Kelly keeps focus on Wake Forest

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Notre Dame may be zeroing in on what could be a play-in playoff game against Stanford in the season finale. But don’t expect anybody inside the Irish football program to be looking that far ahead. At least not if Brian Kelly has his say.

Notre Dame welcomes Wake Forest to South Bend on Saturday, an opponent familiar with the assignment after serving as the program’s piñata in a 38-point blowout in 2012 during a celebratory Senior Day. With the Demon Deacons sitting at 3-6 and nearly a four-touchdown underdog, a look-ahead opportunity stares the Irish in the face. But Kelly is doing everything he can to make sure his team isn’t stepping back to smell the roses, especially not with so much left to accomplish.

“We’re in the process, that’s what we talk about as coaches,” Kelly explained in his opening comments on Tuesday. “Right now in that process, it’s kind of like being on the treadmill where you just kind of just keep your eyes in front of you and you just keep moving forward. And moving forward to the next challenge in front of us, and that challenge is Wake Forest.”

Dave Clawson’s team is in Year Two of a rebuild that ripped the program down to the foundation and hopes to return bigger and stronger. And while the offense is still a bit of a mess, Clawson’s defense should challenge the Irish in both the run and passing game.

“Defensively, they’ve got some very good players. This is a very good defense, a top 40 defense in the country. I think they rank as high as in the 30s in a number of categories,” Kelly said, understandably pointing out the positives to one of the ACC’s youngest teams.

But more than anything that Wake Forest might do, this week feels like a battle with the team in the mirror. As the College Football Playoff looms and programs get into the meat of their schedule, the Irish face two teams that shouldn’t pose much of a problem to them. Yet winning those games in convincing fashion may be more important than ever. So after six years of coaching and program building, Kelly is confident that this team understands the type of effort and energy they need to bring all week, not just before kickoff on Saturday

“This group understands regardless of who the opponent is, it’s still going to come down to how they prepare this week,” Kelly said. “If they prepare the right way and take care of what they’ve done over the last nine weeks, then when whether they’re a two-point favorite or ten-point underdog, they stand a great chance at winning…

“The rest of that stuff, we haven’t focused on any of that during the year, so they don’t really know any of that.”

Jarron Jones could be ready for postseason play

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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When Jarron Jones went down during fall camp, it looked like the senior nose guard’s season was over. But during his Tuesday press conference, head coach Brian Kelly revealed that Jones’ rehabilitation has him on track to potentially play during the postseason. That’d be a huge lift to an Irish defensive front that was supposed to be built around Jones and fellow senior Sheldon Day.

Kelly estimated that Jones was four to six weeks away from playing football, putting him on schedule to be available to practice with the Irish as they prepare for postseason play—whether that be a playoff game or bowl appearance. Right now, the senior is working to strengthen the area around his injured knee, focusing on rebuilding quad and hamstring muscles.

In place of Jones, Notre Dame has used sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry Tillery. The duo has combined to make 26 tackles, five TFLs, and a sack. Last season, Jones had 40 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks and was expected to be one of the Irish’s standouts in 2015. Jones sat out as a freshman, preserving his eligibility for 2016. That won’t be impacted if he takes the field this season.

Last week, Kelly quipped that he put Torii Hunter into the nickel role because he couldn’t make a trade. This week, Jones feels like a potential trade deadline move that could bolster a defense that could use a potential impact player up front.

Run-Pass balance critical piece of puzzle for Irish

Josh Adams, Lafayette Pitts
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Brian Kelly has talked often about the importance of balancing the run game with the passing attack. And as we’ve seen this season when the offense is at its most efficient, it’s usually a lethal combination of big plays on the ground leading to vertical shots down field.

Saturday was the perfect example of that. DeShone Kizer was able to find Will Fuller twice for 40+ yard touchdown passes—and had a chance for more, with Kizer and Fuller nearly connecting twice more.  And while we’ve quoted Kelly ad nauseam on the subject, sometimes hearing from the opposition adds clarity to a point of emphasis.

In his postgame comments, Pat Narduzzi sounded like a coach who didn’t have a winning option. And it wasn’t necessarily because Fuller was too much to handle, but rather that Notre Dame’s ability to beat you multiple ways put Pitt’s defense in the type of conflict they couldn’t scheme their way out from.

Here’s Narduzzi when asked about Fuller’s big plays and why his defense wasn’t able to stop them.

“When you can’t stop the run, he’s going to throw a post on you. So we can go back there and help him and play Cover 3 and keep everybody back. And then they’re just going to run the ball down your throat,” Narduzzi said. “And then you’re just going to say, ‘Hey, did you ever think about putting some other guys up in the box?’

“They only let us play with 11. I’d like to have 12 out there. But when you’re not stopping the run, you’re going to take a little bit away from that. They’ve got some monsters out there. The tailback was good—both of them. The quarterback is a great player, DeShone. And then they’ve got Will Fuller out there. So pick your poison.”

As we look forward, Notre Dame will face three defenses that should test the Irish’s ability to stay balanced.  (And as we look at the contenders for the CFBPlayoff, the non-Big 12 slate of teams will do the same thing.)

But flying below the radar is Wake Forest. While the Demon Deacons have a tough time offensively, they’re playing good defense—stingier than you’d expect for a three-win team with just one conference win. After all, it was the Deacs than won a ridiculous 3-0 duel when they faced off with Boston College, a run defense that stands statistically in front of everybody else in the country.

C.J. Prosise‘s injury is still coming into focus, leaving Notre Dame’s running game temporarily on the young shoulders of Josh Adams. That a large burden for Adams, especially when the running attack is so vital to the overall scheme.

But thanks to a consistent performance by the offensive line and an efficient day in the red zone, Notre Dame unlocked some of the potential that had been trapped beneath the explosive plays and prolific yardage totals. As the Irish continue to prove their worth to the playoff committee, the offensive evolution could be coming at a perfect time.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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On a Saturday where we saw multiple Playoff contenders drop by the wayside, Notre Dame’s ability to handle their business was a welcome relief. Courtesy of DeShone Kizer‘s poise and a nice effort by both the offense and defense, the Irish managed to cruise to an easy victory, even while only putting up 437 offensive yards, their lowest output in a victory this season.

Notre Dame lost offensive engine C.J. Prosise, but rolled on behind freshman Josh Adams. And Irish receiver Will Fuller reminded opposing teams why trying to cover him with one man is a bad idea, Pat Narduzzi’s calculus failing a simple logic test.

With Senior Day next Saturday and the Irish big favorites against a young Wake Forest team, let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s 42-30 win over Pittsburgh.

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. Perhaps Adams will be the player who allows Irish fans to finally take a deep breath and wait until a recruit gets to campus before evaluating him. (Just kidding. I know he won’t be.) Remember, it was Adams who was one of the “head-shaking” offers of Brian Kelly’s coaching staff, a three-star running back with just an average offer list who was also coming off of an ACL tear.

Yet Adams has been what the Irish staff thought he could be—a big, powerful, fast and instinctive runner who has quickly picked up the system and provided a much-needed backup to C.J. Prosise.

We saw that on Saturday, with Adams gashing Pitt’s defense for 147 yards on just 20 carries. He scored on a quick flip from Kizer, and he ran for tough yards on inside looks, something the Irish haven’t been all that successful doing.

Kelly has commented that Adams might just be scratching the surface. That’s a tantalizing prospect, considering he’s averaging a ridiculous 7.6 yards per carry.

However quickly Prosise returns to the field, expect Adams to have earned his way into the rotation. He can take some of the load off Prosise’s back, especially as the senior works to get healthy through some nagging injuries.

“I think he proved to everybody that he’s capable against a very good defense in Pittsburgh of getting deserved carries, earned carries. He earned that opportunity in this game,” Kelly said of Adams. “I think he can lessen the load for C.J. and provide us with another option in there, as well. I would agree that he earned that this weekend.”

 

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback had a statistical day that was among the best in Irish football history. His six total touchdowns match an all-time record. His five touchdown passes and zero interceptions push his completion percentage up to 66 percent and his TD:INT ratio to 16 scores against just six takeaways. And his mastery of the offense looks more and more complete, capable of doing whatever he wanted on Saturday against a pretty good defense.

After the game, Kizer talked about how happy he was with the offense’s execution, especially the offensive line going against pressure specialist Pat Narduzzi.

“It was unbelievable. They executed our game plan all the way through,” Kizer said. “We knew that Narduzzi had some tricks he was going to throw at us, but we predicted them pretty well. The offensive line did a really good job executing.”

It’s clear that the bar has been raised for Kizer. That performance felt more expected than anything else, especially with all segments of the offense operating at maximum efficiency.

Sunday, Kelly acknowledged Kizer’s ascent, with Saturday his best game grade of the season.

“I graded him out very, very high. I would probably say right now that he did some things in this game that he hasn’t done all year,” Kelly said. “I think that probably is because he’s gaining so much more confidence and seeing some things that he feels really comfortable with that has allowed him to now elevate his game to the level that it is right now. I would probably agree that it was his best performance this year.”

 

Tyler Newsome. Let’s give Notre Dame’s punter some credit! A week after kicking the ball poorly against Temple, Newsome got back to the basics and launched the football against Pitt, another special teams unit that’s been very disruptive this season in terms of blocks.

Newsome helped flip the field twhen the Irish offense sputtered for a time in the first half, and averaged 51.8 yards per kick with three punts over 50 yards.

“I thought he was outstanding,” Kelly said after the game.

 

Torii Hunter Jr. Hunter chipped in with three catches and scored his second touchdown of the season on Saturday. But more importantly, he unveiled the defense’s newest plan to find consistency in the nickel alignment, with the junior receiver moonlighting as a coverman.

Kelly revealed on Saturday that Hunter had been working at the position for three weeks. On Sunday, he talked a little bit more about the thought process of putting Hunter, there, a part-time player with the ability to take on a bit more workload.

“Torii Hunter shares reps offensively, so we felt like he was a great fit to do some work on defense,” Kelly said.

 

Romeo Okwara. It’s time to acknowledge Notre Dame’s senior defensive end. His sneaky contributions to the pass rush are getting less sneaky by the day, with two more sacks this weekend.

Okwara is up to six sacks on the season, a number not many expected anybody to get to this year. And now that Brian VanGorder feels some comfort giving Hunter reps in coverage maybe Okwara won’t have to drop into the flat anymore.

 

Will Fuller. How pleased was Notre Dame’s weapon with his performance, a game that pushed him up the record books, passing a few guys named Samardzija and Tate?

“It’s just another day at the office. I’m doing what I have to do,” Fuller said. “When the ball is in the air, it is my ball and it is my job to go get it.”

Three more touchdowns for Notre Dame’s assassin, a guy only too happy to face one-on-one coverage.

 

THE BAD

Garbage Time. This team has turned garbage time into a disaster zone. Consider the Irish’s performance against Georgia Tech, allowing the Yellow Jackets to make it interesting. Saturday wasn’t quite as bad, but it sure got interesting after the Irish secondary forgot about Tyler Boyd and Brandon Wimbush gave the Panthers’ defense a free six points.

Put this in the category of champagne problems, but it’s worth pointing out that these things can matter. When the playoff committee goes back and looks at the wins over Georgia Tech and Pitt, they might not be reminded that both games were lopsided until the Irish decided to drive the car like Toonces the Cat.

It’s great getting depth some experience, but not if it’s going to turn into a white-knuckle affair.

 

Jekyll & Hyde Defense. It’s only fair to praise Brian VanGorder’s unit when they do something good after I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the bad. In the first half, the Irish managed to get off the field after Pitt made some progress, even stiffening in the red zone.

That was particularly impressive considering the Irish were playing without safety Elijah Shumate and still able to hold the usually accurate Nate Peterman to a 3 for 18 first half.

But the second half was a different story. The Panthers scored three touchdowns on their four second half drives, mixing in one three-and-out with 77, 76, and 75 yard touchdown drives—three long touchdown drives for a team that hasn’t been able to do that all year.

As feared, Tyler Boyd broke Pitt’s yardage record on a big play. The good news? It didn’t matter.

“We had a blown coverage and then we were sloppy with the football. If you take those two mistakes away, I thought it was as good as we’ve played in some time,” said Kelly.

It didn’t matter this weekend—and likely won’t until a trip to Palo Alto. But with the look of a contender, it’s up to the defense to hold up its end of the bargain, especially when the competition stiffens.

 

C.J. Prosise’s injury. The good news appears to be Prosise will be fine, with the running back going through concussion protocol as a precaution while he recovers from an “upper body” injury, a very NHL-like classification for what is likely just maximum soreness after a big collision with the ground.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelly and the offensive staff holds Prosise out against Wake Forest, if only as a precaution. But the Irish don’t really have the depth to deal with this type of injury, with Adams only now emerging and fellow freshman Dexter Williams still figuring things out.

Walk-on Josh Anderson is an option as well, but this offense needs Prosise—a talented game-breaker who can do so many things as a back and receiver that he demands opponents’ attention. With a pitch count much higher than anybody expected, this is an injury that needs monitoring.

 

THE UGLY

Nothing. Notre Dame is used to returning home after a game in the wee hours of the morning. Saturday? They were home for dinner.

Sure, you can pick at a win like this—missed tackles, blocks and opportunities. But the red zone offense was elite. The pass defense limited Pitt to just 12 of 32 passing and didn’t give up points or maximum yardage on either of the Panthers’ trick play attempts.

The Irish are 8-1 as they head home for Senior Day. In the middle of a trying season, every answer seems to be coming up Irish.

 

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 42, Pitt 30

Josh Adams, Jordan Whitehead
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Notre Dame’s offense made it clear very quickly that it meant business on Saturday afternoon. With most wondering how playing early on the road would impact a team that hasn’t been the same outside of South Bend (and hasn’t had to set an alarm clock to play football in years), DeShone Kizer and company needed just three well-executed plays to announce their intentions.

Two nice gains by C.J. Prosise set the table for Will Fuller to get behind the Pitt secondary. From there, the offense was off and running, Kizer orchestrating the Irish attack like a savvy veteran as Notre Dame dominated Pitt and coasted to the finish for an easier-than-it-sounds 42-30 victory.

There were bumps along the way, most notably on defense. Brian VanGorder’s unit struggled after halftime and gave up big plays to an offense that usually can’t make them. But Kizer and Company bailed them out—continuing to score touchdowns against a Pitt defense that doesn’t usually give them up when opponents get in their red zone.

Garbage time once again hurt the Irish, with Max Redfield mentally checking out and freshman Brandon Wimbush gift-wrapping six points to the Panthers. But in a series where the favorite rarely plays like it, Notre Dame came out crisp and efficiency, looking very much like a dominant football team at a time of year where everybody—especially the College Football Playoff committee—is watching.

Let’s find out what else we learned.

 

Everybody else knew it, but Pat Narduzzi shouldn’t try to single-cover Will Fuller. 

Everybody in the stadium knew about Will Fuller’s big-play ability. But that didn’t stop Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi from playing aggressive, putting his cornerbacks on an island against Fuller early and often as he did his best to turn the Irish one-dimensional.

It didn’t work.

Fuller abused Pitt’s secondary early and often, catching three touchdowns among his seven receptions for 152 yards. He got behind Pitt’s covermen from the beginning, with sophomore Avonte Maddox and senior Lafayette Pitts unable to run with one of college football’s most difficult covers.

Fuller could’ve had an even bigger game. Kizer missed the junior receiver on two throws that also could’ve gone the distance, overthrowing a receiver that not many thought could be missed long. But with the Irish ground game ripping off yardage and Pitt searching for answers, Narduzzi’s gamble blew up, and even after making a few tweaks, he still wasn’t able to find the right formula.

After the game, Narduzzi all but threw up his arms.

“We changed it up a little bit,” Narduzzi said, when asked about his scheme to stop Notre Dame’s best receiver. “But he’s a good football player, what are you going to do?”

 

With C.J. Prosise down, Josh Adams stepped up. 

Notre Dame awaits word on an injury to running back C.J. Prosise, who left the game near the end of the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Kelly wasn’t quite sure how to classify it when speaking postgame, though he told ESPN’s Todd McShay that the senior is day-to-day.

“It’s one where he’s going to continue to be evaluated,” Kelly said in his postgame comments, according to Nick Ironside of Irish 247. “Shoulder, neck, upper body… He’s doing pretty good right now, but we’ll evaluate and he’ll be a day-to-day situation.”

Prosise is also undergoing concussion protocol. Knocked out of the game after hitting the turf hard, the baton was passed to freshman Josh Adams and he delivered. Adams ran tough, putting together 147 well-earned yards on the afternoon, averaging 7.4 yards per carry on his 20 attempts. He also cashed in a score on a jet sweep—statistically considered a pass—but blocked and run to perfection by Notre Dame.

That effort was enough to earn the rookie the game ball, stepping in for the Irish’s most valuable player and not missing a beat.

“Anytime anyone gets a game ball that means we did well as a team. That’s what’s most important,” Adams said after the game.

A week after Notre Dame’s ground game was stuck in neutral, the Irish took advantage of a Pittsburgh front that showed vulnerability the past few weeks. And Adams’ physical running style deserves a lot of the credit, the freshman getting up field and reading his blocks well. Just another example of “Next Man In” for Brian Kelly.

“We had to call on our depth again today, and he stepped up for us,” Kelly said.

 

Notre Dame’s red zone offense was wonderful. 

Brian Kelly answered a ton of questions about Notre Dame’s red zone struggles during this week’s media availability. But nothing he said in front of a podium spoke as loud as his team’s performance inside Pittsburgh’s 20-yard line.

The Irish were flawless in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on every opportunity they had against a Pitt defense among the stingiest in the country. After spending additional time in practice and taking a big picture approach to the consistency needed by all 11 players on the field, the Irish cashed in by executing perfectly when they needed to do so.

A perfect strike thrown by Kizer to Torii Hunter Jr. was helped by a great playaction fake, a new wrinkle in the playcalling that might as well have been borrowed from Kelly’s friend Bill Belichick. Another perfect strike from Kizer on 3rd-and-9 to Fuller answered Pitt’s score to open the second half.

The ground game had it going, too. It was credited as a touchdown pass, but great blocking allowed Adams to walk in around the right side on an outside sweep. And Kizer’s zone-keeper let him walk into the end zone for the Irish’s final score, the only impact the quarterback made in the ground game a week after carrying the load against Temple.

The Irish went cold for a time in the first half on offense, three straight three-and-outs bogging down the offensive attack. But Notre Dame scored 42 points even while being held to 437 yards, and they have their efficiency to thank.

 

With Torii Hunter entering the secondary, Brian VanGorder might have found a solution for his nickel defense. 

Notre Dame knows it can’t make it through the season without a nickel defense. So Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder called on receiver Torii Hunter to cross-train on defense, with the Irish’s two-sport athlete showing two-way skills on the gridiron as well.

Hunter came into the game in the first half, allowing the Irish to get another athlete on the field in the backend of the defense. He very nearly got involved on a sack as well, blitzing off the edge on a critical third-down stop.

Kelly revealed after the game that the decision to move Hunter had been three weeks in the making. Freshman Nick Coleman also saw some time. With some mental mistakes once again plaguing the Irish on the backend, this group is still in flux. But with three weeks to go, and the Irish needing Romeo Okwara rushing the passer, not dropping into coverage, Hunter looked like a possible solution, one brought on by necessity.

“We couldn’t trade for a nickel,” Kelly cracked after the game.

 

In control from the beginning, it was just another big Saturday for DeShone Kizer.

It’s not supposed to look this easy. Against one of college football’s best defensive schemers, DeShone Kizer seemed to have every answer.

Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback continues to look like a savvy veteran, not a guy starting his seventh game. Kizer completed 19 of 26 passes, throwing for 262 yards and five touchdowns. That’s the most of any Irish quarterback outside the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, and Kizer very likely could’ve gone for more had he not turned over the keys to freshman Brandon Wimbush with the Irish comfortably ahead 42-17.

It was far from a solo effort. The irish had the ground game rolling and perfect protection from the offensive line. Able to beat Pitt with both the run and the pass, Notre Dame didn’t need Kizer to go out and win the game for them—they need him to facilitate an attack with weapons at every position and up and down the depth chart.

“We needed to be very efficient on offense and we were,” Kelly said. “I think that was the difference today, big plays on offense. Will Fuller, DeShone Kizer and Josh Adams stepping in for us today. I think that was the best performance of our offensive line to date this year. Probably the most consistent performance for four quarters and I think that was the difference today.”

That consistency can only come when the quarterback is operating at a high level. And that’s where Kizer is, just two months of game experience into his college career.

Earlier in the week, Kelly was asked about Kizer’s ability to step in and lead. He said Kizer reminded him of his backup at Cincinnati, Zach Collaros. In 2009, Collaros was called into action after starter Tony Pike went down. The offense didn’t miss a beat, with the then sophomore throwing 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions while Pike was on the mend as the Bearcats rolled to an undefeated regular season.

Notre Dame is three games away from doing something just as special, potentially taking a spot in the College Football Playoff, even after they lost starter Malik Zaire in week two and incumbent Everett Golson after spring practice.

And they’re able to be there thanks to the rapid success of Kizer.