Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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With the Notre Dame offense unable to play their top three receiving threats and with running back Armando Allen well below 100 percent, it’s not a complete surprise that the Irish offense struggled against Navy’s bend, but not break, defense.

What is a surprise is the complete collapse of the Irish defense, which was absolutely decimated by the Navy option attack, captained by quarterback Ricky Dobbs and driven by fullback Alexander Teich. Last year, fullback Vince Murray had a career day against defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s scheme. This year, against Bob Diaco’s 3-4 front, Teich (who lost his job last year to Murray when he was injured but regained it when Murray went down earlier this season) set a Navy record for a fullback with 210 yards on the ground, destroying the interior of the Irish defense and opening up things for Ricky Dobbs around the edge, where he scored three touchdowns and completed both official passing attempts for gigantic plays.

“You get what you deserve,” head coach Brian Kelly said immediately after the game. “Navy was the better team today. We had no answer for them.”

After 43 years of this match-up going solely in Notre Dame’s direction, Navy has now won three of the last four games against the Irish, turning this “rivalry,” not into a hotly contested game, but a seesaw leaning in Navy’s direction thanks to a precision option attack and a flawless game plan.

Here’s what we learned this afternoon.

1. If you can’t stop the fullback, you can’t beat Navy.

I mentioned it in the Navy preview, but had the wrong fullback listed. With Vince Murray out, Alexander Teich rammed the football down the Irish’s throat, completing obliterating any hope that the Irish had of beating the Midshipmen. If the Irish had to play “assignment correct football” to win, it was impossible after the dive play worked with such incredible success.

With Navy able to turn the dive play into a major weapon, they nullified any speed advantage the Irish defenders may have had, causing the Irish to read… then react, a dilemma that Ricky Dobbs was able to exploit to perfection for much of the game.

Watching tape earlier in the year, the Irish should have been able to notice Maryland using heavy A-gap blitzes into the teeth of Navy’s line to success, but the Irish steered clear of sending blitzers and deferred to a conservative game plan. But when Bob Diaco did dial up a blitz, Niumatalolo had the perfect play designed — a screen pass for a touchdown in the first quarter, and a deep throw that beat Gary Gray for Dobbs’ second completion.

Schematically the the game was lost on the dive play, with the middle of Notre Dame’s defense unable to stop the first piece of the triple option.

2. There isn’t a quarterback controversy… yet.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly told everyone that’d listen that the Irish needed a very good game out of quarterback Dayne Crist if the Irish were going to win.

“The quarterback has to put the ball on guys,” Kelly said. “He’s got to be on his game. If he’s on his game, you know, we’ll be fine. But if he’s not efficient throwing the football, obviously we’ll have to struggle at times.”

The Irish offense was stuck in neutral because there continue to be growing pains for the Irish on the offensive side of the ball when Crist hits a cold patch. Crist’s two interceptions were both critical mistakes, the first an absolute back-breaker at the end of the first half, throwing into a heavy zone from deep in his own territory with under two minutes to go. The second interception Crist looked off an easy completion on a drag route to TJ Jones and instead threw to a well-covered Duval Kamara, with Navy cornerback Kwesi Mitchell stepping in front for an easy pick.

It’s clear that Dayne Crist is the most talented quarterback on the Irish roster. What’s also clear is that Crist is struggling to make the right decisions, something you just can’t do in a QB-friendly spread offense.

Credit Kelly for bringing in freshman Tommy Rees, and credit Rees for leading the Irish down the field for an impressive touchdown drive, albeit against a vanilla scheme. Rees took the underneath throw because it was available and a high-percentage play. While Rees didn’t take the shots down the field that Crist does, he still managed to complete six of his seven throws for an average of 11.3 yards per throw. Crist checked away from the shorter attempts, choosing downfield receivers, and averaged less than six yards per throw, made even worse with two interceptions.

It’s only Crist’s eight start at quarterback, but he’s got to start showing better touch on short patterns and better recognition of what defenses are trying to do.

3. Different year, same result for the Irish secondary.

Even with the Irish cornerbacks playing some of their best football coming into the game, Notre Dame was victimized all three times Navy dropped back to pass. The Irish knew they needed to avoid giving up the big play when Navy decided to put the ball in the air, and instead they gave up three big ones on all three attempts.

Credit a great play call on Dobbs’ first attempt, and credit Teich for a wonderful one-handed catch on a screen pass where he weaved through Irish defenders before rumbling to the end zone. But the Irish secondary looked terrible on the next two throws Dobbs made, with safety Harrison Smith panicking and taking a 15 yard interference penalty when he was in good enough position to simply turn and look for the football on a reverse pass. On a 2nd and 12, the Irish defense should have been prepared for something a bit off balance, and Smith’s played too much football to make the same mistakes repeatedly.

On 3rd and 6 on Navy’s first drive of the second half, the Irish also got beat one-on-one with Gary Gray tripping on himself, tugging his way back into position, then stumbling again as Dobbs lofted a pass high in the air for receiver Greg Jones to run under. Gray had no help over the top, but the Irish came up empty all three times Navy threw the ball — in situations where the Irish could have been expecting a pass.

4. The Irish might have lost the heart of their defense.

While Brian Kelly didn’t have a medical update yet, the Irish are likely bracing for the worst case scenario with nose tackle Ian Williams. Williams was seen on the sidelines with tears in his eyes and his leg in an aircast after an injury in the third quarter took him off the field.Early indications pointed to a knee injury, not a promising thing for a 315-pound defensive tackle.

Williams has been the heart of the defensive line and a true run-stuffer up the middle for the Irish, putting together a terrific senior season that had moved Williams up the draft boards of many NFL teams, and turned him into a team leader.

The loss to Navy likely weighs heavy on Williams, who had an added chip on his shoulder this week after Williams landed in the doghouse last year after the Navy game when he openly commenting that the Irish were “out-schemed” in the 23-21 defeat. According to Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune, Williams was banned from defensive meetings by then coordinator Jon Tentua for insubordination. (A decision that likely didn’t help as the team folded down the stretch.)

5. The Irish will need tunnel vision for the rest of the season after this loss.

There’s nothing quite like a loss to Navy to turn people against a football team, and this one brings the collective back down to the low-water mark of the 2010 season. For the Irish to keep trending upwards, they’ll need to plug their ears, get back to work, and ignore just about everything that’ll be said about them for the next 48 hours.

The defense that had made great progress throughout the year didn’t turn into a bunch of bums this weekend. An offense that was shy its best three receivers and playing with its starting running back well-below 100 percent didn’t turn into an abomination. Take the name off the front of the jersey and the Irish just lost to a 5-2 team that had lost its two games by a total of 11 points and has a quarterback that was a preseason Heisman contender. The Irish turned the ball over twice, got stuffed inside the one-yard line in the red zone, and couldn’t get a defensive stop when they absolutely needed to get one. That’s a recipe for defeat, service academy or not.

Still, the Irish loss shows that Notre Dame has a long way to go within its transformation.

“I like where we’re going,” Kelly said. “I don’t like losing football games along the way.”

For the Irish to stop losing, they’ll need to shake off some remnants that still cling to this team. Those remnants include too many finesse offensive linemen, a group of safeties that don’t play either the pass or the run very well, and a linebacking corp devoid of play-makers.

 

 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.