Bennett Jackson moving to defensive back

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Today the Irish recruiting class took a hit, with cornerback Bennett Okotcha reportedly switching his commitment from the Irish to Oklahoma after a weekend visit. But whether it was a reaction to the news or an already planned switch, the Irish responded with a fairly large cornerback commitment of their own — quite literally — when Bennett Jackson announced on his Twitter page that he’s switching to defensive back, taking over Darrin Walls’ No. 2 jersey.

Expect Brian Kelly to discuss the move on Wednesday during his 1:00 p.m. signing day press conference, but he hinted at something like this 10 days ago when he wrapped up season one. While most people focused on Theo Riddick’s name, the idea of shifting Bennett Jackson, or one of the surplus wide receivers to defensive back, makes perfect sense. The fact that Jackson was a tackling machine on special teams makes this move all the more logical.

Jackson immediately moves into the two-deep conversation at either cornerback or safety, and he’ll provide top-flight speed that’ll help him overcome any catching up he’ll need to do developmentally.

 

Notre Dame’s defense shuts down hyped Syracuse offense in rout

Associated Press
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BRONX, N.Y. — The lights were bright, the stage big, even the weather cooperated, and No. 3 Notre Dame was ready for Yankee Stadium and all its trappings. No. 12 Syracuse may have been fine with all those extras, as well, but the Orange was not ready for the Irish defense. Notre Dame (11-0) had no trouble dismissing Syracuse (8-3) in a 36-3 rout, much to the delight of the vast majority of the 48,104 in attendance.

The Orange never found an offensive rhythm of any kind. Through three quarters, Syracuse had managed all of 122 total yards. As the Irish eased up in the final frame and some second-stringers took some snaps, the Orange boosted its game total to 234 yards, still a far cry from its previous average of 482.2 yards per game.

It took 48 minutes for Syracuse to come within even 40 yards of the end zone, a drive that ended with an inexplicable field goal attempt appropriately clanking off the left upright. The next Orange drive nearly ran out the clock before a field goal slipped through the uprights, depriving the Irish of their first shutout since the 31-0 victory against Michigan in 2014. Three Notre Dame interceptions — two by junior safety Alohi Gilman and one from junior safety Jalen Elliott — amplified the Orange struggles.

“As a coach, you go into the game thinking if we do these things right, we’re going to play really well,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that we ever pinned a shutout on a performance against a team that’s putting up 44 points, but I felt really good in the preparation and the plan, and I felt if we were disciplined, which we were, we would do well.”

Notre Dame needed that dominant defensive performance while its offense sputtered at unfortunate moments. In the end, it put up 36 points, essentially keeping pace with the 38.8 averaged in junior quarterback Ian Book’s six other starts this season, but it could have and possibly should have been much more. Of seven drives into the red zone, only three yielded touchdowns. Three more produced field goals and Book — looking no worse for the wear from the ribs injury that sidelined him last weekend — threw an interception in the end zone in the second quarter.

“There were a lot of stupid penalties and errors that we made today that slowed drives down for us,” Irish fifth-year center Sam Mustipher said. “When we beat ourselves, the defense doesn’t have to do much, I think there were a few cases of that today.”

Those failures to end drives kept the rout from becoming a comedy even before the wayward field goal attempt, yet Book still finished with 292 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-37 passing, best connecting with junior receiver Chase Claypool, who made six catches for 98 yards and a score.

“Ian played pretty good,” Kelly said. “I think the week off definitely showed a little bit of rust, but he got out of it clean. Feels good after the game, and he’ll be able to build off it.”

The Irish running attack never found consistency, its final numbers of 177 yards on 32 attempts (sacks and kneel downs adjusted) skewed by six rushes for 90 yards on Notre Dame’s final drive when it was actually trying to drain the clock. The overall average of 5.5 yards per rush worked at the rate of 3.3 yards per carry for the previous 11 drives. Senior Dexter Williams led the way, finishing with 74 yards on 13 carries (30 on nine rushes before the coda), adding a nine-yard touchdown catch to start the day’s scoring.

But that inefficiency hardly mattered when the Irish defense stopped Syracuse’s offense in its tracks, well below its average of 44.4 points per game.

“Notre Dame is better than what people think they are,” Orange head coach Dino Babers said. “That’s a really, really good football team and coach Kelly, my hat goes off to coach Kelly and Clark Lea, the defensive coordinator. That was a fabulous defense he put up against us and they played extremely well.”

PLAY(ER) OF THE GAME
There was a time, not all that long ago, when it was a running joke to point out how long it had been since a Notre Dame safety intercepted a pass. That first changed when junior Jalen Elliott picked off Ball State twice in the season’s second week. The gag then nearly reached irrelevance when junior Alohi Gilman thought he had an interception against Stanford, only for it to be wiped off the board by a pass interference penalty against fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill, a correct call if also one that did not inherently aid Gilman’s snag.

“I was thinking, does he have an interception this year? I was actually thinking that this week,” Tranquill said. “I was like, if he doesn’t get one this year, that’s on me.”

Gilman got his at Yankee Stadium, twice.

The first came with Tranquill again involved in the coverage, a route down the sideline with Tranquill underneath the receiver. Gilman’s aerial play prevented what very well may have been a touchdown on Syracuse sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito’s third attempt — in for injured starter, senior Eric Dungey. Gilman picked off DeVito again two drives later, hitting Orange junior receiver Sean Riley as he caught the pass and then corralling the bobbled ball. Gilman’s 54-yard return set up an Irish touchdown.

Gilman also made eight tackles, an all-around performance from a piece of the Notre Dame defense absent last season due to NCAA insistence. With Gilman, the back line has improved immensely, making for a complete defense, one capable of holding a high-caliber offense scoreless until the white flag of a field goal attempt was waved, twice.

“We could run another play and we could even score a touchdown, and then maybe even do an onside kick,” Babers said of attempting field goals while trailing 29-0 and 36-0 late in the fourth quarter. “And maybe score another touchdown, but we’re not going to win.

“The other thing is that when you’re running those plays, you got a chance to get people hurt. We can get somebody hurt on the play, Notre Dame can get somebody hurt on the play. The score did not matter right there.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Those Irish red-zone possessions yielding only field goals kept Syracuse close enough for concern for a half. The halftime 20-0 lead may have been three-possessions wide, but with the Orange getting the ball to start the third quarter, a score would have kept the game interesting. A three-and-out later, Notre Dame responded with … another red-zone appearance yielding only a field goal, keeping the margin at three possessions.

Another Syracuse three-and-out, one marked by three consecutive negative plays with two tackles from Tranquill and a third-down sack by Irish junior end Julian Okwara, and Notre Dame responded with … a 10-yard touchdown pass from Book to Claypool.

Even though senior kicker Justin Yoon missed the subsequent point after, the 29-0 lead was clearly going to be enough against an offense yet to find any semblance of sustained success.

The backward three-and-out cost the Orange 13 yards and that bit of field position certainly made the touchdown drive easier, considering it covered only 51 yards and 15 of those came courtesy of a pass interference penalty. The Irish were not exactly moving the ball efficiently, so their defense set them up with a short field.

STAT OF THE GAME
If not for that closing field goal, this would have been the third shutout in Kelly’s nine years at Notre Dame. The most-recent came in that memorable temporary finale to the Michigan series, and the only other was a 38-0 victory against Wake Forest to reach 11-0 in 2012.

It would have been eerily fitting to reach 11-0 against a mid-tier ACC team in 2018 by the score of 36-0.

Sure, it would have come against a team largely relying on a backup quarterback, but DeVito has seen notable action this year, going 11-of-16 for 144 yards and a touchdown in a 30-7 win against Florida State and 11-of-19 for 181 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-37 win against North Carolina.

For that matter, Syracuse rushed for only 119 yards on 3.1 yards per attempt. It had averaged 216.1 yards per game on 4.69 yards per rush. This was hardly an inept offensive performance because of DeVito’s play. It was because of Irish Lea’s plan and his defense’s execution of it.

“They turned the game from chess to checkers and now guys have to make plays,” Babers said. “There was numerous passing combinations that we called and you looked out there and everybody was covered. If there’s coverage, there’s nowhere for the quarterback to throw the ball to.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Kelly was asked if he assumed his team would reach the College Football Playoffs if it wins next week at USC.

“I don’t know that if we win our last game that we’re going to the Playoffs,” Kelly said. “But that’s not in our control. So we don’t even worry about stuff that’s not in our control. What we can control is how we prepare. If we do a good job there and we win our game, then we would have won all of our games, and then we’ll let people decide who should go to the Playoffs.”

If there was any genuine concern, Kelly would have slipped in some politicking. His complete deferral of the concept indicates Kelly trusts Notre Dame will be in the Playoffs if it wins next weekend.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 9-yard pass from Ian Book. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Syracuse 0. (6 plays, 55 yards, 2:11)
7:44 — Notre Dame field goal.Yoon 26 yards. Notre Dame 10, Syracuse 0. (4 plays, 6 yards, 1:11)
1:09 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 13, Syracuse 0. (9 plays, 83 yards, 3:56)

Second Quarter
4:52 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 9-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 20, Syracuse 0. (1 play, 9 yards, 0:07)

Third Quarter
9:30 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 23, Syracuse 0. (8 plays, 41 yards, 3:18)
3:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 10-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT no good. Notre Dame 29, Syracuse 0. (9 plays, 51 yards, 3:52)

Fourth Quarter
4:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 36-yard rush .Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 0. (7 plays, 80 yards, 4:15)
0:10 — Syracuse field goal. Andre Szmyt 28 yards. Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 3. (11 plays, 59 yards, 3:48)

No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Syracuse: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

@yankeestadium
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WHO? No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2).

WHAT? The Irish can burgeon their Playoff claim with a second top-15 win. It will be their third if considering when teams were ranked, but Stanford has plummeted from its No. 7 ranking in September.

The Orange, meanwhile, can come this close to securing a spot in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. Syracuse will still most likely need to beat No. 20 Boston College next weekend, but even a loss there could have the Orange in consideration after a win this weekend. Suffice it to say, such would be a program high tracing back to at least 1998, which ended with a 31-10 loss in the Orange Bowl to Florida.

WHEN? 2:30 ET with kickoff set for a dozen minutes later. For all the griping about moving this game to Yankee Stadium, at least it gives those in attendance a chance to still enjoy New York City on a Saturday night.

WHERE? Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York City. But yes, this is considered a Notre Dame home game because words don’t have meaning.

NBC will have the broadcast, with the game streaming online here or on the NBC Sports app.

Per usual, NBC Sports Gold is available to international fans.

WHY? Obviously, this is the 10-year rematch of the 2008 Irish loss to Syracuse in South Bend.  Despite lacking a head coach — Greg Robinson was fired the week prior, though he coached through the end of the season — the Orange pulled off a 24-23 victory to spoil Notre Dame’s Senior Day.

It was not just a cold day, but a snowy one, with students apocryphally throwing snowballs at the Irish sideline. That dramatic retelling ignores the very obvious truth that the undergrads were proving who could throw the farthest, and only three or four genuinely reached the field. They were poor optics, to be sure, but no worse than the quartet of scrawny shirtless freshmen in the stands.

The day did reap some reward for Notre Dame. A future All-American linebacker spent his official visit bundled up in the snow, wondering why people live anywhere on this mainland. Those snowball-throwing students, though, showed enough passion despite the weather to get Manti Te’o’s attention.

The Irish never played Syracuse during Te’o’s time, but they have won their last two meetings, both technically Orange home games though held in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands: 31-15 in 2014 and 50-33 in 2016.

A STAT THAT MAY HAVE BEEN MISSED IN THE WEEK’S COVERAGE
Syracuse is No. 70 in rushing yards allowed per game at 169.0 and No. 78 in yards per carry against at 4.40. Those numbers are very similar to Pittsburgh’s: No. 76 in yards per game at 172.0 and No. 79 in yards per carry at 4.41.

Then again, the Panthers held Notre Dame to 112 yards on 35 rushes (sacks adjusted), a 3.2 average.

BY HOW MUCH?
Favored by 10 points with a combined point total over/under of 65.5, the Irish are expected to win 38-28. That would necessitate holding the Orange to 16 points below its season average. That is ambitious, even for Clark Lea’s defense.

It is a cliché to say a game will hinge on the turnover battle, but it is such for a reason. It is true, and perhaps especially true this weekend. Syracuse has forced 25 turnovers this season, 2.5 per game. Notre Dame has coughed it up 12 times. (Even if removing senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s five interceptions, the Irish average 1.17 turnovers per game with junior Ian Book starting, compared to 1.2 turnovers per game all season.)

One turnover may happen; it usually does. Notre Dame may not be able to afford any more than that. The Orange will score, and giving up chances to match that is a recipe to end an unbeaten season.

Here is where it proves worth remembering the Irish running backs have not lost a fumble in 37 games, tracing back to its last in a baseball stadium, a 16-13 victory against Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015. Relying on the ground game again would reduce Notre Dame’s turnover risk. Let’s presume that happens.

Notre Dame 35, Syracuse 27.
(9-1 in pick; 4-6 against the spread, 4-6 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s Senior Night special for all, but especially two linebacker captains
Can Notre Dame count on Book’s health?
Conversation around Notre Dame changes, even as the Playoff poll does not
The rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Syracuse
And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise
Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever
The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

OUTSIDE READING:
Inside the creation of a football field at Yankee Stadium
Why does Notre Dame ever deviate from its ionic uniforms?
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick talks Brian Kelly, a 10-0 start, moving the Syracuse game and more ($)
Subway alums on board for Notre Dame return to New York City
Who is the third-best team in the country?
Don’t let anyone tell you the Irish are out with one loss.
All the chaos that can still happen in the season’s final three weeks
The highest-graded players in every Week 12 marquee matchup in college football
‘Finally, we got one’: Ball State football upsets Western Michigan in overtime thriller

Friday at 4: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

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For the better part of two seasons, junior quarterback Ian Book has been compared to his position coach, Tom(my) Rees. Both began their Notre Dame careers as understudies, seemingly physically-limited, clearly not as athletic as particular peers at the position. The Book-led Irish comeback in the Citrus Bowl seemed to cement his standing as super-sub, a la Rees in 2012 behind Everett Golson.

Perhaps the Rees comparisons should have instead featured senior Brandon Wimbush.

Last week, it was Rees who texted Wimbush on Monday, distracting him throughout a class as he tried to figure out what could possibly be so urgent. Once Wimbush got to the football facilities, Rees told him that Book probably would not play against Florida State. It was a role Rees had handled himself in 2012, most notably when Golson suffered a concussion against Stanford and Rees started the next week against BYU.

‘That guy’s been through everything you can imagine at the quarterback position here,” Wimbush said of Rees. “He’s helped me. He’s led the entire quarterback room, being that young figure who was here not too long ago.

“He has the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom to teach us. He’s done a great job of putting us in a position to succeed on and off the field.”

Wimbush threw two interceptions last week, his fifth and sixth of the year. Yet, the 42-13 victory made his spot-start an unqualified success. His demeanor in handling it, the benching back in September that made last weekend just a spot start, and any of the expected turmoil in the interim, all extended the success to off the field, as well.

As the 10-0 Irish continue this regular season unbeaten and set for the Playoff, Wimbush’s contributions warrant more praise. Not becoming a malcontent is a low bar to clear, but one too high just a couple years ago. It has not gone unnoticed in this locker room.

“Brandon is a high character guy, great guy to be around, we love him to death,” junior defensive Daelin Hayes said following the victory against the Seminoles. “It was our job to go out and have his back.

“He came out and obviously with him being the starter, he handled that as well as anybody could possibly handle that situation.”

Notre Dame likely would have beaten Florida State with freshman Phil Jurkovec at the helm. Frankly, given the first-quarter interception return to the three-yard line from senior Nick Coleman and Julian Love’s two-point return, the Irish may have prevailed with you or me at quarterback. Can you successfully hand off to Dexter Williams 20-plus times?

But Wimbush removed most, perhaps all, stress from the situation. That is not as dramatic as Rees leading the winning drive against Purdue or throwing the winning touchdown against Stanford. It may not stand the same test of time in lore. But it should. Wimbush took the back seat maturely, as frustrating as that must have been. Then he stepped forward when needed, threw three touchdowns and enjoyed a victorious Alma Mater.

The Irish needed that stability as much as they once needed Rees’ heroics.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever

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When now-No. 3 Notre Dame opened its season against now-No. 4 Michigan, the Irish relied on their quarterback, and senior Brandon Wimbush delivered. In meeting No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame once again will presumably need its quarterback in order to keep up with the Orange scoring pace, averaging 44.4 points per game.

And the Irish will have junior Ian Book ready to go, per head coach Brian Kelly on Thursday.

“He’s had a good week,” Kelly said. “Normal rust on Tuesday, Wednesday ran the offense effectively and then [Thursday] settled in as if he had not had a week off.”

Despite a ribs injury that kept him sidelined against Florida State, Book is already back working within the entirety of Notre Dame’s offense.

“We have run game in for him,” Kelly said. “He’s going to get hit. We feel very comfortable — we wouldn’t play him if we had to put him in bubble wrap.”

This should be an occasion for Book to put up some gaudy stats … in part because Syracuse runs its offense at a high pace, creating more plays for both teams; in part because the Orange defense is somewhat susceptible to the passing game; in part because Book’s numbers in his six starts have been relatively absurd on their own.

Syracuse averages 82.2 plays per game, fourth-most in the country and just behind Wake Forest’s 83.9. That distorts giving up 261.3 passing yards per game (No. 107), but the 7.5 yards per pass attempt still shows a struggle to defend the pass. For comparison, Northwestern gives up 6.8 yards per attempt, and Book memorably threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-34 passing against the Wildcats, mostly with the rib injury.

Yet, the Orange may present Book a challenge he has not yet seen. Giving up a 56.0 percent completion rate (No. 32), Syracuse makes opposing quarterbacks work for their gains harder than any of the six defenses Book has faced. If styles make fights, then it is worth remembering Book leads the country with a 74.5 completion rate.

Book can also prove once and for all whether this season or last was the anomaly as it pertains to his turnovers. Book has thrown four interceptions in 2018, just as he did in 2017. This year they have come on 204 attempts, nearly triple last year’s 75. The Orange intercepts the opposition once every 25 attempts (14 picks on 350 attempts), a number that would pose a concern against the more inexperienced version of Book.

“They play good defense,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t call them a trapping defense in a sense that they’re in a lot of exotic (coverages). They’re a four-down front that plays Cover 1 and they rotate down and play some three-down.

“My first characterization of them wouldn’t be that of a team that takes the ball away. I think they’re fundamentally sound and they put their kids in good position.”

This is all of such concern because Syracuse is going to score. The offense is too high-powered to presume otherwise. Notre Dame behind Wimbush would probably not be able to keep up. With Book back, it becomes more likely, if not outright probable.

Nick Coleman’s interception on Florida State’s second play last week set up an Irish score and Coleman for an increased role at nickel back moving forward. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Orange will stress the Irish defense in ways not yet seen, particularly its nickel packages and senior Nick Coleman. Notre Dame has struggled to replace senior Shaun Crawford since his preseason ACL tear. With an interception and a pass breakup a week ago, Coleman once again asserted himself as Notre Dame’s presumed nickel back. Freshman Houston Griffith has struggled in coverages, leaving only junior Julian Love as a remaining viable option, which then forces freshman TaRiq Bracy (or, less likely due to his lackluster performance this season, junior Donte Vaughn) into outside coverage.

Thus, Coleman will be counted on against an offense with four receivers averaging 11.17 yards or more per catch with at least 28 receptions, all with multiple scores this season.

“Certainly with their [one running back, no tight end] personnel, the nickel will be a very important piece in terms of what we do,” Kelly said. “I thought [Coleman] was savvy. … I got a chance to see him a lot this week, and I thought he was on top of his game.”

As Eric Dungey goes, so goes Syracuse’s offense and the four-year starting quarterback is having quite a productive season, accounting for 26 total touchdowns. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey further complicates that concern, the best dual-threat the Irish have faced this season. On paper, it was a schedule littered with such concerns, but Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson was knocked out for the season by injury before Notre Dame arrived, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has not been as mobile since tearing his ACL in December, and the same can be said of Florida State’s Deondre Francois regarding his ACL tear to start the 2017 season.

Dungey, meanwhile, has taken 147 carries for 690 yards, not adjusting for sacks, and 12 touchdowns. With Coleman at nickel, the Irish will need to rely on linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill to keep an eye on Dungey, especially in the red zone.

He is but a piece of an offense ranked No. 28 in rushing yards per game with 216.1, No. 6 in rushing touchdowns with 32 and No. 12 in attempts per game with 46.1.

“The whole change in their ability to sustain their offensive structure is their ability to run the football,” Kelly said. “If they can’t run the football, this team is not 8-2.

“… By being an effective ground team, it sets up everything they can do.”

Everything the Orange does may make it the best offense first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has faced. In the Notre Dame Stadium press box before last week’s 42-13 victory, it was an easy conversational piece to ponder if Syracuse is the best offense the Irish will play this season. The answer is obviously yes. The follow-up question was tougher to answer, who has been the best thus far?

Michigan’s has come furthest, the best at this point, but it was a shell of this version to open the season. Stanford’s was expected to be much more than it has been, bothered by uncharacteristically poor offensive line play. The consensus settled on Wake Forest, which also scored a season-high 27 points against Notre Dame. If/when the Orange tops that, it will not be an indictment of Lea’s defense, but a challenge to Book’s offense.

Lastly, will freshman defensive end Justin Ademilola play? This is largely a piece of housekeeping, but Ademilola has appeared in three games, meaning he can play in one more before losing a year of eligibility. Given how many games are left — two — and what is at stake — a Playoff berth — burning the year may make sense. Defensive line depth is not something to be taken for granted, and Ademilola has shown he can hold his own for a handful of snaps per game.

The only other freshmen worth monitoring in this regard would be running backs C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith and receiver Joe Wilkins, all having played in two games to date. Barring injury, four games should be the logical limit for each.