Getty

Nyles Morgan primed to seize his opportunity

10 Comments

One of the largest X-factors heading into 2016 is linebacker Nyles Morgan. Last spotted racking up tackles (and too often, missing assignments) as a true freshman, Morgan spent his sophomore season stuck behind Joe Schmidt, unable to carve out even the smallest niche in Brian VanGorder’s defense.

But entering 2016, Morgan stands front and center amidst the rebuilding efforts. And if you believe the Irish have the ability to once again get themselves in the middle of the College Football Playoff conversation—the only postseason goal Notre Dame will allow itself—then Morgan’s ability to step in and perform at a high level is critical to that objective.

With Brian VanGorder’s defense under the microscope, Morgan’s ability to fully digest a scheme and system many fear is too complex is one of spring’s major questions. But in his first public comments to the local media this spring, Morgan sounded every bit like the confident veteran, a reassuring development at a time when the defense needs him.

“I feel like my knowledge of the game has grown so much. There’s so much I know now that I wish I knew then,” Morgan said last Friday. “I finally got all that down, got all that together. It all just clicked…I’m telling guys where to be, things like that. I can line guys up. The offense moves, I can check it.

With just four healthy scholarship linebackers available this spring, Morgan’s game was going to get tested more in these 15 practices than it did all last season. And after two full years in the program, it’s allowed him to balance the trial by fire freshman season with the knowledge base that’s needed to succeed.

“Being the Mike linebacker, you need to be the sharpest one out there. If not, the game’s going to get ugly,” Morgan said.

The difficulties in meetings have subsided. The mental challenges no longer neutralize a natural skill-set that nobody has ever doubted. And that confidence has come through on the field this spring, apparent to any coach that watches him.

“Nyles is having a really good spring. I’m very excited about his growth from the offseason from where he was a year ago,” linebackers coach Mike Elston said. “His communication is much improved. He’s playing very physical. His leadership is much improved. It’s definitely a great improvement and I’m excited about it.”

So is his defensive coordinator. With the identity of last season’s defense essentially gone, Morgan has the chance to put his stamp on the unit.

“This is his time,” VanGorder said. “I think he’s a much different middle linebacker right now.”

Those differences are things this staff is hoping Morgan embraces—especially as the Irish try to move on from Schmidt as the nerve center of the unit.

“Joe Schmidt was a smart player, he was a heady player, but he wasn’t the most physically gifted player that we had. Nyles Morgan is a tough, physical football player,” Brian Kelly said Friday. “What we’ve asked him to do is be himself. You’re not Joe Schmidt… Be who you are. We want that personality to come out and if that does, [he’ll] bring others around and that toughness will start to show itself.”

Morgan seems to be running with that challenge, a changed linebacker reflective of his changed status on the depth chart.

“It’s different when you’re behind somebody and you’re trying to live up to that standard,” Elston said. “Now you’re out there setting the standard. He’s got confidence now because he’s the first dog running out there. He’s playing with an aggressive nature and communicating really well. What it is for him that triggered it, I’m not sure, but he’s got more confidence.”

Carrying that confidence onto the field will be critical in 2016. While Greer Martini has the ability to play on the inside and first-time participants like Josh Barajas are cross-training there as well, the job is Morgan’s to lose.

But two years after earning Freshman All-American honors while he was learning on the fly, the bar is set much higher than just winning the job. For the Irish defense to take the necessary step forward, Morgan needs to lead it.

So far, so good.

 

Four-star CB Isaiah Rutherford chooses Notre Dame over Pac-12 possibilities

rivals.com
13 Comments

During a season in which one recruiting class worth of defensive backs is leading the best Notre Dame secondary in recent history, the No. 5 Irish are setting themselves up for a similar phenomenon a few years down the road. With the Saturday evening commitment of consensus four-star cornerback Isaiah Rutherford (Jesuit High School; Carmichael, Calif.), Notre Dame now has four defensive backs as part of the recruiting class of 2019, with two of them four-star prospects.

A visit for Notre Dame’s season-opening win against Michigan led to Rutherford, the No. 9 cornerback in the country, the No. 14 prospect in California and No. 83 in the country overall per rivals.com, picking the Irish over Oregon and Cal. He also held offers from the likes of Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and USC.

“It was unbelievable,” Rutherford told Blue & Gold Illustrated after his September visit. “It gave me chills a little bit because I’m not used to being around those big crowds. I was really impressed by the whole thing.

“[Defensive coordinator] Clark Lea had them flying around. The cornerbacks, the safeties and everyone was looking really good. I was really impressed by it all.”

The 19th commitment in the class, Rutherford joins rivals.com four-star safety Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.), rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) and consensus four-star safety Kyle Hamilton (Marist; Atlanta).

The quartet will have to match the standard set by Notre Dame’s current juniors, with cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride and safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman setting the tone for a defense that has allowed only 19.5 points per game this season. Pride’s impact, in particular, may have been underscored during the 19-14 Irish victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday in the hours before Rutherford’s commitment. With Pride sidelined by an ankle sprain, Notre Dame’s reserve cornerbacks struggled for significant portions of the afternoon.

No. 5 Notre Dame wins ugly, but ‘a win’s a win’

Associated Press
59 Comments

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Whatever could go wrong for No. 5 Notre Dame largely did Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh. A Panthers kickoff return for a touchdown? Check. An interception created primarily by a Pittsburgh defensive lineman hitting the quarterback as he threw? Check. Two trips to the red zone yielding only field goals? Check.

What went right for the Irish? They won, 19-14.

“We faced adversity today,” fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “There were a lot of things that didn’t go our way and the team responded. We came out of here with a win. It’s hard to win week to week in college football.

“Pitt has taken a lot of people down over the time I’ve been playing football at Notre Dame.”

Indeed, the Panthers (3-4) have taken down a top-five opponent in each of the last two seasons, and they looked ripe to do it again Saturday using a tried-and-true recipe. They controlled the ball — eating up nearly 10 minutes of first-quarter game clock in marching to their first touchdown — and playing an aggressive defense that stopped the Irish run game in its tracks. Notre Dame (7-0) finished with only 112 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) on 35 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per attempt.

“[Pittsburgh] played exactly the way they needed to play to keep this game in the manner that they did,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We still found a way — giving up a kickoff return, throwing two picks and not scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

“If you told me all those things are going to happen and we still found a way to win the football game, I’d be pretty excited.”

Part of Notre Dame’s reduced rushing attack came from hardly having the ball; the Irish had just 10 possessions if not counting the three snaps in victory formation to end the game.

All that meant Notre Dame needed its passing game to bail it out and remain undefeated, reaching 7-0 for the second time under Kelly. Junior quarterback Ian Book completed 26 of his 32 passes for 264 yard and two touchdowns, matched by two interceptions. Somehow, despite completing 81.25 percent of his passes for 8.25 yards per attempt, it felt like a pedestrian day for Book, which speaks to just how well he has played through four starts this season. His two touchdowns in the final 18 minutes — including one with fewer than six minutes remaining to take the lead for the first time of the afternoon — turned an average showing into one that was good enough.

“[Book’s] pocket awareness was not great in the first half,” Kelly said. “Had a nice conversation with him in the second half. He settled down nicely, but I think this is just maturation.”

Whatever it was, it led to a win, a win to keep the Irish without blemish entering their idle week, a win the Panthers had deprived national title contenders of in recent years.

“A win’s a win and these football games happen,” Book said. “There’s no point in freaking out when you have some time on the clock, and we’ve been there before, so we didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
It stood out not only for its game-changing realities, giving Notre Dame its first lead with only 5:43 remaining, but also for how much it differed from Book’s long offerings just a week ago. At Virginia Tech, he routinely, even only, overthrew receivers on deep routes. With the game on the line Saturday, Book connected with senior receiver Miles Boykin for a 35-yard score, the pass itself traveling 40 yards through the air and hitting Boykin in stride hardly a step before the goal line.

“[Boykin is] really rangy, so just got to put it up there and give him a chance,” Book said. “That’s something I was focusing on all week was giving our guys a chance, not overthrowing.”

Book also showed off his arm earlier with a deep crossing route to senior Chris Finke, hitting Finke a couple feet before the sideline and out of reach of a trailing defender for a 26-yard gain, the sole chunk play of Finke’s six catches for 62 yards.

“The Virginia Tech game showed [Book] in a bad light,” said Boykin, who finished with four catches for 84 yards. “Usually he doesn’t overthrow us like that. In practice he’s always on the money. I think it was one bad game, one bad instance, and today he was back on it.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Quarterback hurries are an inexact stat, one measured subjectively and inconsistently. What cannot be gauged inaccurately is the effect junior defensive end Julian Okwara had on the final minutes Saturday afternoon. Pittsburgh ran 10 plays while trailing, all at the end of the fourth quarter. Okwara provided pressure on Panthers sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett on half of them, forcing rushed throws, eliminating possible reads and nearly single-handedly ending Pittsburgh’s hopes for dramatics.

“He gets quarterbacks uncomfortable,” Kelly said. “They move their feet. They change their launch point, their eyes drop. Things just make them uncomfortable.”

Unofficially, Okwara was credited with six tackles and seven quarterback hurries, though his one tackle for loss may have been most impressive. With Pittsburgh driving in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame blitzed both inside linebackers up the middle, dropping Okwara into coverage. Pickett connected with running back Darrin Hall in the flat, only to have Okwara immediately tackle him for a loss of three yards on a third down.

“His ability to drop [into] coverage and make a play like that on a running back, he’s a pretty special player,” Kelly said. “He does a lot of things that sometimes don’t show up on the stat sheet, per se, but he’s one dynamic player.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The Irish first found the end zone with a 16-yard Book pass to junior receiver Chase Claypool late in the third quarter. That cut the Panthers lead to 14-12, and Kelly opted to go for two, rolling Book out to target Boykin in the flat. The sharp angle of the throw left little margin for error and a resulting incompletion.

The failed conversion attempt kept the pressure on Notre Dame. It also raised some eyebrows, seemingly early to be chasing those points. Why do it? The math said to.

“The analytics provided us the information that said to go for two in that situation,” Kelly said.

Similar logic led the Irish to consider going for a fourth-and-2 near midfield early in the fourth quarter. After a Pittsburgh timeout, Kelly opted to punt, and fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome sent it for a touchback. Kelly expects to hear from his numbers department about the inefficiency of his own second-quessing.

“I’ll get a note from our analytics people on Monday telling me that I was incorrect and I should have gone for it,” he said. “The sense I had in the game, however, is that they weren’t going to go 80 yards on us, so I was not going to give our defense a short field to operate. So I went against our mathematicians in that situation.”

The Panthers faced a similar decision on the ensuing drive, also opting to punt, also sending it for a touchback. The net 30-yard field position change did not stop Notre Dame from scoring to take the lead, indicating Pittsburgh would have been better served going for the fourth-and-5.

STAT OF THE GAME
Excluding sacks but including scrambles, the Irish ran 35 times Saturday, more than last week at No. 24 Virginia Tech (30) but otherwise a season-low. Kelly thought that run-pass balance should have been even more titled toward Book’s 32 pass attempts (plus three sacks).

Once Notre Dame started taking advantage of the openings in the secondary provided by the Panthers planting a seventh defender in the box, it started moving the ball a bit.

“Started hitting us on some slants,” Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Hitting [Claypool] on the seam in there. We struggled to stop that route in the last couple drives.”

How much more should the Irish have thrown the ball? Quite a bit, per Kelly.

“Maybe we were a little stubborn,” he said. “We should have thrown the ball a little bit more. This should have been maybe 45 to 50 times throwing the football. It was that stark in terms of the pressure that they were putting on the running game today.

“We want to try to stay balanced. We want to try to stay true to who we are. Today, they weren’t going to allow that to happen.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I don’t know a team that’s won the national championship that hasn’t had to come from behind at some point in the season or play in a close game. That happened to be today for us.” — Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
1:26 — Pittsburgh touchdown. Qadree Ollison 9-yard run. Alex Kessman PAT good. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 0. (17 plays, 88 yards, 9:43)

Second Quarter
4:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 22 yards. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 3. (10 plays, 44 yards, 3:34)
0:05 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 41 yards. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 6. (12 plays, 42 yards, 3:27)

Third Quarter
14:46 — Pittsburgh touchdown. Maurice Ffrench 99-yard kickoff return. Kessman PAT good. Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 6.
2:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 16-yard pass from Ian Book. 2-pt conversion failed. Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 12. (8 plays, 71 yards, 2:51)

Fourth Quarter
5:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 35-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 19, Pittsburgh 14. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:43)

No. 5 Notre Dame vs. Pittsburgh: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

Getty Images
60 Comments

WHO? No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) vs. Pittsburgh (3-3).

WHAT? Heading into the season, a 6-0 Irish start was not exactly expected. Notre Dame beating all three of Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech looked to be a tall task. But if granting the concept of an undefeated first half to the season, then this weekend’s matchup with the Panthers very much would have fit the definition of a “trap” game, one of perhaps two on the second half of the schedule. (The other being Syracuse on Nov. 17 at Yankee Stadium, a topic for another day.)

Whether or not that assessment of Pittsburgh has changed, this remains the best possibility for the Irish to overlook an opponent this season. They had struggled too much when they went to Wake Forest to look past the Demon Deacons. The bye week will allow for the necessary focus on Navy’s triple-option. The Orange actually look like one of the tougher games remaining on the schedule.

If Notre Dame is to suffer an unfortunate and unexpected letdown, it will most likely be against the Panthers, in no small part because they have managed upsets of a top-five team in each of the last two seasons.

WHEN? 2:30 ET with kickoff scheduled for 2:41. This is the second of three times the Irish will fill this unconventional time slot, also garnering a slightly-early kickoff when at Yankee Stadium.

Beforehand, once again this season, there will be a military flyover. This time courtesy of the Air Force.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., where the earlier kick should fit perfectly with the day’s high temperatures of about 50 degrees with the sun out. It may be a bit brisk for the perfect fall day, but only by a touch.

NBC will have the broadcast, with the game streaming online here.

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

WHY? Because not every game can be against a top-25 opponent, nor should they be. In some respects, this lines up well with the Irish idle week. Notre Dame gets one more game in before the break, obviously meaning there is one fewer afterward. In terms of the November slog, that may prove to be a big deal.

RECENT HISTORY
Irish head coach Brian Kelly is 4-1 against Pittsburgh, with the average margin of victory in those four wins a meager 5.5 points.

Kelly is also 3-2 in home games preceding bye weeks during his eight years at Notre Dame. The losses came in his debut season to Tulsa in a year that finished 8-5 and in the 2016 debacle to Stanford. This year feels a bit different than those.

BY HOW MUCH?
Let’s begin with some facts: As of a very early Saturday morning check, the Irish are favored by 21.5 points with a combined point total over/under of 54.5.

The Panthers gave up 51 and 45 points to Penn State and Central Florida, respectively. With junior Ian Book at quarterback, Notre Dame has averaged 46.3 points per game over the last three weeks.

Book and the Irish scored that prolifically against the Nos. 111, 36 and 63 defenses in the country as it pertains to scoring. Pittsburgh is ranked No. 99, and that was before losing its best defender this week with a season-ending injury to linebacker Quintin Wirginis, the Panthers leader in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.

Under Kelly, Notre Dame has scored 40 or more points at least three teams in each of the last four seasons. If removing the 2016 eyesore, the Irish have reached the threshold at least four teams a year. This season, Notre Dame scored 56 at Wake Forest and 45 at Virginia Tech. The most points scored by the Irish under Kelly came in 2015 against Massachusetts in a 62-27 victory.

Now let’s jump to some conjecture: If the Irish are to reach 40 at least four times in 2018, doing so this weekend will probably need to be part of the sequence. Three of Notre Dame’s remaining opponents are tied at No. 58 in scoring defense with 25.2 points per game allowed, while Navy gives up 33.4 (No. 101) and USC 26.2 (No. 67).

Notre Dame 49, Pittsburgh 10.
(5-1 in pick; 2-4 against the spread, 3-3 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Yoon’s record, freshmen contributions & DL health
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Remaining schedule quite average at 17-16
Notre Dame’s four possible paths to Playoff
And In That Corner … The Pittsburgh Panthers, owners of two top-5 upsets the last two seasons
Things To Learn: A blowout would do more than just boost Notre Dame’s ego
Friday at 4: A ‘2’-fold look at Notre Dame’s 2012 hypotheticals sparked by a Pittsburgh possibility

OUTSIDE READING:
Ian Book starring for Irish after being lightly recruited
Underdog mentality doesn’t sit well with Pitt
Pitt offensive line files order of protection vs. Notre Dame
The whole recent history of so-so Pitt teams stunning national title contenders
No. 12 Michigan, No. 15 Wisconsin meet in marquee matchup
Louisville in “no position” to buy out Bobby Petrino, per board member
Niumatalolo says QB is not the problem with Navy offense
On this Alabama team, Tua Tagovailoa isn’t the MVP
The Bottom 10’s favorite losers and those who cover them

Friday at 4: A ‘2’-fold look at Notre Dame’s 2012 hypotheticals sparked by a Pittsburgh possibility

Getty Images
22 Comments

What if I told you Notre Dame reached the BCS National Championship Game in 2012 only because of a referee’s mistake? What if I told you it would not have mattered in the College Football Playoff era?

The first of those two questions is hard to refute. In the second overtime of an eventual 29-26 triple-overtime victory against Pittsburgh, the then-No. 4 Irish needed a missed call — an objective one at that, black-and-white, no gray area involved whatsoever — to avoid gifting the Panthers first-and-10 at the 11-yard line.

Both Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown attempted to block Pittsburgh’s (missed) field goal attempt in the second overtime. Both wore No. 2 in doing so, a clear and obvious infraction and one that went uncalled. It does not take much in the way of mental gymnastics to figure making that call correctly would have led to a Panthers victory soon thereafter, be it by touchdown or by a made field goal from senior Kevin Harper, who finished 20-of-27 that year, never reaching a third extra period.

That weekend held something in common with this one: Notre Dame was coming off a three-possession road victory at a feared venue against a top-25 opponent.

“Whatever I did (to prepare for Pittsburgh then), I probably didn’t do a very good job,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “I’m not pulling anything that I did that week. I’m sticking with what our preparation has been, and the guys have done a really good job because it’s really how you reach the group you have in front of you right now more so than thinking about what the group was about back in 2012.

“We’re going to stick with the group we have and keep working on what we’re doing now.”

It is hard to envision Notre Dame reaching the top-two with that loss on its ledger, not when eventual No. 3 Florida’s sole loss was by one possession against Georgia (who finished at No. 7 in the BCS standings) and end-of-year No. 4 Oregon’s only fall was in overtime against Stanford (No. 6).

Why bring this up? Because of the second tag to this non-existent ESPN “30 for 30” trailer. A one-loss Irish likely would have still made a four-team Playoff.

Only five teams finished with one loss or fewer in 2012: Notre Dame, some other team, Florida, Oregon and Kansas State. In that order, they made up the top five of the final BCS rankings. To reach the Playoff, all the Irish would have needed was to finish ahead of the Wildcats. Looking at the BCS formulas now, it is hard to believe that would not have happened.

Kansas State was behind Georgia in both human polls considered (the USA Today Coaches’ poll and the Harris Poll) and tied with the Cardinal, and ahead of the Ducks, in the computer rankings at No. 4. There is no reason to think any of that would have changed as it pertains to the Wildcats — it is conceivable Stanford may have fallen a touch in correlation with Notre Dame’s drop.

Considering how human polls have always functioned, the timing of the Irish loss would have actually worked in their favor. Whether or not Notre Dame’s résumé would have been viewed more favorably than Kansas State’s (it should have been), the Wildcats suffered their only loss two weeks later in their season finale at unranked Baylor. For that matter, it was not even close, 52-24. The Irish could have tumbled below Kansas State in the human polls for two weeks, but certainly would have moved back into theoretical Playoff position with the Wildcats’ toes stubbed.

A Big 12 Championship Game victory over then-No. 23 Texas would not have even given Kansas State a proverbial “13th data point.” The Wildcats played only 11 regular season games.

Meanwhile, the BCS computers looked so favorably upon the Irish that it is hard to imagine them falling past Kansas State there, either. The deserved loss to Pittsburgh would have sent Notre Dame past Florida and perhaps Alabama, but probably no further.

Such a scenario would have left the Irish with … a semifinal matchup against the Tide.

This is all to point out the world may not come to a crashing halt if Notre Dame loses a game in the second half of 2018 — a Playoff berth may remain tenable simply due to the natural and inevitable attrition of each fall — and to acknowledge the comedy of how little would have changed if a Playoff existed six years ago and the referees noticed the blatant penalty in that second overtime.

For context:
Notre Dame’s notable wins in 2012: Sept. 15 at Michigan State, 20-3; Sept. 22 vs. eventual No. 18 Michigan, 13-6; Oct. 13 vs. eventual No. 6 Stanford, 20-13 in overtime; Oct. 27 at eventual No. 11 Oklahoma, 30-13.
Florida: Sept. 8 at eventual No. 9 Texas A&M; 20-17; Oct. 6 vs. eventual No. 8 LSU, 14-6; Oct. 20 vs. eventual No. 10 South Carolina, 44-11; Nov. 24 at eventual No. 12 Florida State, 37-26. Lost to eventual No. 7 Georgia on Oct. 27, 17-9.
Oregon: Sept. 22 vs. Arizona, 49-0; Oct. 6 vs. Washington, 52-21; Nov. 3 at USC, 62-51; Nov. 24 at eventual No. 13 Oregon State, 48-24. Lost to eventual No. 6 Stanford on Nov. 17, 17-14 in overtime.
Kansas State: Sept. 22 at eventual No. 11 Oklahoma, 24-19; Oct. 20 at West Virginia, 55-14; Oct. 27 vs. Texas Tech; 55-24; Dec. 1 vs. eventual No. 23 Texas, 42-24. Lost at Baylor on Nov. 17, 52-24.