The end is here. If the Fiesta Bowl loss didn’t bring on that finality, then surely the quick decisions of C.J. Prosise, Will Fuller and KeiVarae Russell to move on to the NFL served as official notice.
For a season as thrilling as the 127th in Notre Dame history, the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the type of lasting memory you’ll want to take with you. The Irish defense entered the game battered, bruised and suspended, never able to muster much of an opposition for an Ohio State attack that seemed to take what it wanted on the ground and threw just enough to keep things interesting.
After a shaky start, the Irish did find their footing. DeShone Kizer never looked fully comfortable after a month layoff, and the Irish running game was limited after C.J. Prosise tapped out after just three snaps. Throw in some uneven offensive line play and while the final offensive performance of the season wasn’t necessarily sterling, Notre Dame did put up the most yardage and score as many points as any other opponent the Buckeyes faced this season.
Recruiting continues, NFL decisions are still coming, and more unexpected changes are surely to come. But before we get there, let’s get one last good, bad and ugly in.
Sheldon Day. Playing his final game at Notre Dame, Day showed the type of warrior that he’s become, battling through a foot the coaching staff believed was broken after a mid-week injury suffered in Scottsdale. It didn’t stop Day, who played another great game—13 total on the season.
Day added another TFL, forced a fumble and batted down two passes for the Irish, filling up the stat sheet and winning more battles than anyone else on the Irish defense. He did it at less than 100-percent, playing through an injury that he might not have been able to fight through in year’s past, putting a final exclamation point on a stellar senior season.
Josh Adams. His stat-line only included 78 rushing yards on 14 carries, but the freshman answered the bell, a critical piece to the offensive puzzle when C.J. Prosise exited after his ankle failed to respond from a severe sprain suffered against Boston College.
Adams’ freshman season now goes into the Notre Dame record books, a crazy thought when you consider he seemed like an absolute lock to redshirt this spring. He finishes the year with a school record 835 yards on just 117 attempts, a 7.1 yards per carry average that obliterates anything we’ve seen in recent years. More importantly, his solid play down the stretch is even more critical with Prosise’s decision to head to the NFL, leaving the freshman to carry the position group until Tarean Folston returns from his ACL injury.
Will Fuller. As I said in the Five Things, it was a fitting way for Fuller to end his Notre Dame career. The junior receiver will be remembered for the ridiculous amount of game-changing plays he was able to make, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
We’ll spend more time analyzing this in the offseason, but you can make quite an argument that Fuller may have had the best career of recent greats Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija. That alone should quiet Irish fans down when they worry if Recruit X or Recruit Y has enough stars or good enough scholarship offers. Fuller committed to Notre Dame as a three-star nobody, picking the Irish over a Penn State program that had just been nuked.
Red Zone touchdowns. Let’s give the Irish credit for converting all three of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. It was a point of emphasis during bowl preparation and the Irish executed near the goal line, not an easy thing to do against the Buckeyes.
The Irish got a key rushing touchdown from Adams near the goal line. They got a great effort from Kizer before the half and a perfectly thrown fade to Chris Brown, proof that Notre Dame can execute a finesse throw in tight quarters.
Joe Schmidt & Jarrett Grace. We got to see Schmidt and Grace play side-by-side for much of the game after injuries took Jaylon Smith and Te’von Coney from the game. And while it wasn’t all good, you couldn’t ask for much more from the two fifth-year seniors, with Schmidt leading the Irish in tackles with 13 (including a TFL) and making an interception and Grace adding nine stops of his own along with a TFL.
Grace played out of position at Will, asked to chase down receivers and play in space, not his strong suit. But the senior did it without complaint, just another selfless act for a veteran who battled back from a career-threatening leg injury.
While Schmidt has had enough coverage to last another four years, he held the Irish defense together, leading a M.A.S.H. unit with his acumen and toughness. The good news? There are better athletes to replace both veterans. But the leadership both exhibited will be sorely missed, and each player is a tremendous example of what you want out of a teammate and a Notre Dame student-athlete.
Three Losses. No, it doesn’t make sense to put three losses in the good section. But when you consider that Notre Dame will finish the season with a 10-3 record with their three losses to Top 5 teams by a total of 20 points, this season starts to compare to some of those Lou Holtz squads that Irish fans keep wanting Brian Kelly to replicate.
Certainly, a lot of you will want to put up a “10-3 is not good enough” banner in the weight room. And I think Kelly appropriately rejected any notion that this year was as good as it gets.
But with the insane body count that tested this team’s depth to no end, it’s pretty miraculous that the Irish nearly pulled off a win against Stanford in the regular season finale and battled back from two early uppercuts that the Buckeyes threw at them. Match up the Irish with Iowa in the Fiesta Bowl instead of Ohio State and it’s likely the Irish are sitting here as an 11-win team and a top-five ranking.
DeShone Kizer. If we’re going to spend time each week praising the sophomores maturity and poise, we need to point out when he doesn’t play his best. Kizer completed 22 of 37 throws for 284 yards, a completely solid stat-line taken at face value. But Notre Dame needed Kizer to play better, and too often the young quarterback was flustered in the pocket, unable to make a quick decision or fully comprehend what the defense was doing to him until it was too late. He was also oddly inaccurate with some deep balls, showing a rare lack of touch on throws he looked great on all season.
Kizer threw an ugly interception when he didn’t notice a linebacker drop underneath his intended target. He threw another bad one that was nullified by Joey Bosa’s targeting penalty. His poor accuracy stemmed from sloppy fundamentals, short-hopping some quick throws like he did early in the season before smoothing out his mechanics.
Unequivocally, Kizer’s season was a resounding success. (Just look at how Oregon played with their backup quarterback in the Alamo Bowl.) As a redshirt freshman he went from a spring spent as the No. 3 quarterback to a starter who looks like a building block of the program. He’ll face a huge fight this spring when Malik Zaire is fully cleared to participate and Brandon Wimbush returns. Kizer just didn’t play as well as was needed in the Fiesta Bowl, and it’s a reminder that a starting job in 2016 is far from secure.
The battered front seven. Jaylon Smith was lost after 11 plays. Coney lost after just seven. Greer Martini battling through a broken hand, playing just four snaps as the linebacking corps was decimated.
Up front, no Jerry Tillery compounded the issues that limited Daniel Cage to just six snaps on a badly sprained ankle. Jarron Jones impacted the game—his deflection and pocket push led to Joe Schmidt’s interception—but he was limited to just 14 plays.
With no defensive tackle opposite a severely wounded Sheldon Day, the Irish were forced to slide Isaac Rochell inside and play Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti at defensive end. It was a recipe made for disaster. Jonathan Bonner took up the extra snaps at defensive tackle, nearly doubling his season-high for snaps. Trumbetti did the same, on the field for 80 of 86 total plays.
The cumulative effect of these changes were a killer. While Trumbetti flashed a few times and made some impactful plays, he’s a poor run defender, especially against an offensive line like Ohio State’s. Okwara, usually a weakside defensive end, was neutralized playing the strongside. Asking Bonner to do more than hold his own isn’t fair. Nor is Rochell anywhere near as impactful in the trenches.
Taking away Jaylon made J.T. Barrett’s job much easier. As a scrambler, Grace and Schmidt were no match. As a thrower, the underneath routes were now being covered by a 250-pound linebacker who taught himself to run again last year, not a linebacker who plays like a gazelle.
At full strength could this defense have held up? We can’t be sure. But this was closer to the personnel the Irish played against USC with last year than the full-strength group the Irish needed, and once the totality of the injuries showed itself, the Irish defense was pretty much always fighting an unwinnable fight.
The Offensive Line. This starting five will be remembered as one of Notre Dame’s best since Joe Moore was coaching the guys in the trenches. With Ronnie Stanley likely a first-rounder and Nick Martin sure to get drafted as well, the Irish also have future building blocks in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, while Steve Elmer has another year to play up to his potential and Alex Bars will certainly benefit from the snaps he took this year as he likely moves into the left tackle job.
That said, this line struggled against ultra-aggressive fronts. We saw it against Clemson and again against Temple. Boston College limited what the Irish were able to do on the ground as well, following a similar blueprint to those that had success before them.
Even without three starters—including Joey Bosa, whose targeting ejection made life easier for the offensive line—Kizer was under siege for most of the afternoon. Perhaps asking for the living-room comfort that Kizer has had in the pocket for much of the season was too much, but winning in the trenches wasn’t. Notre Dame’s running game wasn’t able to get going, less about in-game circumstances and more about the one-on-one battles. And the passing rhythm was off, taking away some of the big-play opportunities.
Again, this was a tremendous offensive line. They allowed both C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams to put up incredible seasons. But in short yardage and red zone situations, this group struggled. That’ll be a point of emphasis this offseason as Harry Hiestand, who also needs to find a replacement at center.
Jaylon Smith’s injury. Nothing seems less fair than Smith going down with a major knee injury. While we don’t have the specifics yet, a few reports point to both ACL and MCL injuries. That means considerable rehab ahead for Smith, and it could impact his decision to head to the NFL, which seemed like a certainty beforehand.
That said, it appears Smith was protected. ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported over the weekend that Smith has a $5 million insurance policy that protects him if he slides out of the first round. It’s a similar policy to the one UCLA’s Myles Jack has, another star junior linebacker who decided to declare for the draft even as he recovers from surgery.
In all likelihood, Smith will be just fine. The NFL was well aware of his prodigious skill-set, something he won’t have to prove at the scouting combine, but rather just have teams turn on game tape. And if the injury allows Smith to come back to Notre Dame and play out his eligibility while he earns his degree, he’ll likely be protected by an insurance policy as well. That’s a choice Smith very well could make, if he believes he’s capable of returning to Top 5 status, not Top 20.
It’s hard not to wonder if seeing Smith go down impacted the decision made by C.J. Prosise or Will Fuller. For all of us, it was a stark reminder that football is a dangerous game, where one snap can alter a career.
We saw that all too often this season. Notre Dame needs to—and likely has already started—a full-scale investigation into why the injury bug has now decimated two-straight teams. Nothing should be off limits as this group tries to find a formula to limit the season-ruining injuries that capped this team’s ceiling at 10-wins.
From preseason camp to the bowl game, the Irish were faced with key injuries that required the team to pick up and move on without some of their key personnel. Ultimately, that did the Irish in. Not just in the Fiesta Bowl, but against Stanford and Clemson as well.
But that’s football.