Freshman Jerry Tillery suspended for Fiesta Bowl

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As Notre Dame takes the field to warm up for the Fiesta Bowl, they’ll go to battle without freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Notre Dame’s sports information department announced that Tillery will not play against Ohio State because of a violation of team rules.

The Irish defensive front will be tested against one of the country’s best running attacks, led by Ezekiel Elliott. While Notre Dame expects to get a contribution from senior Jarron Jones, who is returning from an August knee injury, Daniel Cage battled a sprained ankle all bowl season and Tillery was expected to play a significant amount of snaps.

Expect sophomore Jonathan Bonner to take snaps in Tillery’s place or defensive end Isaac Rochell to slide inside.

Pregame Six Pack: More than a consolation prize

DeShoneKizer
AP
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Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl matchup might not advance the Irish to their ultimate goal. But it will provide college football’s grandest day with a premier matchup between two of the sport’s proudest programs.

So while Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma wage battle with a haphazard workday and New Year’s Eve revelers, the Irish and the Buckeyes will kick of January 1 with the most intriguing bowl matchup of college football’s postseason.

Notre Dame’s 127th team didn’t reach their ultimate goal. But they will have the opportunity to be remembered among the school’s best teams, an eleventh win—against Urban Meyer and Ohio State, no less—up for grabs on Friday morning in Glendale, Arizona. That’s more than a consolation prize.

The storylines are numerous. The rosters stocked with NFL talent. So before Brian Kelly leads the Irish into a battle against Meyer’s Buckeye juggernaut, let’s enjoy our final pregame six pack before we ring in 2016 with the Fiesta Bowl.

 

After a nightmarish second half of the season, Brian Kelly thinks he sees the C.J. Prosise of old. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise’s first season at running back was a phenomenal one. Notre Dame’s winner of the Next Man In Award ran for 1,032 yards and averaged 6.6 yards, a big-play threat and home run hitter from Day One as he stepped into the starting role after Tarean Folston injured his knee three carries into the year.

Yet Prosise’s big season was short-circuited as his hit count grew. He was neutralized against Temple before injuring his shoulder and suffering a concussion against Pittsburgh, then held out against Wake Forest. Just a handful of carries into his return against Boston College, Prosise suffered a high-ankle sprain, keeping him out of contact until arriving in Arizona.

If the Irish are going to find a way to cut into the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, they need Prosise at full strength. And for the first time in a long time, it looked like Prosise had the explosiveness back that turned him into one of the nation’s most dangerous big-play running backs.

“I’d like to get a lot out of him, a lot of big plays in particular,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He looked pretty good yesterday. I think yesterday was his first day that he really showed, I think, the best way to put it is, ‘That looked like C.J.’ That was the first time yesterday when we saw him cut and look explosive.”

 

After 13 months, Jarron Jones returns to one of the toughest assignments in college football: Slowing down Ezekiel Elliott

Not even a car crash with a suspended drivers license could slow down the Big Ten’s top offensive weapon. Now we’ll see if Notre Dame’s inconsistent defense can do it.

The Irish have one thing going for them that the Columbus P.D. doesn’t. That’s the return of Jarron Jones, the 6-foot-5, 330-pound run-stuffer who should help the middle of the Irish defense hold up against Ohio State’s veteran and outstanding offensive line.

How many snaps Notre Dame gets out of Jones will be interesting. Kelly has sounded optimistic. Brian VanGorder less so, pegging Jones’ contributions in the 10 play range. With sophomore Daniel Cage battling an ankle sprain and Jones getting on the field for the first time since he suffered a major foot injury, the Irish senior is one very large X factor.

“I think for him the biggest thing is gaining back the confidence,” Isaac Rochell told Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley. “After not playing for two years, your ego is kind of down, you doubt yourself, but after he gets into the swing of things, gets into the game, makes some tackles, he’ll start to get his mojo back and feel a little bit better about his game.”

The Irish certainly hope so, especially as they take on a running game that requires an answer for not just Elliott, but quarterback J.T. Barrett.

 

There’s going to be a bullseye on cornerback Nick Watkins. At least Brian Kelly thinks so.

With KeiVarae Russell’s leg still healing and Devin Butler breaking his foot during practice this week, the next man in at cornerback is Nick Watkins. That pushes the seldom-used sophomore into a difficult situation, making his first start against one of the nation’s most talented teams.

Kelly expects Watkins to get tested early and often.

“He’s going to get picked on. I sure would pick on him if I was them,” Kelly said.

But Watkins isn’t your ordinary third-stringer. The Dallas native was one of Notre Dame’s highest-rated recruits, a talented coverman out of a high school powerhouse. Physically, his skills have always looked the part, though he struggled to put the mental together with the physical.

After a strong bowl season of practices, Notre Dame’s head coach is confident that Watkins can do the challenging job Brian VanGorder asks his cornerbacks to do.

“I think he’ll hold up. He’s a kid that will compete,” Kelly. He’s got a lot of pride. He’s got some innate athletic ability to go out there and compete with some good players.”

That Kelly is showing confidence in Watkins is interesting considering he wasn’t earlier in the season. After looking like he had pulled ahead of Butler during spring practice, Watkins ceded backup duties to the veteran Butler, behind him all season, including the start against Stanford and what would’ve been the Fiesta Bowl until the injury.

Sometimes it takes an opportunity for the lightbulb to go on. And after hearing Watkins talk this week, maybe that’ll be the silver lining of another difficult injury situation the Irish will have to overcome.

“You can’t give up when things don’t go your way. When the chips are down, it’s how you respond,” Watkins said on Wednesday. “That’s still what I’m learning. To respond and be a great player for this team.”

 

When it comes to Notre Dame and Ohio State, there’s a lot of familiarity. 

This is just the sixth all-time meeting between two school separated by just 250 miles. But that doesn’t mean the connections don’t run deep.

Notre Dame has 12 players from the state of Ohio. Freshman C.J. Sanders‘ father played for the Buckeyes, while Jaylon Smith’s brother played for Urban Meyer in Columbus. Countless players on the Buckeyes count a Notre Dame scholarship offer and vice versa. Taylor Decker was an Irish commit before a late-game flip.

You might have heard that Urban Meyer coached at Notre Dame, working for Lou Holtz and Bob Davie before his first head coaching opportunity at Bowling Green. Meyer has filled his staff with coaches with Notre Dame ties, including Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner from Kelly’s first Notre Dame staff. Tony Alford left last offseason to go to Columbus as well, named assistant head coach in addition to his running back duties. Meyer’s longtime strength coach Mickey Marotti was the head of ND’s strength program from 1998-2005.

Expect pregame warmup to be filled with some friendly hugs and handshakes before the festivities begin.

 

Nobody wants to talk about the NFL Draft yet. But the eyes of the NFL will be on the Fiesta Bowl Friday morning. 

Credit Ronnie Stanley for getting it out of the way. Notre Dame’s left tackle confirmed the news he all but announced when he decided to come back for 2015—he’ll be entering the 2016 NFL Draft. Yet outside of Stanley, the rest of the game’s draft-eligible stars aren’t saying much.

Will Fuller isn’t talking about his NFL Advisory grade. Neither is Prosise. Ezekiel Elliott has made it known the Fiesta Bowl will be his final collegiate game, but Joey Bosa and Jaylon Smith, two of the draft’s elite prospects, are keeping their plans to themselves until after the game.

How much talent will be on the field? Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has 15 of college football’s Top 100 players on these two teams alone.

Here’s the group:

No. 2: Jaylon Smith
No. 3: Joey Bosa
No. 5: Ronnie Stanley
No. 13: Ezekiel Elliott
No. 22: Michael Thomas
No. 33: Eli Apple
No. 37: Joshua Perry
No. 41: Taylor Decker
No. 47: Vonn Bell
No. 50: Adolphus Washington
No. 57: C.J. Prosise
No. 66: Braxton Miller
No. 67: Tyvis Powell
No. 73: Sheldon Day
No. 88: KeiVarae Russell

“There’s going to be a lot of guys playing football on Sundays,” Meyer said on Wednesday.

 

Like they’ve been asked all season, Notre Dame’s offense needs to win the game for the Irish. 

If the Irish are going to win the Fiesta Bowl, the offense is going to need to carry the day. That means better efficiency in the red zone from DeShone Kizer. That means a running game that takes what it wants from an undermanned Ohio State defensive front. And it means another big-time performance from Will Fuller.

The Irish are one of the best big-play offenses in the country. And even Ohio State’s biggest defensive star, defensive end Joey Bosa, knows the Buckeyes need to bring their best to the field on Friday to win the game.

“You look at them, it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror,” Bosa said on Monday. “Athletes everywhere. Big, athletic offensive line. Quarterback that can run with the ball. Really talented receivers. There’s weapons everywhere. It’s going to be a challenge.”

For the Irish, the challenge will be cashing in their scoring opportunities. Having tight end Durham Smythe should help. So will C.J. Prosise, though expect Josh Adams to get the short-yardage opportunities.

Ultimately, this game will come down to Kizer. Much has been made this week about not receiving a scholarship offer from the hometown Buckeyes as they passed by him on their extended recruiting list at quarterback. But more will be made of a victory over a Buckeyes defense that’ll challenge Kizer with man coverage opportunities and an aggressive scheme.

Kizer has had a month to prepare for this defense. He’s drilled in the red zone, a place where his efficiency has struggled. Now he’ll have a final chance to prove no moment is too big for him.

Even the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

 

 

Kelly hoping to continue ascent with Fiesta Bowl win

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly speaks during media day for the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Notre Dame plays Ohio State on New Year's Day. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
AP
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Brian Kelly has already said that a Fiesta Bowl victory would be the team’s biggest win of the season. But on Wednesday, he put into context what a victory over Ohio State would mean to his program, three seasons removed from its BCS title game drubbing against Alabama.

I think every bowl game, it’s a playoff game now. Somebody is going to finish fifth in the final polls. That’s a springboard for next year,” Kelly said Wednesday morning. “These are important games, you’re also measuring yourself in this game. ‘Where are we?’

“We measured ourselves in 2012, found out we were a little short. Now we’re back here in ’15-’16 and get a chance to measure ourselves again.”

That challenge will come against an Ohio State team that’s playing for history. A victory on Friday would make 50 wins over four seasons—tying the FBS record for the most by any senior class.

The Buckeyes could also provide validation. While the Irish weren’t up to the challenge against mighty Alabama in Kelly’s third season, Ohio State managed to slay the dragon last year. Toss away a late-season loss to Michigan State and a cupcake schedule done no favors by its weak conference opponents, the Buckeyes could easily make a case they’re more qualified to be a part of the four-team showdown than the mighty Alabama or an Oklahoma team that lost to Texas.

But Friday’s consolation matchup could be for more than just the No. 5 ranking. In a game that’ll have a load of NFL talent on both rosters and two of college football’s finest tacticians engaging in a chess match, Notre Dame won’t get a chance to play for the national title, but they will take center stage on college football’s grandest day. That’ll allow Kelly to finally go head-to-head with a coach many feel is the era’s best, as his injury-plagued team goes for its 11th victory against, just the second time it could accomplish that feat since 1993.

A Fiesta Bowl win would serve as more than just a springboard for the Irish in 2016. It could also silence—once and for all—any of the nonsense that “almost” is as good as it gets in South Bend.

“We want to win the game,” Kelly said, noting just how unique “Team 127” was as it battled through a challenge-filled year. “It will be a satisfying season that we overcame a lot of things to get to this point. Probably for me the most enjoyable, with the group of kids that we had that just didn’t let anything get in their way. They just kept moving forward.”

 

 

VanGorder talks inconsistencies and the challenge still ahead

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Brian VanGorder saw the same things you did this year—except the Showtime series.

VanGorder didn’t watch the 13-part documentary (extended for an extra episode to cover the Fiesta Bowl), but he did see his defense play frustratingly inconsistent football. At times dominant, the Irish defense forced three-and-outs at one of the best clips in the country. But at other times, the group was inept, prone to giving up big plays and struggling in the red zone, two key ingredients to turning a promising group into an underwhelming unit.

VanGorder talked about those struggles on Tuesday, when asked to evaluate the team’s performance this season.

“Inconsistent, I guess, is probably the best word,” VanGorder said. “We’ve played a lot of good football. We’ve had some plays that you just shake your head, both player and coach, when it’s all said and done.”

VanGorder pinned some of those struggles on youth. That may be tough when you consider the veterans in this group, but even Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate are in just year two of VanGorder’s system.

“These are young players. You’re constantly pushing on the idea of developing. They all develop at a different rate, a different process for all of them,” VanGorder said. 

“A lot of those things come down to also focus. That’s, again, part of the development, part of the process, for somebody to focus through some 65 to 85 plays, for some it’s a challenge. That’s player responsibility, coach responsibility through a game to make sure we maintain a great concentration and a great focus. To be quite frank about it, it hasn’t been always where any of us want it to be.”

We’ve seen those lapses—whether they be garbage time touchdowns like Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh scored, or in crucial situations against Temple or Stanford. But before the Irish coaching staff takes a step back and considers whether VanGorder’s scheme and its complexities are part of the problem, the focus will be confined to another healthy challenge—slowing down Ohio State and Urban Meyer’s offense.

VanGorder talked about the skill players that’ll challenge an Irish group that’s often times its own biggest opponent. With Ezekiel Elliott playing through legal citations and J.T. Barrett coming off a big performance against Michigan, the defense has its hands full.

They’re difficult to defend. The whole offensive philosophy and makeup of it makes you defend a lot of players,” VanGorder explained.

While the scheme isn’t too far removed from what the Irish show in practice every day, the personnel the Irish will face will likely be the best that they’ll play all season. True, the Buckeyes have struggled to play up to their potential this season. But they had a breakthrough against the Wolverines, scoring 42 points and running for 369 yards against one of the Big Ten’s best defenses.

A lot of people have good scheme, maybe not the good players. They have a bunch of great players that are going to play in the NFL.”

Max Redfield sent home from Fiesta Bowl for rules violation

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Max Redfield‘s disappointing junior season will end on a fitting note. Notre Dame’s starting safety was sent home after violating a team rule in Arizona, leaving the Irish without another defensive starter against Ohio State.

Brian Kelly announced the news Tuesday, a move that’ll likely force fifth-year defensive back Matthias Farley into the starting lineup one last time in his final collegiate game. Kelly also revealed that junior Devin Butler broke his foot during Monday’s practice, taking another projected starter out of the Fiesta Bowl lineup. Sophomore Nick Watkins will make his first start at cornerback, the third starter at the position after KeiVarae Russell‘s broken leg.

Redfield’s season started off with promise. After playing a strong Music City Bowl against LSU to end the 2014 season, the former 5-star recruit was named to Phil Steele’s first-team preseason All-American team and he played well against Texas. But Redfield tried to play through an early-season broken hand that might have contributed to some poor play, as he took limited snaps against UMass, Navy and USC before playing nearly every snap to close out the season.

Redfield is expected back in 2016, a projected starter along with Cole Luke in the secondary. There is no timetable yet on Butler’s foot injury.

UPDATE: Redfield released the following statement on Instagram: