Friday Mailbag: Michigan

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Live from 30,000 feet, on an internet connection envious of the old AOL dial-up days, let’s get into the mailbag. But before, let’s address a quick item: 1) A few people have taken issue with my comments “assigning blame” to the five student-athletes off the field. Let’s just agree to disagree, but I’ll make one point: After listening to Jim Harbaugh this week cite the constitution and due process, let’s remember these guys aren’t in a court of law. This is Notre Dame’s process, for better or worse.

Do I think this should move quicker? Yes. Do I want to reach a conclusion, so we aren’t still talking about students “withheld from football activities?” Definitely. But it was summer school. Don’t put yourself into a situation that requires alerting the NCAA, an academic investigation by the university’s general counsel, or an Honor Code hearing.

On to the mailbag:

@NJMetsBlogger:Is Michigan’s defense really as good as they’re saying? Also is Jabrill Peppers healthy for the game?

We will certainly see. But I don’t know that we can draw many conclusions from the Appalachian State game, a first-year Sun Belt member who was a 4-8 FCS team last year, so hardly the world-beaters that shocked Michigan in 2007. But Greg Mattison is an excellent defensive coordinator, so he puts a lot of pressure on a quarterback, and did a number on Golson in 2012.

As for Peppers, if you put a boot on an ankle sprain at halftime of a game, I’m hesitant to believe that we’re going to see the freshman phenom at full strength. But Brady Hoke’s not talking about injuries, and the last thing we heard from him on Monday was that Peppers was going to play.

 

domerboyirish: In terms of our running backs and the offense, why don’t we ever employ a two back set or even send a guy in motion? It seems like our offense always comes out of the huddle into a formation and never adjusts, shifts, or motions. What is the philosophy behind this? 

We are one game into the season and likely saw as vanilla of an offensive attack as you could expect against Rice. But while I agree a two-back set with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant could be really interesting, who do you take off the field?

Also, I don’t know if you’re watching close enough. Notre Dame did a ton of shifting and motion last year, utilizing their tight ends and formational shifts to create matchup issues. But I’ll keep an eye on presnap movement tomorrow and check back in.

 

 

dmacirish: do you view this game as being decided in the trenches? if so should we anticipate to see a “breakout” of tight end pass and catching?

I don’t know if we’re in for a breakout game for Ben Koyack, but I do think Notre Dame has an opportunity to win this game in the trenches. I’m skeptical of the Wolverine’s offensive line, a truly mediocre unit last year, and that was with first-rounder Taylor Lewan and third-round pick Michael Schofield.

Hoke is keeping his line rotation secret, too. Slow-playing the return of suspending center Graham Glasgow. But realistically, even the Irish’s young defensive line — and especially tackles Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones — should expect to have big games.

As for Harry Hiestand’s troops, both Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley were beat by speed moves last week against Rice, but the interior held up very well against Christian Covington. That’s a nice reminder that Christian Lombard is a pretty good player when he’s healthy. Notre Dame needs to dictate terms at the line of scrimmage and establish the ground game to help set up the deep passing game.

 

Mattymill: I’m 37 yrs old, but still revert to a 10 yr old when watching the Irish. My wife allows me that 4 hr window each week to be immature. My question is this: how long prior to kick-off should I take my dose of Pepto Bismol?

After this week, I’m impressed you made it to the weekend. Maybe mix a nice whisky in with that Pepto and your problems will be solved.

 

nducsb: How much do you think Corey’s hand is really limiting him? He was supposed to be one of the breakout players and we barely saw him last week.

That’s a good question. You’ve got to think that a fractured thumb doesn’t make for the easiest situation for a wide receiver. Then again, this offense isn’t going to be a feed the ball to one guy passing game. So while Robinson is going to have a big season, it’s not necessarily the thumb that kept him to one catch, especially considering Golson only completed 14 passes.

 

glowplugv: All the game predictions I’ve seen (CBS, Blue and Gold, etc) all predict the offense being able to play at the same level and above that they did in the Rice game and outscoring MI. Scary that there were no major penalties, no turnovers and the special teams became special in the Rice game. Was it just the competition or are the Irish that good?

They certainly played Kelly’s cleanest opener yet. But I don’t expect Notre Dame to rack up 567 yards against Michigan. That was the third-highest output of the Kelly era, so let’s lower the bar a little bit. And against a talented Wolverines secondary, you can’t expect to see receivers running wide open 50 yards down the field. But Notre Dame believes — and for good reason — that they’ll be able to throw the ball.

We’ll see. As they say, that’s why you play the game.

 

@ontario_bill: Is it possible that BK has a verdict on who’s in out of the 5, and he’s not announcing as a surprise?

No. Although it’d be a pretty cool move.

 

heisenbyrg: Two part question: Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario in which Golson suffers a concussion in the first quarter and is out for the remainder of the game. Zaire comes in and plays well until he breaks his collarbone scrambling midway through the third quarter. Notre Dame is down by three points and has the ball when Zaire goes down. Question 1) Who takes the next snap at quarterback? Question 2) How does the live blog react?

Get ready to meet a fine young man by the name of Montgomery VanGorder. Or for the apocalypse. I think I might prefer the latter, just for the reaction of the live blog. Otherwise, I’d just cut the connection, a la Ed Harris in Truman Show.

 

irishinmich: As the season unfolds, will Kelly stick with his “We need to figure out how to get them all touches” approach with the running back trio?…..or will one back emerge as a clear #1?

Great question. I think getting them all touches will continue to happen, but I don’t suspect that they’ll be as evenly distributed. I was happy with the explosiveness that Cam showed last week, as I thought he got a little bulky and slow last season. He’s just not a natural enough talent to steal carries unless he’s capable of breaking one, which I think he showed with some added burst. (No, it’s not like Bryant or Folston, but it’s there.)

I don’t know if a featured back will ever happen, but I expect some separation to reveal itself, maybe even Saturday night.

 

sfnd: Nearly everyone would agree that BK has improved the program in nearly all aspects. But why has BK not achieved consistent success against Michigan (a program that has not been at its peak in recent seasons)?

Well, let’s go through the games. In 2010, Irish march down the field for an early touchdown. And Dayne Crist gets “blurred vision.” Nightmare scenario ensues, true freshman quarterback throws an interception on his first passing attempt. Walk-on named Montana doesn’t play much better. Crist comes back in, Irish take a late lead but get gutted in the end by Denard.

In 2011, Irish outplay Michigan for most of game until fourth quarter defensive implosion takes place. Offense does it’s best to do the same with red zone mistakes and five turnovers. ND won 2012 and then in 2013 the defense gives up 41 points when they get torched in somewhat exotic coverage schemes and Irish throw two interceptions.

In short: Notre Dame averaged three turnovers a game against Michigan in Kelly’s four years. That can’t happen. They also played bad defense against some very mobile quarterbacks. The reasons? Oh, we could write books.

 

johngaltisspeaking: Why will Michigan win by 18 points when we are favored to win?

If Notre Dame wins, do you promise not to write comments any more?

 

goirishgo: It sounds like the UM defense may be susceptible to the inside run game. To what extent is ND willing to commit to the run?

I think this is one of the key factors of the game. I’d like to see Notre Dame run the football, and do it at pace. If the Irish can do that, they’ll keep the Wolverines D on their heels, and it’ll open up some passing opportunities.

 

don74: When I watched the Rice game I thought Schmidt played a good game. Watched Kelly’s presser on Tuesday and he thought Schmidt played a great game. Now I read many of the ND sites making Schmidt seem like he played the Rice game like Brian Bosworth trying to stop Bo Jackson.

People have a hard time forgetting that Schmidt wasn’t a four-star recruit, but rather a recruited walk-on (the horror!) Nevermind that Michigan’s top tackler the past few seasons had been Jordan Kovacs, a former walk-on who the NFL didn’t shun because he lacked impressive scholarship offers as a 16-year-old, and is now a member of the Miami Dolphins.

If you’re looking to poke holes in Notre Dame’s defense, that Schmidt is the unlikely man in the middle leads you there. I tend to think he was very productive and will continue to be in this system.

 

danirish: Have the days of a few “star” receivers come and gone? Or will the year be one of many receivers catching a few balls here and there?

I think from what we saw against Rice, by the end of the year, all wr’s will have decent stats. None by design will be the Michael Floyd or Derrick Mayes type.

Dan, when Notre Dame gets another receiver like Floyd, be assured that Kelly will feed him the ball. But when they have guys that can do certain things really well, they’ll utilize those skills. That, and I think there’s more depth playing for the Irish at receiver, unlike the guys that surrounded Floyd early in the BK era.

Not to worry: If Kelly and company land a five-star WR, they’ll feed him the football just like they did Floyd.

 

coachtemp: Did not see much “press” coverage by our CB’s? I’m sure losing KR hurt but did his absence cause a drastic departure from the game plan or do you think that BK was simply disguising that coverage for Michigan?

I think it’s tough to play press man coverage against a mobile quarterback. Leaves you pretty vulnerable to scramble yards. But I also think losing KeiVarae Russell doesn’t help.

Both defenses have talked up playing aggressive, press man coverage. It’s certainly a gamble and something with a razor-thin margin for error. We’ll see if that was more talk or if we end up seeing some coverage blends.

 

jommy995: Other than landing the Michigan job when the team was at an all time low, what has Brady Hoke ever done to be considered a good coach?

Say what you want about Hoke, but the guy earned his way to Michigan. He did a great job at Ball State and had a nice run in San Diego. That he wasn’t Michigan’s first choice for the job isn’t surprising, but let’s not get crazy here.

wisner74: Keith, what percentage of those of us more senior ND fans/alums — say 55+ years old — would you think don’t view Michigan as an actual rival?

What percentage of the same group would be perfectly happy if ND never plays Michigan again?

I’m guessing about 90% in both cases.

Kind of a cool question. This “actual rival” thing feels a lot like the “True Yankee” debates you hear when dealing with another insufferable fanbase — a group I lump both ND and UM fans into. Have the two teams played as often as many suspected? No. And the reason behind that is a rather vile and intolerable truth that most Michigan fans don’t want to hear about.

But I’ll say this: Notre Dame and Michigan should be playing each other. Notre Dame and Michigan pretty much hate each other. And that’s awesome — especially in a college sports world that gets so pumped up for battles like that.

That Dave Brandon and the Wolverines tried to make the Irish look bad for trying to get a grip on their scheduling after the ACC agreement blew it up, is likely the biggest cause for this delay. Not to mention bush-league moves like playing the “Chicken Dance.”

But this is a profitable football game for all parties. And an important one. That’s the biggest reason why we’ll hear something sooner than later I’m sure. Or at least I hope.

@EmptyQueue: I noticed that our kick returners wear jersey Nos. 1,2 & 3. Is that how you’d rank them? Who wears #4?

Man, good question. But let’s get the bad part done first: Eilar Hardy wears No. 4, and we don’t know when he’s going to wear his jersey next.

My ranking is very incomplete, especially with only seeing one game. But I liked what Cody Riggs did in the punt return game, and I’m a sucker for guys that don’t call fair catches… as long as they catch the ball. (I’m talking to you, Earl Thomas!)

I also thought Carlisle did a great job hitting the hole with speed on kickoff return. George Atkinson may have been one of the fastest guys in college football, but if you’re tip-toeing, it doesn’t matter.

 

@jimboch02: did you break the news that Rees is going to be a GA next year?

Rees said he’ll be applying for GA jobs, likely to begin in January. He didn’t say whether that’d be at Notre Dame, though Brian Kelly has said he’d welcome Rees back into the fold with open arms.

 

@manninti: Worried about the defensive ends. Tell me I shouldn’t be worried about freshman being able to get pressure and/or keep contain.

Can’t tell you that, sorry. Remember Bob Diaco made both Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt healthy scratches against Denard Robinson as freshmen, just because he was worried they wouldn’t play assignment correct football.

But I think the young pups played pretty good football last week. And they’re going up against an offensive line just as inexperienced as they are. They’ll have more on their plates, but at this point, you’ve gotta love the ones your with.

 

newmexicoirish: Keith, knowing that we were going to be fairly thin and inexperienced at linebacker, I have been following with great interest Jarrett Grace’s recovery. At this point I’m getting a bit concerned. For the last month and a half it seems we keep hearing that he is making great progress ( and believe me I hope he is) but there doesn’t seem to be a target date for his return. I realize that a multiple tib/fib fracture is very dicy when It comes to full recovery, but it’s been almost a year.

NM, I am just glad that Grace’s football career is continuing. That’s how serious the injury was, and multiple breaks and multiple surgeries usually are going to take some time to heal. For as advanced as medicine has gotten on things like ACLs, these are bones.

Grace suffered his injury on the last day of October. If he makes it back on the field before the calendar year, I think it’ll have been a great success.

 

rocket1988: Where do you think ND should be ranked? We saw a lot of movement this week. After week one who is you way too early top ten? Also, can our crowd take a staND and make UofM call a timeout?

Beauty of this question: It doesn’t matter. I haven’t looked at a poll for more than 30 seconds, because it’s completely meaningless. The only votes that matter are those from the new CFB Playoff Committee, and if ND keeps winning, they’ll be just fine.

 

And In That Corner … No. 16 BYU offers physical test for Notre Dame in Las Vegas

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Wyoming at BYU
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For perhaps the first time, Notre Dame’s season-long hopes are lower than its opponents in a Shamrock Series matchup. No. 16 BYU (4-1) can still reach just about every goal in front of it at the start of the season, though perhaps getting into the Playoff may be a bit much. At the very least, the Cougars can finish their final season as an independent in a New Year’s Six bowl.

But they’d most likely have to upset the Irish (2-2). To get an idea of BYU’s mindset heading into Las Vegas (7:30 ET; NBC), let’s chat with Jared Lloyd of The Daily Herald in central Utah.

DF: BYU remains intriguing from a national perspective, despite perhaps playing with its food a bit against Wyoming and Utah State. Neither game was genuinely in doubt in the second half, so a possible lack of focus certainly did not cost the Cougars. Have you caught a sense of such? Or were those games simply that much more competitive than expected?

JL: ​Both Utah State and Wyoming came in well-prepared and with really nothing to lose, pushing BYU harder than Cougar fans expected. BYU wasn’t exactly quick to make adjustments, but when it did it was able to pull away in the second half of both games. The reality is that this Cougar team hasn’t played at the level I expected to see for the last three weeks, blundering into a number of unforced and undisciplined errors. The BYU coaching staff is working to eliminate those but I think it is too much to expect them to be all gone for this week’s matchup.

My hope for this game in the preseason was that Notre Dame and BYU would enter with no more than two combined losses. The Irish fell short; the Cougars delivered on that front. But let’s focus on that loss, a 41-20 fall at Oregon. The Ducks got out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and a 38-7 cushion by the end of the third quarter. It was a shellacking. Oregon has a strong rushing attack, averaging 6.3 yards per carry outside of that game, but still gaining 212 yards on 44 carries may be a template for Notre Dame to follow. And this was not specific to the Ducks; Utah State gained 204 yards on 49 carries, a 4.16 yards per rush average, distinctly better than its average of 3.56 in its other four games.

Walk me through this dynamic, as I was very much expecting BYU to have a strong defensive front this season, a team excelling in the trenches during its recent years of success. Has that fallen short? Are offenses selling out for the run?

Oregon, Wyoming and Utah State all made adjustments to attack the Cougar run defense instead of relying on things they had done in previous games, with various levels of success. I have noticed that BYU seems to struggle to get off blocks early in games, then starts over-pursuing and missing assignments. That has opened up gaps and the last three opponents have taken advantage of those. I fully expect Notre Dame to follow the same formula, so it will be on the Cougar defensive players and coaches to prove they have come up with solutions. BYU’s secondary has generally played fairly well, so it appears that the main effort needs to be on getting the job done up front.

The Cougars’ offensive line is certainly delivering, ballasting a balanced offense to the tune of 34.4 points per game. The Irish defensive line was gaining momentum in the five quarters before the idle week. Where is BYU weakest up front, if anywhere?

​BYU has enjoyed significant success in past years with an outside zone run scheme, but that hasn’t been the case for much of 2022. Opposing defensive linemen and linebackers have been able to successfully read the plays and slant through, beating the Cougar linemen to the point of attack and hitting BYU running backs behind the line of scrimmage. While the Cougar linemen are big and agile for their size, they simply aren’t quicker than many of the defenders when they are trying to push to the outside. The scheme does set up a lot of other plays that BYU has used, so I don’t expect to see the Cougars abandon it completely. I believe the Notre Dame defenders will be as prepared as other teams have been to stop the basic run and that will be an advantage for the Irish.

Let’s zoom far out from the details of the lines and instead project forward on the Cougars season. They are not eligible for the designated Group of Five slot in the New Year’s Six bowls, but BYU could find itself in the mix for the top 12 and thus still make such an appearance. These next two weeks, vs. Notre Dame and hosting Arkansas, will obviously determine such. Is there any acknowledgment of these bigger-picture possibilities around Provo?

There is no doubt that BYU fans across the country and both local and national reporters acknowledge that a big-time bowl could still be on the table, but I think it is minimized inside the Cougar program. Sure, BYU players and coaches are aware that could be a big prize, but they also know how quickly such dreams will be shattered if they lose. Given the fact that the Cougars have played far below the level they believe they are capable of playing at, I’m certain BYU is focused right now on elevating its own performance far more than thinking about bowl opportunities.

For that matter, how much excitement is there at BYU for finally working its way into the Big 12? This had been a long-wanted goal, at least it seemed so from afar.

It’s an interesting mix of excitement and vindication for many in the Cougar community. On the one hand, many BYU supporters feel that politics — not football tradition or ability — resulted in the Cougars being overlooked in the round of expansion in 2010 that saw Utah and TCU move to Power 5 conferences and BYU go independent. While there are similarities to Notre Dame in the fact that the Cougars are a religious-based institution with a national following, BYU certainly doesn’t have the same cachet as the Irish. Thus, the Cougars certainly needed both the opportunities and resources that joining the Big 12 conference will make possible to continue to be considered an elite college football program (as well as elevate other BYU sports). There is certainly plenty of energy surrounding the scheduled move next year.

I’ve hit some of the game-specific items, some of the 30,000-foot pieces. What have I missed? Including, but not limited to, a current update on the health of a couple Cougars receivers?

​BYU has been banged up but the latest update from the coaching staff is that no one is completely ruled out for Saturday’s game. The Cougars did get to see one of its top returning receivers on the field in the last game, although Gunner Romney certainly wasn’t at 100 percent. Puka Nacua, who has earned the distinction of being the BYU receiver with the most game-breaking potential, appears to also have a good chance of playing. 

Another aspect of the game that I would keep a close eye on is special teams. Although BYU has traditionally done well in that area, missed field goals and poor kick/punt coverage at times have really hurt the Cougars. More BYU miscues in that area could give Notre Dame a momentum boost in Saturday’s contest.

With Notre Dame favored by 3.5 as of Tuesday afternoon, what do you expect to see Saturday evening at Allegiant Stadium? And what part of Las Vegas are you most looking forward to?

​I think I’m one of many who are still trying to figure out exactly what the 2022 Irish are. Notre Dame looked pretty good in the loss at Ohio State and the win over North Carolina, but not that good in the loss to Marshall and the win over Cal. This is also the first long-distance trip for the Irish (almost three times as far as the trip to North Carolina), and that can be a challenge each team has to figure out. That said, this is a Notre Dame team that is coming off a good showing and an idle week, so I expect it to have figured some things out. It’s going to have some success on the ground and give BYU problems with its defense, but the Cougars won’t back down. I expect a close, exciting game that will be decided in the fourth quarter.

What I’m most looking forward to in Las Vegas is seeing the representation of both BYU and Notre Dame fans. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the city, so I’m familiar with the lights and the atmosphere. I’m much more intrigued by the meeting of these two well-known schools and seeing the turnout. My experiences with most of the fans from both institutions have been overwhelmingly positive, so I anticipate a cordial yet competitive environment for the Shamrock Series battle.

Las Vegas trip will offer Notre Dame fewer distractions than most; secondary injury updates

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Las Vegas may distract Notre Dame fans plenty, but Irish head coach Marcus Freeman expects no such problem from his roster. For one thing, Notre Dame will arrive in Las Vegas late enough on Friday to cut into any distractions before facing No. 16 BYU (7:30 ET; NBC).

The Irish will then take a quick site visit to Allegiant Stadium before calling it a night, and Freeman himself will make sure everyone on the team has called it a night, as he does each Friday before a game.

“They got the head coach that’ll be doing bed coach at 8:30 Pacific Time on Friday night,” Freeman said Monday. “So I’m not real concerned.”

Freeman has often argued games away from home actually elicit fewer distractions than ones at home, something heard often around college coaches. Generally speaking, more family is in attendance at each home game, not to mention friends with typical college parties. On the road, the players arrive in town, perhaps check out the stadium, and then they head to the hotel for the night.

The loss of the comfort of sleeping in your bed is universal; Notre Dame has stayed in a hotel the night before home games for decades.

“The Shamrock Series is what makes Notre Dame unique,” Freeman said. “It’s one of our distinctions. The chance to go play a home game in Las Vegas is an extremely exciting opportunity.”

The Irish will be without senior linebacker JD Bertrand for the first half after a targeting penalty led to his ejection in the second half at North Carolina. Notre Dame appealed Bertrand’s one-half suspension but did not win the appeal.

The Irish should have both junior safety Ramon Henderson and fifth-year safety DJ Brown back in the lineup, after an ankle and a hamstring limited each nine days ago.

“Our head athletic trainer texted me this morning that both of them looked really good today, expect them both to go and practice …,” Freeman said. “I would expect both of those guys to be ready to go.”

Whether they are or not, junior Xavier Watts will be a part of the safety rotation and only the safety rotation. After Avery Davis tore his ACL in the preseason, leaving Notre Dame with just six healthy receivers, including fifth-year former walk-on Matt Salerno, Watts handled double-duty. The former receiver played both sides of the ball during at least one preseason scrimmage.

But Freeman said Watts is working at only safety these days, despite moving to the position less than a year ago.

“He’s getting better, he has a lot of natural ability we have to continue to coach and mold,” Freeman said. “… He’s all safety now. We just felt his role had more value to our team on defense than to go on offense and really compete to try to get playing time. Defensively, we knew there was already a plan for him to play.”

BUCHNER IN THE BOOTH
Most injured players roam the sidelines on Saturday, but sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner has been in the coaches’ booth since injuring his shoulder against Marshall on Sept. 10. More than learning the system from above and helping coaches chart plays, Freeman said that was a safety precaution initially.

“We didn’t want him in harm’s way,” Freeman said. “He was fresh, two or three days, out of surgery. We wanted to get him away from anywhere he could be in harm’s way.”

Freeman would not rule out Buchner moving to the sideline yet this season, where he and junior starting quarterback Drew Pyne could talk things through more actively, but for now, Buchner likely will remain up top.

ON THE QUICKENING NATURE OF COACHING CHANGES
After Wisconsin shockingly fired head coach Paul Chryst on Sunday, a surprise such that it will now be the poster child for early-season firings, Freeman was asked for his thoughts on those pressures and how it could impact his assistants. None of them figure to be in the mix for any of the current job openings (six, in total), but the concept holds enough merit to be discussed.

“We have a job to do, every single week,” Freeman said. “Anything that is going to distract us from getting our job done, we don’t want it, but I’m always going to be in a position where I want to make sure I’m helping every single person I’m surrounded by reach their goals.”

So Freeman would not stand in the way of an assistant coaching talking about an opening sooner than usual. Consider it unlikely right now and too abstract to ponder in the future. Of the six job openings, UAB’s interim coach is being given a valid chance at keeping the job, and Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees would know better than to pick up the phone if Georgia Tech called, not that this year’s offense has Rees atop many coaching lists.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden presumably needs to succeed at the collegiate level for a few years before landing another head coaching gig, and while running backs coach Deland McCullough has explicitly said that is his goal, he is not established enough to be viewed as a contender for any Power Five job, which five of the six now open are.

That hypothetical aside, Freeman knows well the reality of a coaching firing and the frustrations that come with it. Just about anyone in the coaching industry does, and thus they feel great empathy when discussing such moments.

Freeman felt it in 2016, as the defensive coordinator at Purdue when head coach Darrell Hazell was fired after six games. Current Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker was the Boilermakers’ interim coach for the final six games of the year, going 0-6.

“It’s tough. You feel for the guys in your occupation,” Freeman said. “I’m sure it’s not a lack of effort, but we’re in a results-driven business. That’s a part of the profession we chose. We chose this profession. But you never want to see that.

“People with families — it not only affects the head coach, but it affects all those assistants with them.”

Leftovers & Links: Idle-week thoughts on Notre Dame and its difficulties in the transfer portal

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It has become a common complaint among Notre Dame fans, that the Irish coaching staff failed to capitalize on the transfer portal this offseason. Particularly after Marshall’s influx of Power Five Transfers spurred the Herd to a 26-21 upset at Notre Dame Stadium and junior Drew Pyne was thrown into starting duty after Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, the dearth of transfers on Notre Dame’s roster created angst, particularly at quarterback.

Aside from Northwestern import Brandon Joseph at safety, Harvard graduates Chris Smith and Jon Sot at defensive tackle and punter, respectively, and Arkansas State graduate Blake Grupe at kicker, the Irish do not have any contributing transfers this season.

It is not a coincidence three of those players are graduates, and it is not a coincidence three of them came from schools that could be considered academic peers to Notre Dame.

Coincincidences will not explain this dynamic to the masses, though, at least not enough.

“Can you point me to where and how I could read your complete take on [why Notre Dame can’t or won’t participate fully in the transfer portal opportunities]? Maybe this is a topic worthy of a full column given the current problems that the Irish are experiencing at receiver and perhaps other positions due to recruiting failures?”bostonjan two weeks ago.

Knowing Marcus Freeman’s thoughts on this will not satiate the masses, realizing a non-football-related example will not make clear the difficulties, and overlooking the reality that Notre Dame’s lack of receiver depth goes well beyond the transfer portal and into losing two veterans for either the season thus far (Joe Wilkins, mid-March Lisfranc injury) or the season entirely (Avery Davis, preseason ACL tear) after most portal thoughts were spoken for … let’s answer that question.

The NCAA requires players remain on track for graduation. “On track” can be an ambiguous phrase, but there are bare minimums attached to it. Thus, any player Notre Dame welcomes as an undergraduate transfer must arrive and remain on track for graduation by those definitions as they apply at Notre Dame.

The University is notoriously challenging in that regard for imports. To break a personal rule and use a first-person pronoun here, one friend of mine — and details will be vague here because they are not necessary for the point and his academic process is not the debate here — who transferred into Notre Dame halfway through his junior year from a rather prestigious Northeast institution. Yet, Notre Dame denied so many of his credits, when he arrived in South Bend, he was now entering the second semester of his sophomore year. As sure as the sun rises in the east, this was coming from a place with a lofty enough academic standing, you would all expect every single one of his credits to transfer. Instead, he was no longer “on track” to graduate by athletics standards, though let it be known, this friend could not less resemble a Division I athlete, no offense intended.

Coming from Northwestern, Brandon Joseph faced a similar issue. If the senior safety were to jump to the NFL after this season, it would almost assuredly be easier for him to return to Evanston to procure his degree than to Notre Dame.

Freeman recognizes this reality, and he also recognizes this is part of the University’s fabric. Holding its own courses in higher esteem than the vast majority of other schools’ will not change, for better or worse.

“Our people here at Notre Dame want us to be in a position to be successful,” Freeman said a couple weeks ago. “But at the same time, we want to make sure we protect the integrity of this education here at our University. Nobody is just going to ‘win’ this. ‘Athletics wins.’ ‘Academics wins.’ No, we have to work together to do what’s best for both parties.”

Having enough credits accepted as a transfer to remain on track for graduation is only the second hurdle. The first hurdle, the one Freeman does intend to change, is the timing of that process.

The Irish chased a few receiver transfers this offseason. Now who knows where those players would have gone if Notre Dame’s transfer admission process was lightning quick, perhaps still not South Bend, but it would have become more plausible. Right now, the transfer transcripts have to be procured, whatever academic school at Notre Dame the player wants to enter has to review those credits and eventually a decision on eligibility is reached.

In the modern era of the transfer portal, that delay may be more costly than the strict admissions standards. Joseph was in the portal for hours before he was considering the Irish and just days before that decision was made. Most transfers do not even visit the campus of the new school they commit to. Freeman has identified that sluggish process as something to improve since he was hired in December.

“It’s a process that we’re in constant communication with,” he said this month. “Our admissions, our faculty here at Notre Dame and with multiple head coaches of athletic programs — it’s not just football. It’s just, right now, a period in college sports where transfers and transfer portals are a big part of roster enhancements.”

Freeman was hired the first week of December. You may remember that was a chaotic stretch around the Irish program. His first priority was keeping together the recruiting class set to sign two weeks later. His second was readying Notre Dame for the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.

That timeline was never going to allow Freeman a chance to accelerate the transfer admissions process at the University before most transfers were off the market by February. The inability to chase most transfers this past offseason was not a reflection of Freeman and his coaching staff; it was a reality of a large institution’s momentum and of time’s relentlessness. Freight trains take miles to stop and then much time to reverse course, and in many regards, Notre Dame operates like a freight train.

But Freeman is still trying to turn that freight train around.

“It’s a process that we continue to have discussions about and look to continue to enhance it.”

By no means does that assure things will move quicker this coming winter, but if anything is certain, it is that they will not be slower.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame offensive explosion puts North Carolina on its heels early
Highlights: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32 — Irish RBs spur offense, Pyne finds downfield attack
Things We Learned: ND’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

OUTSIDE READING
Who are college football’s most surprising impact transfers? Marshall RB Khalan Laborn, former Notre Dame OL Quinn Carroll lead list
Don’t call USC overrated after its best — and ugliest — win of the season
Does college football have an attendance problem? Lane Kiffin’s fan gripes bring up fair point
Here’s the funniest opponent each P5 school has never beaten
Isaac Rochell riding unconventional wave of opportunity with Browns this season
Northwestern unveils plan for Ryan Field rebuild

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

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While Notre Dame takes the weekend off, some will take the chance to spend time with their families. Others will go to other games across the country, maybe dabble in an FCS matchup. Most, however, will keep watching the full Saturday slate, and this weekend there are a few notable chances to watch coming Irish foes.

It would be too objective of an exercise to list the below games by order of intrigue, but the first game on that list would not be up for debate: No. 5 Clemson hosts No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC) in a game that could confirm the Tigers’ Playoff aspirations.

No. 19 BYU (3-1): The Cougars had no trouble with up-and-down Wyoming, winning 38-24, led by quarterback Jaren Hall’s 337 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-32 passing. Receiver Puka Nacua caught only three of those passes for just 26 yards, but his return from a battered ankle gives BYU one of its two best receivers back, and the other may play this weekend, Gunner Romney coming back from a lacerated kidney suffered early in preseason practices.

That offense does not need to be at full strength to ease by Utah State (8 ET on Thursday; ESPN), but it may be needed to cover a 24.5-point spread, per PointsBet on Wednesday night. More notably, this will give Hall and Romney a chance to find their rhythm before facing Notre Dame in Las Vegas on Oct. 8.

Stanford (1-2): Losing to Washington, 40-22, was not too alarming. The Huskies may be back to the form that landed them in an early Playoff. And Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee continued the vague NFL buzz around him with 286 yards and three touchdowns on 17-of-26 passing. But it was still a bad week for Stanford. Head coach David Shaw announced Tuesday that running back E.J. Smith will be out for the rest of the season. In the first two games of the year, Smith took 30 carries for 206 yards and three touchdowns, adding 63 more yards and a score through the air. McKee will keep the offense functional, but Smith made it a bona fide two-dimensional offense.

Without him, it is hard to envision the Cardinal upsetting No. 13 Oregon (11 ET; FS1) late Saturday night as 17-point underdogs.

UNLV (3-1): The Rebels are not the scrubs many expected entering the season, including this space. A 34-24 win at even-more-woeful Utah State last weeked confirmed that, but let’s make no mistake: UNLV is still not necessarily good. SP+ ranks the Rebels as the No. 91 team in the country, two notches better than Boston College, but UNLV will not be the worst team Notre Dame faces this season. With Navy even further down those considerations, the Rebels will not even be the second-worst team playing the Irish this year.

How drastically have things changed for UNLV? Favored by 14.5 against New Mexico (11 ET on Friday; CBSSN) this weekend makes it three straight weeks that the Rebels have been favored. Before that, they were last favored against an FBS team in the second week of 2019, nearly three full seasons ago. They had not been a favorite in consecutive FBS games since late 2017, when they went 0-1-1 against the spread against Hawaii and BYU, losing to the Cougars.

The last time UNLV was favored in three straight games against FBS opponents? It was before 2006.

Syracuse (4-0): The Orange tried to gift Virginia a win on Friday, but it held on 22-20 despite four turnovers. All four of those were within Syracuse’s own 36-yard line, yet they resulted in only seven Cavaliers points.

Syracuse could probably get away with such shenanigans again this week, against FCS-level Wagner (5 ET; ESPN+).

No. 5 Clemson (4-0): The Tigers held off Wake Forest’s upset bid in double overtime. It may have been DJ Uiagalelei’s best career game, even better than his double-overtime showing at Notre Dame in 2020, throwing for 371 yards and five touchdowns. But those numbers do not do his play justice.

More of that is going to be needed against No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC). Clemson is favored by 6.5 points, and assuming that mark holds up to kickoff, this marks four of the Tigers’ last five games against ACC competition in which they have been favored by just single digits, going 3-1 against the spread in those games, winning all four. The game before those five, Clemson was an underdog to Pittsburgh, so call that five of six games in which the Tigers were favored by no more than nine points against conference opponents. In the previous 34 ACC games, only once was Clemson favored by fewer than 10 points, its trip to Notre Dame in 2020 in Uiagalelei’s first career start.

Navy (1-2): The Midshipmen found a win, and they needed only double overtime to do it, beating East Carolina 23-20. By no means did this reflect significant progress for Navy, still gaining only 2.9 yards per rush.

The Midshipmen will need to find a vintage offensive showing to upset Air Force (12 ET; CBS), entering that Commander-in-Chief game as 14-point underdogs.

Boston College (1-3): The Eagles fell behind 37-0 early in the third quarter at Florida State, and that does not begin to describe how bad things are for Boston College right now. The 44-14 final result was far closer than it should have been. Eagles quarterback Phil Jurkovec went 15-of-23 for 105 yards and one touchdown compared to two interceptions after opening the game 5-of-10 for 20 yards and those two picks.

Boston College now hosts Louisville (12 ET; ACCN), and it is foolish to think there is the talent on this roster to lose by as few as the 15.5 points suggested by the spread.

No. 6 USC (4-0): The Trojans found a way to win, and that may be the greatest testament to the change in mindset around that program. When its offense could manage only 17 points, that was still enough at Oregon State, prevailing 17-14.

The reality is, USC’s defense is playing with fire, relying on a steady stream of turnovers that cannot continue, almost literally.

The Trojans should not need such resolve against Arizona State (10:30 ET; ESPN), favored by a meager 25 points against a team lacking a head coach. (Insert reference to 2008 Syracuse here.)

No. 3 Ohio State: The Buckeyes crushed Wisconsin, 52-21, in another instance of the final score not representing how lopsided the game was. Ohio State led 45-7 entering the fourth quarter, completely dominating a team in the top half of the Big Ten.

Not much more time need be spent on the Buckeyes this week, given they now host Rutgers (3:30 ET; Big Ten Network) in a game that will make last week’s look tight.

Marshall (2-2): The Herd fell 16-7 at Troy, a loss that may doom any Marshall hopes of winning the Sun Belt in its first season in the conference. Star Herd running back Khalan Laborn still managed 118 yards on 30 rushes, but quarterback Henry Colombi attempted just 13 passes, completing eight of them for 49 yards. Put Laborn’s output into this context: Marshall ended the game with 96 rushing yards (sacks included) and 174 total yards.

Similar problems should not be a worry this week against FCS-level Gardner-Webb (3:30 ET; ESPN+).

Cal (3-1): The Bears ran through Arizona, 49-31, to a literal extent. Freshman running back Jadyn Ott is already putting his name into the record books. (Context: Ott rushed for 33 yards on 13 carries at Notre Dame.

More may yet come against Washington State’s average rush defense (5:30 ET; Pac-12 Network), ranking No. 64 in the country in EPA allowed per rush, per cfb-graphs.com.

North Carolina (3-1): The Tar Heels will look to rebound from their first loss of the season against Virginia Tech (3:30 ET; ACCN), favored by 9 points, a mark that perhaps puts too much faith into the Hokies’ defense replicating Notre Dame’s performance on Saturday, even if they can now benefit from seeing North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye hemmed in on film.

Thursday at 8 ET: Utah State at No. 19 BYU (ESPN)
Friday at 11 ET: New Mexico at UNLV (CBSSN)
Saturday at 12 ET: Navy at Air Force (CBS); Louisville at Boston College (ACCN)
3:30 — Rutgers at No. 3 Ohio State (BTN); Gardner-Webb at Marshall (ESPN+); Virginia Tech at North Carolina (ACCN)
5:00 — Wagner at Syracuse (ESPN+)
5:30 — Cal at Washington State (P12N)
7:30 — No. 10 North Carolina State at No. 5 Clemson (ABC)
10:30 — Arizona State at No. 6 USC (ESPN)
11:00 — Stanford at No. 13 Oregon (FS1)

Favorites: BYU (-24.5) vs. Utah State; UNLV (-14.5) vs. New Mexico; Clemson (-6.5) vs. North Carolina State; USC (-25) vs. Arizona State; Ohio State (-40.5) vs. Rutgers; North Carolina (-9) vs. Virginia Tech
Underdogs: Stanford (+17) at Oregon; Navy (+14) at Air Force; Boston College (+15.5) vs. Louisville