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Notre Dame turns to its strengths to slip past Navy, 24-17

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Navy did what Navy does, wear down its opponent, rely on the option and shorten the game. No. 8 Notre Dame overcame the Midshipmen’s relentlessness 24-17 on Saturday only after the Irish remembered what they do best: Run, run and run to set up the pass.

Four handoffs to Irish junior running back Josh Adams set up a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson in the third quarter, tying the game at 17. Notre Dame’s next drive featured five runs mixed in with six passes, again culminating in a Stepherson touchdown reception and the winning margin.

“[We] got that close win that everybody’s been waiting for, so we checked that box,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to come up with a victory against a team that’s really difficult to defend, and [Navy] played really well today.”

The Midshipmen playing well most shows itself in their rushing statistics, obviously. They gained 277 yards on 72 carries, an average of 3.85 yards per rush, but perhaps more notable is Navy’s time of possession of 42:42. As best as can be reckoned in the Notre Dame Stadium press box to this point, the Irish have never held the ball for so little time in a game. If they have, it was long, long ago.

“In a game like this you don’t worry about rhythm. You worry about being efficient and being effective with the possessions that you have,” Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams said. “… Whatever chance I get to contribute I have to take advantage of that because you just never know with a great team like Navy — the way they control the ball and control time of possession — when you’re going to get out there.”

Adams finished with 106 yards on 18 carries, including 69 yards on eight carries in the second half alone. Seven of those eight rushes came on the two key touchdown drives, setting a tone for what would lead to success. That is, what would lead to success whenever the Irish had the ball, as rare as that was.

“Any time we go out to the field and take the field as an offense, it’s time to get physical,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s who we are, it’s who we’ve been. We take a lot of pride in being able to pound people. [Adams] is as big a part of that as anybody.”

Complementing Adams, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush ran for 44 yards and a touchdown on seven carries (sack adjusted) while completing nine of 18 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When halftime came around and the score was tied at 10, concern may have been understandable, but not to an excess. When Navy used the first eight minutes (7:59 to be exact) of the second half to march 72 yards to the end zone and a 17-10 lead, that concern rightfully gained magnitude.

Then came a six-yard Adams carry, followed by a five-yard rush and a seven-yarder from Adams. Next, he broke loose for 30 yards to get into Midshipmen territory. Just when it seemed the Irish were going to match Navy’s triple-option with their own brand of monotonous pounding, Wimbush found Stepherson streaking to the end zone for a 30-yard score and a tie game.

Touchdown answered by touchdown, no matter the offensive means.

Even if Adams was not the final piece of the puzzle, the ground game created the opportunity.

“Obviously it’s no secret that the running game has definitely opened up a lot of things for us this season,” Wimbush said. “Josh came out in the second half and he saw a little bit more, holes were opening up and he did have a more effective second half running the ball.”

Every eight-minute Navy touchdown drive made Notre Dame wonder, if we don’t score here, when is the next time we will even get the ball? By rendering the first half of that thought moot, the Irish put the pressure entirely back on the Midshipmen.

Navy responded to that pressure by settling for a field goal attempt on the next drive, missing it wide left. With that sliver of a window, Notre Dame followed the same recipe, relying on Adams to open up the defense before finding Stepherson to capitalize. Such begat the 24-17 result.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
After junior Chris Finke fumbled a punt, Navy took over possession at the Irish 39-yard line midway through the second quarter with the game still tied at three. Perhaps the best example of the Midshipmen’s habit of wringing the life out of a game, they took more than five minutes to cover those 39 yards for a score.

Navy took its sweet time to such a degree, Kelly considered surrendering a touchdown once the Midshipmen were inside the five-yard line. If they were going to score anyway, why not expedite the process to get the ball back for a chance to answer before halftime?

“It was just one of those things where clock had been utilized to the point where we needed the ball back,” Kelly said. “We felt like we could score if we just got the ball back. There were a lot of things going through my head at that time.”

Kelly opted to play it out, and Navy scored two plays later with 1:08 left on the clock. Notre Dame quickly ran six plays to get within two yards of the end zone with 14 seconds left in the half, lacking any more timeouts.

Wimbush ran up the middle, struggling through a few tacklers, falling into the end zone. If he had not gotten across the goal line, the clock would likely have run out, sending the Irish to halftime trailing by a touchdown and giving the Midshipmen a chance to go up two touchdowns halfway through the third quarter.

“That was huge. We were pretty upset with ourselves for not having points on the board prior, but it gave us a big boost coming into halftime,” McGlinchey said. “We had a great drive there. … Great execution, great job by our quarterback and by our receivers making plays, and we protected pretty well on that drive.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
On the final meaningful play of the game, Navy hoped its insistence on the option had loosened up Notre Dame’s defense enough to catch it off guard. Irish senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti was not fooled.

With a fourth-and-five from the 25-yard line, the Midshipmen were out of timeouts and absolutely needed to gain the yardage. The game was quite literally on the line. Rather than entrust junior quarterback Zach Abey to make the correct read on a typical option play, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo had Abey pitch to senior back Darryl Bonner, in motion. Bonner was to then find senior Tyler Carmona downfield with a halfback pass.

Trumbetti reached Bonner before he could set his feet, forcing a fluttering pass attempt, off-target and short. Senior linebacker Greer Martini had joined sophomore cornerback Troy Pride in vainly trying to catch up to Carmona after initially assuming a run would be coming toward them.

“I saw [Bonner] kind of pulling the ball back so I knew something was up there,” Martini said. “I just looked and [Carmona] was kind of wide open, so I just ran to him.”

If Bonner’s throw was on-target, Carmona likely reaches the end zone without much difficulty. It certainly would have been a first down, if nothing else. Trumbetti made sure none of that would become reality.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Stepherson’s progression from a vague September suspension to the most-reliable and most-productive receiving option is complete. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was knocked out in the first quarter after jumping for a high pass led to him falling on his head/neck on the turf. (Kelly said St. Brown is being evaluated for a head injury.) While sophomore Chase Claypool was productive, finishing with two catches for 28 yards, Wimbush’s focus settled on Stepherson.

“You see from the results that he is such a huge factor now in our offense and he just adds to the already dynamic receiving corps,” Wimbush said. “… I think he did a good job of all the way through to when he was able to get back on the field of preparing himself to take advantage of this opportunity when he got it.”

Stepherson’s route running and hands were both on display on each of his touchdown grabs, quite a transformation from when he was simply seen as a speed threat, albeit an elite speed threat.

His availability and capability also helped Wimbush settle down after a slow start. He reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards, then going 5-of-8 for 92 yards and the two scores in the second half. Four of those completions and 80 of those yards were via connections with Stepherson.

STAT OF THE GAME
A year after having all of six possessions against Navy, the Irish welcomed nine Saturday. Well, technically nine. One of those drives lasted all of two strides before Finke fumbled a punt right into a Midshipmen’s hands. Two kneels to end the game made up the ninth possession. So that makes seven genuine chances with the ball.

Three of those turned into touchdowns and a fourth into a field goal.

Such is how it is when facing Navy.

The obvious impact of those limited possessions and limited time of possession is just that: Fewer chances to score means fewer scores. The inherent side effect is there is no offensive rhythm to be established. Eight game minutes can pass between snaps, after all.

“It’s definitely difficult and coach harped on it a little bit throughout the week that we only had six possessions last year,” Wimbush said. “… I know it was important to take advantage of every opportunity that we got and obviously we didn’t do that, but still came out on top.”

For context’s sake, Notre Dame had 13 possessions in last week’s loss at Miami.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Saturday marked senior day, the last home game for most of the 26 recognized beforehand and even for those who may return next year, that is not a sure thing just yet.

It made sense to also ask Adams if it was his last home game. His NFL Draft prospects have certainly bettered since August.

“My last home game? Nah, no, no, man,” Adams responded. “I owe this team too much to even think about something like that. We’ve worked too hard to get where we are to let any one guy focus on themselves and be selfish. It’s just too important to us as a team to focus on stuff like that.”

Call it a good non-answer, if nothing else.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:31 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 0. (11 plays, 58 yards, 2:51)

Second Quarter
12:21 — Navy field goal. Owen White 39 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 3. (13 plays, 49 yards, 7:10)
1:08 — Navy touchdown. Zach Abey one-yard rush. Navy 10, Notre Dame 3. (11 plays, 39 yards, 5:02)
0:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush two-yard rush. Notre Dame 10, Navy 10. (7 plays, 62 yards, 1:00)

Third Quarter
7:01 — Navy touchdown. Craig Scott 12-yard reception from Abey. White PAT good. Navy 17, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 72 yards, 7:59)
5:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 30-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Navy 17. (5 plays, 78 yards, 1:28)

Fourth Quarter
11:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Stepherson nine-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Navy 17. (11 plays, 80 yards, 3:31)

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Associated Press
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When Navy and Notre Dame meet, many of the usual barometers of success go by the wayside. No, not because it is such a heated rivalry. Rather, playing the triple-option is a unique challenge for the defense, one otherwise not seen (with the exceptions of the occasional meeting with Army or Georgia Tech), and the Midshipmen’s ball control limits the Irish offense’s chances, minimizing the effect of any talent advantage there.

Simply enough, little of what is learned is applicable so much as a week later.

But one thing this weekend will be quite clear: Will Notre Dame play with the pride necessary to close the season 10-2 just a week after a humiliating loss dashed any national championship hopes?

If the Irish are not whole-heartedly engaged this weekend, if they do not absolutely want to play, Navy will expose that and take advantage of it.

“You can stay focused with Navy for 10 plays, 12 plays, and then if you don’t stay focused they get you with a big play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “They’re so efficient in what they do.

“The good thing is we’ve been talking about how important our traits are and they really have to be applied this particular week against this team.”

The loss at Miami was ugly in all facets and undoubtedly a difficult humbling for the Irish to swallow. If that still lingers in their minds, it will show in a sluggish start against the Midshipmen. If it has been put in the past and all focus is on finishing this season strongly in a way not seen since 2012, then even the mind-numbing effectiveness of the triple-option should not phase Notre Dame.

How will defensive coordinator Mike Elko handle Navy’s triple-option?

Before Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest, he made sure Elko had plans for the option.

“That was something we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly said Tuesday. “[We’re] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing. This isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

Indeed, Elko faced Army each of the last three seasons while with the Demon Deacons. Navy may run the triple-option with even more precision than the Knights do, but the tenets are very similar. Aside from his first year there, Elko’s Wake Forest defenses fared pretty well against Army.

In 2014, the Knights ran for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, a 5.78 yards per rush average, exceeding their season average of 296.5 yards per game.

In 2015, the Deacons gave up only 186 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, a 3.44 yards per rush average, keeping Army well below its season average of 244.2 yards per game.

In 2016, the Knights gained 238 yards on 64 carries, scoring twice and averaging 3.72 yards per rush. They averaged 328.7 yards per game last season.

How will Brandon Wimbush respond to the first genuine adversity of his career?

If Notre Dame’s offense is to return to potency, it will begin with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Sure, the Irish lost to Georgia in week two and the junior quarterback struggled, but that was in his second career start against a known top-flight defense. More may have been wanted from Wimbush then, but little more was genuinely expected Sept. 9.

By mid-November, that is not the case anymore, and his showing against the Hurricanes played a large part in the rout. After all, Kelly benched Wimbush to give him a chance to refocus. Wimbush handled that moment well, but it was still a moment of strife.

“It was tough as a competitor to have someone take your spot,” he said this week. “But I knew it was for the greater good and for the team’s benefit, and I realized that pretty quickly and I went out there and tried to help [sophomore backup quarterback Ian Book] as best as I could because I wanted to win the game just as much as anybody else wanted to win and I wasn’t executing.”

Much like a basketball player needing to hit a few lay-ups to break out of a cold-shooting slump, Wimbush can get back to executing by converting against the Midshipmen.

Which senior will get the loudest ovation?

Notre Dame will honor 26 seniors this weekend before the opening kickoff (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and if wanting to learn about each and every one of them, turn to The Observer’s profiles of all 26.

Which senior earns the crowd’s recognition is an unscientific survey and bears no effect on anything, but it is a curious question because there does not seem to be an obvious answer this year. A guess would be either fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey for being both a star on the field and a public face off it, senior left guard Quenton Nelson for being arguably the best player on the team or senior linebacker Drue Tranquill for overcoming two season-ending knee injuries to lead the defense this season.

Then again, there is a good chance Tranquill returns next year — though he says he has not made that decision yet — so perhaps the best bet would be McGlinchey or Nelson. (Yes, Nelson can return in 2018, as well, but he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t.)

Is this the day, finally, at last, Montgomery VanGorder throws a pass?

The senior and former walk-on quarterback has no career pass attempts. He would need the Irish to have enough of a lead to get into the game, first of all. Then, maybe a third-and-11 would warrant a pass attempt without showing poor sportsmanship. Even to honor VanGorder, Kelly will not risk showing up the Academy.

VanGorder has earned some version of recognition. Most people would have left when their father was fired midseason. Montgomery not only stayed, but he has also remained one of the most beloved players within Notre Dame’s locker room.

‘Focus, refocus’ approach applies to both Notre Dame’s defense and Kelly’s 100th game as Irish coach

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On the verge of his 100th game at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly’s description of his eighth season mirrors his plan to avoid another disappointing defensive showing as was displayed in the 48-37 Irish victory over Wake Forest on Saturday.

“It’s focus, refocus at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I’m honored to have gotten the opportunity to coach 100 games. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever get a chance to coach one game at Notre Dame, so to think of 100, I can’t even wrap my arms around that.”

That “focus, refocus” approach played a role in Kelly rebooting the Irish this year, now standing at 8-1 less than a year removed from a dismal 4-8 season. Similarly, Miami finished a bland 9-4 last year but now has its eyes on the College Football Playoff with an 8-0 record to date. Were the changes between the two programs the same? Not specifically, but a few broad themes may apply to both.

“Fans could be more patient, I’m sure that’s not the answer you wanted,” Kelly said before offering a more sincere thought tying to player development and college football’s 85 scholarships restriction.

Such development begins during the week. Apparently that was the lacking piece for Notre Dame before hosting the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest set season highs for points against and yards allowed by the Irish.

“They didn’t find the key to unlock the secrets of the Elko defense,” Kelly said, referencing defensive coordinator Mike Elko. “There’s nothing like that.

“This is really about playing with the right intensity and the right mental approach to the game. We just didn’t prepare in the manner that we had prepared in the other weeks, and we’ll do that and we’ll need to do that moving forward.”

Kelly listed off a variety of distractions that played a part in the subpar preparation, including senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill having three engineering projects demanding late nights, immaturity not recognizing possible pitfalls, and perhaps too much comfort with a 41-16 lead on the scoreboard. He did not fault the No. 3 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff selection committee poll, but perhaps that was an underlying piece of the vague reference to immaturity.

Wake Forest not only scored 37 points against Notre Dame, but the Demon Deacons also gained 587 total yards.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

“The external distractions, we’ve got those covered pretty good for our guys,” Kelly said. “It’s the internal distractions where they start thinking about, oh, maybe I don’t have to play quite as hard this week, maybe I don’t have to get all the nutrition and sleep I need this week.

“… The enemy is the distractions. The enemy isn’t the College Football Playoffs.”

Such a performance resulting in a victory serves as something of a win-win for Kelly and his staff. The “refocus” part of the equation would be more difficult if Notre Dame had lost or if there was little to point toward necessitating its need.

“We use [it as] great learning and teaching opportunities for our guys,” Kelly said.

Speaking of the Playoff poll …
The committee will release an updated version tonight (Tuesday) at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. The exact rankings may not play into Kelly’s view of weekly preparations, but the fact that they matter at all is a valid piece of November readiness. Such could certainly be said for the Hurricanes, as well.

“I know our guys are excited about this championship drive that they are on now,” Kelly said. “This part of the season, obviously in November, all of the teams that are in contention are focused on one game at a time, and it’s single elimination for most teams.”

It will be single elimination Saturday at 8 p.m. ET (ABC). After tonight, it could be a top-five matchup, though certainly top-10. If offering a prediction, this space would posit the Irish will remain No. 3 while Miami jumps four spots to No. 6. In many respects, that latter landing will not matter. If the Hurricanes win this weekend, they will find themselves in excellent playoff positioning pending an ACC title game victory.

Editor’s Note: The weekly “Notre Dame’s Opponents” piece moved to Wednesday this week to incorporate a CFP focus, but it should be noted Miami (OH) lost 45-28 a week ago at Ohio and will host Akron tonight (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) as 6.5-point favorites with a combined point total over/under of 51, hinting at a 29-22 final.

Injury updates
Kelly had largely good news regarding Irish injuries. He has “no concerns” about the readiness or physical stature of junior running back Josh Adams (“not himself”) or junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush (left hand).

Junior tight end Alizé Mack (concussion) will return to practice today, ready to go for the weekend, and junior running back Dexter Williams (quad contusion, lingering sprained ankle) showed some signs of his trademark explosiveness in the weight room Monday.

Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith remains questionable after further imaging of his hamstring. He will test it in practice to see if he can reach full go.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame is really good, even when it isn’t

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — How quickly do college football fans forget? Three weeks ago may as well not have happened. Notre Dame was on bye, so one might think Irish fans would have seen some other games, remembered the notable results, memorized scores such as:

Oct. 13: Clemson 24, Syracuse 27.
Oct. 13: Washington State 3, Cal 37.
Oct. 14: Washington 7, Arizona State 13.

There is a distinct and important difference between those trio of tallies and the final from Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday:

Nov. 4: Notre Dame 48, Wake Forest 37.

Winning week-in and week-out is hard. Very few teams can do it. This year, just five teams have done so thus far, and only so much praise should be heaped upon Central Florida and Wisconsin for winning every game in their particularly-unimpressive schedules. If winning is hard enough, winning in dominating fashion can be nearly impossible to do for an entire fall.

“We play to win and we play to win hard,” Notre Dame fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said after Saturday’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest. “… We’re trying to dominate no matter what the score is, no matter where we are on the field or what the other team is doing. It’s our job to dominate our opponent no matter what the situation is. We’re never going to try to just get out of here with a win.”

Alabama and Nick Saban have proven doing that for three full months is not truly impossible, just similar in appearance. In quite the dichotomy, the Irish showed they are capable of that task even while it remains just beyond their reach.

Notre Dame’s offensive line exceeds all attempts at description.
It has been long-known the Irish road pavers were good. Ripping through the Demon Deacons for 384 yards on 45 rushes with hardly any boost from junior running back Josh Adams, however, is more than good. It was an emphatic confirmation of how far ahead of their competition the Notre Dame offensive linemen are. From freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey to McGlinchey and back to right tackle with sophomore Tommy Kraemer, the six linemen open holes so large two running backs could run through them without touching either defenders or each other.

Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey (left) and senior left guard Quenton Nelson get the headlines, but the entire Irish offensive line deserves high praise by this point. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The tight ends, all of them included, play a role in that run blocking, as well.

Wake Forest’s rush defense is not exactly stellar, giving up an average of 183.8 yards per game before facing the Irish. Missing leading tackler and junior safety Jessie Bates did not help that cause.

Yet Notre Dame’s more than doubling of that figure underscores how easily the Irish ran Saturday. Notre Dame converted eight of its 16 third-down attempts. Four of those first downs came on only six rushing tries, gaining 11.8 yards per carry Whenever the Deacons thought they had stymied the Irish offense, it turned to the running game. It turned to that offensive line.

“This to me was a different game than we’ve ever had,” Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said. “We’ve never had a game that we couldn’t get [the opponent] off the field like that.”

Heisman-hopeful Adams was Notre Dame’s seventh-leading rusher. Even his long-run of 13 yards trailed the high marks of the other six ballcarriers. As strong of a season as Adams is having, the offensive line showed Saturday it is making Adams’ individual highlights possible.

That line can dominate the rest of the schedule at this point. Frankly, a College Football Playoff rematch with top-ranked Georgia is tantalizing not just because it would be a Playoff game and would hold those inherent stakes, but also because it would allow for a definitive measuring stick of the Irish offensive line’s progress. It seems increasingly possible the line could now handle the country’s best front-seven.

But Notre Dame’s defense is human.
With nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the temperature in South Bend was a frisky 45 degrees. Fog was descending upon Notre Dame Stadium. After a day of rain, it was wet, cold and miserable. Hardly anyone wanted to be outside.

The Irish defense lost its focus. An experienced quarterback took advantage of that. The Deacons managed two more touchdowns. These are the results of fallible human nature.

Wake Forest never truly threatened to take control of the game, but the Deacons’ offense did not struggle in Saturday’s second half. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

“[Defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s message to me and all the other guys was just when you think this game gets easy, it humbles you really fast,” senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “It did that tonight for us defensively.”

Not much else needs to be said. Notre Dame misread options, misfit holes, allowed receivers to finish routes. The Irish gave up more than 20 points for the first time this season. Wake Forest’s 587 total yards towers over the 496 gained by Michigan State. Notre Dame forced only one turnover.

None of these are good things. The Irish are aware of as much.

“The great ones are consistent,” Tranquill said. “Defensively we didn’t execute tonight, offensively we did. If we want to be a championship team, we have to play great defense. We have to come back next week and execute better.”

To win the next five games, Notre Dame will need more from its defense, but in giving credit to the Irish offense, Tranquill acknowledged a margin for error. Through the season’s first half, the offensive explosions drew the headlines, but the defense was the real backbone of the team. That became even truer the last two weeks. That offensive firepower, though, allowed Notre Dame to flip that script for an afternoon.

“Even when we had a bad performance defensively, our offense is there to put up 48 points and absolutely crush the opponent.”

Jonathan Doerer can fill his intended freshman role.
Notre Dame recruited the freshman kicker with the explicit intention of him kicking off this season to spare junior Justin Yoon some of the leg work. Instead, Doerer flagged toward the end of preseason practice, leading the Irish coaching staff to keep him sidelined and the kickoff duties on Yoon’s plate. When Doerer did get his chances, he sent them either short or out of bounds.

All six Notre Dame kicks came from Doerer on Saturday, three going for touchbacks. The best Wake Forest kickoff return reached the 30-yard line. Including the touchbacks, the Deacons’ average starting field position off those nine kickoffs was the 25.1-yard line.

There is no need to watch Tuesday’s College Football Playoff poll release.
The Irish will remain No. 3 in the selection committee poll come 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday. It would be quite a shock if No. 4 Clemson’s 38-31 victory over mutual opponent No. 20 North Carolina State was enough to move the Tigers past Notre Dame after the Irish beat the Wolfpack 35-14 just a week ago.

Similarly, No. 5 Oklahoma barely got past No. 11 Oklahoma State, 62-52. That certainly qualifies as a résumé-building win, but it should not vault the Sooners past Notre Dame.

With Nos. 1 and 2, Georgia and Alabama, both prevailing, as well, the top-five should remain as are.

The Irish may not have left Wake Forest in shambles, but they did not struggle much in the victory, either. This week especially, a win alone will likely be enough in the committee’s eyes. More than a third of the top-25 lost: Nos. 6, 7, 11, 13, 15, 19, 20, 21 and 22.

Football matters only so much.
When Kelly opened his postgame comments with a mention of Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, he voiced what most in the Notre Dame Stadium press box had been thinking for the better part of seven hours. Prister has covered Notre Dame football for more than 30 years, attending more than 300 consecutive games. (That number is actually far closer to 400, but I am not 100 percent certain of the exact figure at the moment.) He suffered a heart attack before Saturday’s game.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family,” Kelly said. “… Notre Dame football and obviously everybody associated with our program has him and his family in our prayers.

“Tim is a battler, and we’re with him.”

Tim Prister is many things, and a battler is certainly one of them. Many of the other descriptions I might apply are not fit for public consumption, though I have shared each of them with Tim at some point with a smile on my face.

I look forward to doing so again soon. There are few people I respect more.

Notre Dame’s injury returns will aid needed punt return coverage

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Notre Dame’s punt return coverage has been good enough this season. No opponent has returned a punt (or a kick) for a touchdown. Few have been broken for advantageous field position. On 15 returns, Irish opponents have averaged nine yards per chance.

Yet, it is a primary concern for No. 9 Notre Dame heading into Saturday’s matchup with No. 14 North Carolina State. (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC.) Wolfpack junior running back Nyheim Hines has returned seven punts for 137 yards this season, including a 92-yard touchdown in NC State’s most recent game two weeks ago at Pittsburgh.

“We can’t outkick our coverage,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “55 yard punts are not good for us. We can’t stretch out our coverage units where we give big spaces and field for a guy like this. We need 4.5, 4.4 [seconds of] hang time. I’ll take 38-to-42 [yards] and give us great coverage opportunities. The punting is really going to be key in this game with a dangerous return man.”

In addition to a level of natural shiftiness, Hines’ threat derives from his elite speed. In the spring, he moonlights with the Wolfpack track team, qualifying for the NCAA Regionals in both the 100-meter dash and the 4-by-100-meter relay despite spending only part of his year on the oval. Hines also made the ACC first-team in the 100-meter in 2017 thanks to a wind-aided 10.34 seconds. Without the wind at his back, he ran 10.42 seconds in the first round of prelims at the NCAA East Regional, his personal record.

To date, the longest punt return allowed by Notre Dame was a 28-yarder to Georgia’s Mecole Hardman. He also notched the longest kick return allowed, at 38 yards, tied last week by USC’s Velus Jones.

“We’ve just been okay [on kickoffs],” Kelly said. “We have to be better there, we’ve worked hard on that. Directionally, [NC State is] a team that we’ve got to look to put the ball in tough positions where we can obviously get down there.”

Hines has returned 16 kicks for an average of 23.4 yards with a season-long of 50 yards.

The Irish coverage units will receive a boost — two, actually — this weekend compared to the rout over the Trojans. Junior running back Dexter Williams and senior linebacker Greer Martini rejoined the special teams units during practice this week, recovering from a sprained ankle and a torn meniscus, respectively. As much as Kelly may often project returns from injury with a later-realized optimism, Williams and Martini engaging with the special teams units is as strong an indicator as any that both are at or near enough to 100 percent.

On Williams, Kelly said, “He should be able to impact the game.” Regarding Martini, Kelly kept it simple, “He’ll be playing.”

Fifth-year receiver and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith will most likely not be due to a hamstring strain.

“I’d say he’s doubtful,” Kelly said. “He’s better, but he doesn’t have the burst right now.”

Notre Dame will need all hands to keep the Wolfpack in check on both sides of the ball. Kelly may have offered the week’s most succinct-but-effective summarization of the challenge about to be presented.

“Rightly so, they get a lot of credit for what they’ve done defensively in [senior defensive end Nick] Chubb and [senior defensive tackle B.J.] Hill and a veteran defense that’s really good,” he said. “It’s a physical defense. It creates a lot of problems. Their defensive coordinator does a great job with their scheme and causing a lot of problems.

“The efficiency offensively, they are not getting a lot of possessions per game … and yet they average [3.26] points per possession. That’s extremely efficient in what they do. The efficiency of their offense—obviously everybody knows that they don’t throw picks—but very rarely in college football can you sustain long drives without making mistakes. They sustain them and they score. It’s pretty impressive.

“… They’re one of the top teams in the country. They can play with anybody.”

For context, the Irish offense averages 3.01 points per possession.