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Counting Down the Irish: 20 to 16

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Of the 13 players appearing in both last year’s “Counting Down the Irish” and the present iteration, only three regressed down the rankings. Oddly enough, all three fell into today’s grouping.

No. 25 Jonathan Bonner, fifth-year defensive tackle, 29 points.
No. 24 Tyler Newsome, fifth-year punter and captain, 30 points.
No. 23 Liam Eichenberg, junior left tackle, 60.
No. 22 Tommy Kraemer, junior right guard, 74.
No. 21 Justin Yoon, senior kicker, 79.

20: Julian Okwara, junior defensive end, 84 points
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 19
Seven ballots total.

Nominally, Okwara backs up classmate Daelin Hayes, making him the first second-unit player to appear in this polling. While he will play plenty in order to keep both pass-rushers legs’ fresh, Okwara is the truest backup among those yet to be considered. (For example, at least two Notre Dame running backs will see plenty of time, the starting designation contingent on a play call. Neither is a genuine sub.)

That is pointed out as a credit to Okwara. Despite comparatively fewer opportunities, he is expected to make his presence known. A year after making 4.5 tackles for loss with 2.5 sacks, any growth on those numbers will result in that expectation being fulfilled. Lest we forget, he also made quite an acrobatic interception at North Carolina, showing off his athleticism in his homestate.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised Okwara for putting in the work to add 12 pounds over the summer, theoretically readying him for the toll exacted by more playing time.

“I think what you’ll see now with this new weight, he’s one of our stronger players,” Kelly said Thursday. “Extremely strong in the weight room. He now has added obviously some power behind that.”

Added durability and power should also make Okwara’s overall abilities applicable in more situations.

19: Dexter Williams, senior running back, 88 points
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 23
Eight ballots total.
Last year: No. 15

Williams’ fall four spots absolutely ties to the likelihood of him missing the season’s first four games for unspecified disciplinary issues. A player can make only so much impact in just two-thirds of the season.

When he takes the field, if he remains healthy, Williams is arguably Notre Dame’s most explosive running back. (It is an argument out of deference to the unknown commodity known as sophomore Jafar Armstrong.) If he finds a rhythm on a crucial series, Williams certainly has the tools to single-handedly tilt a game.

Yet, he has not done so to date. He has struggled to remain on the field, both due to injury and inadequacy in passing situations. Now, add to that list repeated transgressions forcing him to the sideline. If the best ability is availability, Williams’ ceiling is lower than his physical gifts suggest, yet those gifts are enough to force him onto this listing, nonetheless.

Alizé Mack finished last season with 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown, numbers he will need to improve upon to warrant these expectations of a worthwhile impact. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

18: Alizé Mack, senior tight end, 89 points
High ranking: No. 10
Low ranking: No. 25
Nine ballots total.
Last year: No. 8

Mack is this season’s largest drop in balloting. Returning from a season suspended due to academic missteps created an intriguing allure last year, one beset by dropped passes and a lack of separation. Inconsistent Irish quarterback play exacerbated Mack’s struggles.

Yet, his drop may not tie solely to those struggles. It could also point to the depth chart around Mack. Sophomore tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright both played well last season, and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar showed a unique red-zone presence. The position as a whole could not be much stronger, but that depth could limit Mack’s ability to finally break out despite the tantalizing mismatches his 6-foot-4 frame and excellent speed could create.

17: Tony Jones, junior running back, 91 points
High ranking: No. 3
Low ranking: No. 25
Eight ballots total.

Barring injury, Jones is likely to end up with the most carries for Notre Dame this fall, and that alone warrants this ranking when considering overall impact. What he does with those carries will determine if that high vote or the low mark was more accurate.

Jones averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season on 44 rushes. He is nowhere near a plodding rusher, though he often prefers to bowl over a defender rather than evade him. Both strategies work.

If he does prove to be deserving of anything resembling that high-water mark (or even the Nos. 7 and 8 rankings he also received), two-back sets will likely play a part in that. Jones gives Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long his best backfield Swiss Army knife, showing excellent ability in pass-blocking and more than competence in receiving and running routes out of the backfield. The difficult situations Jones could put defenses in will not only show themselves in his stats, but also in his backfield counterparts, be that Williams and senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush or another running back altogether.

Rarely does a play truly swing a touchdown. Other chances usually follow it up, or the touchdown was not literally a sure thing. When Shaun Crawford forced a fumble at the goal line at Michigan State last season, he genuinely did prevent a score when he recovered the fumble in the end zone. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

16: Shaun Crawford, senior nickelback, 93 points
High ranking: No. 4
Low ranking: No. 24
10 ballots total.
Last year: No. 10

If Crawford finally has all of his fitness back after losing both the 2015 and 2016 seasons to injury, then this mark will likely end up too low. He had his hand directly involved in four turnovers last season, including one of the savviest plays seen in a long time when he stripped Michigan State running back LJ Scott inches from the goal line and recovered the loose ball in the end zone for a touchback rather than a Spartans touchdown. That moment of brilliance has been somewhat forgotten among long Irish touchdown runs, the Citrus Bowl heroics and the sheer weight of time, but it best showed what Crawford is capable of.

Also forgotten, Crawford added 32 tackles in a part-time role, even though the season’s grind gradually slowed him down. It was, after all, his first full season.

The panelists:
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Elizabeth Greason, The Observer
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Laken Litman, Indianapolis Star
Tim O’Malley, Irish Illustrated
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, The Athletic
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down

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

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WHO? No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2).

WHAT? The Irish can burgeon their Playoff claim with a second top-15 win. It will be their third if considering when teams were ranked, but Stanford has plummeted from its No. 7 ranking in September.

The Orange, meanwhile, can come this close to securing a spot in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl. Syracuse will still most likely need to beat No. 20 Boston College next weekend, but even a loss there could have the Orange in consideration after a win this weekend. Suffice it to say, such would be a program high tracing back to at least 1998, which ended with a 31-10 loss in the Orange Bowl to Florida.

WHEN? 2:30 ET with kickoff set for a dozen minutes later. For all the griping about moving this game to Yankee Stadium, at least it gives those in attendance a chance to still enjoy New York City on a Saturday night.

WHERE? Yankee Stadium, The Bronx, New York City. But yes, this is considered a Notre Dame home game because words don’t have meaning.

NBC will have the broadcast, with the game streaming online here or on the NBC Sports app.

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

WHY? Obviously, this is the 10-year rematch of the 2008 Irish loss to Syracuse in South Bend.  Despite lacking a head coach — Greg Robinson was fired the week prior, though he coached through the end of the season — the Orange pulled off a 24-23 victory to spoil Notre Dame’s Senior Day.

It was not just a cold day, but a snowy one, with students apocryphally throwing snowballs at the Irish sideline. That dramatic retelling ignores the very obvious truth that the undergrads were proving who could throw the farthest, and only three or four genuinely reached the field. They were poor optics, to be sure, but no worse than the quartet of scrawny shirtless freshmen in the stands.

The day did reap some reward for Notre Dame. A future All-American linebacker spent his official visit bundled up in the snow, wondering why people live anywhere on this mainland. Those snowball-throwing students, though, showed enough passion despite the weather to get Manti Te’o’s attention.

The Irish never played Syracuse during Te’o’s time, but they have won their last two meetings, both technically Orange home games though held in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands: 31-15 in 2014 and 50-33 in 2016.

A STAT THAT MAY HAVE BEEN MISSED IN THE WEEK’S COVERAGE
Syracuse is No. 70 in rushing yards allowed per game at 169.0 and No. 78 in yards per carry against at 4.40. Those numbers are very similar to Pittsburgh’s: No. 76 in yards per game at 172.0 and No. 79 in yards per carry at 4.41.

Then again, the Panthers held Notre Dame to 112 yards on 35 rushes (sacks adjusted), a 3.2 average.

BY HOW MUCH?
Favored by 10 points with a combined point total over/under of 65.5, the Irish are expected to win 38-28. That would necessitate holding the Orange to 16 points below its season average. That is ambitious, even for Clark Lea’s defense.

It is a cliché to say a game will hinge on the turnover battle, but it is such for a reason. It is true, and perhaps especially true this weekend. Syracuse has forced 25 turnovers this season, 2.5 per game. Notre Dame has coughed it up 12 times. (Even if removing senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s five interceptions, the Irish average 1.17 turnovers per game with junior Ian Book starting, compared to 1.2 turnovers per game all season.)

One turnover may happen; it usually does. Notre Dame may not be able to afford any more than that. The Orange will score, and giving up chances to match that is a recipe to end an unbeaten season.

Here is where it proves worth remembering the Irish running backs have not lost a fumble in 37 games, tracing back to its last in a baseball stadium, a 16-13 victory against Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015. Relying on the ground game again would reduce Notre Dame’s turnover risk. Let’s presume that happens.

Notre Dame 35, Syracuse 27.
(9-1 in pick; 4-6 against the spread, 4-6 point total.)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s Senior Night special for all, but especially two linebacker captains
Can Notre Dame count on Book’s health?
Conversation around Notre Dame changes, even as the Playoff poll does not
The rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Syracuse
And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise
Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever
The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

OUTSIDE READING:
Inside the creation of a football field at Yankee Stadium
Why does Notre Dame ever deviate from its ionic uniforms?
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick talks Brian Kelly, a 10-0 start, moving the Syracuse game and more ($)
Subway alums on board for Notre Dame return to New York City
Who is the third-best team in the country?
Don’t let anyone tell you the Irish are out with one loss.
All the chaos that can still happen in the season’s final three weeks
The highest-graded players in every Week 12 marquee matchup in college football
‘Finally, we got one’: Ball State football upsets Western Michigan in overtime thriller

Friday at 4: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

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For the better part of two seasons, junior quarterback Ian Book has been compared to his position coach, Tom(my) Rees. Both began their Notre Dame careers as understudies, seemingly physically-limited, clearly not as athletic as particular peers at the position. The Book-led Irish comeback in the Citrus Bowl seemed to cement his standing as super-sub, a la Rees in 2012 behind Everett Golson.

Perhaps the Rees comparisons should have instead featured senior Brandon Wimbush.

Last week, it was Rees who texted Wimbush on Monday, distracting him throughout a class as he tried to figure out what could possibly be so urgent. Once Wimbush got to the football facilities, Rees told him that Book probably would not play against Florida State. It was a role Rees had handled himself in 2012, most notably when Golson suffered a concussion against Stanford and Rees started the next week against BYU.

‘That guy’s been through everything you can imagine at the quarterback position here,” Wimbush said of Rees. “He’s helped me. He’s led the entire quarterback room, being that young figure who was here not too long ago.

“He has the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom to teach us. He’s done a great job of putting us in a position to succeed on and off the field.”

Wimbush threw two interceptions last week, his fifth and sixth of the year. Yet, the 42-13 victory made his spot-start an unqualified success. His demeanor in handling it, the benching back in September that made last weekend just a spot start, and any of the expected turmoil in the interim, all extended the success to off the field, as well.

As the 10-0 Irish continue this regular season unbeaten and set for the Playoff, Wimbush’s contributions warrant more praise. Not becoming a malcontent is a low bar to clear, but one too high just a couple years ago. It has not gone unnoticed in this locker room.

“Brandon is a high character guy, great guy to be around, we love him to death,” junior defensive Daelin Hayes said following the victory against the Seminoles. “It was our job to go out and have his back.

“He came out and obviously with him being the starter, he handled that as well as anybody could possibly handle that situation.”

Notre Dame likely would have beaten Florida State with freshman Phil Jurkovec at the helm. Frankly, given the first-quarter interception return to the three-yard line from senior Nick Coleman and Julian Love’s two-point return, the Irish may have prevailed with you or me at quarterback. Can you successfully hand off to Dexter Williams 20-plus times?

But Wimbush removed most, perhaps all, stress from the situation. That is not as dramatic as Rees leading the winning drive against Purdue or throwing the winning touchdown against Stanford. It may not stand the same test of time in lore. But it should. Wimbush took the back seat maturely, as frustrating as that must have been. Then he stepped forward when needed, threw three touchdowns and enjoyed a victorious Alma Mater.

The Irish needed that stability as much as they once needed Rees’ heroics.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense needed more than ever

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When now-No. 3 Notre Dame opened its season against now-No. 4 Michigan, the Irish relied on their quarterback, and senior Brandon Wimbush delivered. In meeting No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium, Notre Dame once again will presumably need its quarterback in order to keep up with the Orange scoring pace, averaging 44.4 points per game.

And the Irish will have junior Ian Book ready to go, per head coach Brian Kelly on Thursday.

“He’s had a good week,” Kelly said. “Normal rust on Tuesday, Wednesday ran the offense effectively and then [Thursday] settled in as if he had not had a week off.”

Despite a ribs injury that kept him sidelined against Florida State, Book is already back working within the entirety of Notre Dame’s offense.

“We have run game in for him,” Kelly said. “He’s going to get hit. We feel very comfortable — we wouldn’t play him if we had to put him in bubble wrap.”

This should be an occasion for Book to put up some gaudy stats … in part because Syracuse runs its offense at a high pace, creating more plays for both teams; in part because the Orange defense is somewhat susceptible to the passing game; in part because Book’s numbers in his six starts have been relatively absurd on their own.

Syracuse averages 82.2 plays per game, fourth-most in the country and just behind Wake Forest’s 83.9. That distorts giving up 261.3 passing yards per game (No. 107), but the 7.5 yards per pass attempt still shows a struggle to defend the pass. For comparison, Northwestern gives up 6.8 yards per attempt, and Book memorably threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-34 passing against the Wildcats, mostly with the rib injury.

Yet, the Orange may present Book a challenge he has not yet seen. Giving up a 56.0 percent completion rate (No. 32), Syracuse makes opposing quarterbacks work for their gains harder than any of the six defenses Book has faced. If styles make fights, then it is worth remembering Book leads the country with a 74.5 completion rate.

Book can also prove once and for all whether this season or last was the anomaly as it pertains to his turnovers. Book has thrown four interceptions in 2018, just as he did in 2017. This year they have come on 204 attempts, nearly triple last year’s 75. The Orange intercepts the opposition once every 25 attempts (14 picks on 350 attempts), a number that would pose a concern against the more inexperienced version of Book.

“They play good defense,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t call them a trapping defense in a sense that they’re in a lot of exotic (coverages). They’re a four-down front that plays Cover 1 and they rotate down and play some three-down.

“My first characterization of them wouldn’t be that of a team that takes the ball away. I think they’re fundamentally sound and they put their kids in good position.”

This is all of such concern because Syracuse is going to score. The offense is too high-powered to presume otherwise. Notre Dame behind Wimbush would probably not be able to keep up. With Book back, it becomes more likely, if not outright probable.

Nick Coleman’s interception on Florida State’s second play last week set up an Irish score and Coleman for an increased role at nickel back moving forward. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Orange will stress the Irish defense in ways not yet seen, particularly its nickel packages and senior Nick Coleman. Notre Dame has struggled to replace senior Shaun Crawford since his preseason ACL tear. With an interception and a pass breakup a week ago, Coleman once again asserted himself as Notre Dame’s presumed nickel back. Freshman Houston Griffith has struggled in coverages, leaving only junior Julian Love as a remaining viable option, which then forces freshman TaRiq Bracy (or, less likely due to his lackluster performance this season, junior Donte Vaughn) into outside coverage.

Thus, Coleman will be counted on against an offense with four receivers averaging 11.17 yards or more per catch with at least 28 receptions, all with multiple scores this season.

“Certainly with their [one running back, no tight end] personnel, the nickel will be a very important piece in terms of what we do,” Kelly said. “I thought [Coleman] was savvy. … I got a chance to see him a lot this week, and I thought he was on top of his game.”

As Eric Dungey goes, so goes Syracuse’s offense and the four-year starting quarterback is having quite a productive season, accounting for 26 total touchdowns. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey further complicates that concern, the best dual-threat the Irish have faced this season. On paper, it was a schedule littered with such concerns, but Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson was knocked out for the season by injury before Notre Dame arrived, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson has not been as mobile since tearing his ACL in December, and the same can be said of Florida State’s Deondre Francois regarding his ACL tear to start the 2017 season.

Dungey, meanwhile, has taken 147 carries for 690 yards, not adjusting for sacks, and 12 touchdowns. With Coleman at nickel, the Irish will need to rely on linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill to keep an eye on Dungey, especially in the red zone.

He is but a piece of an offense ranked No. 28 in rushing yards per game with 216.1, No. 6 in rushing touchdowns with 32 and No. 12 in attempts per game with 46.1.

“The whole change in their ability to sustain their offensive structure is their ability to run the football,” Kelly said. “If they can’t run the football, this team is not 8-2.

“… By being an effective ground team, it sets up everything they can do.”

Everything the Orange does may make it the best offense first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has faced. In the Notre Dame Stadium press box before last week’s 42-13 victory, it was an easy conversational piece to ponder if Syracuse is the best offense the Irish will play this season. The answer is obviously yes. The follow-up question was tougher to answer, who has been the best thus far?

Michigan’s has come furthest, the best at this point, but it was a shell of this version to open the season. Stanford’s was expected to be much more than it has been, bothered by uncharacteristically poor offensive line play. The consensus settled on Wake Forest, which also scored a season-high 27 points against Notre Dame. If/when the Orange tops that, it will not be an indictment of Lea’s defense, but a challenge to Book’s offense.

Lastly, will freshman defensive end Justin Ademilola play? This is largely a piece of housekeeping, but Ademilola has appeared in three games, meaning he can play in one more before losing a year of eligibility. Given how many games are left — two — and what is at stake — a Playoff berth — burning the year may make sense. Defensive line depth is not something to be taken for granted, and Ademilola has shown he can hold his own for a handful of snaps per game.

The only other freshmen worth monitoring in this regard would be running backs C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith and receiver Joe Wilkins, all having played in two games to date. Barring injury, four games should be the logical limit for each.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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