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Kelly on Notre Dame’s sideline ‘fight’, Chip Long’s play calling and shuffling WRs

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Perhaps it was during Saturday’s one-possession loss when Irish coach Brian Kelly most saw the differences between the 2017 Notre Dame team and its immediate predecessor, even though the close defeat was awfully reminiscent of a year ago. If that was the case, it took some distance from the moment for Kelly to realize, or at least properly voice, that insight.

“I just loved our sideline,” Kelly said Tuesday while discussing the fourth quarter against Georgia. “Being able to walk up and down the sideline and sense their fight, how they felt about the game. Just a different feeling for me, and one where at the time it’s hard to articulate those thoughts and feelings right after a game.”

Immediately after the 20-19 defeat, Kelly was asked a similar question about the close loss evoking memories from 2016’s dismal 4-8 finish. At the time, Kelly offered only a curt response.

He acknowledged the dynamics of that situation during his weekly press conference previewing the upcoming opponent.

“I probably could have handled it a little bit better, but in the heat of the moment, my thoughts were on the game itself,” Kelly said. “I stay in the present. In the present, I really like the way our team is put together.

“I don’t think much about last year. I think about how our team played on Saturday. So my vision and my eyes are on how that team showed grit and toughness, didn’t back off. We needed to make another play, no question. But our defense gave us three shots with 8:30 and less to go in the game to win it. We needed to make a play.”

That play could have come from slightly different play calling, but Kelly insisted he was pleased with the game called by offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Just like a better block from fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, better self-discipline by sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara or better play diagnosing from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush all could have made the difference, a play call or two different from Long might have changed the outcome, as well. Then again, just like McGlinchey’s blocks for most of the evening, Okwara’s overall pass pressure and Wimbush’s touchdown run, Long’s play calls were part of what had Notre Dame so close in the first place.

“We had plenty of opportunities to score enough points to win the game through play calling,” Kelly said. “We would have liked a couple plays back here and there. We could have called a couple of better plays here and there, maybe executed better here and there.

“We look at it as an ‘all’ thing. In other words, we needed to coach a little bit better, make a couple more plays. We walk away as a group, meaning players and coaches alike, that maybe one more good play call, maybe one more good play, and we can win the game.”

Speaking of Okwara’s personal foul, Kelly put the onus on Okwara for giving the referee the opportunity to make the close call.

“We just felt like it’s too close to put an official in that position,” he said. “… It’s just a learning experience for Julian. He felt terrible. We told him, one play does not make this game.”

Finke starts; Canteen injured
The or designation between junior receiver Chris Finke and senior Freddy Canteen has been removed, raising Finke to clear-cut starter status. That is at least in part due to a shoulder injury suffered by Canteen. The Michigan transfer lost more than a season of playing time at his former school due to a shoulder injury, so exceeding caution very well may be exercised in this instance. Kelly described Canteen as “doubtful” this week, hence sophomore Chase Claypool slots in as Finke’s backup with junior Miles Boykin taking Claypool’s position on the two-deep behind junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

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Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC rolls, UNC stumbles, more results & spreads

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Even with two Irish opponents beating up on other teams scheduled to face Notre Dame, the 11 foes went 8-3, including Georgia’s victory over the Irish. Miami (FL) did not see action due to Hurricane Irma, and that will be the case for this week as well.

Temple (1-1): Owls head coach Geoff Collins got his first career win Saturday, barely. Perhaps it should have raised eyebrows when Temple was favored by less than a touchdown against FCS-level Villanova. Vegas knows. Vegas always knows. The Owls won 16-13, but let’s not spend any more time on that encounter.

Before jumping into a tough American Athletic stretch — Temple will travel to South Florida before hosting Houston — the Owls can try to gain some genuine momentum against Massachusetts on Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU. Favored by 14.5 with a combined over/under point total of 51.5, project a final score of 33-18.

Georgia (2-0): Does anyone know how the Bulldogs fared this past weekend?

Their level of competition will drop a bit, now facing FCS-level Samford at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network. From there, though, it will be directly into SEC play.

Boston College (1-1): The Eagles did themselves in against Wake Forest, falling at home 34-10. That lopsided score can be directly attributed to four turnovers, including three interceptions from freshman quarterback Anthony Brown. Senior Darius Wade stepped in to finish the game after the third pick. The Demon Deacons outgained Boston College by only four yards, 309-305.

Now the Eagles host Notre Dame at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Nearly two-touchdown underdogs with an over/under of 48.5, rounding indicates a theoretical final score of 31-18.

Michigan State (2-0): The Spartans had no trouble with Western Michigan, dispatching the Broncos 28-14 before entering a bye week. To open the season, Western Michigan managed 357 yards and 31 points at USC. Compare that to the 195 and 14 Michigan State allowed.

Miami (OH) (1-1): The RedHawks returned to winning ways with an easy 31-10 rout of FCS-level Austin Peay, though the score is misleading when considering Miami outgained the Governors by only 13 yards (283 to 270) and each team committed three turnovers. To counteract that, the RedHawks went 8-for-17 on third downs and 3-for-4 on fourth.

If they continue to keep drives alive like that, they should easily cover the 4.5-point spread against Cincinnati at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN3 this weekend. The over/under of 45.5 implies a final score of 25-21, as odd as 25 points may be in football. A touchdown and six field goals would certainly be an underwhelming delivery.

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson struck that pose once before last year, and North Carolina helped his campaign again this year by giving up 525 total yards to the defending Heisman Trophy-winner. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

North Carolina (0-2): This could be a long season for the Tar Heels. They have now given up 82 points through two games, with Louisville accounting for 47 of those in the Cardinals 47-35 victory. To think, entering the season the wholesale turnover in offensive personnel was the biggest concern.

North Carolina can ease the misery on the road this weekend against Old Dominion. Favored by more than a touchdown in the 3:30 p.m. ET kick, the Tar Heels should win by more than a 32-25 margin.

USC (2-0): Oh, hey Trojans offense. Nice of you to make sure the world was aware of your abilities. USC blew past Stanford 42-24, despite being favored by less than a touchdown. The Trojans racked up 623 yards of total offense, 316 through the air and 307 on the ground, and converted 10 of 12 third downs. Both Stephen Carr and Ronald Jones exceeded 100 yards rushing. It just may seem USC could live up to the preseason hype.

The Trojans now host another highly-touted preseason team, though one that has not fared as well to date. Favored by 17 over Texas with an over/under of 67, USC could mimic last week’s final score. With that in mind, and presuming the Cardinal are indeed better than the Longhorns, perhaps that margin should be larger.

North Carolina State (1-1): The Wolfpack pulled away in the second half to beat Marshall 3-20. Not much else to that, and now North Carolina State gets to enjoy FCS-level Furman on the ACC Network at 12:20 p.m. ET.

Wake Forest (2-0): The 24-point victory over Boston College was a 26-point swing compared to the spread. In other words, perhaps the Deacons are better than anticipated despite the loss of their defensive coordinator and his right hand man (Mike Elko and Clark Lea, respectively).

Wake Forest can solidify that trend as it hosts Utah State this weekend. The Aggies were blown out by Wisconsin, but they are typically a formidable opponent. A 13.5-point spread favors the Deacons with an over/under of 48.5, implying a 31-18 conclusion.

Miami (FL) (1-0): The Hurricanes trip to Arkansas State was cancelled last week due to foreseeable difficulties returning to Miami after/during Hurricane Irma. I will admit, I was at first critical of this decision. The game was in Arkansas, not Florida, after all. But when considering the players may want to be in the mix with their nearby families during this threat, the decision makes sense.

It also made sense to postpone this coming weekend’s tilt with Florida State, since Miami’s campus will be closed most of the week.

From a speculating perspective, the Hurricanes win total over/under was nine entering the season. Missing the Arkansas State game greatly endangers the chances of hitting that over, though most would understand the schedule was abbreviated.

Navy (2-0): The Midshipmen got a conference victory, but a 23-21 final over Tulane was far closer than would ever have been expected. Junior quarterback Zach Abey still both ran and passed for more than 100 yards, though. Navy’s defense was the star against the Green Wave, holding Tulane to 71 passing yards.

Now, the Midshipmen get to enjoy a bye week.

Stanford junior running back Bryce Love was the lone bright spot in the Cardinal’s defeat to USC. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Stanford (1-1): The Cardinal fell to USC 42-24. That was undoubtedly a disappointment, but it may be viewed as more a reflection on the Trojans than anything else. As it pertains to Stanford, junior running back Bryce Love was the bright spot, taking 17 carries for 160 yards and a touchdown.

Now the Cardinal travels to Mountain West heavyweight San Diego State as a 9.5-point favorite. The 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff on CBS Sports Network projects to end along the lines of 27-18. Don’t be too surprised if the Aztecs prove a stiffer challenge than that, partly because they do get to enjoy home-cooking.

Questions for the Week: A No. 2 WR, a RT decision & more

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A loss brings questions, even — perhaps especially — a one-point loss to a top-15 opponent. Most of those questions, though, will be answered on the field. Some, however, might be resolved before then.

Will a second receiver emerge behind Irish junior Equanimeous St. Brown?
More exactly, will junior Chris Finke move up the depth chart? Even that query, though, leaves room to evade the point, considering Finke is already listed as an “or” option along with senior Freddy Canteen in the slot. That two-letter loophole means Finke has been considered a starter, or co-starter, all season.

Finke finished Saturday with three catches for 36 yards while Canteen did not pull in any. Only one Notre Dame receiver had more receptions than the former walk-on, graduate student Cam Smith with four gaining 44 yards.

“Cam has made a couple of plays,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “We know what Cam can do, but we need other guys to step up and show some consistency.”

Finke could be that other guy. Removing a two-letter qualifier from the depth chart this week would indicate his role is going to expand, arguably deservedly so. At that point, perhaps opposing defenses will stop focusing so much coverage on St. Brown, part of the cause of interception such as the one pictured above.

Along with this conversation, sophomore Kevin Stepherson warrants mention. It may be doubtful he returns to the fold this week, but if/whenever he does, he will immediately be part of the search for St. Brown’s complement.

Will a decision be declared at right tackle?
The Notre Dame coaching staff, mainly Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, would likely prefer to see sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey rotate snaps for another week or two before settling on one or the other to lead the way the rest of the season. By no means did getting beat by Georgia’s talented defensive line reveal either Kraemer or Hainsey as the clear-cut better right tackle.

Nonetheless, it would not be too shocking to see one of the two named the right tackle moving forward. With some criticism already directed toward the offensive line — some of it justly and some of it reactionary — this could be a ripe moment to make that decision. Consider it something of a parallel to a Friday afternoon news dump.

On a pure-football level, giving the nod to Hainsey could fit in line with developing better pass protection, something Kelly discussed after reviewing Saturday’s film.

“What we have to do better is we have to sustain box and be more consistent in pass protection,” he said. “What we learned is we’ve got to obviously go back and be better coaching the fundamentals and we have to be better at our techniques.” (more…)

Monday Morning Leftovers: On Brian Kelly, defensive lines & Notre Dame in the NFL

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As has been well-covered already, the conversation around Irish coach Brian Kelly changed quickly following Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday night. The conversation did not change because of the defeat, but rather because of a terse exchange Kelly had with a reporter in the postgame press conference.

For the majority of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, he has been criticized for being too much like a politician, sidestepping questions and offering non-answer answers whenever it suited him. That look aged much better than Saturday’s pointed attempt at pithiness.

The unexpected aspect of it is Kelly had delivered an excellent press conference to that point. He expressed disappointment in the loss, credited Georgia and discussed the areas the Irish need to improve. If he had simply blown by the final question of the evening — perhaps like a politician — he very well may have been praised for how he handled defeat.

“We’re really close to being the kind of football team that can play with anybody. We were short on a couple things today. We’ll shore them up and we’ll get back at it next week, and I like my football team.”

That could have been his final answer of substance. It would have been a strong note to essentially close on if Kelly had then simply offered generic responses to a question he did not like.

The question: “What exactly will be different [following this close loss compared to last year’s one-possession losses]?”

The possible answers: “We have better leadership in the locker room.”
“This is this year. That was last year.”
Or even project bravado. “We’ll win next week. That’ll be different.”

As much as the exchange may bother many, it is engaging in it at all that most baffles.

— A high school buddy attended the Auburn at Clemson game Saturday night, wearing the visiting shades of blue-and-orange. His praising words of the experience included, “Bar before was phenomenal. View was great. … Tailgating beforehand was great as well. Fans were surprisingly welcoming.”

That last observation has come to be a theme in the modern era of scheduling. When non-traditional but high-profile foes visit each other, the fans engage with respect and cheer more than anything else. The most vivid and pertinent example may be the testimonials any Irish fans would offer of their trip to Oklahoma in 2012. The Sooner fans were happy to see blue-and-gold. Even in defeat, the exchanges were universally pleasant.

The majority of accounts this weekend indicate that was the feeling around Notre Dame Stadium. If there was undue frustration about the influx of Georgia fans, it was not aimed at them, but rather the Irish fans who accommodated needs for tickets.

— Apropos of nothing, $600 would pay for a full football season’s cable and internet bills. Then, one could watch any games he or she wanted for five full months. It would also cover the majority, if not the entirety, of one month’s rent of a one-bedroom apartment only miles from campus. If not living in South Bend, $600 would pay for the gas needed to drive 1,000 miles roundtrip to all the Notre Dame home games this year. That radius extends to Minneapolis, or to Nashville, or well past Pittsburgh.

Think about the hundreds of drinks $600 could buy. Literally, hundreds. Depending on the weekend, $600 could even pay for a round-trip flight to New York City.

— That Clemson conversation with the Auburn Tiger led to thoughts about defensive lines in college football. If the Bulldogs domination of a vaunted Irish offensive line showed anything, it showed defensive lines beat offensive lines of equal talent in college football. It is similar to receivers beating defensive backs of equal talent.

The defensive linemen (or receivers) know what they are trying to do. They make the first move. The offensive linemen (or defensive backs) are trying to stop that. They must rely on reactionary moves.

That dynamic was a key reason Clemson beat Alabama for the national championship a season ago, and it remains a key reason the Tigers are near the top of the heap again this year.

It is why North Carolina State was a trendy sleeper pick this offseason. This space was guilty of that one, in particular, but do not chalk it up to a mistake just yet. The Wolfpack did get back to winning this week and could make life difficult for a freshman Florida State quarterback by the end of the month.

Even Notre Dame’s defensive line showed the reality of this dynamic Saturday night. An Irihs defensive line with questions bested a Georgia offensive line with questions. Equal talent levels favor the unit able to attack. By definition, that will be the defensive line.

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

To anyone saying an offensive line should attack, the primary purpose of an offensive line is to prevent an attack. They are blocking, not rushing. It is in the job description.

— With all that in mind, let’s file a College Football Playoff prediction in these parts. Alabama, Clemson, USC and Oklahoma State.

— Some Notre Dame in the NFL notes: Former Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt signed a five-year $60 million contract Saturday. A day later he may have ended his season with a torn biceps, MRI results to confirm pending.

Former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith saw real, meaningful action Sunday night, and he did not disappoint. Smith notched seven tackles and forced a fumble in a Dallas Cowboys victory.

Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer got the start for the Cleveland Browns. The team lost 21-18 to Tuitt’s Pittsburgh Steelers, but Kizer completed 20-of-30 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown, also throwing an interception and rushing for an additional score.

— This will be posted throughout the week as a reminder: The Notre Dame at Boston College game kickoff time has been moved to 3:30 p.m. ET. It will be available on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.

The Irish were initially favored by 14.5 points, though that line has already moved to 13.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Offensive line notes; Irish ‘begging’ for No. 2 WR

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Mike McGlinchey may have put Notre Dame’s loss Saturday night entirely on his own shoulders for a missed block on the final Irish snap, but Brian Kelly disagrees with that sentiment.

The Notre Dame coach felt no need to specifically console his fifth-year left tackle after the 20-19 defeat to Georgia, largely because that late-game mistake was just one of many in a game of 60 minutes.

“I’ve never felt like there’s one play that determines a game,” Kelly said Sunday. “There were a number of things that — if we could have made a run on the third down on the series before, if we don’t have a late hit, if we make a play on that third down flip with [sophomore defensive end] Daelin Hayes, a better call here or there offensively. … I’ve never felt there’s one singular play.”

Bulldogs senior defensive end Davin Bellamy’s fumble-causing sack ended any Irish hopes of a comeback. How Bellamy did that is far from complicated: He simply beat McGlinchey with a pass rush.

“Their guy was better on that play,” Kelly said. “That’s why, when we get in that moment, our guys have to believe that their training has put them in a position to obviously make that block and be there for him.”

Kelly struggled to assess the Notre Dame offensive line as a whole, presumably not wanting to oversimplify an undoubtedly complex evaluation. He did acknowledge the pass protection difficulties, giving up three sacks of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

“What we have to do better is we have to sustain box and be more consistent in pass protection,” Kelly said before adding another piece to that element of the game. “… When we run our offense, a lot of the decisions post-snap are based on what the quarterback is seeing.

“Whether he’s giving it out, pulling it, checking it to the other side, sometimes those decisions ae left up to the post-snap reads. Brandon is learning those things. Going against Georgia, that’s a pretty good defense to learn a lot [from].”

In a departure from a week ago and all of last season, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was not the Irish quarterback’s primary target. Certainly, Wimbush would have preferred to connect with his most dangerous receiver more often than twice for 16 yards, but the Bulldogs made preventing such a priority. (more…)