Five things we learned: 83rd annual Blue-Gold game

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Tolstoy once said that spring is the time of plans and projects. On display for all to see today were Brian Kelly‘s plans and projects, with quarterback Everett Golson and running back George Atkinson stealing the show. The soon-to-be sophomores showcased their respective talents this afternoon during the 83rd annual Blue-Gold game, while also reminding us that they are still works-in-progress.

“Both of those guys are exciting, electric players,” Kelly said after the game. “But they are a heart attack for me.”

On the scoreboard, the defense defeated the offense 42-31. But the stars of the game were Atkinson, who ran for 124 yards on 15 carries and caught three balls for 54 yards, and Golson, who completed 11 of 15 throws for 120 yards and two touchdowns, while chipping in 25 yards on the ground. In a crowded backfield, Atkinson clearly stated his case for seeing the football more next fall. He also lost two fumbles, showing the dangers of youth as he contributed more than his fair share to the offense’s six turnovers, continuing last season’s fit of self-inflected mistakes. While Golson played mostly mistake free football, Kelly continues to work with his young talent to make sure he’s able to properly manage a football game.

Spring football games are just another practice for a coaching staff that gets 15 opportunities to work with their team in the offseason. But for fans clamoring to get that first peak at what’s to come in the fall, let’s look at the five things we learned during the Blue-Gold game.

***

It appears that it’s only a three-man race at quarterback.

Brian Kelly laid out his plans for the quarterbacking position earlier in the week,  rolling Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel through the game based on seniority. But when the Irish took the field under a perfectly sunny sky, Kiel stayed on the sidelines for the first half, only seeing action in the second half while the clock rolled.

After the game, Kelly explained that Kiel wasn’t ready to run the full allotment of the offense, and kept him out of the fray as the other quarterbacks competed against the Irish’s top defense. And while Kiel will have his opportunity to learn and compete in the fall, it’s clear that a perfect world will feature the Irish’s five-star prospect watching and learning.

“We can’t run everything with Gunner at this point,” Kelly said. “He just doesn’t have the knowledge base. So from that standpoint we gave him all the reps in the second half and got him an opportunity to really feel like he was part of the game.”

Kiel was five of ten on the day, throwing an interception to Chris Salvi on one of many throws that sailed high on him. While he very much looks the part of a starting college quarterback, barring a big step forward during summer workouts and fall camp, Kiel will enter the depth chart at No. 4.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Entering the third year of building his program, Kelly has the luxury of letting his freshman quarterback develop properly. The future of this program very well could be with Kiel behind center. But it likely won’t be in 2012.

***

With six offensive turnovers, today’s snapshot felt too much like a replay of last season.

Kelly has stated that the minus-fifteen turnover ratio was more upsetting than the 8-5 record. And after today’s scrimmage, the head coach once again railed on the mistakes made on the offensive side of the ball.

“We saw some errors that, unfortunately, are all too familiar,” Kelly said. “So I think there were some strides made, but clearly we’re not there yet. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Atkinson’s fumbles pushed aside for the moment, both Rees and Hendrix made mistakes with the football that can’t continue. For Rees, it was over-throwing a seam route that ended in the arms of an over-the-top safety. For Hendrix, it was trying to force a throw in a place it should’ve never gone. Both quarterbacks struggled with accuracy, completing less than 50 percent of their combined throws, failing to capitalize against a secondary that was playing largely without Bennett Jackson.

After a relatively clean 14 practices, the Irish quarterbacks threw threw interceptions on 48 attempts. That’s not good enough, especially with 2012’s difficult schedule ahead.

***

There’s still plenty to like along both sides of the line for the Irish. 

With quarterbacks open game for Irish defenders, the stat-line in the sacks column was kept conspicuously clean. That’s a credit to Harry Hiestand‘s offensive line, still playing without starting center Braxston Cave, but also because the Irish’s top pass rushing presence was visiting South Florida while his former teammates battled. A year after Aaron Lynch treated offensive tackles like matadors, there was little pressure on Irish quarterbacks then they dropped back to pass.

That’s not to say that the Irish won’t get after quarterbacks without Lynch. Fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt only made cameo appearances along the line while guys like Sheldon Day and Tyler Stockton saw a ton of time. Just as impressive was the effort by youngsters Anthony Rabasa and Jarrett Grace, who likely will be let loose in the pass rush next season. Kona Schwenke, voted most improved by the coaching staff after an impressive spring, should be able to replace Sean Cwynar as Louis Nix‘s running mate at nose tackle.

The Irish offensive line might be the best set of blockers this defensive front sees in the next calendar year. The Irish ran for 259 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry behind a group that substituted liberally. With a stacked backfield and limited receiving options, the Irish would do themselves well leaning on the line to power the offense. With a secondary also learning on the fly, the front seven should dictate the tone of the defense as well.

After struggling to fill a depth chart last season, there’s an embarrassment of riches in the backfield.

Last year, the Irish were worried about what they’d get from their running backs after Cierre Wood. While Jonas Gray stepped to the forefront, the Irish were thin in the backfield the entire season, having the shift Theo Riddick back to running back after Gray went down with a knee injury.

Turn the clock ahead and now the backfield is one of the undeniable strengths of the team. With Wood running for over 10 yards a carry this afternoon, Theo Riddick looking natural in the backfield, and Atkinson drawing oohs and aahs in the press box, Brian Kelly has more than enough to work with, even without injured back Amir Carlisle and incoming freshmen Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell.

The versatility of this position group might be the best thing it has going for it. With Chuck Martin rebooting the scheme, Irish backs will be just as dangerous through the air as on the ground. Riddick led the Irish with eight catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. Atkinson broke a big play on a pass as well. Carlisle was one of USC’s best two-way back last season, and he’ll move comfortably between the backfield and split wide.

The strategic benefit of Tony Alford coaching both backs and slot receivers forces the Irish’s offensive personnel to cross-train daily. We already saw Robby Toma get a carry this afternoon after only getting one all last season. With wide receiver still a big question mark heading into the season, creative personnel grouping between multiple tight ends and running backs could help alleviate any concern on the outside.

***

It’s only one practice, but a future with Everett Golson behind center could be coming.

The quarterbacking job is still likely Tommy Rees’ to lose. But for one afternoon, Irish fans had the ability to see what a dynamic playmaker Everett Golson can be in this offense. Golson was unquestionably the best performer of the four and his ability to make plays with his feet and flash a very big arm, help you understand why he’s always been such an intriguing prospect.

After the game, Kelly was quick to talk about the things that Golson needs to improve on, skipping over the undeniable ability that was on display for the 35,000-plus fans in attendance.

“We come at this from different perspectives,” Kelly said, slipping quickly past the two touchdown passes and nimble running. “The stats don’t mean anything to me. What I didn’t like was that he’s got to get the plays in quicker. He’s got to recognize the signaling. If I’m not out there getting guys set and making sure he knows what to play, we’re going to have flags thrown all over the place. So those things don’t mean as much to me as they do managing the offense. We’re making progress there, but we’re nowhere where we need to be.”

As the Irish head into summer workouts and team-run sessions, Golson will likely need to continue learning how to run a football team, something that Brian Kelly wants out of his quarterbacks. The record-setting high school quarterback that’s simply able to freestyle his way to a state championship is a guy that gets college coaches fired.

“The quarterback position is both art and science,” Kelly explained. “The art part he’s got down. It’s the science and the consistency, all of those things to be a championship quarterback.”

Kelly knows he’s got a project with Golson. As the Irish head into summer, it’ll be on Golson’s shoulders to finish the job and take control of the quarterback position.

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

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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.

Mike Tirico Podcast: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise

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Brian Kelly can very much understand what Dino Babers has done to bring Syracuse to No. 12 in the country. Babers orchestrated that rise along the exact same timetable the Notre Dame head coach made his career on, a timetable that then risked his career, Kelly explained to NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico on his eponymous weekly podcast.

Babers is in his third year leading the Orange, now at 8-2 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons.

“He has stuck with his system and developed his players,” Kelly told Tirico. “These young men are now veterans on the offensive line. He has gone out and brought in some veteran players on the defensive line. He can do some things on the line of scrimmage that he couldn’t before.

“They present a challenge because they can run the football, they can throw it, they’re balanced on offense. … He’s a smart football coach, and he’s developed Syracuse into a winning team.”

While each of Kelly’s first two seasons at Notre Dame matched Babers’ combined wins in his first two with the Orange, it was still Kelly’s third that saw his break through, a la Syracuse currently. That season, as many remember, ended in the BCS national championship game.

This followed a trend for Kelly, going 19-16 in three seasons at Central Michigan before moving to Cincinnati where he went 34-6 before taking over the Irish. That final season with the Bearcats featured the same regular season record Kelly’s third at Notre Dame did, 12-0.

Then, one could say Kelly and the Irish stagnated for three seasons. He had not needed to navigate those years at the FBS-level before.

“Got here and after that third year, really went past that three-year turnaround again and stopped doing the things that I had been doing in the process that I had always stuck with,” Kelly said. “The 4-8 season (in 2016) was a re-awakening of getting back to the things that I had always done and just validates the fact that if I stick with the process and the things that I have always done as a football coach, then we can have success.”

This, along with the general enormity of coaching at Notre Dame and all that comes with it, had Kelly unprepared for the scope of the gig despite being a 19-year head coach when he arrived in South Bend.

“I don’t think I was actually adequately prepared for it,” he said in a moment of candor.

To hear Kelly expound on that list of responsibilities, on recruiting players who fit the University’s culture and on his early career in politics, give Kelly and Tirico a listen via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever else you may get your podcasts.