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The obvious, shortened version of this thought process ties every piece of the receivers’ and tight ends’ development to the shift in quarterbacks. That change certainly aided their production, but so did their development.
A year ago, Brandon Wimbush’s inaccuracy was exacerbated by repeated drops from the likes of Chase Claypool and Alizé Mack. Some of those passes were not perfectly on target, but many hit the target in the hands and yet fell to the turf.
This season, Claypool made twisting grabs contested by defensive backs. Mack held onto passes despite immediate hits. The receivers and tight ends improved on their own, improvements made more evident by Ian Book’s aptitude distributing the ball.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
While discussing the quarterbacks a couple days ago, this space featured a quote from Irish head coach Brian Kelly following the victory in week two against Ball State. In it, Kelly claimed Notre Dame’s leading receiver had nine catches entering 2018. It was only hyperbolic in that senior Miles Boykin had 12 last season and 18 in his career. If Kelly were speaking specifically to Boykin’s regular season output in 2017, nine was indeed accurate.
It remained quoted as nine, rather than with a usual parenthetical correction, because it so aptly underscored the Irish inexperience at receiver and tight end entering this season. Whether Boykin had nine or 12 or 18 receptions, it was not many.
When Boykin established himself as the leading receiving in spring practice and even more so in the preseason, it seemed to serve as a reminder of Claypool’s continued inconsistencies. When sophomore Michael Young suffered a hamstring injury in August, it seemed to lower the ceiling on the passing game even further, pulling the only-known speed threat and replacing it with Chris Finke’s good hands, but not much more.
Book changed those perceptions, but arguably not as much as the receivers themselves did throughout the season.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Let’s continue to use Claypool as the driving example, and let’s acknowledge a mistake in analysis from yours truly. At Northwestern to start November, Claypool had a catch on the second Irish drive, gaining 16 yards and a first down. A possession later, he pulled in another for 19. Both were quality, physical plays. Then he went silent for more than a quarter, targeted just once. Claypool was no longer getting separation as he had to begin the evening.
The halftime score of 7-7 left one wondering how Notre Dame would find needed offensive output. One colleague posited it would come from Claypool. This response? “He already has his two big catches for the day. He’s good.”
To that point, Claypool had not strung together consistently-good performances at any point in his career. Last season he exceeded three catches just twice, and they were separated by six weeks. Through this September and October, he had established five as his lofty ceiling, reaching it in each of the two weeks preceding the trip to Lake Michigan. Expecting Claypool to break out in the second half of a close game was a hope based on little evidence.
Then he put together six catches for 95 yards in that half alone. Two weeks later, a similar stat line came in Yankee Stadium. Claypool has not yet shown a reliable ability to reach his best, but in Book’s last five starts, the junior receiver’s floor became five catches for 60 or so yards. That is production the Irish will gladly take.
“He has really ascended this year,” Kelly said following that Northwestern showing. “… The way he practices, anybody who has been around the game knows the great players are great practice players. The way he practices now carries over to the way he plays, and it’s showing itself in his maturity and the way he practices.”
Similar growth has been seen from the rest of Notre Dame’s primary passing targets.
Boykin’s breakthrough came as September turned to October, making 11 and eight catches in back-to-back weeks, each breaking triple digits and reaching the end zone. Before last year’s Citrus Bowl heroics, Boykin had never made as many as three catches in a game. At this point, he has done so in eight straight. Senior Chris Finke has gone from only one game with multiple catches in 2017 to managing such in every game in 2018.
Miles Boykin: 54 catches for 803 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Chase Claypool: 48 catches for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Chris Finke: 47 catches for 547 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Alizé Mack: 34 catches for 349 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Cole Kmet: 14 catches for 151 yards.
Michael Young: 7 catches for 138 yards and 1 touchdown.
Kevin Austin: 5 catches for 90 yards.
Nic Weishar: 3 catches for 10 yards and 2 touchdowns.
WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
This newfound consistency, plus a big play or two from the tight ends. That is where a mismatch may be found.
Such an added dimension has been lacking in part because the receivers have played so well, in part because sophomore Cole Kmet has battled a lingering ankle injury, and in part because it is a difficult aspect of the game in general, let alone for a first-year starting quarterback without the greatest deep ball.
Kelly has spoken of slipping in a speedy freshman to create a deep threat and put pressure on the Tigers’ safeties.
“We’re looking for maybe one speed guy that could do some things for us in a limited role,” Kelly said last week. “… We’ve got a couple guys on audition. We’ll see if it’s a gong show or if there is someone that can up and do something.”
The thought feels manufactured, something to motivate the freshmen through this month and possibly make Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables think for a night. There is a reason it has not happened yet this season, and that is the Irish know what they may have at tight end.
“Chris Finke was clearly established at that position (where a freshman could step in),” Kelly said. “Our ability to use a tight end as the next guy in at the position in terms of how we were going to run our offense …”
In other words, Finke is backed up by Kmet, not by freshman Braden Lenzy or Lawrence Keys. Kmet’s or Mack’s athleticism and size could put a Tigers safety in a compromised position, creating a 30-yard shot downfield against the defense that ranked No. 11 defending those this season.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
A tricky question to ponder until knowing whether Boykin and Claypool head to the NFL or not. Finke is staying, Mack is going, and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar is out of eligibility. The decisions affect the position’s experience, not as much its depth, considering 11 receivers and six tight ends (counting Mack and Weishar) currently populate the roster with two more receivers expected to sign National Letters of Intent in less than a week.
This discussion will shift greatly a month from now. As soon as Notre Dame’s Playoff run ends, one way or another, the Irish running back room will revert back to what it was in August.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Treading water until the return of a flashy big-play threat who had never shown any semblance of consistency, a reputation underscored by his unspoken four-week suspension to start the season.
The Irish could not wait for senior Dexter Williams to return from that forced sabbatical, and with sophomore Jafar Armstrong and junior Tony Jones around, they did not need to, but neither represented the same potential as Williams.
The duo combined for 111 total yards against Michigan before Armstrong broke loose a bit against Ball State (66 rushing yards, 61 receiving) and Jones did so a week later against Vanderbilt (118 rushing, 56 receiving). They kept things afloat, and that has been forgotten due to Williams’ eventual eight-week explosion. It should not have been. Considering how stilted Notre Dame’s offense was in those two one-possession victories, it is not hard to fathom a loss if not for those respective dual-threats out of the backfield.
To a degree, such an absence was expected; those showings the welcome Irish surprise. Armstrong is a converted receiver, a first-time contributor. Jones proved steady when healthy in 2017, but he had never produced more than 59 yards in a game, let alone nearly triple that.
“Jafar is developing each and every week,” head coach Brian Kelly said following the 24-16 win against Ball State. “You saw his versatility again. … He’s learning a lot every week. There’s new experiences for him each and every game that he plays in. This is just accumulating reps for him, game reps, learning as he goes. He’s got some really good skills.
“Tony Jones, we just need him in there, consistency, play at that high level. I think he can be an outstanding back. We just got to get that on a more consistent basis.”
That was the world Notre Dame lived in for four weeks, one where the running backs needed to learn, needed to be consistent. Not one where they ripped off 45-yard touchdown runs against a Stanford front …
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As Williams did on his first carry of the season, and he has hardly looked back since. Not much more time needs to be spent on what the senior has done in a truncated season. Averaging 6.63 yards per rush, Williams gained 941 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in eight games. Both Pittsburgh and Northwestern bottled him up, but that came at the cost of their passing defenses.
The conversation around Williams has focused on his return from suspension, the second notable misstep in his career, complementing injuries and lackluster pass blocking. That conversation is warranted. But so is realizing just how much Williams progressed in on-field ways this season. He had never before touched the ball more than 10 times in a game. His 2018-low came against the Panthers, 15 touches for 33 yards. That durability and reliability comes from more than a simple flip of the proverbial switch.
And it pales in comparison to the 202 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries Williams put together against Florida State.
“His attention to detail now is so much better,” Kelly said the day after that performance. “His working out, his taking care of his body, all the things that championship athletes have to do, Dexter is doing that. Now put the athleticism in front of that, and you’re not surprised that he’s having the kind of success that he’s having.”
WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
As much as Williams can muster, and then some from Armstrong, plus a bit of physicality from Jones. And yes, that is a lot to ask.
Going by numbers beyond sheer yardage allowed per game, the Tigers have the best rush defense in the country. As it pertains to Williams and his penchant for breaking long runs, Clemson limits rushing explosiveness better than 129 other teams in FBS. Note: There are a total of 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The Irish are going to struggle against the Tigers front. Any chances at chunk rushing yardage will be few and far between. In a way, the afternoon of Dec. 29 may need a heavy dosage of Jones’ bruising style to loosen up the defense before Williams can then chip away at it.
The best rush defense Notre Dame has faced with Williams included has been Northwestern (No. 19 by advanced metrics). The Irish gained 132 yards on 37 carries (kneel downs adjusted) against the Wildcats, numbers that may need to be satisfactory against Clemson. Before junior quarterback Ian Book’s game-clinching 23-yard touchdown run in the final minutes, the longest Notre Dame rush was Williams for 19 yards.
To get to 132 yards without relying on big plays showed how devoted Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long was to the run that evening along Lake Michigan. Such stubbornness kept Northwestern honest, eventually allowing the passing game to open up.
Expecting more than a hard-nosed and frustrating effort against possibly the most-talented defensive line in a generation is to pin hopes on the exceedingly unlikely. A serviceable showing, though, would keep Notre Dame in the mix at the end of the month.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Without Williams next season, the thoughts will again return to the two-headed possibilities of Armstrong and Jones, with current freshmen C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith their backups.
Of all the position groups to come in this series, this one will clearly feature the greatest disparity between where Notre Dame was and where it is. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the difference can be just about summed up with one statistic …
Through three games, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had completed 48.84 percent of his passes.
In his eight starts this season, junior quarterback Ian Book completed 70.04 percent of his passes.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
With Wimbush at the helm, the Irish have gone 13-3. For all the criticisms levied at the former starter, that gets overlooked too often. Nonetheless, this was a position of concern entering the 2018 season. Certain preseason practices amplified that worry tenfold. While Wimbush could move the offense, he did so inefficiently and not necessarily within the wanted parameters of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s design. Wimbush’s playmaking was needed against Michigan, but its inconsistent nature made it a perilous crutch to lean on all season.
“We needed Brandon against Michigan because of Michigan’s defense,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in the postgame scrum after beating Wake Forest 56-27 in Book’s first start of the season. “The whole offseason was focused on getting Brandon ready to beat Michigan.
“(Running backs) Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones were not ready. (Freshman receiver) Kevin Austin wasn’t ready. Our leading receiver had nine receptions coming in. This offense was not mature enough going into the Michigan game. The playmaker on our offense was Brandon Wimbush. It needed to center around him to beat Michigan.”
Then, as Armstrong began to break out and Jones remained reliable, as Austin did not do much more than flash on the field because senior Miles Boykin was playing so well it limited the freshman’s snaps, as Chase Claypool and Chris Finke became more consistent, the Irish could turn to Book, which brings this discussion to …
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Set for at least the next season.
Trotting out a viable passer against Clemson’s passing defense, a unit which ranks No. 6 in the country by advanced metrics.
Leaning on a quarterback proficient enough it is conceivable — maybe not likely, but realistic — the Irish can pass their way past the Tigers, because running by them is even more improbable.
Book has his flaws — a few rash decisions yet (see: red zone, Los Angeles Coliseum), does not always recognize coverage wrinkles (namely, drop ends), a questionable deep ball — but his ability to operate within Long’s system has made Notre Dame’s a downright dangerous offense. With Book starting, the Irish have averaged 36.6 points per game this season, which would be a program high tracing back to 2005, when Brady Quinn led an offense scoring 36.7 points per game. That’s flattering company.
Barring a Cotton Bowl collapse, both Book’s completion rate and passer efficiency this season should break the records set by Jimmy Clausen in 2009. Again, a complimentary comparison.
When Quinn and Clausen were putting up those numbers, they were both third-year starters, not first-timers thrown into the mix midseason. Book has more to learn, more maturity to develop, more nerves to steel.
“Every game’s different, every game presents itself in a different fashion,” Kelly said earlier this month. “That was his first rivalry game against the Trojan helmet and the mystique of the Coliseum. It may not be big for you because you’ve been to the Coliseum many times and when you walk in there that’s nothing to you. That’s the first time he’s been in that stadium. That’s the first time he’s played in that game. That’s different for a 20-year-old.
“He needed to experience that. He has. He’ll be better for it moving forward.”
WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
Book’s best performance by yards was in the finale in that Coliseum, throwing for 352, also breaking 300 at Northwestern (343), Navy (330) and Wake Forest (325). It seems a coincidence his best yardage games come away from South Bend, but if it is anything more than that, well, JerryWorld is as different from Notre Dame Stadium as one can get. (What’s AP Style? JerryWorld, Jerry World or Jerryworld?)
He threw four touchdowns against Stanford and a pair in his seven other starts, avoiding adding an interception against only Wake Forest, Stanford and Northwestern.
His completion percentage peaked at 81.2 and 81.8 in back-to-back games against Pittsburgh and Navy, but remained above 60 percent in his next two starts, at Northwestern and against Syracuse.
If Book combines those bests — something like Wake Forest’s 325 yards, two touchdowns, 73.5 completion rate, no interceptions — then the Irish will have a genuine chance against the Tigers.
“He’s still evolving as a young quarterback and there’s going to be a couple games where he’s not at his best each and every week but his ‘B’ game is pretty good,” Kelly said. “We’re just going to need his ‘A’ game for a couple weeks.”
Producing that ‘A’ game will be difficult. If sticking to advanced numbers, Book has not faced a passing defense better than USC’s No. 33.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Presume Wimbush transfers. For storyline concerns, Miami (OH) would be preferable, reuniting with Chuck Martin, the second Irish quarterback to do so, though Wimbush and Martin know each other from recruitment only. The RedHawks need a quarterback with Gus Ragland’s career concluded.
Either way, a Wimbush transfer leaves the Notre Dame depth chart at three next season: Book, current freshman Phil Jurkovec and current three-star commit Brendon Clark.
Bowl season can beget silly season, a month of idle time leading to far too many conversations about April’s draft, roster decisions, unlikely offensive wrinkles and so forth. In that respect, Notre Dame making the College Football Playoff diminishes those concerns. With so much at stake, there is no chance the Irish have to worry about any players sitting out the bowl game to declare for the NFL draft earlier than early.
West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, for example, has opted to miss the Camping World Bowl to prep for the draft process. A first- or second-round pick, Grier’s decision has merit, and it is one undoubtedly somewhat inspired by the injury to former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith three years ago.
Judging Grier or Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary, a possible top-10 pick, is an exercise in ego for anyone who has not been in those shoes. Rather, simply accept it as a fact of life in 2018.
The Irish do still need to put up with the agents and natural wonderings inherent to the NFL draft being within sight on the football calendar. Notre Dame tries to ready the pertinent players for that process for months so as to lessen the load now.
“We lay out a timetable where we don’t get into distractions,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “We’ve had some success with players that have had to answer these kinds of questions of when you deal with the agent and how you deal with it. We take the time in spring to sit down with all of our guys and talk through a timetable of how to handle it and how we will help them with it.
“They’re in no stressful situation as we prepare right now. Their parents can handle any decisions for them relative to representation. We will handle evaluations for them and inquiries. They know that we will put them in the best position moving forward, so they can focus on what’s most important.”
Those evaluations will help inform the decisions of five players in particular — presumably those requests were on the behalf of receiver Chase Claypool, cornerback Julian Love and ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem with a fifth included, as well — while the coaching staff balances those expected results and the returns of a few current seniors with the pending haul in next week’s early signing period.
Kelly said 10 incoming freshmen will enroll early among 21 current commitments. Just like last offseason, there will be subsequent roster math, but that can wait until those national letters of intent have arrived signed and sealed.
Opponents’ bowl dates, times, spreads, etc.
With Navy’s 17-10 loss to Army on Saturday, so ends the regular season. Now eight Notre Dame foes ready for seven bowl games, listed in chronological order:
Wake Forest vs. Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 22 at 12 ET as a 5-point underdog with a combined point total over/under of 73.5.
Vanderbilt vs. Baylor in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 at 9 ET as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 55.
Syracuse vs. Grier-less West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 at 5:15 ET as a 1.5-point underdog with an over/under of 68.5.
Michigan vs. Florida in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29 at 12 ET as a 7.5-point favorite with an over/under of 51.
Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati in the Military Bowl on Dec. 31 at 12 ET as a 5-point underdog with an over/under of 53.5.
Stanford vs. Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 at 2 ET as a 6.5-point favorite with an over/under of 52.
Northwestern vs. Utah in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 31 at 7 ET as a 7-point underdog with an over/under of 45.
What is going to be remembered as the most memorable moment of the 2018 season? 2012 had the goal line stand and the triple-overtime Pittsburgh game. — @cmupensfan
This question has percolated in my mind for two weeks, and I have yet to land on an answer. Dexter Williams’ 97-yard touchdown at Virginia Tech? Jalen Elliott’s pass breakup against Vanderbilt? Maybe that moment has yet to arrive?
If 2018 will be remembered for any singular item, it will be the quarterback change three weeks into the season. Kelly made a gutsy move, and it paid off better than could ever have been hoped.
What stat of the season (aside from the W-L record) are you most surprised/shocked by? — @TheBookofChaz
Again, no ready answer presented itself, but in combing through the season book, two did stand out. They never became season storylines like Ian Book’s historic completion percentage or Williams’ undeniable success once he got on the field.
Did you realize Notre Dame gave up only seven passing touchdowns this year? Let’s give context to that number: Last year the Irish gave up 12 scores through the air, including two to LSU. In 2016? Twice as many as this season. And in 2012? A total of 11, with four coming against Alabama.
In other words, this defense has played as well against passing attacks as 2012’s did.
Secondly, a season like this can be skewed by the slightest of things. In a game with a misshapen ball, that is often forgotten, and it is worth remembering that when realizing Notre Dame lost only three fumbles this season, having laid the ball on the ground eight times.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING
— The ‘Notre Dame can do this, right?’ Mailbag
— A statistical comparison: The Best Notre Dame offense of the decade
— A statistical comparison: How much better is Notre Dame’s defense than last year’s?
— Kelly wins Coach of the Year honor; Love, Mustipher up for positional awards
— Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes awards
— Notre Dame names Ian Book as MVP
— Notre Dame and Clemson’s redemption stories clash
— Notre Dame unveils ‘Rush 4 Gold’ uniform for Playoff
— Drue Tranquill named 2018 Wuerffel Trophy winner
— Let’s talk Clemson ($)
— The moment Alohi Gilman knew Notre Dame was the right choice
— Jaylon Smith on skipping bowl games
— Injured Duke DT Cerenord gets extra year from NCAA
— Mike Gundy reimburses better who lost money on Oklahoma State win total