Pregame Six Pack: Late night with Michigan

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So Lucy pulled the football out from under us last Saturday, adding a measure of cruelty to the loss that was incredibly difficult to see coming. (Unfortunately, part of me saw it coming.) With a painful first L in the opening ledger of the season, Notre Dame must turn the page to a team that’s provided plenty of gut-punches to Notre Dame fans lately.

With a prime-time start and ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance, Notre Dame is set to take on Michigan at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday night. We’ll be here with an old-fashioned, frantically paced live blog tomorrow night. Until then, here are are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as Brian Kelly‘s Fighting Irish prepare to play Brady Hoke‘s Michigan Wolverines.

There’s been remarkable parity in the modern era between Michigan and Notre Dame.

Since the Irish and the Wolverines renewed their rivalry in 1978, the series has been close. 13-13-1 close.

Saturday night’s game will break a remarkably even record, with both teams sitting at 13 wins and a tie against the other. Michigan has won four of the last five against the Irish, starting with the runaway upset win against Brady Quinn and the Irish in 2006. The Wolverines drubbed the ’07 Irish that started off historically bad, before Notre Dame won an error plagued game against Rich Rodriguez‘s first team in 2008. We all remember 2009 and 2010, which had Michigan quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson taking turns putting on Superman’s cape.

Since 1978, Notre Dame and Michigan have played every year except 1983, ’84, ’95, ’96, 2000, and ’01. Prior to the ’07 game, either Notre Dame or Michigan have been ranked for 24 consecutive meetings. Notre Dame dropped out of the Top 25 after losing to USF, so neither team is ranked this Saturday. And with a point spread that’s hovering around three points, it seems we could be in for another close game, which might actually be good for the Irish. While it doesn’t feel that way, close games in this rivalry usually end up in Notre Dame’s favor, with Notre Dame 4-2-1 in games decided by three points or less.

For the Irish, stop Denard Robinson and win the football game.

Last year, Robinson accounted for an incredible 502 of Michigan’s 532 total yards, scoring the game’s winning touchdown with 27 seconds left to put Michigan ahead 28-24.

“He’s the most electrifying offensive player in the country,” Bob Diaco said earlier this week. “He was a year ago and he is again.”

That electricity was evident last year, when Robinson broke a 87 yard touchdown run with under two minutes to go in the first half, a back-breaking touchdown with the Irish against the ropes and hoping to go into halftime just down a score. But while the Irish’s performance against Robinson deserves no caveats, the Irish held their own when their starting unit was in the game, only to be gashed when Diaco and Kelly tried to work in reserves.

“It starts and ends with Denard Robinson,” Kelly said. “We’re well aware of his talent level. He is a difference maker. Clearly he’s the guy you’ve got to keep an eye on when it comes to Michigan.”

There are a few things working in Notre Dame’s favor when it comes to slowing down Robinson. First, they faced a similarly mobile quarterback in B.J. Daniels last week, and had decent success.

“We have to be able to contain him,” Kelly said. “Like we did with B.J. Daniels, I think his longest run was 17 yards. If we can keep his longest run into that 15-17 yard range, we’ll feel really good about the day’s work.”

One thing also working in the Irish’s favor is new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Borges surprised many by keeping Robinson in the shotgun and designing some running plays for his star quarterback, after an offseason dedicated to working in pro-style sets. Hoke praised Borges for fitting the offense to its personnel.

“He’s done a tremendous job in a lot of different places utilizing the personnel that you have and really showcasing the guys who are your playmakers,” Hoke said this morning on the Dan Patrick Radio Show.

Of course, while Borges engineers plays for Robinson to run, he won’t be able to replicate the system Rodriguez almost perfected, taking advantage of his running backs not as ball carriers, but as lead blockers for his 195-pound quarterback.

On Robinson’s 87-yard touchdown run, Rodriguez had two backs in the backfield next with Robinson in the shotgun, and those eight men in the box beat Diaco’s seven, thanks to some good downfield blocking and a great individual effort by the quarterback.

Again, Robinson is capable of breaking a big play any time. It’ll be up to Borges to be as creative as Rodriguez was at designing them.

Brady Hoke hasn’t faced Notre Dame, but he’s 0-3 against Brian Kelly.

Brian Kelly and Brady Hoke’s careers have taken similar paths, with both coaches getting their first shots in the MAC conference before climbing the ladder to Notre Dame and Michigan at their third D-I coaching stop. (Hell, both guys coached at Grand Valley State.)

While this will be Hoke’s first time facing the Irish as a head coach, he’s gone head-to-head with Kelly three times, with Hoke’s Ball State team falling to Kelly’s Central Michigan squad each time.

2004: Hoke’s Cardinals jumped out to a 27-0 lead in the first quarter before Kelly’s troops picked themselves off the mat, battling back to tie the game at halftime 27-27. The third quarter was all Ball State, who took a ten point lead into the fourth, only to give it up with under five minutes remaining to the Chippewas. Jerry Seymour of CMU ran for the winning touchdown, his third of the day to put a cap on a monstrous 217 yard rushing effort to go along with 35 yards receiving.

2005: Another heart-breaker for the Cardinals, as Ball State jumped out to a quick 14 point lead only to lose in overtime, with the Chippewas storming back for an unlikely win late in the game. Clinging to a four-point lead with two minutes left, Ball State had the ball in CMU territory ready to seal the victory. After an 11 yard sack by Dan Bazuin pushed Ball State back to their side of the 50, Chris Miller‘s punt was blocked and Ryan Strehl scooped it up for the score. The Cardinals would march down and kick a field goal to send the game to overtime, but the Chippewas would score a touchdown in four plays, then stymie Hoke’s offense on a 4th and one. The win gave Central their first winning season under Kelly.

2006: With quarterback Dan LeFevour leading the way, the Chippewas improved to 4-0 in conference play, winning a defensive struggle against Ball State 18-7. LeFevour ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns, threw for another 160 yards, and the Chippewas held Ball State to 213 total yards, forcing five turnovers against Nate Davis and the conference’s leading passing attack.

Saturday night’s game will obviously be on a much bigger stage, but there’s no way either coach has forgotten three games that were so hotly contested.

Like it is in every game, protecting the football is critical to success.

It’s pretty obvious, Notre Dame isn’t going to win many games if it coughs up the football five times again, especially doing it in such inopportune times. Right now, a lot of Irish fans are willing to give Notre Dame a mulligan for last week’s bizarre behavior, with some of the team’s most solid performers guilty of the most egregious mistakes.

How big of a play was Jonas Gray‘s fumble return for a touchdown? Well consider Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, who called it the most valuable play in football.

The Gray fumble occured on third-and-goal, but let’s imagine the same play occuring on a drive that starts with first-and-goal from the 1-yard-line. In this case, the expected scoring value of the offense’s drive is more than six points. The same play in this scenario is then worth the value of killing a six-point drive plus the value of the touchdown return. We might like to call it a 14-point play, but according to my unit value splits, it would officially be credited with a defensive value of 11.1 points. Remember that there is unearned value on every possession, so the defense doesn’t get the full credit for the 14-point swing, but a defensive score following a goal-to-go turnover is the most valuable single play in football.

Both Kelly and Gray are saying the right things this week and Gray took his session with the media like a man and answered every question asked of him. Jonas will be returning home to Michigan, ready to play in front of family and friends and a school that didn’t offer him a scholarship. And if the Irish are able to get Gray going along with Cierre Wood, they’ll be able to take advantage of one of Michigan defense’s weaknesses.

“We’ve got to be a much better defense versus the run,” Hoke told Dan Patrick. “I don’t think our front seven did the job that we need to have them do.”

Of course, the Irish need to clean up their own backyard first. And that means stopping the turnovers and cashing in on the opportunities that present themselves. Meanwhile, on the other sideline, Hoke’s team needs to build on their impressive debut forcing turnovers, starting +3 and turning two of them into defensive touchdowns.

“I think they’ve got some confidence because they scored on defense,” Kelly said. “Any time you score on defense you create an energy that can be contagious.”

The special teams need to be more special.

We’ll get to Notre Dame’s special teams play in a second. Brady Hoke’s unit has a lot of cleaning up to do as well.

“I think our guys know we didn’t perform like we should,” Hoke said. “We’ll look at some other guys in there a little.”

The Wolverines gave up good field position to Western Michigan multiple times on kickoff returns, with Dervon Wallace averaging better than 31 yards a return last Saturday. Making things worse, UM also had an extra point blocked, adding another headache to a laundry list of things that needed cleaning up.

With a large contingency of starters taking special teams snaps, Hoke and the Wolverines can’t afford any injuries, but also can’t afford to keep his best players off a unit that already strugged.

Speaking of struggling units, the Irish special teams played their worst game under Brian Kelly. Theo Riddick muffed punts, Ben Turk shanked them, and David Ruffer, Mr. Automatic last season, missed a crucial 30-yard chip shot from the left hashmark.

While turnovers might have been the fatal flaw of last week’s game, the Irish special teams weren’t far behind.

More from Fremeau:

South Florida’s special teams created another valuable single-play possession-change sequence by recovering a muffed punt in the second quarter. The turnover by Notre Dame’s Theo Riddick was worth 1.7 points in lost possession value, and the resulting field position for South Florida at the Irish 20-yard-line was worth an additional 3.4 points generated by the special teams play. The total value of the sequence (5.1 points) wasn’t quite as strong as the total value of the drive-turnover-return sequence that opened the game (6.3 points), but it was awfully close.

In the end, special teams account for the scoring margin of the game. South Florida earned a 12-point advantage through punt exchanges, turnovers, and place kicking success. Notre Dame’s second half offense actually erased the entire deficit generated by its red zone miscues by moving the ball and creating enough other scoring opportunities to win. And the defense held South Florida in check throughout the day, surrendering only one touchdown drive.

I’ll give Theo Riddick a one-game reprieve before calling the punt return experiment a huge bust, but he definitely struggled getting underneath the football on punts, rushing to the football late and making it harder on himself than he needs to. I’m tired of giving Turk mulligans, as the Irish punter can’t seem to kick the ball anywhere near as good on the big stage as he does practicing.

The Irish are going to be playing a team where a special teams victory is there for the taking. It’s up to Mike Elston‘s troops to straighten things out and take advantage of a potentially game changing opportunity.

Pressure vs. Pressure: How the Irish handle both sides of the ball will determine the game.

Offensively, Denard Robinson is able to put pressure on the Irish defense better than any other player in the country. Defensively, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will do his best to confuse and disrupt the Irish offense, relying on pressure from linebackers, safeties, and everyone in between.

For the Irish defense, the game plan focuses on simplicity.

“You’ve got to keep your players, those that can tackle and those that can chase him down,  in a position to do so,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to keep them in proximity to where Denard is going to be. You can’t have them in a position where they can’t run and hit. It’s very important structurally defensively that we put our guys in the right position.”

While the comment comes dangerously close to venturing into Ty Willingham territory, the Irish have to play assignment correct football and not fall prey to big plays in the playaction passing game or runs by Robinson. If Skip Holtz‘s attitude against Notre Dame was “make them run another play,” Diaco’s strategy should be the same. The Irish have too much skill to get beat on defense if they can successfully bend and not break.

The theme is similar on the offensive side of the ball. With a defense that struggled in high-tempo situations against Western Michigan, the Wolverines know they’ll likely face tempo and a variety of formations when facing the Irish. To counter that, they’ll also try to dictate terms by forcing Tommy Rees to make decisions faster than he wants to.

How the cat and mouse between Mattison and Kelly goes should determine Saturday night’s game.

“Certainly they’re going to want to bring pressure,” Kelly said yesterday. “But Tommy does a pretty good job getting the ball out of his hands. We do a pretty good job of protecting. That’s part of what he’ll do, but I don’t think it’s everything, because clearly they’re going to have to play some zone coverage, because if you let Michael Floyd out there, I like our chances.”

Kelly points to Michigan’s largest flaw: a defense that still doesn’t have the talent necessary to cover receivers without a pass rush, and a pass rush unable to get to the quarterback without bringing added pressure. Mattison learned from Rex Ryan and the Ravens the art of deception and scheme when bringing blitzers. Whether he’s able to get to the quarterback and create turnovers will likely determine who goes home happy Saturday night.

Leftovers, Links & Questions for the Week: No. 3 Notre Dame returns from a week off

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It was Notre Dame’s week off, so any leftovers around here are minimal at best. There isn’t enough to make a full sandwich with, if you will, but perhaps enough to satisfy a craving for 45 minutes before dinner is served. In other words, the idle week doesn’t truly end until Tuesday morning.

As expected, the fingers hitting these keys did not touch a remote this weekend. But that didn’t stop them from cruising Twitter and learning a few things that need to be investigated this week, most likely by Tuesday morning:

It sounds like …
— USC’s quarterback depth chart may no longer exist.
— Syracuse’s quarterback depth chart is about to enter into a controversy.

— Jim Harbaugh is in the middle of another controversy.
— Something largely possible because Harbaugh feels emboldened by Michigan’s success, finally notching a road win against a ranked opponent.

— Those rankings are becoming an issue as people debate Notre Dame and Michigan, missing the point that if both win out, both will be in the Playoff.
— The exact seeding possibilities will start to sort themselves out a week from tomorrow (Tuesday), when the selection committee releases its first ranking.

— The Irish will then immediately have a chance at a comparison point between them and the Wolverines — ya know, aside from the 24-17 Notre Dame victory to open the season — when they head to Northwestern.

— What is worth remembering about Michigan’s 20-17 victory at Northwestern on Sept. 29 is the Wolverines put themselves in a 17-0 hole before getting their act together, their last real scare this season despite now coming off back-to-back top-25 matchups. (No offense, Maryland, but your 7-3 first-quarter lead was not really all that terrifying.)

Now then, some questions …
Will Irish sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong be available to play against Navy (8 ET; CBS)?
Head coach Brian Kelly loosely targeted Armstrong’s return for after the idle week when a knee infection first sidelined him the week before the Stanford game. The simultaneous — but obviously unrelated — return of senior running back Dexter Williams from an undisclosed suspension made Armstrong’s absence much more palatable.

Nonetheless, adding Armstrong to Williams and junior Tony Jones would create a genuinely deep running back rotation. Fresh legs are a rare commodity at the position in November, but Notre Dame might luck into them.

That is, if Armstrong’s fitness was not damaged too much by the four-week break, which included six days in the hospital at one point.
“It’s complicated in the sense that six days sounds like a lot,” Kelly said Oct. 9. “We were draining the knee area and making sure that no infection would get in there. So it required a round-the-clock maintenance on that, and it’s something that’s better done in a hospital environment than back in the dorm.”

Admittedly, this is a question which will go unanswered into the weekend, but it is worth acknowledging well ahead of time.

One way or another, Notre Dame will make it a priority to get junior cornerback Julian Love close to the ball this weekend against Navy’s triple-option attack. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Despite vastly-improved safety play, will the Irish still move Julian Love to safety from cornerback, as they did last year?
The then-sophomore made a career high 14 tackles that day, with 10 of them solo. His nose for the ball is best-suited against the Midshipmen when he can play close to the line of scrimmage and stop the triple-option from the outset, rather than fight off a block on the sideline and then work his way in.

If they do so, will Donte Vaughn get another chance at cornerback?
The junior was benched against Pittsburgh for poor coverage and shoddy tackling. Freshman TaRiq Bracy acquitted himself quite well filling in for Vaughn, and one could be forgiven for readily presuming Bracy would be Notre Dame’s third cornerback (behind Love and junior Troy Pride) moving forward.

This weekend may be the exception.

“Donte has got length, and we like his size,” Kelly said even after that on-field change against the Panthers. “… Donte is much more of a physical player against the run.”

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame’s stressful weekend was inevitable; kicking woes were not
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Maybe they aren’t as bad as thought?
Refreshing Notre Dame’s Playoff possibilities
Refreshing predictions from Notre Dame’s preseason
No. 4 Notre Dame’s defense spurs it past preseason big picture predictions
Big-Picture Mailbag: Wherein Notre Dame fans somehow worry
Friday at 4: Forget about football, just this once, just this weekend

OUTSIDE READING
A family photo’s journey, with Twitter’s help, ties together Pitt and Notre Dame
NCAA Midseason All-American Team from Pro Football Focus
The Athletic’s midseason college football All-America teams ($)
6 college football teams that have greatly underdelivered this season

AND A THANK YOU
A couple Mondays back, this space mentioned a marathoner named Brad. The closing line of Friday’s column was, “Could somebody text me score updates for Clemson at NC State?”

Brad actually did. That’s going above and beyond right there.

Minutes before he did so was also the only chance to personally watch any college football over the weekend. While on a swamp tour in the bayous of Louisiana, the flat-bottomed boat cruised by a house closer to a wild pig breeding ground than to any roads. One man sat on the deck in a rocking chair. A TV made in the mid-90s played Alabama at Tennessee. As Captain Ron said hello to Mr. Jones, this tour now included not only alligators, blue herons and abandoned cement barges, but also the ideal embodiment of how pervasive football is in the United States.

Friday at 4: Forget about football, just this once, just this weekend

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Hold on, I have always wanted to do this …

SOMEWHERE ABOVE MIDDLE AMERICA; SPIRIT AIRLINES FLIGHT 985 — Usually, such a self-serving dateline would be nothing but unnecessary and flattering self-flagellation. In this instance, however, it is to the point about to be addressed. (Also, it’s a Spirit Airlines flight, no humblebrag includes Spirit Airlines.)

Maybe if Notre Dame was not 7-0, not one of six Power Five undefeateds remaining and not No. 4 in the polls, this weekend would feel empty. Maybe if the Irish had not reached the off week with everything still possible, were not forcing their fans to discuss the dreams they usually do not dare voice outside the privacy of an empty car on a long commute, then these 14 days would feel idle rather than relaxing. Maybe if head coach Brian Kelly had not switched quarterbacks a month ago and thus not sparked Notre Dame to look significantly — undeniably, inarguably, one Pittsburgh-struggle away from overwhelmingly — better than it had in the first three weeks, then this would be a time to reassess the obvious flaws that had yet to spell ruin, inevitable as it would certainly seem.

But the Irish are on the brink of something, as much of a brink as anything can be with a month to go. Those generational dreams are more pertinent than most are familiar with. Kelly did make the change to junior Ian Book.

Beginning again Monday, the Notre Dame stress will rise to a level not felt since 2012, and even then, it was a team escaping trouble for as long as possible, not one embarrassing Stanford on both sides of the line.

The five weeks to come will include freak outs — don’t you dare, unfounded Twitter rumors, don’t you dare — and celebrations. They may well include the continued coalescence of USC, leading to concern clouding enjoyment of Thanksgiving’s cheesy potatoes. (Ahhhh, cheesy potatoes.)

An injury will lead to aggravation. A questionable play call will spark un-nuanced outrage. A correct-to-the-letter flag will be faulted for missing the spirit of the rule.

This is what awaits you come Monday.

Today is Friday.

So, for one weekend this fall, forget about football. Enjoy some time away from the TV, or at least leave it on just in the background and focus energy somewhere else. By no means do you need to clean the gutters, but has anyone ever been worse off for not watching Michigan at Michigan State? (12 ET; FOX)

This flight is to New Orleans to enjoy a bachelor party. It being scheduled for this particular weekend is no accident. The only coincidence was the survey of attendees happened to match the weekend the best man had already decided upon. The polling results were private; they were never going to be shared if they conflicted with the executive decision.

There will not be football on at this bachelor party, no matter if it is in a football-mad state filled with dreams of upsetting the national balance and ruining any semblance of order in the Playoff conversation. Good for Louisiana, for LSU, for Ed Orgeron. That is not a problem to be discussed around here this weekend. (And not while watching the Tigers host Mississippi State at 7 ET on ESPN.)

That is a problem for Monday.

Go, open your Friday at 4 beverage. Just like any week, you have earned it. But maybe do not worry about USC at Utah tomorrow night (8 ET; Pac 12 Network), even if that spread is ticking more and more toward the Utes.

As you read this, yours truly will be heading toward a nice Cajun dinner.

Midday Saturday, it’ll be a boat tour of the swamplands. There will be no television anywhere near, though the boat does come complete with a cooler filled with local beer.

Take a weekend off. Just this one.

And if you don’t, could somebody text me score updates for Clemson at NC State? Much appreciated. (3:30 ET; ESPN)

Big-Picture Mailbag: Wherein Notre Dame fans somehow worry

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Notre Dame is undefeated, and for the most part, that is good enough. Yet, concern about the No. 4 Irish showed itself in this week’s call for mailbag questions through references to other programs, be they Pittsburgh, Alabama or Michigan. Yes, that is the first time in 2018 those three have been mentioned in the same breath. Maybe the first time this decade.

Let’s begin with the most recent Notre Dame victory and work our way toward ending with some philosophical Wolverines wonderings.

Brian Kelly shrugged off the difficulty the Irish had against the game plan Pitt put into place. But the concern is, of course, that it WORKED. The counterargument is that there were quite a few missed passes that would have changed things (dramatically) and quite a few missed blocking assignments that could have broken for us.

But doesn’t this just tell every other team on our remaining schedule what the blueprint is for containing the Irish? And if so, what is the next chess move for Kelly to counter it? — Mark H.

It worked? Notre Dame won, right? And the defense gave up just 242 total yards, one score and 4.0 yards per play, right? Right. Just making sure.

Pittsburgh’s method worked only to that extent; it was not enough. That is the first counter: Continue relying on the Irish defense.

The next thing to remember is teams take on their coaches’ dispositions. The Panthers follow Pat Narduzzi’s lead, and to a lesser extent, defensive coordinator Randy Bates. That results in a defense willing to sell out against the run when told to, even if doing so comes at the expense of the secondary. Not all other teams will have that success or the roster designed for it. The current iterations of Navy and Florida State, for example, very much do not, and USC needs to worry now with senior linebacker Porter Gustin out for the year.

His success sometimes makes it hard to remember: Ian Book is still a first-year starter with only five career starts under his belt. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Lastly, some of this is overreaction forgetting the Irish can indeed counter this defensive strategy, and that will start with junior quarterback Ian Book. He was “antsy” and “skittish” against Pittsburgh, to use his own words. To offer a broader description, Book was nervous about any version of a pass rush. He had not yet faced a stacked box like that, and the first appearance of one reminded Book he is a first-year starter leading an unbeaten team toward the Playoff. If the moment did not get to him, some version of doubt did, be it in himself, the offensive line or the game plan.

Book spun away from not-yet-threatening pass rushes too often against the Panthers. Fortunately for Notre Dame, that should not be a difficult bad habit to break upon some film review. If Book realizes his happy feet actually got him into more trouble than they evaded, he may settle down when Northwestern — where Bates was defensive coordinator as recently as last year — tries a similar strategy. At that point, exploiting the minimalist secondary should be readily possible.

Losing a night of sleep after Virginia Tech may have affected the team’s performance against Pitt. Why doesn’t the team spend the night after a late away game? Would it be an NCAA violation? Is it just about cost? — Joseph B.

Notre Dame reportedly plans to do just that after the Navy game in San Diego kicks off at 8 ET. The flight back from southern California will also cover about 1,800 miles, compared to only 450 or so from Virginia Tech. That trip really was not very lengthy.

Given those November plans, it is obviously not an NCAA violation, but there is a logistics issue when the kickoff time is not announced in the summer. If the Lane Stadium festivities had ended up dampened by sunlight, then what would have been gained by staying the night? That kickoff time was not known until six days beforehand.

What, if anything, does sending clips of holding calls/penalties to the ACC do? So far, seen no results. — @sogdeaux

Let’s presume you are sitting at a table as you read this. Seems a reasonable possibility. If not, pretend.

Now, can you prove to me there is not a ghost under that table? Can you prove to me you have not seen any effects of Notre Dame sending in clips to the ACC pointing out missed holding calls?

It is very possible the Irish coaching staff would have sent in a dozen clips after the Pitt game if not for pointing out some holds missed at Wake Forest. Likely? No. But you cannot prove otherwise.

Notre Dame junior defensive end Julian Okwara will likely ask for an NFL draft evaluation this spring, but that is not a sure sign he heads to the next level after this season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

That is the point of sending in the clips. No matter what, calls are going to be missed. These are part-time officials trying to keep up in a game that is going faster and faster with bigger and stronger athletes. It is an utterly thankless task. If Notre Dame can point out — this is strictly a hypothetical — junior defensive end Julian Okwara is often grabbed by the shoulder when he executes a swim move, then an official may be more apt to look for that grab when he sees Okwara begin that paddle motion.

Calls will continue to be missed, but the effect is the call that is made that otherwise would not have been, the ghost under the table you will never see nor even know exists.

With the season more than half over and plenty of empirical evidence at your disposal, can you handicap which seniors will be offered fifth years and who will likely accept? Similarly, which, if any, juniors are likely to enter the 2019 draft? — @kenjomanMcd

First, let’s ruminate on the wonders and bewilderments of technology. This rough draft is getting typed at an airport gate awaiting a flight south. Rather than pay for 90 minutes of shoddy wifi or unnecessarily use up hotspot data, the internet is disconnected. That makes itself clear in the lack of spell check in this particular Google Doc. Yet, somehow, the “2018 Depth Chart” Google Spreadsheet can be opened, although it has never been backed up on this computer.

All this is to say, that oddity is the only reason this question gets pondered right now, and it is also why it took genuine sounding out to spell minimalist earlier.

There is little difference between getting offered a fifth year and accepting it. If the former were to occur without the latter, word would never genuinely leak on that. Only eight current seniors have another year of eligibility available: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, receivers Miles Boykin and Chris Finke, tight end Alizé Mack, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, linebacker Asmar Bilal and defensive back Shaun Crawford.

The quicker question to ask is who does not come back. Wimbush heads that list. Even if an injury forced him back into playing time and he led the way to the Playoff, a happier final collegiate year will be found elsewhere, and Wimbush leaving for those pastures would open the gate for current freshman Phil Jurkovec to be no less than Book’s backup in 2019.

Dew-Treadway has given little reason to incur a fifth-year, especially with Notre Dame curating the concept of defensive depth previously unseen in these parts.

The other six would all return to starting and contributing roles, though there is some question to Mack getting approval for it, given his academic suspension in 2016.

As for early-departing juniors, no offensive player has shined enough to warrant consideration, and yes, that is a reference to receiver Chase Claypool. Defensively, cornerback Julian Love and defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara could conceivably have decisions to make. Okwara in particular seems ripe for more development before heading to the NFL draft, but those other two may receive positive enough feedback to warrant strong pondering of collecting paychecks.

Do you see any assistant coaches leaving the Irish this year to jump to a head coach opening in college or an assistant coach position in the NFL? — Charles C.

The latter such move is not seen very often, Harry Hiestand aside. Complete staff continuity is also not seen often, as evidenced by the fact that Notre Dame’s coaching staff seemed ready to remain intact as Boykin raced to the end zone against LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and Brian Kelly still eventually had to replace Hiestand and defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

At the very least, defensive line coach Mike Elston is ready for a head coaching gig, has told Kelly that and has been groomed by Kelly and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick for that.

A few years ago, Kelly and Swarbrick led an unsuccessful effort to get then-running backs coach Tony Alford the head coaching job at his alma mater, Colorado State. If Elston spots an opening he would like, expect a similar full-court press  With Bowling Green already looking and Chuck Martin facing the prospect of his fifth season below .500 at Miami (OH), the possibilities for Elston will be there.

How about some talk about what ND can do between now and January to get ready to face Alabama in the semifinal? — Pat C.

Pat went on to list a thought about every Irish position group, which should pretty much offer the answer to his question. You don’t want ‘Bama. Ain’t no one outside of Louisiana want ‘Bama.

Oh, and by the way, just to start drilling this into heads in case it really does come to matter: The semifinals are not in January. They are Dec. 29.

For the new eligibility rules, do bowl games/postseason games count toward the limit of four? — @ChadComey

Yes. And before you ask, each Playoff game counts toward the total separately.

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson has found his groove of late, powering the Wolverines into the Playoff conversation. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Would you be of the opinion that we need to root for Michigan or naw? — @IRISH_GL

This is not an attempt to avoid the question. It is an effort to show how tricky this calculus can be. Do you think Notre Dame will lose yet this year?

If not, then go ahead and root for Michigan. If the Wolverines were to go 12-1 to win the Big Ten, it should not affect the Irish. For this hypothetical, let’s presume Alabama and Clemson finish 13-0. The concern about Michigan is better stated as worrying not one, but two one-loss teams would get in ahead of 12-0 Notre Dame. If the Tide are 13-0, then there isn’t even a one-loss SEC team to insert into the hypothetical. Someone from the Big 12 would have to finish that round-robin-plus without losing again. Then, the debate would likely be about Texas (or Oklahoma or West Virginia) against Michigan. The Irish should be clear.

If expecting Notre Dame to lose, then a Wolverines loss may be helpful for the Irish cause, especially if it does not come against Ohio State. The way Michigan is playing, it could slip in ahead of 11-1 Notre Dame. You don’t like it, but it’s in play. If the Wolverines perhaps lost to Michigan State this weekend and then beat the Buckeyes, that would be the ideal setup, along with some Big 12 chaos, for the Irish coming out of Los Angeles with a close defeat.

Reading back on that thought process, the summarized logic indicates Notre Dame fans should root for a Michigan defeat. The Wolverines at 12-1 can do nothing but hurt an 11-1 Irish. Michigan at 12-1 does not impact undefeated Notre Dame, and there need not be fretting about the first undefeated Power Five team excluded from the College Football Playoff being the only one that does not need a conference to be considered a Power Five team.

Here’s one that’s stemming from a conversation with the #NDTwitterati … If you had a button that could eliminate Michigan football permanently, but also erases any trace of them from memory and history, do you press it? — @IrishSBender

Ever seen someone cut off their own nose? It’s not a good look. There is some phrase about spiting your face. It is referencing this.

Who first taught Notre Dame football? Michigan. So go ahead, press your red button, erase the Wolverines’ gridiron history. You’ll be losing Irish lore with it.

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.