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Monday’s Leftover’s: Notre Dame was always going to play this out at least one more year


Three out of the past four years, Notre Dame has reached November with genuine College Football Playoff aspirations.

In 2014, injuries removed any chances of finishing the season strongly.

In 2015, close losses belied the nature of college football.

Then defensive youth and overall indifference torpedoed the season in September a year ago.

None of those factors played a role in 2017, and that drives the doubt following the regular season’s 9-3 conclusion. Irish coach Brian Kelly cannot cite his team’s inexperience for falling 38-20 at Stanford on Saturday, and he cannot cite injury for the 41-8 debacle in Miami a few weeks ago.

Notre Dame simply was neither consistent nor ready when it most needed to be. It beat the teams it was supposed to beat, something it very much did not do in 2016. It lost to the teams it could have beaten, something true for a while now.

That former fact alone removes the biggest question from director of athletics Jack Swarbrick’s pondering this month. A year after betting long on Kelly, Swarbrick’s chips remain on the table.

Nothing happened in 2017 to alter Swarbrick’s strategy. In the closing minutes Saturday night, Swarbrick stood along the sideline watching intently, his hand moving from his chin to his hips as the final Irish drive puttered out in somewhat appropriate fashion, close enough to consider the end zone but not so near to ever have had made the possibility a tantalizing what-if.

Swarbrick and Kelly walked up the tunnel in Stanford Stadium together. Kelly remains Swarbrick’s long view, and there is no reason to expect that to change before Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium in September.

That has been clear for the better part of a year. The results of two Saturday nights are not impetus to change that, even if they sandwiched a frustrating three-week stretch. Once Swarbrick committed to the slow play, it became foolish to ever think of going all-in on a mediocre hand, a questionable hire of, well, who knows who given this weekend’s coaching carousel debacles.

Whether agreeing or disagreeing with Swarbrick’s approach, hoping to change tacts only halfway through the vowed premise is akin to hoping the river card will complete a full house. It’s possible, but it is not the smart play.

To both Kelly and Swarbrick, they aren’t pondering a call. They’re really thinking about 2018.

Notre Dame sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson knew he would score for much of his 83-yard touchdown against Stanford on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

A couple statistical notes
Lost in Saturday’s loss was an impressive surprise by the Irish offense. Never before had one game seen two touchdown passes of 75-yards or more. It’s an oddity, but one worth acknowledging, nonetheless. The 83-yard touchdown to sophomore Kevin Stepherson was the longest Notre Dame touchdown pass since Kyle Rudolph went 95 yards in the final minutes to seemingly-beat Michigan in 2010.

Stepherson finishes the season leading the Irish with five touchdowns, while junior Equanimeous St. Brown’s five catches for 111 yards and a 75-yard score boosted his totals to 31 catches for 468 yards and four touchdowns, the first two figures leading the team.

On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame’s defense actually played well against the Cardinal, aside from being forced into short fields twice too many times. That effort was led, once again, by the linebackers, specifically senior Nyles Morgan and junior Te’von Coney.

“The plan going in was to attack the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said. “Those ‘backers were free to do it.”

With six tackles Saturday, Coney finished the regular season with a team-high 99, followed by Morgan’s 83, seven of which came this weekend.

Stanford and running backs
Cardinal junior Bryce Love will almost assuredly head to the NFL this offseason. His speed alone should warrant a relatively-high draft slot.

That will hardly be a matter for Stanford head coach David Shaw in 2018. With the exception of 2014, the Cardinal have continued to reload in the backfield with future NFL players. That trend extends from Toby Gerhart (2006 to 2009, shining in ’08 and ’09) to Stepfan Taylor (’09-’12, the focus in the latter three seasons) to Tyler Gaffney (’09-’13, led in ’13) … and then from Christian McCaffrey to Love and next either current sophomore Trevor Speights or junior Cameron Scarlett.

Speights finished Saturday with five carries for 19 yards while Scarlett added six carries for 12 yards and a touchdown, both allowing Love enough rest to remain effective despite a bum ankle. One or both of Speights and Scarlett will cause headaches for opposing defenses next year.

Lastly, a basketball moment
Rarely does the pregame press box conversation turn to the hardwood. This isn’t due to a football obsession. Rather, focus is on the game to come. That is even more true when in an open air press box and the field feels figuratively that much closer.

But when a basketball game goes from a 3-on-5 laugher to a “Wait, could Alabama win with only three players?” all attention shifts to one computer screen showcasing Minnesota’s near-meltdown.

How did Alabama end up with only three players?

How close did the game come?

And, of course, a requisite “Hoosiers” reference:

Now that would have been one to remember.

Questions for the Week (Some, Notre Dame already answered)

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The rough draft of this weekly segment is usually written Sunday, either in the late morning or early afternoon. When saying “rough draft,” what should really be said is, “hardly legible scribbles on a legal pad consisting of names followed by nouns with no verbs anywhere to be seen.”

Some examples: “Cam Smith? Another ND TD?” or “Stepherson up the depth chart?” or “Dexter? Ankles, man.”

Then those haphazard pieces typically become more coherent thoughts either very early Monday morning (2 a.m.) or early Monday morning (9 a.m.). This week, however, Irish coach Brian Kelly answered most of the intended questions before they could even be asked in this space. There no longer seemed a rush. Thus, this delay. But now, as something of a mid-week update, let’s rehash.

Will senior linebacker Greer Martini actually be able to play only two weeks after arthroscopic surgery to repair a slight tear in his meniscus?
Yes. Kelly has a reputation for projecting quicker recoveries than reality allows, and, instinctively, that seemed the case when he said Sunday that Martini was cleared to practice this week. Yet, Martini apparently did Tuesday.

“I’m full go,” Martini said Wednesday. “I had practices all yesterday, didn’t take any reps off, and I’m feeling really good.”

Martini’s return does not have the dire feel to it like it did before the rout of USC. Junior Te’von Coney could not have acquitted himself better in Martini’s absence. Nonetheless, the return of the senior captain allows Notre Dame to trot out three talented linebackers — those two along with senior Nyles Morgan — to fill two spots, meaning fresh legs should not be a rare commodity.

“Whether it’s Te’von or I or Nyles starting, we all kind of have had enough reps that we feel like we’re all starters,” Martini said.

What about junior running back Dexter Williams and his sprained ankle?
After saying the Irish coaches made a conscious decision not to play Williams until he is 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury, Kelly either created some wiggle room in that regard Wednesday or returned to those optimistic recovery pronouncements mentioned earlier.

“Dexter looked good,” Kelly said on an ACC conference call, referring to Tuesday’s practice. “I think to say he’s 100 percent, I wouldn’t. I would say he could impact the game for us. He’s ready to play on Saturday.”

With or without Williams, Notre Dame will have a difficult time running against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack gives up a mere 3.04 yards per carry, No. 14 in the country. For context, Georgia ranks No. 7 in allowing 2.82 yards per rush and Michigan State comes in at No. 8 at 2.89 yards.

North Carolina State’s rush defense is so stout, opponents have tried to avoid challenging it. In getting to a 6-1 record, the Wolfpack have truly blown out only one opponent — a 49-16 win over FCS-level Furman. Opponents have not had to lean entirely on the passing game in fruitless attempts to come from behind, yet they have rushed only 210 times against NC State, an even 30 carries per game. The Irish, meanwhile, average 45 rushes each week.

Will sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson move up the depth chart now that he is fully-integrated back into Notre Dame’s offense?

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson caught three passes for 58 yards and a touchdown during Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. He also took two rushes for 24 yards. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Officially, no. Stepherson did not crack the two-deep released this week, but that two-deep hardly changes midseason. Let’s expect Stepherson to be one of the top three Irish receivers moving forward, along with junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.

“What I liked the most was [Stepherson’s] energy and his assignments, getting all of his assignments correct,” Kelly said Sunday. “There was just an overall focus in a terms of getting lined up, having the right energy, really being locked into the game. A maturity that he continues to work on playing here at Notre Dame.”

Whatever the reason Stepherson spent the first four weeks of the year on the sideline, he certainly sounds ready to play now. Oh, and he’s pretty good at the football thing, too.

“It’s pretty easy to point out his athletic skills,” Kelly said. “We’ve never questioned those.

“… You’re going to see more and more of him on the field.”

With more of Stepherson on the field, that will inevitably mean less of fifth-year receiver and Arizona State-transfer Cam Smith, who missed the game against the Trojans due to a hamstring strain.

Notre Dame is now 9-1 under Kelly after a bye week. What about the week after that?
The Irish are 6-3 in such a situation, with two of the losses coming after a second bye week in one season and the third coming last season against Navy.

This may seem a narrow grouping to single out, but it is intended to show whether the bye week’s rest and focus carry over to a second game. For the most part, it appears a typical bye week’s does.

How many hurricane references will this week hold?
Too many. Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren got the first chance to reflect on his victory over Notre Dame a year ago, played in a literal hurricane.

Kelly offered a similar view of that contest.

“We didn’t even look at the film,” he said Tuesday. “It wasn’t even part of our breakdown because it really didn’t give us anything. It was a poorly-designed game plan by me. There was nothing that we really wanted to go back and look at.”

Things We Learned: Maybe, just maybe …

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame’s embracing of what this season could become is candid, unusual and nearly taboo. Discussing anyone beyond next weekend’s opponent — now No. 16 North Carolina State coming off a bye — is typically verboten in every regard.

Yet there was Irish coach Brian Kelly following No. 13 Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over No. 11 USC on Saturday, not offering a rote non-answer answer when asked about the national big picture.

“We just want to be aware so we can enhance where we are, just be aware of our situation, and that means you’ve gotten here because you have really stuck to what we’ve asked you to do,” Kelly said.

That much is somewhat par-for-the-course. Focus on the mental preparation that got you here and maybe you’ll get further. Not exactly earth shattering.

“My point being, the big-picture stuff, they’re aware of it,” Kelly continued. “But they know how they got here and they like where they’re at.”

The Irish being aware of national stakes means the Irish are starting to believe maybe, just maybe, those stakes could pan out.

Maybe, just maybe, Playoff talk in 2017 is not entirely and completely outlandish.
Let’s acknowledge all those disclaimers. “Maybe.” “Just maybe.” “Not entirely.” “Not completely.” “Outlandish.”

This is where a “Dumb and Dumber” quote might often be cited: There’s a chance.

Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had six remaining games, none of them cakewalks. Four of those, in particular, stood out as coin tosses, at best.

The Irish just turned one flipping half dollar into a 49-14 drubbing that was, for all intents and purposes, over by halftime. They are a quarter of the way to the Playoff — if being sticklers, a sixth — and another quarter of that dollar looks far more likely thanks to the ol’ transitive property. Notre Dame beat USC by 35. USC beat Stanford by 18. The Cardinal’s home-field advantage should not trump that math. (35 plus 18 equals, uhhh, 53. Right? Right.)

Maybe, just maybe.

Senior center Sam Mustipher found the right word to describe the balance needed between one week at a time and something bigger could be happening.

“You have to realize it’s a privilege to be where we’re at, and to not take for granted the opportunity we have moving forward,” Mustipher said. “Understand each snap, every play, as long as we go back to basics like we’re supposed to, we’re going to be in a pretty good position.”

Being in the conversation for a College Football Playoff bid is a privilege, not a right. Stick to the fundamentals against the Wolfpack, and that privilege can be extended another week like a Wisconsin driver’s license being good for eight years at a time. Lose focus, stray from the necessities, and suddenly that license is suspended. Feel too good about making it 22 months without a speeding ticket, and that streak can quickly become an 83-in-a-70.

“If we let this [win] get too big, we’re probably not going to do too hot against North Carolina State,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “We just have to keep the message and the eyes forward, and as best as we can do that, good things will happen.”

Maybe, just maybe.

In no small part thanks to junior running back Josh Adams, Notre Dame has placed itself into the College Football Playoff conversation, and deservedly so. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Notre Dame knows there is a long ways to go, but if the physical, emotional, psychological and stylistic outdoing of one of the country’s most-talented teams does not instill belief in those ambitious possibilities, what is the point of playing a team like USC every year?

None of this is to say the Irish are playoff-bound. This is to say Notre Dame showed that concept is no longer the ramblings of some blinded by wool. The Irish belong in the Playoff conversation. It is now up to them, and them alone, to stay in it.

While we’re here, let’s offer the reminder: The first College Football Playoff selection committee poll will be released Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET, otherwise known as the Tuesday after Notre Dame hosts North Carolina State. One of those two teams will be in the top-12 of that poll.

Mr. Stepherson, fashionably late is better than never in every regard.
When Kelly said sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson would have an increased role in the season’s second half, it may have come off as nothing but lip service. In his two games since returning from suspension, Stepherson recorded one catch for a loss of three yards. Even those wearing that aforementioned wool could not have genuinely anticipated a late-October resurgence.

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson notched his first touchdown of 2017 and sixth of his career in Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called a first-quarter end-around for Stepherson, it could have been seen as a gimmick. For all that anyone outside Long’s mind knows, perhaps it was intended as a one-off. Except it succeeded. Stepherson picked up 13 yards and a first down.

The end-around was called again on the next drive. Stepherson gained 11 yards and a first down.

This was a dynamic presented by Stepherson heretofore unseen, including his still-often-praised freshman season. Fifth-year senior Cam Smith has run a few such end-arounds already this year, so clearly this concept of utilizing receiver speed around the corner is a piece of Long’s playbook. Expect to see it again. Expect to see it with Stepherson.

Then Stepherson caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Wimbush. The pass was thrown where it should have been, but it still necessitated an impressive snag from Stepherson.

“I knew that he was going to have an effective day,” Wimbush said. “I told him before the game, I’m coming to you a couple times here today. He did his thing and went up and got the ball for me.”

Stepherson finished with three catches for 58 yards along with the 24 rushing yards on two carries. That would be an admirable afternoon for any Irish receiver, especially in this passing-anemic season. Stepherson also returned a third-quarter kickoff for 11 yards, joining junior C.J. Sanders in the end zone as return options.

Smith did not play Saturday due to a hamstring injury. Look for an updated status on him either Sunday afternoon or Tuesday midday. Whether he is cleared to return soon or not, Stepherson may have staked his claim to Smith’s spot.

That does not mean Stepherson has supplanted sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. The latter had his chances against the Trojans — finishing with one catch for 13 yards — most notably a deep ball on the sideline on Notre Dame’s second snap from scrimmage. Wimbush just overthrew Claypool by a yard. (That one was on Wimbush. A later overthrow, intended for junior tight end Alizé Mack, probably should have been caught.)

The Irish will continue running, including against decent defenses.
Notre Dame ran 46 times against the Trojans, throwing 22 passes and taking one sack. Even if removing the fourth quarter (at the end of the third, the score was an easygoing 42-14), the Irish ran 37 times and threw on only 17 snaps.

Notre Dame will go as far as Long’s offense can run it. Finding success in the running game against USC deserves notice. The Irish had yet to find that option against a defense this good. That is partly due to not rising to the occasion against Georgia and Michigan State and partly due to not facing other strong defenses. Entering this weekend, the Trojans rush defense rated No. 65 in the country in yards per carry at 4.12 yards. The best defense Notre Dame consistently gained rushing yards against was No. 78 Temple’s.

USC does not boast a top-tier defense, but gashing it still counts as a step in the right direction. In this instance, “gashing” means running for 8.41 yards per carry.

Again, usurping any version of a “24-hour rule” and looking toward next week, the Wolfpack allow 3.04 yards per carry, good for No. 14 in the country entering the weekend. The Irish beat USC on the legs of junior running back Josh Adams and Wimbush (and Stepherson). Moving a step closer to that Maybe, just maybe will come down to that running game again next weekend.

Brandon Wimbush calls Chip Long, “Chip.”
This is completely inconsequential, but it led to a good laugh during Wimbush’s post-game media availability. Asked a question about him and Long getting to know each other’s strengths and tendencies, Wimbush started out referring to his coordinator as “Chip,” before catching himself in a public setting. The ensuing chuckles made it clear, some personal familiarity has already been established.

Notre Dame’s increased turnover focus is 2012-esque

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The Irish have emphasized forcing turnovers this year. Such a party line is an inevitable mantra following a season when the defense created only 14 takeaways. It became even more a pertinent point when three turnovers were the primary difference in Notre Dame’s 38-18 victory at Michigan State on Saturday.

“We’ve got smart players, we need to play smart,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Part of it is not giving up big plays and taking the football away. We can do that.”

Indeed, Notre Dame can. And thus far this season, it has. Nine turnovers in four games is nothing to scoff at. But is it simply a convenient data point easily explaining the defense’s improvement, especially with Shaun Crawford’s savvy play against the Spartans serving as a tangible example?

No. It is more than that.

Earlier in the same answer as the above quote, Kelly used a phrase few would have expected to apply to the Irish defense this season. He used it in something of a conditional context, but it was there all the same.

“This is not by coincidence,” Kelly said. “This is about crafting the tenets of playing the kind of defense necessary to be a championship football team.”

The last time Notre Dame had a championship-level football team, the defense provided the backbone. 2012’s unit led the nation in scoring defense in the regular season. It was, quite frankly, the reason the Irish made it to the national championship game.

Of Notre Dame’s four interceptions already this season, undoubtedly the most-dramatic was sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s takeaway returned 59 yards for a touchdown in the Irish victory at Michigan State. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

To date, Notre Dame’s 2017 defense is performing comparably with that modern standard of 2012, even if the scoring statistics are not as headline-worthy.

Before closing this window and claiming this space has lost all its marbles, allow for an explanation.

There are four ways for an offense to get the ball back:

1) A kickoff from a score, a sure sign the defense failed.
2) A turnover on downs, something rather situationally-driven as much as anything else.
3) A punt, a sign the defense succeeded.
4) A turnover, a sign the defense succeeded and provided improved field position in doing so.

Aside from that second category because, again, it is determined by an array of factors including score, time, field position, etc., not all necessarily reflecting the defense’s performance, then those categories can break into three defensive results:

1) Scoring opportunities, including missed field goals. Why include those? No defensive coordinator relishes seeing the opposing placekicker on the field. It is simply preferable to seeing a receiver with the ball in the end zone.
2) Punts.
3) Turnovers.

In 2012, Notre Dame’s defense forced a turnover on 16.2 percent of the opposing possessions while allowing a scoring opportunity on 28.2 percent of them.

This year, the Irish have forced nine turnovers on 54 opposing possessions, a turnover rate of 16.7 percent. Only 29.6 percent of opposing possessions have resulted in scoring opportunities.

That turnover rate is the highest of Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. The scoring opportunity percentage is bested by only 2012, with the next-closest coming in Kelly’s 2010 debut season in South Bend at 31.3 percent.

(The eight-plus point difference between 2012’s regular season points allowed per game [10.3 in the regular season] and 2017’s thus far [18.5] is easily explained by looking at possessions. Entering this season, Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long was expected to increase the tempo. That uptick has resulted in a 23.6 percent increase in total possessions compared to 2012’s rate and a 13.3 percent increase from just a season ago.)

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble in the end zone preventing a Spartans touchdown underscored an Irish focal point this season. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

On a more recent basis, the rate at which Notre Dame is forcing turnovers jumps off the page when compared to the last two seasons. In 2016, only 9.6 percent of opposing possessions resulted in turnovers. Despite the 2016 storyline of the Irish struggling to take the ball by force, that number actually edged up to 9.8 percent. Clearly, this year’s defensive improvements go beyond a few lucky breaks to be within shouting distance of twice those figures.

What does any of this mean? It is intended as a gauge for the defensive performance thus far this year and a reflection on its possible sustainability.

Looking past Notre Dame, how do this year’s rates compare on a national level? Those teams are listed below, but to summarize: The turnover rate lags behind the most-aggressive defenses, but it is consistent with the best scoring defenses. Those latter teams, however, still do a bit better when it comes to limiting scoring opportunities, meaning the Irish have room for improvement, obviously.

On that much at least, Kelly would agree.

“We’re certainly not a finished product by any means,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work on that.”

2016’s leaders in turnovers forced:
Houston — 35 turnovers forced — 18.3 percent of opposing possessions resulted in turnovers — 28.3 percent resulted in scoring opportunities.
Utah — 34 turnovers — 28.8 percent turnover rate — 48.7 percent scoring opportunities rate.
Arkansas State — 34 turnovers — 17.6 percent turnover rate — 29.5 percent scoring opportunities rate.
San Diego State — 34 turnovers — 19.0 percent turnover rate — 25.7 percent scoring opportunities rate.

2016’s leaders in scoring defense:
Wisconsin — 13.7 points allowed per game — 18.2 percent turnover rate — 28.5 percent scoring opportunities rate.
Ohio State — 15.1 points — 16.3 percent turnover rate — 24.7 percent scoring opportunities rate.
Alabama — 15.1 points — 14.6 percent turnover rate — 21.2 percent scoring opportunities rate.
Boston College — 15.3 points — 16.3 percent turnover rate — 32.5 percent scoring opportunities rate.

Notre Dame during Kelly’s tenure:
2010 — 15.1 percent turnover rate — 31.3 percent scoring opportunities rate.
2011 — 9.3 percent turnovers — 31.3 percent scoring opportunities.
2012 — 16.2 percent turnovers — 28.2 percent scoring opportunities.
2013 — 11.5 percent turnovers — 39.8 percent scoring opportunities.
2014 — 14.4 percent turnovers — 38.1 percent scoring opportunities.
2015 — 9.6 percent turnovers — 35.6 percent scoring opportunities.
2016 — 9.8 percent turnovers — 39.9 percent scoring opportunities.
2017 to date — 16.7 percent turnovers — 29.6 percent scoring opportunities.

In a continued effort to offer kudos where kudos are due … This concept was sparked by a conversation with an old drinking buddy first mentioned in a January introductory letter. From here on out, let’s refer to him as Harry.

“The stathead in me wonders what the rate of turnovers per defensive snaps is this year,” he pondered.

A valid thought, but a turnovers-to-snaps measurement would be an inherently-flawed metric. A turnover would not only increase the first half of the ratio, but it would also decrease the latter half by immediately reducing the number of coming snaps. Thus, turnovers-to-possessions should offer a more accurate depiction of the defense’s nose for the ball.

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)