The road to 12-0: Michigan State

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The third in a series that looks back at Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season. For more, read entries on Navy and Purdue.

Sure, Notre Dame bumped up the rankings to No. 20 after squeezing by Purdue. But there would be little room for the Irish to play anything but their best game in East Lansing. While the depth chart would be replenished with Cierre Wood returning from suspension and Danny Spond healthy after his scary preseason injury, the Irish were happy to have all hands on deck for their first edition of the biggest game of the year.

Traveling to No. 10 Michigan State was the first of many big tests for Notre Dame. While the Spartans didn’t turn out to be the elite team many pegged them to be, they had a defense that was top flight, and a lofty ranking that usually spelled certain doom for Notre Dame. The Irish hadn’t won a night game against a top ten team in twenty years, when Lou Holtz’s Irish beat Steve Spurrier’s Gators in the Sugar Bowl.

It was time for the first of many moments for this football team. And Brian Kelly felt good about it.

“Our guys are confident and they prepared well and they should be,” Kelly said. “They’re looking forward to the challenge of playing at Michigan State in what will be a great atmosphere.”

STATUS CHECK

The week heading into the Michigan State game was a life changing one for Manti Te’o. In a 48 hour span, he lost his girlfriend to her battle with leukemia and his grandmother. Still, Te’o found strength with his teammates, and in retrospect the game he played against Michigan State — where he filled the stat sheet up with 12 tackles, one TFL, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups — was just tremendous.

The game against the Spartans was also a huge data point for the development of Everett Golson. The young quarterback had just sat out for the Irish’s game-winning drive against Purdue and was in desperate need of a fast start and a smart football game. Facing one of the country’s toughest defenses, and playing in one of the season’s premiere early-season match-ups, Golson delivering in the clutch was a great sign of things to come.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Could the Irish ace their first big test?

It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. The Irish defense held the Spartans to just 237 total yards, neutralizing Le’Veon Bell while sacking Andrew Maxwell four times. The offense didn’t do much, but was aided by the return of Cierre Wood, who averaged 5.6 yards a carry while Theo Riddick struggled to a rough stat line of 30 yards on 12 carries.

Yet Notre Dame did everything that was needed to win. Control the line of scrimmage, hold onto the football. Break a big play with George Atkinson on a nifty counter draw that went for 43 yards while John Goodman caught a game-changing 36-yard touchdown catch beating one-on-one coverage.

Could the Notre Dame receivers beat Michigan State’s coverage?

We asked this exact question before the game and the Irish receiving corps answered the bell. Even without Tyler Eifert having a catch, the Irish receivers made big plays. In addition to Goodman’s long touchdown catch, Robby Toma and TJ Jones each chipped in a 20-plus yard catch. While Davaris Daniels was slowed still by a tweaked ankle, Daniel Smith chipped in a catch and also established himself as one of the team’s best blockers.

Can Everett Golson manage a football game?

That was the first question I asked on game day, especially a week after Golson made to critical mistakes down the stretch against Purdue. Yet Golson played decisively and with poise, throwing the football away when the moment called for it and keeping the offense out of difficult situations.

Still, it wasn’t all positives for the offense. The Irish were an anemic 1 of 14 on third downs.

“We had too many opportunities to put points on the board and to get the kind of production we need,” Kelly said. “A lot of it is in the quarterback’s development. Again, he did some really good things. But we’ve got a long way to go. He needs to continue to stay on task, Everett, and continue to develop each and every week.”

How would the Irish secondary play without Jamoris Slaughter?

Notre Dame suffered a heart-breaking loss when fifth-year Jamoris Slaughter suffered an Achilles tear against the Spartans and was lost for the season. Already without Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth, the Irish were going to have to find a second safety to pair with Zeke Motta.

While the decision to bring back Dan McCarthy for a fifth year seemed like a fortuitous decision, Kelly called on redshirt freshman Matthias Farley to step into the starting lineup. Still, there was no discounting the loss, with Slaughter one of the most versatile players on the Irish roster.

“You lose a Jamoris Slaughter, you’re losing an ‘A’ player,” Kelly said Sunday. “Matthias is certainly not at the level yet of a Jamoris Slaughter. He has to continue to develop, but we have a lot of confidence and trust in him. He’ll be getting a lot of work back there.”

Kelly was confident that a secondary featuring Farley and freshman KeiVarae Russell wouldn’t hold back the defense.

“You’re worried if you feel you have to hide them out there,” Kelly said of his young players. “We don’t have to hide those guys, they just need to continue to develop.”

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 20, Michigan State 6.

Entering the toughest stretch of the season, Notre Dame walked out of Spartan Stadium looking like a team that could physically battle with anyone. The defense was playing at near historic levels, giving up just 30 points in the season’s first three games, the stingiest any Irish team had been since 1988. Against Michigan State, Prince Shembo terrorized the Spartan offensive line, with two tackles-for-loss, a sack, and a well-earned holding call. The 237 yards Michigan State’s offense put up was the lowest output for an opposition since the Irish beat the 2008 Washington Huskies, a team that didn’t win a football game.

Offensively, the run game continued to evolve, with the Irish offensive line winning the battles down the stretch. With the game still up for grabs, Notre Dame took the ball from their own four-yard line and marched down the field for a game clinching field goal. The line play against the best defensive front in the Big Ten controlled the ball for 18:32 of the second half, winning the game with a respectable 4.5 yards per carry and allowing only one sack.

Needing to find some big plays for the offense, Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly had a terrific game plan, utilizing a diverse personnel group, with Chris Brown running a deep pattern that nearly went for a big gain and George Atkinson getting limited touches, but on plays that helped the young runner break a big play. While Golson was still developing chemistry with Eifert, the quarterback took shots down the field attacking the Michigan State secondary even before he was utilized as a key in the run game.

For Kelly, the victory was a big one. After falling victim to Mark Dantonio courtesy of a trick play called Little Giants, the Irish head coach dispatched Dantonio’s Spartans 53-16 over the past two seasons, beating two teams that were ranked 15th and 10th in the country.

“It’s a signature win,” Kelly said. “There’s no question when you go on the road against the No. 10 team in the country and you beat them, it’s definitely going to build the confidence in that locker room.”

That confidence would come in handy the next week, when Notre Dame would need to take on Denard Robinson and Michigan.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5 ½, 255 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Kmet will be the second option among Notre Dame’s vertical threats at tight end, behind senior Alizé Mack, provided Mack proves more reliable than he has in the past.
Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

CAREER TO DATE
Kmet appeared in all 13 games last season, catching two passes for 14 yards against Wake Forest, both completions from back-up quarterback Ian Book, on back-to-back passes in fact. Kmet also dropped a red-zone pass on a third down that November afternoon, that one attempted by starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

QUOTE(S)
Much of the praise around Kmet this spring revolved around his ability to excel both in football practices and baseball games. In his first collegiate season on the mound, Kmet appeared in 25 games, notching eight saves with a 4.76 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 45 1/3 innings, striking out 37 batters.

“He handles two sports here and is never on a list,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in late March. “He never is a guy we have to worry about in terms of going to class and representing Notre Dame in the fashion that he needs to. A pretty extraordinary young man in terms of the whole picture.

“… He catches the ball, soft hands, he’s physical at the point of attack, and when he catches the ball, he runs through tacklers, which is in itself pretty impressive.”

At some points this spring, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long gave Kmet the option of taking a football practice off if following a late baseball game. The tight end dismissed that notion.

“You can see some days where it wears on him,” Long said in mid-April. “… But he’s been extremely consistent. Staying with us all last fall, you can see where the carryover has been big for him to blossom this spring.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

“Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when [classmate Brock] Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.”

2018 OUTLOOK
This projection cannot be more inaccurate than last year’s, so that’s a start.

Kmet complements Mack as a viable receiving option among the Irish tight ends, but he could become more than that. That speaks as much to Mack’s habitual inconsistency as it does to Kmet’s soft hands and aptness at the point of attack. His rise, though, could be the push Mack needs to focus. For the team, that may be the best-case scenario: Kmet plays well, leading to Mack playing better. Both would get their fair share of opportunities in Long’s multiple tight end schemes. That is the version of the Irish offense which would be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.

If Kmet were to statistically surpass Mack for a week or two in September, that could just as equally result in Mack checking out mntally. To be blunt, such a disappointment could happen with or without Kmet’s success this fall, but having another dangerous pass-catcher at tight end for Long to tinker with would diminish the possible debilitating effects.

The gap between those two scenarios is vast. Last year, Notre Dame’s top-three tight ends (Mack, Durham Smythe and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar) combined for 43 catches for 462 yards and four touchdowns. If Kmet and Mack could combine for about those totals, maybe 500 yards and four touchdowns on 45 catches, then that would be a solid baseline, no matter how those stats are distributed.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mack could return in 2019, but Kmet will continue to rise to prominence in Long’s system. His combination of height and hands makes him an intriguing piece for a tight end-heavy offense. However, some caution needs to be exercised. Kmet looked solid in his freshman season and certainly impressed across the board this spring, but that is all a far cry from excelling in the fall.

Kmet should contribute this season and take the lead in 2019, with or without Mack on the Irish roster, but he may not yet become an offensive staple even then. If his progression follows an understated rate, that day may come in 2019 or 2020. Part of that inevitable outlook traces to Notre Dame’s tight end reputation. They keep becoming NFL contributors, Smythe after Koyack after Niklas after Eifert …

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½ , 210 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year with only the 2018 season remaining.
Depth chart: Newsome will handle all the Notre Dame punting duties while also serving as one of four Irish captains.
Recruiting: Though only a punter, rivals.com marked Newsome as a three-star recruit and the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
Newsome preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman while former Irish leg extraordinaire Kyle Brindza both kicked and punted. Since then, Newsome has rarely faltered, averaging 43.8 yards on 172 career punts.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts (in only 12 games) at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.
2017: 63 punts at an average of 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 37.9 yards per punt.

QUOTE(S)
Newsome’s rise to captainship this offseason was chronicled when Irish head coach Brian Kelly named him a captain along with fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher to begin spring practices. (Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars joined their ranks the morning of the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.)

The week before the spring finale, Kelly revisited what led his team to elevate Newsome as a leader.

“He’s a guy that holds all players to a level, a standard of excellence that we have here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you’re not meeting that standard, he’s going to take the load from you to make sure that it gets done. He’s a remarkable teammate.

“Our losing SWAT team weekly, they have to come in to run. [Newsome] didn’t lose once, his team, but he came in every Wednesday to be there for that losing team, to support them. Just that kind of wanting to hold everybody to the same standards. He was there to help them. He wasn’t there to yell at them. He was there to encourage them. That was recognized by his teammates.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

“Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.”

2018 OUTLOOK
First and foremost, the peace of mind provided by a lack of punting concerns should not be overlooked. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to worry Newsome may develop the yips in his final season.

His off-kilter leadership, meanwhile, intrigues. Two-year captain Tranquill can and will lead the defense as Mustipher and Bars combine to lead the offense. That does not simply leave the special teams for Newsome’s guidance, however.

He should serve as an offbeat catch-all for any unusual circumstances. That role would be behind the scenes, beneath the radar, etc., but Newsome’s effect could be a unique dynamic helping to easy any locker room tension.

Even with that capacity, it will almost certainly still be Tranquill and now Bars, stepping into former Notre Dame captain Mike McGlinchey’s stead, answering the media’s questions in a distant arena after a fourth quarter goes awry.

DOWN THE ROAD
Newsome’s leg does not offer the booming power necessary to break into the NFL. His Irish career alone may warrant an invite to an offseason camp, but Newsome does not look to be the next rendition of Craig Hentrich.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment

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Defensive line coach Mike Elston predicted Notre Dame would enjoy great recruiting success along its defensive line this cycle. With Saturday’s commitment of consensus four-star defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic High School; Fort Worth, Texas), Elston can consider his boasts backed up.

“I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7, the most-recent National Signing Day.

“This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Osafo-Mensah is the third consensus four-star defensive end to join the Irish class of 2019 and the highest-rated of the trio, joining Howard Cross (St. Joseph H.S.; Montvale, N.J.) and Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas). Per rivals.com, Osafo-Mensah is the No. 160 prospect in the country and the No. 17 in Texas. The recruiting service lists Osafo-Mensah as an outside linebacker, and the No. 6 outside linebacker in the country, but his 6-foot-4 frame holding about 220 pounds projects as a pass-rushing defensive end in the future.

Osafo-Mensah is not only explosive, but he has the length of a top-flight quarterback hound. Obviously, he remains a bit light as he finishes his junior year in high school.

Osafo-Mensah chose Notre Dame over his homestate Texas, with Oklahoma and Texas A&M also pursuing him strongly. Just about every college football power offered him a scholarship, notably including Alabama, Michigan and USC.

With the Irish, he becomes the 10th commit in the class, including consensus-four star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren; Bowling Green, Ky.). Clearly the defensive line is an emphasis for Elston, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

If not for the changes to NCAA recruiting rules in the last cycle, Osafo-Mensah and the rest may still be in the early parts of the recruitment process. First of all, December’s early signing period gave the coaching staff a head start on chasing the next set of recruits.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put [the class of 2018] to bed and get moving on the ‘19s and go visit in their schools all throughout January,” Elston said.

Those impressions led to Osafo-Mensah’s official visit last month. Before the new rules, he would not have been able to take a paid-for trip to campus until the fall.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 245 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: One could argue Takacs is the second option as an H-back blocker behind sophomore Brock Wright, but the arrival of Auburn transfer fullback Keenan Sweeney could diminish the immediate need for Takacs in that regard.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 15 tight end in the class, the U.S. Army All-American chose Notre Dame over Georgia, Wisconsin and homestate Florida, also holding offers from much of the southeast, including Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn.

QUOTE(S)
A meniscus tear before spring practice started cut short Takacs’ early impressions. Thus, the only available insights into Takacs trace back to National Signing Day proceedings.

“George is already here doing a great job,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said on Feb. 7. “… The good thing I got to see this year with George, though, is he was split out wide and did a lot of good things in the passing game.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN TAKACS’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“The target Takacs presents to his quarterback makes him an intriguing possibility all on its own. With reach to match his 6-foot-6 frame, Takacs can get to nearly any ball in his vicinity, making up for a lack of top-end speed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Takacs will likely be healthy before the fall, if not already. He underwent surgery for the bucket tear in his cartilage, which typically reduces recovery time from the injury. Nonetheless, the step back limited the positive effects of Takacs’ early enrollment.

The most logical result of that is Takacs spends the season on the sidelines, getting healthy and getting up to college fitness levels.

DOWN THE ROAD
Long’s praise of Takacs’ ability in the passing game indicates the tight end may be more of a complete player than he was originally recruited to be. On the surface, Takacs looks to be the successor to Wright as an attached tight end, strengthening the Notre Dame running game.

If he can do both that and catch passes, even if only short routes in the flat or on bootlegs, Takacs will fit right into Long’s multiple tight end schemes. Those formations make it so every tight end on the Irish roster matters. Three rotate in frequently, making the fourth tight end actually within the two-deep depth chart. When fifth-year Nic Weishar runs out of eligibility and senior Alizé Mack ponders the NFL, Takacs will be that fourth tight end, at the absolute least, with classmate Tommy Tremble the third tight end, especially if he sees action this year while Takacs reaches full health.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior