could that really not be enough to get into the Playoff? What if they shut out Oklahoma State twice? Would that mean more than the Irish beating up to three Power Five conference champions? That can’t be right. What if it is right? Oh!klahoma.

There is no need for Notre Dame fans to worry that much, but there may be reason for them to worry, nonetheless, even with an 11-1 finish. Call it the looming Sooner situation.

First, a best-case scenario for the Irish moving forward through the next five poll updates. This may seem a bit outlandish. That is the point of the exercise, to establish the extremes and acknowledge their results.

There is a universe, and it may be this one, where No. 14 Auburn beats No. 1 Georgia on Nov. 11 and No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 25. Both games are at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Don’t for a moment think beating the Bulldogs and the Tide in the span of three weeks is beyond the realm of possibility. From there, the Tigers proceed to the SEC Championship game and knock off Georgia once more.

Meanwhile, No. 17 USC and No. 21 Stanford sweep their remaining conference schedules out west to meet for the Pac 12 title. No. 24 Michigan State upsets No. 7 Penn State, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 9 Wisconsin to claim the Big 10 championship. No. 20 North Carolina State upsets No. 4 Clemson this weekend, as does No. 10 Miami to No. 13 Virginia Tech, and the Wolfpack and the Hurricanes meet for the ACC crown.

Suddenly, Notre Dame will have beaten the winners of three different Power Five conferences and seen the two teams ahead of it in the current poll fold at the next sign of genuine competition. The Irish would finish the season the top-ranked team in the country.

No one of those results would be terribly shocking. If all 10 came to be, that would be a version of chaos few would embrace, but Notre Dame surely would relish. The only remaining question would be, if the Irish can choose, do they prefer to head to the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl for their semifinal. The committee attempts to send the No. 1 team to the location that would better resemble home-field advantage. Considering this lunacy would likely result in both Iron Bowl participants landing in the Playoff along with either the ACC’s victor or the Big 12’s, it may make the most sense to send Notre Dame to the Rose Bowl.

The Irish in the country’s most stunning football stadium on New Year’s Day as the top-ranked favorite? Yes, that would qualify as a best-case scenario for Brian Kelly and his charges.

Now, the worst-case scenario, the looming Sooner situation.

Baker Mayfield could lead Oklahoma to dash Notre Dame’s playoff hopes, even without the Irish losing a second game in 2017. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma will have up to three more ripe chances to impress the committee, at No. 11 Oklahoma State on Saturday, vs. No. 8 TCU the following week and then a date with one of those two, or perhaps No. 15 Iowa State, in the Big 12 championship game.

If Oklahoma won all those games, it would be able to claim four of the more notable wins of the season, especially if Ohio State runs the Big 10 table, including a win over the Spartans.

If Michigan State lost to the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions these next two weeks, a three-game losing streak might become four games against Maryland on Nov. 18.

USC very well might fall to Khalil Tate and Arizona this weekend, giving the Trojans a third loss on the season and the Pac 12 South division to the Wildcats. Stanford has to travel to No. 25 Washington State on Saturday before hosting No. 12 Washington next Friday. That combination could be a recipe to drop the Cardinal to 6-4.

North Carolina State follows this weekend’s date with Clemson by traveling to Boston College and then Wake Forest, two of the ACC’s upstarts. Losing two of those three would begin to diminish the luster of Notre Dame’s 35-14 victory over the Wolfpack just this past weekend. While discussing the ACC, Miami has barely scraped by to get to 7-0. Even just two blemishes to the Hokies and the Irish would render the Hurricanes’ first two months a sham in most eyes.

In this scenario, Notre Dame could finish the year 11-1 but be able to claim only one or two top-25 wins, likely a fallen USC and a stumbling Miami. Oklahoma would boast of the aforementioned four. Clemson would cite a win over Auburn, two wins over Virginia Tech and maybe finishing the regular season over South Carolina could have weight by then. The Gamecocks should finish 8-4 with neither great wins nor bad losses.

Would it be a sure thing both the Sooners and the Tigers would jump the Irish in the committee’s eyes? Absolutely not. It would certainly be reasonable, though. Those 13 dominos are unlikely to all fall, but they could. They most definitely could. The toughest to believe among them is Maryland beating Michigan State, and that is also the least vital to this sequence of events.

Claiming Notre Dame controls its own destiny both misunderstands the meaning of destiny and is inaccurate. The Irish do not exactly need help, but they do need November to follow a reasonable path. They would prefer the Big 12 to continue trading losses like the kitschy alarm clock at a white elephant gift exchange. They would like either Stanford or USC to at least reach the Pac 12 championship, and the same could probably be said of North Carolina State and Miami in the ACC. Of the latter duo, even just finishing the season respectably strong may be enough. If Michigan State can notch an upset along the way, all the better.

Oddly enough, this would likely still send Notre Dame to the Rose Bowl.

That may be the most-realistic scenario, which also means it has no chance of happening. This is college football, after all.

A schedule of CFP releases:
Tues., Nov. 7, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tues., Nov. 14, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tues., Nov. 21, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tues., Nov. 28, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Sunday, Dec. 3, 12-4 p.m. ET, ESPN

Friday at 4: If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

Associated Press
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For all those encouraged and emboldened by the 49-14 Irish rout of USC a week ago, remember disappointment is still the most likely conclusion to Notre Dame’s 2017.

That is not a shot at this version of the Irish. It is an understanding of how hard it will be to win against North Carolina State, at Miami and at Stanford, not to mention versus Wake Forest and Navy. A loss is probable. Perhaps it will come this weekend, perhaps it will wait until the end of November.

If and when that second defeat dashes Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes, remember where this season started. As long as the next five weeks do not devolve to five straight losses and a holiday week spent in Nashville, Tenn., before the Music City Bowl, this season is set to be considered a success.

A genuine worst-case scenario of 8-4 would elicit some earned lamenting, but even that feels unlikely at this point. (Did you see Stanford on Thursday night? This space has been low on the Cardinal since August, but last night’s 15-14 struggle over Oregon State should prove to all that the Irish are not likely to struggle in the season finale.) Back in August, if offered a 9-3 or 10-2 season with two or three notable wins — including a blowout over USC — and no bad losses, most Notre Dame fans would have gladly, readily and blindly accepted that step in the right direction.

If the No. 14 Wolfpack knock off the No. 9 Irish on Saturday, keep that starting point in mind.

An 11-1 regular season finish and a spot in the College Football Playoff are possible; they just aren’t probable. If and when those latter odds pay out, look past the natural disappointment and focus on the leaps and bounds forward Notre Dame has taken in a short time span.

Even as recently as late April, no reasonable observer would have expected the Irish offense to score 41.3 points per game. In the spring-concluding Blue-Gold Game, the first-team offense managed only two touchdowns and 361 total yards. All but 58 of those yards came through the air, yet junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s aerial attack seemed disjointed at best.

Two weeks before that exhibition, Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley predicted, “Barring season-ending/altering injury to starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame will break the program record of 37.6 points per game set in 1968.” O’Malley is a reasonable person with generally good analysis, but after the Blue-Gold Game, his prognostication looked rather foolish.

How far have the Irish come? They can dial back their scoring by nearly a touchdown per game in the remaining five and still break that record. Well done, Tim. And impressive growth, Wimbush & Co., led by offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Following that spring barometer, concern about Notre Dame’s offensive line would not have been misplaced. Going up against a supposedly-thin defensive line, Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book were “sacked” 11 times.

Now it is realized that was a testament to the defensive line’s strength, not the offensive line’s weakness as presumed.

In the “Jeopardy” category of Phrases no one expected to write about the Irish in 2017, the $800-clue would get the answer of “the defensive line’s strength, Alex.” The $1,000-clue and Daily Double would obviously be answered by, “Ireland lasted longer in World Cup qualifying than the United States Men’s National Team.”

Pertaining to American football, these are all steps forward, and they should all last beyond this season. Much like winter in South Bend (apparently Saturday may feature snow!), a loss is (probably) coming. That will not diminish the growth of 2017.

The immediate Notre Dame concern remains winning the point of attack on the line of scrimmage against North Carolina State’s veteran defensive front seven. The long-term view realizes the magnitude of progress already seen.

Notre Dame doesn’t ‘have anything else to play for’ but a Playoff bid

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College football employs a four-team playoff. In that system, a championship team plays two playoff games, a semifinal and a final. Notre Dame, however, is looking at a 12-game playoff this year. As Irish coach Brian Kelly explained Tuesday, every Notre Dame game since the 20-19 loss to Georgia in the season’s second week has had the significance of a playoff game.

“Our guys don’t know it any other way,” Kelly said. “Everybody else seems to have caught on with this idea that Notre Dame is playing for a Playoff spot. We don’t have anything else to play for. That’s what we play for. We’re an independent football team, and our mission is to graduate all of our players and play for a national championship. That’s all we have.

“It’s not really any different than it was yesterday or the day before or last week.”

Kelly’s point is valid. Even after suffering a 49-14 drubbing at the hands of the Irish, USC returns to the West Coast in pole position to win the Pac 12 and play in a playoff-eligible bowl. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, could fall against Florida this week or South Carolina next week and still have a clear path to the SEC title game. A win there would likely give Georgia a push into the Playoff even with a loss.

Those teams have a margin of error remaining. Notre Dame does not.

Rushing past rushing expectations
Kelly had an idea the Irish would rely on the running game this season, even if that is contradictory to most of his career. After averaging 163.3 rushing yards per game in 2016, he hoped to increase that by more than 50 percent.

“If we could average 250 [yards], we were going to be really effective running the ball,” he said.

Suffice it to say, Notre Dame has met that mark, currently averaging 317.9 yards per game. In five of seven games, the Irish have surpassed that 250-yard threshold, obviously highlighted by the obscene 515 rushing yards in the 49-20 victory at Boston College.

“A lot of that has to do with collectively nine of the 11 guys blocking at the highest level,” Kelly said, the two exceptions being the quarterback and the running back with the ball. “A commitment form everybody, receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, and then the talent of [junior running back Josh Adams] in terms of his ability to turn pedestrian plays into big-chunk plays.”

Kelly also complemented Adams’ ability to block for junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush when Wimbush runs with the ball. An Adams block sprung Wimbush for a touchdown against the Trojans, showing the embracing of physical play extends to every offensive player.

“The mentality of our football team has been crafted over the year of this physicality and running the football, where last year was about throwing the football,” Kelly said. “These guys really take so much pride.”

A rotating defense is a stronger defense
Including punts, a missed field goal and a play officially lost to a penalty but having occurred in the real world nonetheless, USC had 34 offensive snaps in the first half Saturday. Nine Notre Dame defensive linemen partook in at least 10 of those snaps, including freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

When USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold bobbled the first snap he received Saturday, Notre Dame defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (99) and Daelin Hayes were quick to apply pressure. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Getting more guys onto the field does more than keep players fresher, Kelly said.

“We felt like last year when we started to get into a deeper rotation with players, we saw how the culture began to change within our defense in terms of camaraderie, in terms of closeness, in terms of guys being into what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “… [Defensive line coach] Mike Elston has done a great job of developing those guys, so now they’re at a point where they can really come in and impact the football game.”

They racked up two sacks and a quarterback hurry in the opening half, plus a sack erased by that aforementioned penalty, though it played a key part in the game. (See Saturday’s “Overlooked Point of the Game.”)

Safety communication
For the second consecutive week, Notre Dame will face a viable passing threat. North Carolina State senior quarterback Ryan Finley, however, has had a consistent and mistake-free season, especially if compared to USC junior Sam Darnold. Finley has yet to throw an interception and has been held to fewer than 200 yards only once, when he threw for 198 at Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

Heading into the matchup with Darnold and the Trojans, Kelly said there was no way to protect the Irish safeties. They would have to hold their own. For the most part, they did, but that performance may not be enough moving forward.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Kelly said. “We have to communicate better on the back end of the defense. That’s an area that has got to get better for us defensively. There were some times there that communication was an issue.”