Tag: Robert Blanton

Robert Blanton

Robert Blanton and Darius Fleming selected in fifth round of NFL Draft


Two more former Irish players had their names called in the NFL Draft today, with Robert Blanton and Darius Fleming getting selected in the fifth round of the draft. That makes four players selected from the 2011 squad, joining first-round picks Michael Floyd (#13) and Harrison Smith (#29).

Blanton went with the 139th overall pick to the Minnesota Vikings, joining Smith in the Twin Cities as the Vikings revamp their secondary. Fleming was the 165th pick in the draft, joining Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco squad and a 49ers defense that was already a dominant unit. He’ll join former teammate Ian Williams in the Bay Area.

Blanton’s selection by Minnesota continues a wave of Notre Dame players on the Vikings roster, joining John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Smith. After playing cornerback for the Irish, Blanton’s projected as a safety at the next level, but will likely be given a chance to play corner in the Vikings Cover 2 defense under head coach Leslie Frazier.

Fleming opened some eyes with an impressive Pro Day showing. He’s the first Irish linebacker selected in the draft since Courtney Watson went in the second round of the 2004 draft. Playing with both his hand on the ground as a defensive end and as a ‘Cat’ linebacker in Brian Kelly’s 3-4 system, Fleming has also cross-trained as a inside linebacker in his draft prep, where the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Chicago native profiles. He’ll also have the chance to be an immediate contributor on special teams.

Jonas Gray, who suffered a major knee injury late in the season, still expects to hear his name called in the draft’s seventh round.

Five things we learned: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14

Andrew Hendrix Stanford

When you laid out the checklist of things Notre Dame needed to do to beat No. 4 Stanford on Saturday night, the objectives were quite clear. Limit mistakes, win the battle at the line of scrimmage, and eliminate turnovers — bedrock principles for winning football games.

Yet from the opening minutes of the Irish’s 28-14 loss to Stanford, things went wrong. Two penalties on the first two offensive plays. Missed blocking assignments. A quarterback running for his life. Failed red zone opportunities. A defense that tried to keep their team in the game.

“We got off to a bad start,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “We battled our butts off. But against a good football team, that’s not good enough.”

That bad start spotting Stanford 21 points was just too much to overcome, as Andrew Luck‘s four touchdown passes gave the Irish their first November loss under Kelly. It ends a once-promising regular season at 8-4, finishing the year on a downbeat, as the Irish await their bowl assignment.

Let’s find out what else we learned during No. 4 Stanford’s 28-14 victory over the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish.

The Irish offensive line got manhandled by the Stanford front seven.

A week after Boston College gave defensive coordinators a blueprint for bogging down the Irish passing game, co-defensive coordinators Jason Tarver and Derek Mason created their own, continually blitzing linebackers and pressuring the quarterback, something the Notre Dame offensive line couldn’t handle.

If dropping eight and nine men into coverage worked for the Eagles, bringing eight men and pounding the interior of the offensive line worked even better for Stanford. The Cardinal got five sacks and stuffed the Irish running game, limiting Notre Dame to under two yards a carry, and flustering both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix throughout the game.

After a sterling month of October, the Irish offensive line is clearly missing center Braxston Cave, and after an admirable performance against Wake Forest, it’s clear that Mike Golic Jr. isn’t the same player as the man he replaced. It all starts in the middle and Golic struggled throughout the game and for the first time this season, the Irish offensive line seemed to get overwhelmed, with both the running and passing games stuck in neutral and struggling to match Stanford’s intensity early.

Whoever the Irish end up playing in a bowl game (and most of the college football world is anticipating a Florida State – Notre Dame date in the Champs Sports Bowl), defensive coordinators will likely challenge the Irish front with pressure. Regardless of injuries, Ed Warinner‘s group needs to refocus their efforts and protect the quarterback.


We’ve got ourselves another quarterback controversy.

For the second time this season, Kelly made a quarterback change at halftime. This time, he might have launched an even bigger quarterback debate.

There’s a little more than a month between tonight’s game and any bowl game the Irish end up in, giving us plenty of time to debate just who should start the season’s final game. But with Hendrix finally given a chance to run the Irish offense, supporters of the athletically gifted sophomore saw all they needed to proclaim him the right man for the job.

His numbers are far from impressive — 11 of 24 passing, one touchdown and one very poor interception, but Hendrix sparked the Irish offense with both his running and throwing, driving the Irish to two second-half touchdowns and showing off a skillset that many Irish fans have been clamoring for all season.

The decision to give Hendrix a shot could’ve been interpreted a number of different ways: A kickstart to a heated QB battle in 2012, the final bitter pill for Dayne Crist, or Kelly simply looking to give the Irish a spark. However you interpret it, the Irish offense opened up, all while Hendrix reminded fans and coaches of the growing pains that come with a young quarterback seeing things for the first time.

It’s clear that Hendrix allows the offense to incorporate the option and use the quarterback as another weapon in the running game. It’s also clear that even though Hendrix can make all the throws, he’s far from being able to execute them properly. Still, the sophomore showed a ton of poise, made some nice passes and showed himself to be a powerful runner that’ll likely make this offseason a very interesting one.

Kelly said that “anything’s possible” for the bowl game, and he likely has no interest in deciding his quarterback until he’s done recruiting on the West Coast this week. But with the 2011 season book-ending halftime quarterback changes, we’ve created the main storyline for the next few weeks, not to mention the long offseason months before the Irish kickoff next September.


All things considered, the Irish defense held up well against the mighty Stanford offense.

While you can’t say they shut down the Cardinal, the Irish did hold Stanford to 28 points, the first team to hold them to less than thirty points all season. While Luck threw for four touchdown passes, he was continually under duress, and the Irish defense forced two turnovers and came close to having three more as an undermanned defense played pretty admirable football against an offensive front that has been very good all season.

It wasn’t Robert Blanton‘s finest hour as the senior cornerback struggled in the first half, committing penalties and getting beat in man coverage multiple times as Stanford sprinted out to a 21-point halftime lead. But the secondary tightened considerably in the second half until Zeke Motta slipped in broken coverage as Luck iced the game with a 55-yard touchdown pass to tight end Coby Fleener.

Without senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore and freshman Stephon Tuitt, the Irish relied on Aaron Lynch to anchor one defensive end position and while the freshman didn’t get a sack, he was in the backfield quite a bit and chipped in a team-high five solo tackles including one for a loss on the evening. The Irish defense provided the closest thing to offense in the first half, with Darius Fleming intercepting a luck screen pass and rumbling into the Cardinal red zone, only to have the Irish fail to get seven points when Rees missed Theo Riddick on a quick out pattern and David Ruffer inexplicably missed a chip-shot field goal.

They might not have won the game for the Irish, but Bob Diaco’s defense played well enough to win on Saturday.


Stanford’s playing surface is an embarrassment.

That a university with some of the world’s finest facilities can’t grow grass that withstands Northern California’s climate is beyond embarrassing. And that’s all you can call the natural surface inside Stanford Stadium, in horrific shape after some rain and three straight home football games turned the football field into a mud pit.

Both teams had to play on the same surface, but the grass clearly hurt Notre Dame more than Stanford. The Irish looked hesitant and a step slow, and a spread offense relies on the ability to make plays in space at full speed, something the Irish just couldn’t do when they slipped and slid all over the football field.

Notre Dame equipment manager Ryan Grooms knew full well that his players would need long cleats and excellent footwear to get through the football game. But there isn’t a cleat on the planet that could keep the Irish from sliding or falling, with a very unscientific hand count revealing a dozen plays affected by someone in an Irish jersey slipping and falling. That’s just too many players in a football game to be changed, and Stanford needs to take a bulldozer to their field and find a solution now, because it’s absolutely unacceptable.


Wins and losses are the ultimate barometer, but there’s been plenty of progress made this season.

Nobody is throwing a parade for an 8-4 regular season, clearly a disappointing end to a season that rightfully had BCS aspirations. The Irish played their four worst games on the days where the spotlight was the brightest: An opening loss in a made-for-ESPN storyline that had the Holtz family incredibly proud, a fourth-quarter implosion that catapulted Michigan’s season, the home dud against USC under the lights, and stubbing their toe in the first half against Stanford. Four opportunities to show this program is making progress, and four slip-ups that have some Irish fans asking those big-picture questions that get thrown around far too often amongst Domers.

Next season, the Irish will need to replace the engine of their offense and three-fourths of their secondary. They’ll say goodbye to two starting offensive linemen and two starting defensive ends. There are NFL question marks around players like Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o, two integral pieces to the Irish puzzle and two weapons that the Irish desperately need as they head into a meatgrinder of a schedule.

That said, it might be difficult to see it now, but the team is getting better. At one point in the second half — a half where the Irish held Stanford to seven points and 131 yards — the Irish lined up Lynch, Louis Nix, Troy Niklas and Ishaq Williams along the front four, with the four freshman all looking to be a huge part of a defensive renaissance that will help turn this program’s fortunes around. One of the biggest question marks surrounding Kelly and his staff was the ability to bring in top-flight recruits. The coach has proven skeptics wrong quickly, but more importantly, he’s also shown himself to be a very good talent evaluator, a far more important skill in recruiting.

For all the complaints about Crist and Rees — two quarterbacks Kelly inherited that didn’t fit his offensive system — the Irish took great steps forward this year on the offensive side of the ball, only to kill themselves with lapses in execution that doom a team when they play a quality opponent. While the sample size is incredibly limited, seeing Hendrix run the football and move the offense on the ground shows you that Kelly will eventually find the right quarterback for his offense, even if it takes him a few extra weeks to identify him.

As the Irish coaching staff take dead aim at skill position players that’ll infuse the depth chart with youthful talent the way last year’s recruiting haul helped the front seven of the defense, we’ll get a clearer look at what Brian Kelly wants his football team to be.

“I’m more interested in getting a football team that will compete for four quarters,” Kelly said after the game. “The rest of that stuff’s going to come. We’ll get the other things. I want guys who love to compete. Compete like they did tonight. I’m disappointed in the loss. We got off to a bad start. It came back to bite us in the end.”

Four losses are certainly disappointing, and incremental progress isn’t the kind of thing that wakes up the echoes. Yet there’s plenty of reasons to think things are getting better for the Irish, even if the ledger for wins and losses doesn’t quite show it yet.

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

Jonas Gray Navy

If there’s criticism, it should be of the constructive manner this afternoon, a day after the Irish let go of some frustration on Navy. The 56-14 thumping was the biggest beating of Navy since Tony Rice, Mark Green and Ricky Watters beat up the Midshipmen in 1987.

The victory was a complete mauling — with the Irish dominating nearly every facet of the game. The Irish averaged a gaudy 7.4 yards a play, put up 442 yards on offense and managed to keep the time of possession battle close against a Navy team that just about always dominates the football.

Defensively, the effort was even more impressive. After struggling against the Navy option last year, the Irish kept the ground game in check, keeping Navy consistently “off schedule,” holding the Midshipmen to an average third down of seven yards. Of the 50 runs Navy called, the Irish held 24 of them to two yards or less. That’s the perfect recipe to defeat a great offensive unit and a team that’s had Notre Dame’s number the past few years.

Let’s put the Midshipmen in the rearview mirror as we look at the good, bad and ugly of the Irish’s 56-14 beating of Navy.


Let’s hit this in bullet points:

* Michael Floyd: It was only the second time the senior had the opportunity to play against the Midshipmen, and he took advantage of his physical mismatch. Dominating on short throws and long, Floyd was the Irish’s best offensive player.

* Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray: Neither broke the long one, but they moved the chains and dominated the football game. After forgetting about the two-headed ground machine, the Irish ran far more often than they threw it.

* Tommy Rees, the game manager: Tommy will find his way into the “Bad” column too, but going 16 of 22 with a nice long touchdown pass is worthy of a mention. Rees was accurate with the ball on a day where the weather wasn’t perfect, and the Irish look ready to switch to their November mode of football, just like they did last season.

* The offensive line: That’s a sackless month for Ed Warinner‘s group, who dominated the line of scrimmage on Saturday. The Irish only had two third downs in the first half, converting them both.

* Austin Collinsworth: He was a special teams dynamo — making multiple tackles in kick coverage, a nice return on a short kickoff, and reminded us that he’s the kind of athlete that’ll get a shot to play once Harrison Smith departs.

* Manti Te’o: He was dominant in the middle of the field. He could’ve been in the books for 25 tackles if the game stayed competitive as he embodied the Irish’s nasty disposition. (His run-blitz for a loss was a thing of beauty.)

* Stephon Tuitt: The Irish aren’t sure what they’re going to do with Tuitt yet, reaping the benefits of his physicality both on the inside and outside of the defensive line. What they are sure of is that Tuitt has already turned into a physical mismatch — and it was obvious yesterday afternoon.

* Louis Nix: The big man also chipped in a big day, with six tackles and a half sack. Between Sean Cwynar and Nix, the Irish are in great shape down the stretch at nose guard.

* Robert Blanton & Jamoris Slaughter: Both members of the secondary played great games at the line of scrimmage, combining for 12 tackles and handling the outside of the option well.

* Dayne Crist: Kelly wanted to get him on the field a series earlier, but the senior quarterback looked good bouncing back from a terribly disappointing Saturday a week ago. (It would’ve been great to get him that touchdown on the QB draw.)

* George Atkinson: Even if he didn’t break another big one, the Irish averaged 30.3 yards a return. Very quietly, the Irish are creeping their way to the top of the statistical heap on kickoff returns.


It’s tough to be too critical about anything after that victory, but let’s officially pick some nits.

* Lateral Damage: Once again, the Irish lost the ball on an incomplete backwards pass. Blaming Rees is the easy thing to do, but Theo Riddick needs to take a better angle on the pattern and Tommy needs to be more accurate.

I think just about every Irish fan would be happy losing the backwards pass deep in the Irish’s own territory.

* Late interceptions: Rees threw a late interception with the Irish already up 49-7 on a 3rd and 6. Rees never should’ve tried to force the ball into the window he had, and his chinstrap slamming reaction showed how upset he was about it.

* Lack of breakaway speed: Theo Riddick tied a career long with his 37 yard catch down the sideline. That’s the good part. But he got caught from behind by a Navy safety. Not sure if Riddick is completely healthy, but either way, file that play under the “maybe he’s not a game-breaker” category.

* Lack of touchbacks: Kyle Brindza spent the first half of the year rocketing kicks into the end zone. Not sure if there’s something wrong or it was strategic, but Brindza didn’t have his regular fastball.

* Fill in the blank: I’m sure I’m forgetting something bad here, but I expect you all to mention it in the comments.


What could possibly be ugly after this victory? The Irish should be singing Kumbaya together after dealing with an ugly loss in a rivalry game, some hurt feelings, and a team meeting to clear the air.

At 5-3, the Irish need to prepare to hit the road for a night game in Winston-Salem. Get out of there alive, and we can start talking about running the table until Stanford.

IBG: And on to Air Force

South Florida v Notre Dame

We’re back with another edition of the Irish Blogger Gathering. If you’ve missed the last few, you’ve missed me comparing the Irish quarterbacking depth chart to TV’s leading ladies, Little Mac’s journey to beat Iron Mike, and other answers to questions that I’ve retro-fit to keep this blog family friendly and  my job safe.

This week’s questions are presented by the godfather of the IBG, the Subway Domer himself. I’ll do my best not to step in any bear-traps he’s left for me, and get us ready for the pregame six pack, coming sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

Alright, let’s get to the questions:

1. So, uh, the defense has looked pretty good. Give me a stat that most exemplifies what this defense is all about. Are we really as good as we think, or are we inflating the results?

Wait — I feel like I’ve done this multiple times. (Here and here.) The Irish running defense is good. Just ask Troy Calhoun.

““They are exceptional,” Calhoun said earlier this week. “Nobody’s been able to run the ball on them. Flat out, have not.”

Here’s the think with this Irish defense. It isn’t set up to dominate statistically, but rather to win games. When defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was asked about trying to generate more turnovers, he hinted at the fact that this defense was good enough not to need to engineer results.

“It seems like it should be the case every week, ‘Get turnovers, get turnovers’. Well, yes and no,” Diaco said. “There’s a particular style of calls that create more turnovers, and whether that will be functional to the team winning or not, you have to see. There is definitely a style of play that is more disruptive, but it could also end up being feast or famine.”

If you’re looking for something that exemplifies how good this Irish defense is, just consider that two years after Jon Tenuta thought he needed to bring blitz pressure on practically every down to keep the defense from imploding, the coaching staff thinks they’ve got a system and personnel good enough to not risk things by even bringing blitzes.

2. What concerns you the most about Air Force? How will ND be able to ease your fear?

The Falcons’ offense. While I just got done praising Diaco for his ability to stay committed to the foundation of the defense, the commitment to reading and reacting against Air Force could spell doom — Navy style, 2010.

Tim Jefferson and the Air Force offense is incredibly multiple. And Calhoun is a pretty incredible coach for Air Force to have on the sidelines. This guy was an NFL offensive coordinator, coming up under Mike Shanahan in Denver and then coordinating Gary Kubiak‘s offense in Houston. That’s pretty impressive.

As for easing my fear? Well — I’ll be just fine if I see the Irish defensive front dominating Air Force’s offensive line, blowing up the inside option game and forcing the Falcons to work the pitch and throw the ball. As for regular Irish fans? I don’t think there’s any ability to ease their fears. It’ll be white-knuckled panic until the final whistle, and once that happens, most likely a lot of complaints that it wasn’t a truly dominant victory.

3. You’re the long snapper. You get into a bit of a fracas on the field and break your hand… just how dumb are you feeling right now?

Like 2+2=5 dumb.

There is really nothing quite like getting dressed down by a coach for doing something stupid and undisciplined. I can vividly remember all the high-decibel lectures all the way back to grade school and through college and your tail stays pretty firmly tucked between your legs for a few days.

If Cowart isn’t able to snap because he decided to throw a right hook into a football helmet, well — he’ll be feeling pretty low for quite some time.

4. FYI: Tommy Rees will have 2 more years of eligibility after this year. How is Notre Dame’s QB situation going to shake out over the next couple of years?

I guess this is the million dollar question. Is Rees Matt LoVecchio or… well — that’s really the question. Assuming Rees continues to get better and start for the next two years, it could be Rees sitting at the top of Notre Dame’s passing records.  something that reminds me of the fact that Autry Denson is sitting atop Notre Dame’s rushing record books.

I’m not fully comfortable making assumptions, but you’ve got to think that Dayne Crist might choose to explore other options after this season. That’ll leave Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson to battle with Rees (and potentially Luke Massa), and that three-way race would almost have to favor Rees if he continues to handle his business throughout the second half of the season.

Good question and an admittedly bad answer. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

5. Subway Domer has always championed a “People’s Champion” if you will. This year, however, I just couldn’t make the call before the season began. We dig great hair, tattoos, and at least some playing time.  Who would you name as the Subway Domer People’s Champ? Keep in mind, at no point in time were guys like Te’o or Floyd eligible and that should help guide you.

I’m not sure that I completely understand the question, but that’s never stopped me before. People’s champion? I’ll throw out some nominees:

Jonas Gray, RB — It’s not a coincidence that after Gray dominated Screech in stand-up comedy, his confidence and running game exploded.

Trevor Robinson, RG — He’s quoted Billy Madison in an official UND.com video. Even though he said Entourage was his favorite TV show, he’s still a People’s Champ candidate for dropping a “Business Ethics” line.

Robert Blanton, CB — After waiting his turn to start, Blanton has brought some serious swagger to the field corner position. He’s a talker on the field and keeps it clean off. My kind of guy.

I’ll let you choose from there.

6. OK, talk to me about Saturday. Give me:

  • 2 reasons we lose — Turnovers and Special Teams.
  • 2 reasons we win — Better Talent and Air Force’s defense.
  • Any prediction you might have for the game — They will serve hot dogs in the press box.

7. I love hardware. There is no hardware on sale this week… bummer. Give me your thoughts on Notre Dame’s “rivalry trophy” situation, and would you change anything about it?

When the players don’t even known about some of the rivalry trophies, I think we’ve already said enough about their importance.

I’m a huge fan of rivalry games — and trophies like the Little Brown Jug, Floyd of Rosedale, and Paul Bunyon’s Axe are just awesome. (Can you tell I’m from Minnesota?) But maybe it’s because Notre Dame plays for shillelaghs, that it’s tough to get too excited about it.

But really, it’s Notre Dame. You really don’t need trophies to get up for that game. So what would I change? I’m not sure anything, but I agree with what I think you’re asking — there’s a way to probably do more with them.

BONUS: If the 4 Notre Dame scholarship quarterbacks could be quantified as a present or former country in the world; who they be?

I think my head is going to explode trying to even consider this question. If anybody here wants to take a stab at it, do so in the comments.


Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

Robert Blanton

Robert Blanton wasn’t taking the bait. After doing everything but putting on Superman’s cape in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State, NBC’s Alex Flanagan asked the senior cornerback if this was the best game he’s ever played.

“No, ma’am,” Blanton replied matter-of-factly.

The response is the perfect one for a veteran leader on a football team that needs to keep playing better if it wants to continue digging out from it’s 0-2 start. But his answer might be truthful as well, as it was Blanton that swung the momentum of the Irish season last year, when he came off the edge and blocked a Utah punt and returned it for a touchdown, opening the floodgates and turning around a season that had reached a treacherous tipping point after losing 28-27 to Tulsa.

With the season on the brink, it was Blanton who did it again, having a monster game with six tackles, an interception, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, and three passes broken up.

“You talk about guys that lead by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about his senior cornerback. “He also leads, but he’s probably one of our more emotional leaders out there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

Blanton was all over the field for the Irish, and with Notre Dame out to a big lead, the ball was in the air plenty of times, with Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins forced to throw 53 times. Late in the game, with Cousins deep in Irish territory and the chance to cut the game to a one-score deficit, Blanton stepped in front of the senior quarterback’s pass and snatched back the game’s momentum, sealing the victory with an 82-yard return to the Spartans 12 yard line.

The Irish certainly weren’t perfect, but Notre Dame convincingly beat the defending co-champs of the Big Ten and salvaged their season.

“You’ve got to make your own luck,” Kelly said after the game. “And we did.”

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State.

1. That’s the Notre Dame defense that everybody expected. 

After playing their worst quarter of football in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish defense went out and made an impressive statement against a team that needed to run the football to win the game. The Irish defense held the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries, a minuscule 1.3 yards per carry, with the two-headed monster of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker — a duo that ran for over 200 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Irish — held to only 53 yards.

More impressively, the Irish defense had continual pressure on Cousins. While the Irish only got two sacks, the defensive line and linebackers were in the backfield all afternoon, and the Spartans 12 penalties were mostly a product of not being able to stop an Irish pass rush with a reconstructed offensive line.

“I think our defensive mentality is such that they feel like they can play with anybody,” Kelly said after the game.

After imploding last Saturday in front of a prime-time audience, the Irish defense, led with 12 tackles by Manti Te’o, ten by Gary Gray, and eight by Harrison Smith, put on quite a show.

2. Against a stout opponent, the Irish running game beat the Spartans’ rushing attack.

While the Irish offense sputtered for most of the second half, the Irish’s opening drive dictated the tone of the afternoon, with Cierre Wood and the Irish pounding the ball down the Spartans’ throat for an opening drive touchdown that was just what the home crowd needed. After losing yardage on the game’s opening play, Wood had carries of 11 yards, 16 yards, two yards, and 11 yards before bursting around the corner for 22 yards and a touchdown. That’s 59 yards on the opening drive for Wood, or more than Florida Atlantic managed the entire game.

Wood scored two rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, but if you’re looking for an encouraging statistic, it’s that Jonas Gray led the team in yards, rushing 65 yards on only 12 carries, pounding the ball hard between the tackles and nearly breaking a few runs with his deceptive speed. More importantly, Gray showed he had Kelly’s confidence when he took carries deep in Irish territory with the game on the line.

Wood’s play early this year may be the most encouraging thing for this offense, but Gray stepping up as a capable No. 2 running back is what the Irish will need if they’re going to make a run this season.

3. Here come the freshman. 

With the Irish needing a spark, Notre Dame turned to two of its youngest players to provide it, with freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and running back George Atkinson making game changing plays.

“Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher,” Kelly said after the game. “I think he showed that today. If he didn’t get to the quarterback, he got held.”

What Lynch did was nearly replicate a performance from last spring that had Irish fans anxiously awaiting the pass rush specialist’s impact on the Irish defense. While it took until the season’s third week, Lynch was all over the field, playing defensive tackle in some alignments and rushing off the edge in others, constantly drawing penalties and chasing down Cousins when he was back to pass. Lynch made five tackles, had one sack and had an incredible six quarterback hits on Cousins. (Ethan Johnson was second with three.) With Lynch and Stephon Tuitt getting more comfortable, the Irish should be able to roll through four guys at the position, giving the Irish plenty of depth.

On special teams, Atkinson gave the Irish the lift that it needed, returning a first quarter kick 89 yards for a gigantic touchdown. It was the Irish’s first kick return for a touchdown since Armando Allen, and Atkinson was the first freshman to run one back since some guy named Raghib Ismail did in his debut season.

Atkinson’s speed was apparent, and watching the freshman running back pull away from Bennett Jackson and everybody else on the football field reminds you of his game-breaking ability. While the freshman was also guilty of laying a fumble on the ground late in the game, credit Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston for seeing an opportunity against the Spartans’ kickoff team and taking advantage of it.

In all, six freshman saw the field, with outside linebacker Troy Niklas forced into the starting lineup in place of Prince Shembo after the sophomore missed the game with a family medical emergency. Niklas contributed three tackles at the ‘Dog’ linebacker position and while he wasn’t perfect, he stepped up and contributed when the Irish needed it most.

4. Turnovers are still killing the Irish. 

There’s no celebrating three turnovers. The Irish’s two first half turnovers nearly kept the Spartans in the game if it weren’t for the solid work of Bob Diaco‘s defense, giving up only three points in “sudden change” situations. Tommy Rees was blinded-sided early in the game by defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman, and the hit jarred the football loose giving the Spartans the ball. Rees also threw a bad interception in the first half, at that point his seventh pick in seven quarters.

After the game, Kelly mentioned Rees’ interception and fumble were part of his maturation process, with the sophomore knowing immediately the mistake he made on the interception.

“Tommy’s developing,” Kelly said. “I’m not happy with the interceptions, but he knows what’s happening and he’s going to continue to get better.”

If you’re looking for a head-scratcher, John Goodman provided the weekly heart-attack for Irish fans, with the sure-handed senior muffing an easy punt return deep in the Irish territory when a fair catch would’ve basically iced the game. The ball slid through the seniors arms, the Spartans recovered, and were on the verge of scoring a touchdown that would’ve brought the game to one score when Blanton stepped in with his heroics.

Asked if Kelly can take the bad with the good as log as the Irish win the game, the usually slick-talking head coach became unexpectedly tongue-tied.

After stopping and starting, tripping on all the words that probably wanted to come out, the head coach managed to get his message out succinctly.

“I don’t. No.”

5. It might have been a little early to bury the Irish secondary. 

If you only watched the highlights of the Irish’s meltdown against the Wolverines, you’d be excused to think that the Irish secondary was one of the weaknesses of the team. But with Kirk Cousins forced to throw the ball 53 times, the Irish secondary stood up well against the pressure, with Blanton, Smith, Gray, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter all making their presence felt during Saturday’s victory.

While the story of the game is rightfully Blanton, Smith played an incredible second half, breaking up an impressive four passes by Cousins and covering the field sideline-to-sideline as the Spartans tried in vain to play catch-up. And after a game to forget, Gray shrugged off an early completion over his head to add ten tackles and one pass break-up.

“I think they played outstanding down the stretch,” Kelly said of his secondary. “Came up with a big interception. It’s nice when you’re coaching a team and they’re able to bounce back from adversity as a team, as a unit. As an individual, Gary Gray played one of his best games at Notre Dame since I’ve been here.”

Cousins was able to throw for 329 yards, not exactly minimal yardage, but the Irish secondary kept the big plays to a minimum. While B.J. Cunningham had 12 catches for 158 yards, his longest was the sideline fade on Gray. With the pressure on the Irish secondary, the group came up with an interception and eight pass breakups, a great day at the office for a group that needed to rebound.

In a season that still holds lofty aspirations, the Irish got the win they desperately needed.

“They just needed to finish,” Kelly said after the game. “Finish the game, find a way to win.”