Before Brian Kelly breaks down Virginia Tech on Tuesday, listen to BK talk about the Shamrock Series victory with Watch ND’s Jack Nolan.
He discussed the development of Kevin Stepherson and C.J. Sanders‘ kickoff return to jumpstart the effort. He also talks about the defensive play by veterans like Cole Luke, James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell as well as youngsters like Julian Love.
More and more Notre Dame playmakers available for Book
When Brian Kelly turned over his offense to junior quarterback Ian Book last week, he did it with hopes Book would be able to more frequently incorporate No. 8 Notre Dame’s skill position players than senior Brandon Wimbush had through three weeks.
“We’re looking for somebody to facilitate the offense and get the ball out to our playmakers, Kelly said Tuesday. “And that was one of the reasons why we thought Ian would be a great fit for that, and that happened.”
Whether or not Wimbush should have been able to spread the ball around earlier in the season does not need to be re-litigated. Book is the starter, no matter what non-committal statements Kelly offered Tuesday and presumably will for at least the next couple weeks. That decision has been made, and Book benefits from it not just because of the obvious aspect of playing, but also from having more playmakers at his disposal than Wimbush did.
Even though seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke and junior Chase Claypool had not contributed in primary roles in the past, they have been the starting receivers all along this season; they were the obvious candidates for offensive fireworks. Senior tight end Alizé Mack and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet were expected additions in a theoretical sense entering the year, neither having proven much in the past but both possessing unique athleticism making them prime possibilities in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s schemes.
Wimbush had those five, and Book will as well (though he has not yet had Kmet at his disposal due to a high ankle sprain).
To use Kelly’s words, others were “not ready” for most of the season’s first few weeks. Namely, junior running back Tony Jones, sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong and freshman receiver Kevin Austin. Given his hamstring injury in preseason practice, sophomore receiver Michael Young could easily be included with them.
With Book at the helm at Wake Forest in the 56-27 Irish victory, both Austin and Young showed up. As did Mack, nearly matching his season totals with six catches for 61 yards after managing just six catches for 74 yards in the first three games combined. Much of Mack’s influx ties to Book, although some fault undoubtedly belongs with the Deacons’ porous defense. Austin and Young, however, simply had not made plays to that point.
“We’ve been begging for it,” Kelly said. “We’ve just been trying to get guys to emerge. There’s a lot of running, a lot of tempo, a lot of pace. We want guys to emerge and continue to grow.”
Austin had been targeted three times in the first three games, catching one for four yards. Against Wake Forest, he was officially targeted four times, pulling in two catches for 35 yards. That fails to include an 11-yard reception negated by penalty and an incompletion wiped off the board by a defensive pass interference.
“Kevin, obviously a freshman, the first couple of weeks of camp, really shot out of the starting line and looked great and then hit a wall a little bit,” Kelly said. “He’s bounced back and is starting to show that second burst.
“He’s going to continue to emerge for us, and you’ll see more and more of him.”
More weeks with six targets from Book should quickly add up. Young was targeted just once by Book, but it was rather notable going for 66 yards and finishing inside the 5-yard line. His clearly exhausted legs and subsequent inability to make one more cut to find the goal line likely ties to the lingering conditioning effects imposed by that hamstring injury. Nonetheless, Young adds a shifty deep element to Notre Dame’s offense that was lacking without him through the season’s first couple weeks.
“He’s starting to feel better and better,” Kelly said. “… We’re just looking for guys that can continue to impact in all areas at the wide receiver position, running back and offensive line.”
The continued growth from Armstrong and Jones changes the conversation at running back, as well. Yet even now, they still have key pieces of development ahead of them.
“They still have to pick their feet up and run through and make some more plays,” Kelly said Saturday.
Another back should join their fray this weekend, helping lessen that workload and therefore make it more likely Armstrong and Jones manage to run through an additional tackle or two every handful of carries. Senior running back Dexter William’s return to active status also adds another playmaker for Book’s choosing.
“He gets into the second level, and he’s an explosive back,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Does he have 20 carries in him this week? Probably not, but I think he can be integrated within a backfield that is emerging and getting better each and every week.”
Kelly said Williams has been working in selected drills with the first-string in the last couple weeks, meaning he should be able to get into any part of the game. However, Williams has never had more than eight rushing attempts in a game, not to mention a game when he had hardly been hit a month into the season, so expecting more than a handful of carries from the speedster against No. 7 Stanford may be an overzealous hope.
All three of the backs may have to remember who is at right guard on a given play. Senior Trevor Ruhland started in junior Tommy Kraemer’s place at Wake Forest due to a sprained ankle Kraemer suffered last Wednesday. Ruhland played well — but again, the Deacons defense played terribly. Kelly did not completely close the door on Ruhland seeing continued playing time, perhaps in conjunction with Kraemer once the latter is healthy.
Stanford’s offense could extend Notre Dame’s three-game Cardinal losing streak
It is a simple fact: No one on the Irish roster has played in a victory against Stanford (4-0), be it this version of the Cardinal ranked No. 7 in the country or one entering Notre Dame Stadium as an unranked underdog two years ago. In each of the last three meetings, the Irish have led in the second half, only for Stanford to outscore them 38-7 in the fourth quarters.
“Certainly they know they haven’t beaten them, those guys that have been here,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “… There comes a point where if you’ve looked back on the three games, we had a lot to do with why we didn’t win the last two games.”
Kelly was referring to those second-half leads and fourth-quarter collapses.
“We turned the football over,” he said, specifically recognizing three turnovers in last year’s fourth quarter. “This is much more about us taking care of the football and playing it for four quarters.
“We have a great deal of respect for Stanford and how they run their program, but we need to play for four quarters and play good football.”
That may take on an even greater emphasis this weekend. Gifting possession to any opponent is a debilitating mistake, but doing so against an offense the caliber of the Cardinal’s can be lethal. Stanford’s offense has been deceptively-explosive throughout head coach David Shaw’s seven years, averaging more than 32 points per game in four of those seasons, but this is his best passing attack since Andrew Luck led the offense to 43.2 points per game in 2011. Junior quarterback K.J. Costello averages 264 passing yards per game with a 64 percent completion rate.
The yardage figure would be the highest since Luck’s time (279 yards per game) if it holds through the season, while only he (71.2 percent) and the 2015 version of Kevin Hogan exceeded Costello’s accuracy (67 percent).
“Costello has really come into his own this year distributing the football,” Kelly said. “… Poise in the pocket, delivering the ball in some really, really tight windows, accuracy.”
Costello’s breakout ties directly to the receivers and tight ends at his disposal. The headlines go to 6-foot-3 senior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (408 yards, seven touchdowns, 24 yards per catch), but he is far from alone. Junior tight end Kaden Smith adds another 258 yards with a 14.33 reception average, and the list continues with the likes of senior receiver Trenton Irwin, sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson (three touchdowns on eight catches) and sophomore receiver Osiris St. Brown.
“[Costello] has a number of weapons,” Kelly said. “We all know Arecaga-Whiteside has been a go-to guy but now obviously a number of tight ends are outstanding, big-body types that he can get the football to.”
One name in particular has not yet been mentioned. If looking at only this year’s stats — 254 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries in three games — senior running back Bryce Love appears to be little more than above average. Kelly is not fooled. Love was the Heisman runner-up for a reason.
“We know about Bryce Love, the best back in the country,” Kelly said. [Editor’s Note: Expect to hear a similar description of Boston College’s A.J. Dillon in 14 months.] “Once you think he’s down, he’s gone.”
From what Kelly has seen, defenses have keyed on Love, aiding Costello’s development. The threat of Love breaking off multiple 50-yard touchdown runs is too great to ignore.
“He’s going to get his yards, he’s just too good of a player,” Kelly said. “You’re really focusing on making sure that you’re not short at the point of attack. You can’t put him in a situation where he can go the distance.
“Each and every week, defenses have been very careful in making sure that the box looks were such that he’s not going to get easy looks.”
JA’MION FRANKLIN OUT FOR THE YEAR The freshman defensive tackle tore his quad tendon from the bone Saturday and will require surgery, Kelly said. The tendon will need three months to reattach, and due to atrophy in that interim, Franklin will need another three months before he is back healthy. Kelly expects Franklin to be ready by spring practice.
“Kind of an unusual injury,” he added.
Without Franklin and having already lost sophomore tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa for much of the season to a broken foot, Notre Dame is down to just five defensive tackles on the roster: Fifth-year Jonathan Bonner, seniors Jerry Tillery and Micah Dew-Treadway, sophomore Kurt Hinish and freshman Jayson Ademilola. Sophomore Darnell Ewell moved to offensive guard earlier this season.
This could lead to seeing junior end Khalid Kareem lining up on the interior more often, something Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea enjoys doing in obvious passing situations to get an additional rusher on the field or to stunt Kareem around an edge-aligned Tillery.
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Mounting losses in games, personnel
At the beginning of the season, it would have been conservative to project up to three Notre Dame opponents would get through four weeks without a loss. That could have risen to four if expecting Michigan to beat the Irish in the opener. With Virginia Tech and Florida State meeting in the first week and USC heading to Stanford in week two, the projection would have been for those four to total just the two losses inherent to those head-to-head contests; additionally, Northwestern could reach this point undefeated if able to get past Purdue the Friday before most teams took to the field, which the Wildcats did.
Rather than just a pair of defeats, though, those latter five opponents have already combined for seven losses, with the most shocking coming this past Saturday evening at a 20,000-seat stadium in Norfolk, Va.
Michigan (3-1): The Wolverines look like what was anticipated before the season, giving credence to their No. 14 ranking. Michigan held Nebraska to 132 total yards in a 56-10 victory, including a meager 39 rushing yards on 30 carries. The Wolverines, meanwhile, rushed for 285 yards on 45 attempts. No matter how much the Cornhuskers are struggling, those numbers indicate Jim Harbaugh has his team trending in the right direction.
While a trip to Northwestern (4:30 ET; FOX) should not be Michigan’s toughest task of the Big Ten season, it is the most-daunting foe since the opener at Notre Dame. Nonetheless, the Wolverines are favored by two touchdowns with a combined point total over/under of 48. Given Michigan’s blowouts of late (49-3, 45-20, 56-10), a margin greater than 31-17 seems likely.
Ball St. (1-3): The Cardinals botched a great chance at a non-conference win with Western Kentucky visiting. Ball State led 21-20 until the Hilltoppers finished an 8-play, 76-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run with only 1:38 remaining. Rather than make the most of that last chance, Cardinals quarterback Riley Neal threw a pick-six to gift Western Kentucky a 33-21 victory.
Ball State will try to forget about that letdown with Kent State (3 ET; ESPN+) visiting Saturday. The Cardinals are favored by 8.5 points and a 61-point over/under hints at a 35-26 finish, granted Neal does not throw any more last-minute interceptions for touchdowns.
Vanderbilt (2-2): The Commodores falling to South Carolina felt inevitable, and averaging 4.8 yards per pass attempt and 2.8 yards per carry very much made it so. Going 2-of-14 on third downs did not help the cause in a 37-14 loss.
Vanderbilt gets a reprieve this week, arguably its last until the season finale vs. Tennessee, with a visit from FCS-level Tennessee State (4 ET; SEC Network).
Wake Forest (2-2): The Deacons’ weekend did not end with their loss to the Irish. On Monday, head coach Dave Clawson fired defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel after just 17 games at Wake Forest, two of which featured Notre Dame running wild.
Clawson did not name a specific interim coordinator, instead deferring to a collective, which will have a chance to find its footing this week against Rice (3:30 ET) as 25.5-point favorites, although the over/under of 67 implies the Deacons will still give up three touchdowns.
Stanford (4-0): Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal left the door open for a spectacular Cardinal play when he did not opt to kneel out all but the last 10-12 seconds of the clock in a close game. His decision to push for one more first down led to a fumble, a touchdown and a 38-31 overtime victory for Stanford. Let this be once again a reminder: It is idiotic to run for a few yards when simply kneeling and punting will pin an opponent deep in its own territory with just one play left to score a touchdown.
Some credit should go to the Cardinal. The Ducks left the door open, but Stanford forced the issue and took the opportunity presented. Many teams would not do that.
The Cardinal will arrive at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 ET; NBC) as 4.5-point underdogs with an over/under perhaps lower than expected at 54 points. A 29-24 final would make for a tense night.
Virginia Tech (2-1): The Hokies’ loss at Old Dominion remains hard to fathom, even if it was only the fifth-biggest upset, by money line odds, in the last two seasons. Virginia Tech was a 27.5-point favorite and lost 49-35 to an 0-3 Monarchs team. Bud Foster’s defense gave up 632 yards.
Even harder to fathom? That may not have been the low point of the Hokies’ weekend. Head coach Justin Fuente dismissed defensive end Trevon Hill on Sunday. Hill led Virginia Tech with 3.5 sacks this season after managing 9.5 tackles for loss in 2017.
And then Fuente announced the Hokies will be without starting quarterback Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future thanks to a fractured fibula suffered in the fourth quarter of that loss, when the game was tied at 28.
Without Jackson, Virginia Tech will turn to junior Ryan Willis at Duke (7 ET; ESPN2) as 5.5-point underdogs. Foster’s defense may be needed to rebound, even without Hill, in order to keep the game close in Willis’ first career start. An over/under of 50 suggests a 27-22 final.
Pittsburgh (2-2): The Panthers are not good, and few things make that clearer than losing 38-35 at North Carolina in what should be Larry Fedora’s final year, if he even lasts the whole season. Pittsburgh was outscored 17-0 in the third quarter of a loss that will look only worse with time.
Things will not get better at Central Florida (3:30 ET; ESPNU). The Knights are favored by 15.5 in what should end up along the lines of a 41-25 result.
Navy (2-2): The Midshipmen scored first in overtime at SMU, forcing the Mustangs to need a touchdown. Once they had that, first-year head coach Sonny Dykes opted for a trick play to score a two-point conversion and knock off Navy 31-30. It is hard to blame the Midshipmen defense; when an offensive lineman positions himself in the slot, you expect the screen pass to go to him, not to be a fake before a throw to the backside.
Navy rushed for a prototypical 349 yards on 78 attempts, an average of 4.5 yards per carry, but three turnovers played a role in its undoing. The Midshipmen have a bye this weekend.
Northwestern (1-2): The Wildcats’ bye presumably gave senior quarterback Clayton Thorson time to finally get his barely-healed ACL a bit healthier. Northwestern will need him even more now, as running back Jeremy Larkin announced a Monday retirement due to a diagnosis of cervical stenosis. In three games this year, Larkin had rushed for 346 yards and five touchdowns, adding another 127 yards receiving.
Not to put too fine a point on that unfortunate situation, but it should make Michigan’s strengthening rush defense seem that much stouter.
Florida State (2-2): The Seminoles started to right the proverbial ship with a 37-19 victory against Northern Illinois. While quarterback Deondre Francois threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-31 passing, what may have been more impressive was Florida State’s offensive line limiting Huskies defensive end Sutton Smith to just two tackles for loss, including one sack.
The Seminoles will have a chance to string together a winning streak at Louisville (3:30 ET; ESPN2), favored by six points. The 47-point over/under would make for a lower-scoring affair, 27-21 or so.
Syracuse (4-0): Senior quarterback Eric Dungey accounted for five touchdowns in a 51-21 rout of Connecticut, part of the Orange’s 636 total yards. As well as Syracuse and Dungey are playing, Connecticut’s defense makes Wake Forest’s look like an SEC contender’s.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Clemson (12 ET; ABC), where the Orange head this weekend as 22-point underdogs. Given how well Dungey has the offense humming, it may be reasonable to think Syracuse will do better than the 21 points allotted by a 64-point over/under, but coming within three touchdowns of Clemson seems unlikely as the Tigers have officially turned to Trevor Lawrence as their starting quarterback.
USC (2-2): The Trojans were outgained 435 yards to 354 in a 39-36 victory against Washington State on Friday, needing a blocked field goal with 1:41 left to prevent overtime.
USC has yet to cover the spread this season; doing so this week will require more than a field-goal margin at Arizona (10:30 ET; ESPN2). The Wildcats average 29.5 points per game, exactly what would be needed to make good on a 61-point over/under.
12 p.m. ET: Syracuse at Clemson on ABC. 3 p.m. ET: Ball State vs. Kent State on ESPN+. 3:30 ET: Wake Forest vs. Rice; Pittsburgh at Central Florida on ESPN; Florida State at Louisville on ESPN2. 4 ET: Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee St. on the SEC Network. 4:30 ET: Michigan at Northwestern on FOX. 7 ET: Virginia Tech at Duke on ESPN2. 7:30 ET: Stanford at Notre Dame on NBC. 10:30 ET: USC at Arizona on ESPN2.
Favorites: Michigan -14; Ball State -8.5; Wake Forest -25.5; Florida State -6; USC -3. Underdogs: Stanford +4.5; Virginia Tech +5.5; Pittsburgh +15.5; Northwestern +14; Syracuse +22.
Questions for the Week: Two frequent questions (hopefully) no longer need be asked
It was a question popular in comments all spring and summer. It receded a bit during the season’s first three weeks, but it remained a common refrain for those figurative broken records. When Notre Dame turned to junior Ian Book as its starting quarterback Saturday to much success, the skipping needles found renewed volume.
“Why not put Brandon Wimbush in an Avery Davis-like role, since he is the best RB on the team?”
There are a number of reasons, and all of them are only disputed by the short-sighted. The biggest reason ties to the sophomore Davis being at the running back role, a move the Irish committed to in the spring to the extent that he has not take a practice snap at quarterback since April, at the latest. Thus, Wimbush is now Notre Dame’s backup and somewhat only reserve quarterback, always just a play away from returning to taking every competitive snap.
That answer leads to an argument for freshman Phil Jurkovec to take over those backup duties. Dealing in facts: Jurkovec has spent the last month working with the Irish scout team. As of last week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not think Jurkovec could enter a game and run the whole playbook. Eligibility concerns aside, that is the reason to not move Jurkovec up to the second-string.
Moving Wimbush to running back would expose him to injury, not a risk to take with your backup quarterback, and it would reduce his practice reps at quarterback, again not something to do with your backup quarterback.
Furthermore, the Irish are likely to need Wimbush at quarterback yet again this season. His physical gifts will probably be an appropriate weapon to use against a defense at some point. Wimbush’s greatest asset is not his legs. Rather, it is his legs as a quarterback. His ability to ponder a pass and then expose an over-pursuing defensive end by taking off through the created gap is what led Notre Dame to its season-opening victory against Michigan.
A strong defensive secondary down the line could force Kelly to return to that simplified offense before the season’s end, and he knows as much.
“Brandon knows he’s going to contribute,” Kelly said Sunday. “I think he’s got the right makeup that he’ll be engaged and prepared each and every week, so I’m not really concerned about that.
“We will see how each week goes. It’s a very fluid situation from week-to-week and we’ll make sure that he’s prepared to play, just as we did the same thing with Ian.”
It’s that simple. Really.
Admittedly, the scratched record reached these ears only because a long-time bad influence texted the inquiry amidst an at-length conversation Saturday evening. About 12 hours later, a separate text conversation included a question with such a simple answer, there is no reason not to spend 20 seconds on it now.
“How many years of eligibility does Book have? The casual fan does not know this.”
An academic junior, Ian Book has eligibility through the 2020 season. Wimbush, an academic senior, has eligibility through the 2019 season. Jurkovec, so long as he does not play in more than four games this season, will have his four-year clock begin in September 2019, lasting through the 2022 season if so desired.
Enough with quarterbacks, but not with the commenters’ greatest hits: Will senior running back Dexter Williams return this week? Yes, in so much that a player who has not practiced much with the first-team can return to that unit in one week’s time.
“Dexter’s been doing well,” Kelly said. “If he continues to have the kind of week that he’s had the last few weeks, I would expect that he would be able to do something for us this week.”
That is Kelly’s way of unofficially announcing the end of an unofficial suspension. Similar circumstances kept receiver Kevin Stepherson sidelined for 2017’s first four games. It then took Stepherson two more weeks to tangibly contribute on the field.
Considering Williams has never had more than eight rushing attempts in a game, it may take a couple weeks for him to break through, as well.
Will senior Trevor Ruhland again replace junior Tommy Kraemer at right guard? Ruhland’s start was not a move made out of performance concerns. Kraemer stepped on a defender’s foot in Wednesday’s practice and turned his ankle, per Kelly.
“Trevor was getting some reps at that position anyway and didn’t feel like Tommy was at 100 percent going into the game,” Kelly said.
Ruhland did play well, though. The Demon Deacons’ defensive line fit his skill set.
“Wake Forest is not typically one of your bigger fronts, so he fit very well against Wake Forest,” Kelly said. “… We were pulling the guard into an open alley. That was a good opportunity to get a guy out in space, and he moves a little bit better obviously than Tommy does.
“Tommy is really good if you’ve got a big defensive line where it requires you to move some guys.”
Kelly described it as a “game-to-game situation.” Going against a Stanford line that has helped hold opponents to 123 rushing yards per game and 3.42 yards per carry, Kraemer’s physicality may be needed.
Cole Kmet is healthy, fully recovered from a high ankle sprain. Kelly did not equivocate on that update regarding the sophomore tight end who could quickly become one of Book’s preferred targets.