Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Utah

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It was an analogy Brian Kelly didn’t want to use, but football is a lot like the game of life. Ebb and flow. Highs and lows. Good and bad. And after three solid weeks of nothing but negativity, Kelly’s Notre Dame squad went out on Senior Day and summarily dispatched Utah 28-3 on Saturday afternoon.

“Through the last three weeks, we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group,” Kelly said. “In those times, to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

After counter-punching much of the first quarter and spotting Utah a field goal on a failed fourth down gamble, the Irish got a big special teams play from cornerback Robert Blanton, who blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. From there, the Irish systematically beat down the No. 15 Utes, giving the Irish their biggest win over a ranked opponent since 2005.

Any hope Utah had of overcoming a 14-3 halftime deficit was eliminated thirteen seconds into the second half, when freshman Austin Collinsworth stripped Shaky Smithson on the opening kickoff and Tommy Rees found senior Duval Kamara in the corner of the endzone to push the score to 21-3. Kamara would add another touchdown catch in the third quarter to seal the deal.

After losing a plethora of starters and last minute games to Michigan, Michigan State and a shocking defeat to Tulsa, the Irish finally came unbridled, finding their stride.

“You saw today a football team that didn’t have on their shoulders the traditions and reputations and all the things that you have to worry about sometimes being a football player at Notre Dame, and they just flat out played,” Kelly said.

And for the first time since the gallows of 2007, the senior class walks away from Notre Dame Stadium with a win, celebrating with a student section that had no intent of leaving the field.

Here’s what we learned in Notre Dame’s commanding 28-3 victory over No. 15 Utah.

1) That’s a cathartic victory for Notre Dame.

As dark as the loss to Tulsa was for Notre Dame collectively, you can’t help but feel great for the players, coaches, students and staff at the university. Just a few weeks after a student mockingly suggested storming the field on Senior Day to celebrate the Class of 2010’s ineptitude after a near-certain loss to mighty Utah, students stormed the field in jubilance, unwilling to let go of the euphoric feeling that comes with winning a big game, “what though the odds be great or small.”

Brian Kelly spent the entire week talking about the foundation that this senior class was building for the football program, and after the game freshman quarterback Tommy Rees talked about how important it was to win a game for them.

“That was our number one goal,” Rees said. “Seniors have done an unbelievable job all year. Whether it be preparing us or keeping us focused, especially in the past two weeks. You know, to send them off with a win is truly special.”

2. That was the most important win for Brian Kelly of his career.

It’s easy to get caught up in hyperbole, but make no mistake — that’s the most important victory Brian Kelly’s ever had as a head coach. With the vultures circling his football program after the death of videographer Declan Sullivan, and his own fanbase openly questioning if Kelly and his staff were too “small-timey” or too hellbent on imposing his offensive system, Kelly and his lieutenants put together a flawless game plan.

“We wanted to get the game into the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “That was the most important. Our theme this week was get it to the fourth quarter and let’s put this nonsense to bed that you can’t win games in the fourth quarter.”

Thanks to excellence on special teams, an efficient offensive day, and a rabid defense, the only thing decided in the fourth quarter was when to let senior walk-on quarterback Matt Castello take some snaps.

A week after Tommy Rees threw the ball 54 times for 334 yards, the Irish ran it 29 times for 127 yards compared to just 20 throws for 129 yards. Even though the Irish were playing a Utah team that had been stout against the run and the Irish had shown no ability to move the ball with the run, Kelly made it clear that the offensive line was going to determine whether or not the Irish would win the football game.

“We had talked all week about there has to be a time and place where you win the game up front,” Kelly said about his offensive line. “It can’t be finesse football and fast break, and 30, 40 throws. There’s got to be time and place. This was a game where it had to be won up front. I think just putting it on their shoulders from that perspective, and committing to it and staying with it. This game was won up front.”

3. Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, two unsung seniors, led the day for the Irish.

With Carlo Calabrese and TJ Jones unable to answer the bell this afternoon, Brian Kelly turned to two reserve seniors that have drawn the ire of Notre Dame fans in the past, and the duo lead the team to victory. Both Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, playing in their final games in Notre Dame Stadium, played heroic football, large keys to the upset of Utah.

Smith’s 10 tackles playing out of position at inside linebacker led the defense in stops. Kamara’s two catches both resulted in touchdowns, capitalizing for an offense that was working at maximum efficiency. Kamara’s big day was a critical part of the Irish game plan.

“We told Duval for the last ten days, this is your game,” Kelly said. “You’re going to get matched up. You’re 6’4″, you’ve got to help us. You’ve got to be there for us. And he was huge.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Kamara led the Irish offense in receiving as a true freshman in 2007. After getting lost in the shuffle with the ascension of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, Kamara stuck with it and turned his final game in Notre Dame Stadium into one for the memories.

As for Smith, Kelly was incredibly candid earlier in the week about the linebacker he inherited from the previous regime. But one look at the emotion in the eyes of both Smith and his father as tears flowed during the pregame ceremony, and you know how important Irish football is to him.

4. Bob Diaco’s defense was astounding in every sense of the word.

If a coaches reputation can be made (or ruined) in one Saturday, Bob Diaco tested the theory during the Irish’s loss to Navy. Unable to solve even the most rudimentary elements of the Midshipmen offense, Diaco admitted that the 35-17 loss was his most frustrating as a defensive coordinator.

While Kelly caught some flack for keeping Diaco and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar away from the media this week, the move obviously paid dividends, as Diaco’s defense put together their most complete performance of the season, holding a Utah team that averaged 41 points a game to a single gimme field goal, one that was courtesy of an offense that turned the ball over on downs at midfield.

How dominating was the Irish defense’s performance? Consider that it was only after the score was 28-3 that Utah put together a drive that was over 24 yards. The front seven of the Irish defense completely dominated the line of scrimmage, holding a powerful Utah running game to 2.4 yards a carry and under 100 yards, even without interior stalwarts Ian Williams and Carlo Calabrese. The pass rush pressured Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn endlessly, and the secondary blanketed Utah receivers, with Harrison Smith making the best interception of his career and Gary Gray in the right place at the right time all day.

Diaco deserves all the credit in the world for dialing up a game plan that terrifically suited an Irish defense still incredibly thin due to injury. Even more impressive, the development of the defensive roster is incredibly apparent after 10 football games, with freshman like Prince Shembo and Kona Schwenke making big plays, and guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sean Cwynar rising to the occasion. It’s easy to see how defensive line coach Mike Elston, linebacker coaches Diaco and Kerry Cooks, and secondary coach Chuck Martin have put their fingerprints on this unit. Their performance might get lost in the shuffle, but it certainly shouldn’t tonight.

5. There’s plenty to like about this Notre Dame football team.

Brian Kelly was asked earlier in the year if he’d have been happy playing for bowl eligibility during the home stretch of the season, and it was clear then that he — like most fans — expected more from this football team. But this 5-5 Irish squad is certainly one that Notre Dame fans should be proud of.

Consider the decimation to the Irish roster. We’ve discussed it before, but the Irish beat their first ranked team in over five years without their starting quarterback, running back, tight end, two wide receivers, nose tackle, middle linebacker, outside linebacker and safety. That doesn’t happen with a football coach that doesn’t know what he’s doing.

While Kelly has been pointing at things that have been happening behind closed doors, he opened up a bit after the game about the process of transforming this football team.

“You’re still trying to lay the foundation of how you play this game,” Kelly said. “You play it hard for four quarters. You get it to the fourth quarter and you close. My career has been built on closing games out and building the mentality of that football team. That’s what we had to make sure we got done.”

Even more interesting, Kelly gave us a true look behind the curtain when he was asked if this was “the moment” that the Irish football team had been waiting for.

“You missed the point,” Kelly said. “It’s not a moment. It’s the culmination of what we’ve been working on since December. You don’t just pull these out of a hat. You don’t just wake up and go, ‘Let’s rise up today.’ It’s the consistency of an approach from a day to day basis and how we go to work every day. We’re not a finished product by any means, but we’re starting to develop the mental and physical toughness for the way you need to go and approach this game.”

That process continues next week as the Irish battle for bowl eligibility against an Army team that’s already earned its way to the postseason, the first time the Knights have done so n 14 years. Adding to the intrigue, Army runs the same triple option attack that absolutely flummoxed the Irish defense less than a month ago. This season may not have been the one Irish fans (or players and coaches) envisioned, but next Saturday’s date in Yankee Stadium, not to mention the upcoming clash in the Coliseum, remind us that there’s still plenty to play for this season.

What a difference 24 hours make.

No. 4 Notre Dame’s defense spurs it past preseason big picture predictions

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Looking through the first half of this preseason’s 40 predictions showed how much Notre Dame’s offense has changed with junior Ian Book starting at quarterback compared to initial expectations. Walking through the latter half, the defensive and big picture portion, shows …

21) Freshman defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin will manage at least eight tackles with 0.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
RESULT: The play of classmate Jayson Ademilola (seven tackles to date) may have always rendered this unlikely, but this projection went by the wayside for good and for certain when Franklin tore his quad from the bone in his first action, ending his season without a tackle.

22) The Irish will have two players with at least sacks.
23) Junior end Khalid Kareem (pictured at top, left) will lead Notre Dame in sacks.
24) Kareem will have more than eight sacks, the most by by someone in an Irish uniform since Stephon Tuitt’s dozen in 2012.
25) Speaking of 2012’s sacks, Notre Dame will match that season’s 34.
RESULTS: The spirit of all four of these was spot on, as the Irish pass rush has been more potent this season than any in recent memory. Even in 2012, when Notre Dame had Tuitt and Prince Shembo wreaking havoc, the overall effect paled in comparison to this year’s with senior tackle Jerry Tillery (seven sacks) leading the way, Kareem (4.5) making the biggest of plays and junior end Julian Okwara doing everything but notching a sack on each drive. Then come junior ends Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, not to mention Ademilola’s improving play, as well as his twin brother’s, end Justin.

Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was essentially unblockable against Stanford, tying a Notre Dame record with four sacks. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

The actual grading of these predictions is varied. Between Tillery and Kareem, it is likely the Irish end up with two pass rushers combining for a dozen sacks. Kareem could still lead that charge — he is only Tillery’s four-sack performance against Stanford away — and he could still top eight. Even if Kareem does not break eight, Tillery should, and that was the underlying intention of the claim.

As for the team total, Notre Dame is on pace for 27 sacks, with 16 thus far. This is more a sign of the times than it is a sign 2012’s pass rush was better.

“We’re much more interested in quarterback hurries and getting them out of the pocket and getting them out of rhythm,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said last week. “Today the passing game is a three-step passing game.”

Quarterback hurries are the most subjective of metrics, but being the one at hand, let’s compare 2018 to 2012 … Notre Dame is credited with 41 through seven games, including Okwara’s single-handed seven against Pittsburgh. In the run to 12-0 earlier in the decade, the Irish managed 45 quarterback hurries in 12 games.

The official record of these four projections is currently to be determined for all four, with the first likely to hit and the last likely to miss, leaving the two Kareem-specific speculations unknown yet. The underlying message of the four hits on three, though, if giving credit for such. Unfortunately, the ledger does not.

26) Notre Dame will give up more than 20 points three times, but its scoring defense will still allow fewer than 21.5 points per game, both being 2017’s marks.
RESULT: Threading the needle of such a specific dichotomy was going to be unlikely, yet, here we are. The Irish gave up 27 to Wake Forest — as hinted at — and 23 to Virginia Tech. All five remaining opponents average at least 23 points per game (Florida State) with Navy (28.0) and Syracuse (43.0) looming as the most-distinct threats to the Notre Dame defense, not to mention a bowl game against what is sure to be a high-powered offense, LSU possibilities notwithstanding.

Nonetheless, first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has schemed his way to an 18.71 points against average.

With 56 tackles, senior linebacker Te’von Coney (right) has led Notre Dame’s defense to outpacing even last year’s stellar unit. Coney has added 5.5 tackles for loss, the sack this pose celebrated, an interception and a fumble recovery in 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

27) Again using last season as the initial measuring stick, the Irish will allow fewer than 369.2 yards per game. In fact, let’s lower it to 350.
RESULT: That number is currently at 340.9. Opponents would need to average 362.8 yards per game in the remaining five games to bring the season-long average above 350. That could happen, given they combine to average 388.8 yards per game through six games apiece. (The fact that all five remaining opponents have already had their bye week speaks both to the incongruent timing of Notre Dame’s and to a potential scheduling advantage in the second half of the season.)

28) Opposing running backs will catch at least three touchdowns of more than 20 yards.
RESULT: The specificity of this thought is retroactively surprising, but even if it had been vague, it would have been wrong. First of all, let’s give credit where credit is due: Senior rover Asmar Bilal has outperformed all expectations, proving to be a genuine defender and suited, at least well enough, to the hybrid position. He may not remain there next year, but that will be due to a team need rather than his own ill fit, as may have been previously expected.

Through seven games, the Irish defense has given up just two touchdowns of greater than 20 yards: a 23-yard run to Wake Forest quarterback/receiver Kendall Hinton and a 39-yarder to Stanford running back Bryce Love. That’s it. Again, kudos is deserved by Lea.

29) Freshman linebackers Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer will not preserve a year of eligibility. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec will.
RESULT: Simon and Bauer have both exceeded the four-game barrier to preservation, while Jurkovec has appeared in just one game.  It would take two quarterback injuries for him to burn the season at this point.

Notre Dame junior safety Jalen Elliott’s greatest statistical contribution this season was two interceptions in the second week, but it was this pass breakup against Vanderbilt that may have saved an Irish victory. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

30) A Notre Dame safety will intercept a pass unlike in 2017.
RESULT: See junior Jalen Elliott, Ball State, twice.

31) Simon will make 10-plus tackles.
RESULT: A lack of comfortable leads combined with worthwhile play from Bilal have limited Simon to four tackles thus far. Let’s call that within range and leave this as to be determined.

32) Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and senior linebacker Te’von Coney will combine for 220 tackles.
RESULT: Currently at 102, the duo is on pace for 175 through 12 games. Stretching that to one bowl game raises it to 189. A Playoff run could jump it to 204. There just is not a viable reach for 220. Go ahead and call this wrong already.

33) The New York Yankees will not be swept in the American League Championship Series, guaranteeing Yankee Stadium hosts a game exactly one month before the Irish play the Orange there.
RESULT: If only the comma had been a period.

34) The best sporting event of the weekend before Thanksgiving in New York City will not be Notre Dame and Syracuse on Saturday, but rather it will be Connecticut and Syracuse rekindling Big East lore in Madison Square Garden that Thursday night.
RESULT: Obviously to be determined, but it would take something monumental to shift this take.

35) Nationwide win total unders … Texas Tech under 6.5, Washington State under 5.5, Arizona State under 4.5, North Carolina under 5.5.
RESULT: Texas Tech is already at 4-2 with Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor yet on the schedule. Mike Leach has proven to be a coach of absurd means in getting Wazzu to 5-1. The Fighting Herm Edwards started 2-0 but have gone 1-3 since to make that mildly interesting. And the Fighting Larry Fedoras would not reward anyone who actually made this wager because they cancelled a game due to Hurricane Florence, but the Tar Heels are unlikely to even reach five wins (S&P+ projects 3.2 wins), meaning the bet would have cashed no matter how they fared against Central Florida, which is to say poorly.

Considering the margins of these endeavors, 1-3 or even 2-2 does not count as a correct suggestion.

36) Nationwide win total overs … Virginia Tech over 8, Vanderbilt over 4.5, Northwestern over 6.5, Michigan State over 8.5, TCU over 7.5, Arizona over 7.5, Oregon over 8.5.
RESULT: If it was not for the Ducks, this might be an oh-fer, although the Commodores have hope of going from 3-4 to 5-7 if they can knock off not only Tennessee (for the third consecutive year), but also either Ole Miss or, more likely, Arkansas.

37) Notre Dame will not reach the top five at any point in 2018.
RESULT: These days, that should read, “No. 4 Notre Dame …”

38) The Irish will win more than 9.5 games.
RESULT: It is shy of bold to count this as correct, but for now it remains just likely. A 2-3 finish to this season would, however, be a collapse Kelly could not recover from.

39) Notre Dame will play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.
RESULT: If granting the logic it remains more likely than not the Irish lose a game this season, and not yet believing a one-loss Notre Dame would warrant Playoff consideration, then this could quickly become a 50/50 proposition between the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl.

40) At least 15 of these 40 will be wrong, the Prognosticator’s Paradox.
RESULT: If the trends continue as expected, these currently break down to a 17-15 record with eight unknowns. The 17th correct prediction is indeed No. 40 itself.

What is odd looking at these preseason thoughts is the Irish defense has been about as good as expected statistically speaking, yet it has felt more dominant than that, the sole reason Notre Dame held on against Michigan and Pittsburgh at the least, and arguably at Virginia Tech, as well, considering how that first half went.

It is that defense which has the Irish more in the national conversation than expected as the season enters its second half.

Revisiting predictions from Notre Dame’s preseason

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Checking in on predictions after seven of 12 games is not as obvious as doing so after six, but Notre Dame’s idle week came a touch later this year, and these are the side effects. Fortunately, the first half of this preseason’s 40 predictions have fared well enough to still trot out at this uneven midway point.

These predictions are somewhat summarized. If wanting more context on any of them, take a look back at the August entry in full: 40 predictions, 1-20 with an offensive focus.

1) The combined point total for Michigan at Notre Dame will come in below the long-held 48-point over/under.
2) The Irish and Wolverines will not even break 41 points.
3) The only way that total breaks 48 is with multiple defensive and special teams touchdowns.

RESULT: Three-for-three right out of the gate, even giving some warning of Michigan’s 99-yard kickoff return touchdown.

Prediction No. 3 also included a reminder of the new kickoff rules, wherein a kickoff fair caught within the 25-yard line places the ball at the 25-yard line. Mentioning it was intended to keep the change on minds before it mattered, and it did when Notre Dame’s Chris Finke signalled for a fair catch at the 12-yard line on a kickoff with only 2:18 left. The stands booed the decision, not remembering Finke had just moved the Irish to the 25-yard line with a chance to run out the clock or, at least, drain Michigan’s timeouts.

This may be worth remembering in November if Notre Dame once again finds itself in a close game.

4) Senior kicker Justin Yoon will make the biggest kick of his life.
RESULT: This has not yet come to be, but it certainly looked possible last weekend until junior quarterback Ian Book’s 35-yard touchdown pass to take the lead with only 5:43 to go. If the Irish drive had stalled there, instead, the subsequent field goal attempt would have tied the Notre Dame record and outdone Yoon’s own by a yard.

5) Sophomore quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis will attempt a pass on some variation of an unorthodox play.
RESULT: That has not happened and, frankly, given Davis’ recent quality and lack of quantity of playing time, it seems unlikely it does. Since this needs just one snap to become a correct prediction, though, let’s leave it as to be determined.

6) Irish running backs will have more catches than they did a year ago, then totaling 24 and led by Josh Adams’ 13 for 101 yards.
RESULT: To date, five backs have combined for 20 catches for 220 yards, led by sophomore Jafar Armstrong’s seven for 87 in only four games. For further context: Last year’s 24 gained only 134 yards. Mark this up as an almost certainly likely correct.

When Notre Dame sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong returns after the idle week from a knee infection that has sidelined him for three weeks, he can immediately set to bringing the Irish running game back toward 2017’s heights. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

7) While Notre Dame will not match last year’s prodigious rushing output of 3,503 yards and 269.5 averaged per game, it will not fall to the depths of 2013 and 2014. Averaging between 214.5 and 224.5 rushing yards per game sounds about right. A mobile quarterback deserves credit for some of that reduced regression.
RESULT: Even before the quarterback shift benching senior Brandon Wimbush, this was going to be wrong; the Irish averaged 164.7 rushing yards per game in their first three contests. For that matter, even before last week’s paltry 80 yards against Pittsburgh, this was going to be wrong, averaging 195.7 before that. As it stands, the current 179.1 average is very unlikely to jump the needed 35 yards.

8) Finke will match his career totals of 16 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
RESULT: Finke already has 25 catches for 305 yards and a score, so let’s call this one correct, and let’s follow up that judgement with a confession: This prediction was nearly followed by a caveat along the lines of, “but not by much.” The intention was to set the bar for Finke to contribute, but not to be a featured part of the offense. Through three games, that had somewhat born itself out, with 10 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown putting Finke on pace for 40 receptions, 404 yards and four scores.

The spirit of that unspoken qualifier was wrong, but predictions are not measured on the spirit of what was not said.

9) Two freshman receivers will outperform then-freshman Michael Young’s 2017 of four catches for 18 yards and a score.
RESULT: Kevin Austin has managed three catches for 39 yards, so he just needs that touchdown, but it is unlikely this reaches fulfillment unless Joe Wilkins has a notable one-day showing.

10) Junior receiver Chase Claypool will not finish second in receptions or receiving yards, as he did in both last season.
RESULT: Claypool is currently fourth in catches with 23 and third in yards with 261. In the similar vein as that Finke clarification, this Claypool projection was a subtle way of saying 2018 would be boom-or-bust for Claypool. That has been the case, but to such an aggravating extent, one can already expect another offseason of storylines discussing Claypool’s inevitable and supposed maturation.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar’s on-field contributions have come exactly as expected, rarely but in impactful moments. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

11) Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will catch at least three touchdowns, placing no lower than second among Notre Dame tight ends in the category. Last year Weishar caught nine passes, two for scores. That percentage could comically rise in 2018.
RESULT: Weishar leads the tight ends with two touchdowns to date, doing so on three catches. This is indeed somewhat laughable.

12) Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch will score twice against Notre Dame.
13) Stanford senior running back Bryce Love will equal that.
RESULT: The two combined for one touchdown, which speaks to Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s game planning to take away what an opponent usually relies upon to inflict damage.

14) Virginia Tech will be a primetime matchup.
15) The Hokies’ “Enter Sandman” entrance will be memorable, but not as daunting as the entrance of Mariano Rivera to the same tune.
RESULT: Never have there been two more surefire predictions.

16) Book will attempt fewer than 75 passes, his total of a year ago.
RESULT: Book has completed 103. This was wrong.

17) Sophomore offensive lineman Josh Lugg will start multiple games. Notre Dame’s offensive line enjoyed remarkable health last season.
RESULT: The logic to this prediction has proven valid with fifth-year left guard Alex Bars’ torn ACL creating a massive hole on the line, but it has not been Lugg who stepped in. Senior Trevor Ruhland has taken much of that load, and even among the sophomores, it does not seem Lugg will be the first choice. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has mentioned Aaron Banks repeatedly as Ruhland’s potential tag-team partner, a dynamic seen only momentarily through two games without Bars.

18) Multiple freshman offensive linemen will play thanks to the NCAA’s shift regarding eligibility concerns.
RESULT: Three factors indicate this will end up wrong. Close home games against Ball State, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh removed chances for spot appearances from reserve linemen. Among the freshmen linemen, only Jarrett Patterson traveled to Virginia Tech. Notre Dame has just one true home game remaining, meaning only Patterson, who has already seen some time, will be available in the other four, rather than the three other freshmen linemen.

19) Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer will not see much success this season.
RESULT: Kizer had his chance to prove this wrong. He did not, turning the ball over twice in needed action against the Chicago Bears in the season opener.

20) The Florida State weekend will include a 30th anniversary celebration of Notre Dame’s 1988 title team.
RESULT: There has not been much of one yet, and that is the only remaining true home game, so this seems a correct result waiting to happen.

MIDSEASON VERDICT: 7-5 with eight yet to be determined. The trends point toward 11-7 with two very much still unknown.

More than those numbers of relative success, what stands out is how the change to Book invalidated one prediction and compromised the underlying intention of another. His play changes that much of what was expected from the Irish before the season.

Similarly, even among offensive predictions, the aggressive scheming from Lea shows through. These are the stories of Notre Dame’s year, Book and Lea, no matter what was expected in August.

Refreshing Notre Dame’s Playoff possibilities

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For an old drinking buddy, Curtis missed the implied message when his first two texts went without response for nearly two hours. The delayed two-word reply somehow convinced him to send seven more in rapid succession.

“So what is the best loss Notre Dame could have knock it out of the Playoff and avoid getting embarrassed by Bama?”

I had not even read that text when my phone buzzed again.

“I hate that it’s probably USC. … To get that close and lose it would hurt, even if it’s the logical move to have an actually satisfying ending to the season.”

He soon pondered a loss to Syracuse, then to Northwestern, and finally to Navy, all in the span of seven minutes. Willie Taggart does not garner enough respect to even consider Florida State in a moment of what had to have been Monday-induced optimistic cynicism..

To be honest, I am still not clear on Curtis’ concept of a “best loss,” but he is not the first Irish fan I have heard take the pragmatic view of finding a fate that allows No. 4 Notre Dame to avoid Alabama in the postseason. This may be the best the Irish have looked in decades, but the same can be said about the Tide, and the latter of those two thoughts is a far more powerful statement. How “satisfying” would it be to lose to Alabama 42-14 again? Those overreactions would write themselves.

If I had offered Curtis more than two words in replies — “Define best” — they would have gone something like this …

“This isn’t the usual Navy. Something has gone wrong this year, and I haven’t done the deep dive yet on what. Could an eight-possessions apiece game get flukey? Sure, but that may require a three-interception day from Ian Book AND a special teams score for the Midshipmen.”

“There is some requisite respect for Florida State’s raw talent — 67 percent Blue-Chip Ratio this season, fifth-highest in the country — but that offensive line is such a sieve.”

“Northwestern cannot run the ball. At all. Which means Notre Dame will trot out its dime package pass rush — when Khalid Kareem moves inside and Daelin Hayes joins Julian Okwara on the ends — to notch a Brian Kelly-era record of seven sacks.”

And then the tone would have shifted. It still remains more likely than not Notre Dame loses a game this season. Going by ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Irish have a 64.51 percent chance of winning their next three, but only a 51.02 percent chance of beating both Syracuse and USC. S&P+ numbers set those odds at 63.23 percent and 48.36 percent, respectively.

Curtis, if Notre Dame is going to lose this season, it will likely be in mid-November. As an Irish fan seemingly content with that result — again, if forced to choose between a Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma or an Orange Bowl humiliation at the hands of Alabama, your logic merits consideration — the question you have to ask yourself is, would you rather spend your offseason griping about the unnecessary travel to face Syracuse or ruing the thought of two or three more years of JT Daniels connecting with Amon-Ra St. Brown?

For context on those two games:
FPI: Notre Dame has a 77.9 percent chance against Syracuse, 65.5 percent at USC.
S&P+: The Irish have a 78 percent chance against the Orange, 62 percent facing the Trojans. The Yankee Stadium contest currently has a projected margin of 13.6 points, while the Coliseum would see a game within 5.1 points, per S&P+.

Now let’s revisit the viable College Football Playoff scenarios after a weekend in which three Power-Five undefeateds lost, four top-10 teams fell and the maximum number of Power Fives to end the year unbeaten dropped to four …

THE OBVIOUS: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame all finish the year undefeated. The only possible aggrieved party would be Central Florida if it finishes a second consecutive season unblemished. While the Knights would deserve to push whatever narrative they want, they still would not make the College Football Playoff.

THE SEC STRESS: Tide sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is dealing with a sprained knee of some magnitude. If, hypothetically, that sidelined him against LSU or Georgia and Alabama lost, the selection committee has already granted entry to a team with that kind of an asterisk on its résumé, Clemson in 2016. Both Alabama and LSU or Georgia would be in position to make the Playoff, and that conversation would focus on leaving out either Clemson or Notre Dame.

It would remain untenable for the first excluded undefeated Power Five team to be the only one that does not require a conference to be considered “Power Five,” but that debate would at least be had.

WHAT ABOUT WITH A LOSS? Someone may yet come out of the Big 12 with just one misstep, be it Texas, Oklahoma or West Virginia. That team would have faced a notably more difficult schedule than the Irish, and would likely get in ahead of Notre Dame. The aforementioned SEC possibility would also come at the expense of the Irish at 11-1, if it came to that.

THE UNSATISFYING ONE-LOSS NIGHTMARE: Let’s keep calm across the country except in one specific tri-state area. If the season ended with a controversial Michigan victory at Ohio State and Notre Dame lost a tight game at USC, then the effects of time could put the 12-1 Wolverines into the Playoff ahead of the 11-1 Irish, all while the Buckeyes stage protests over the blown call that cost them the game.

Even Curtis would not handle that outcry well.

IT’S NOTRE DAME’S OFF WEEK …
And yours truly is strongly considering answering every question that shows up in the inbox at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Maybe they aren’t quite as bad as thought?

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Recency bias works both ways. Just two weeks ago, looking at Notre Dame’s schedule was largely accompanied by some chuckling. Continued winning from Michigan, a rebound from Virginia Tech and quick 2-0 stretches from both Northwestern and USC now make the Irish calendar appear a bit more formidable than not at all.

That is, of course, in part an immediate response to the Wolverines topping No. 15 Wisconsin, the Wildcats upsetting then-No. 20 Michigan State a week ago and USC ending the unbeaten streak of No. 19 Colorado.

Michigan (6-1): The Wolverines rose to No. 6 in the AP poll thanks to a 38-13 rout of the Badgers. Considering one Wisconsin touchdown came in garbage time and Michigan never trailed, even that score is closer than the game actually was. The Badgers managed all of 283 total yards, holding onto the ball for a mere 22:59.

These types of losses do not happen to Wisconsin often.

The Wolverines hardly get a break, though, now traveling to No. 24 Michigan State (12 ET; FOX) as touchdown favorites with a combined point total over/under of 43. Rather than rehash the stats pertaining to Michigan going on the road against ranked opponents in the last decade, let’s trot out a new one courtesy of ESPN’s Dan Murphy: Since 2009, the Wolverines have gone 45-8 before facing the Spartans, but are 25-29 after the matchup. There is some scheduling noise to that discrepancy, but it stands out, nonetheless.

Ball St. (3-4): A 36-yard field goal with 47 seconds remaining gave the Cardinals a 24-23 victory against Central Michigan. The last-minute heroics capped off a 17-3 fourth quarter for Ball State.

This weekend should feature another one-possession game for the Cardinals, but that is largely a reflection of their upcoming opponent. Eastern Michigan (3 ET; ESPN+) has played in six consecutive one-possession games and is favored by three with an over/under of 51.5. Given the Eagles’ experience in such situations, perhaps differ to them in the presumed 27-24 conclusion.

Things escalated in Vanderbilt’s loss to Florida to the extent that Commodores head coach Derek Mason (center) could barely keep his team from taking to the Gators’ sideline. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Vanderbilt (3-4): The Commodores lost 37-27 against Florida, but the story was about the coaches, not the game. Derek Mason and Dan Mullen got into a heated shouting match shortly after a Gator was ejected for targeting. The SEC opted to handle the situation behind closed doors, but it was not a good look for anyone involved and is the second time this year Mason has exchanged barbs with an opposing coach, even if his banter with Brian Kelly came days after their game.

Vanderbilt now heads to Kentucky (7:30 ET; SEC Network) to face one of the country’s top defenses — don’t laugh, it’s true; S&P+ considers the Wildcats to be the No. 2 defense in the country, behind only Michigan’s. As 11-point favorites with an over/under of 48.5, the math suggests Kentucky to give up 19 to the ‘Dores. That feels ambitious.

Wake Forest (3-3): After an idle week, the Deacons have the treat of traveling to Florida State (3:30 ET; ESPN2) as 10.5-point underdogs. With an over/under of 60, at least a 35-25 result would be entertaining.

Stanford (4-2): Stanford’s idle week sets the Cardinal up for two breaks. A Thursday trip to Arizona State (9 ET; ESPN) will make for another long week following. In order to avoid another stretch of regretting a loss, Stanford will need to make good on the bookmakers’ expectations of favoring the road team by 2.5 in a 28-26 contest.

Virginia Tech (4-2): The good news: The Hokies beat North Carolina 22-19 to become one of two teams in the ACC at 3-0 with Clemson the other.

The bad news: Virginia Tech needed a one-yard Ryan Willis touchdown pass with 19 seconds to top Larry Fedora’s debacle. The Hokies gave up 522 total yards to the Tar Heels, who average 406.6. In many ways, this victory was more confounding than Virginia Tech’s three-score loss to Notre Dame.

But at least the Hokies enter their idle week with a win.

Pittsburgh (3-4): The Panthers will not have that luxury. For what it’s worth, Pittsburgh is 1-2 in the games after idle weeks under Pat Narduzzi’s watch, including a 31-34 loss to North Carolina last season when the Panthers were favored by nine points.

Navy (2-4): Things may be going from bad to worse for the Midshipmen. A 24-17 loss to Temple all but ends Navy’s hopes of going bowling this year, which will be only the second time it has missed out on postseason play since 2002. The Midshipmen were outgained 209 yards to 284 and converted only 5 of 13 third downs.

Want the real shocker? Navy attempted 11 passes, turning to senior quarterback Garrett Lewis to try and spark the offense. He took 12 carries for 56 yards and one touchdown.

The Midshipmen are now 12.5-point underdogs against Houston (3:30 ET; CBSSN). The over/under of 60.5 indicates Navy should manage 24 points.

Northwestern (3-3): The Wildcats are not playing well, yet they are 3-1 in the Big Ten, the only loss coming to Michigan after Northwestern snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This week’s 34-31 overtime win against Nebraska should never have been that close, but the Wildcats’ complete and utter lack of a run game makes the offense obtusely one-dimensional. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson attempted 64 passes, completing 41 of them for 455 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. Meanwhile, 19 handoffs amounted to 39 yards with a long of eight.

Maybe Northwestern can find a ground game at Rutgers (12 ET; Big Ten Network), favored by 20.5 points with an over/under of 49. A 34-14 rout would go a long way toward establishing some semblance of momentum for the Wildcats.

Florida State (3-4): The Seminoles could return to .500 if they see through bookmakers’ thoughts against Wake Forest. Any ACC hopes of glory have long since passed, but this would at least be a return to respectability.

Syracuse (4-2): Who gets Larry Fedora next? The Orange do, favored by 9.5 against North Carolina (12:20 ET) with an over/under of 65. There may be many more points than that.

Trojans freshman quarterback JT Daniels went 18-of-35 for 283 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions, in a 31-20 victory against previously-unbeaten Colorado. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

USC (4-2): The Trojans gave up 14 points in competitive time and 265 total yards while forcing three turnovers. That led to a 31-20 victory against the Buffaloes and kept USC in the driver’s seat in the chaotic Pac-12 South.

That could change quickly with a loss at Utah (8 ET; Pac 12 Network), where the Trojans are 6.5-point underdogs. An over/under of 49 suggests a 28-21 dose of anarchy into the Pac-12 South Stew.

Thursday 9 p.m. ET: Stanford at Arizona State on ESPN.
Saturday 12 p.m. ET: Michigan at Michigan State on FOX; Northwestern at Rutgers on Big Ten Network.
12:20 p.m. ET: Syracuse vs. North Carolina.
3 ET: Ball State vs. Eastern Michigan.
3:30 ET: Wake Forest at Florida State on ESPN3; Navy vs. Houston on CBS SN.
7:30 ET: Vanderbilt at Kentucky on SEC Network.
8 ET: USC at Utah

Favorites: Michigan -7; Stanford -2.5; Northwestern -20.5; Florida State -10.5; Syracuse -9.5.
Underdogs: Ball State +3; Vanderbilt +11; Wake Forest +10.5; Navy +12.5; USC +6.5.