Quick start, strong defense make Notre Dame too much for Michigan

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A year ago, a last-minute strip-sack sealed Notre Dame’s first loss of the season. This time, the No. 12 Irish benefited from such dramatics to clinch a 24-17 victory over No. 14 Michigan.

Junior defensive end Khalid Kareem’s first sack came late in the first quarter. From that point on, it was inevitable he would be a part of another one, based on what he learned on that 16-yard loss. He had timed the Wolverines’ snap count. With less than a minute left in the game, Kareem recognized the count once more, timed his release accordingly, and looped around senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s intial pressure. Kareem beat his blocker and forced Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson up into the awaiting Tillery, who knocked the ball loose; senior linebacker Te’von Coney recovered to effectively end the game.

“I was getting a rhythm with their snap count,” Kareem said, describing it as two claps from Patterson to alert center Cesar Ruiz to start the count, a drop of the head by Ruiz, a brief pause and then the snap. “… I got a good jump on the ball, beat the tackle, made the play.”

As much as the Irish offense set the tone early with two touchdowns in the first eight minutes, it was defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit that controlled Saturday night. In his first game calling the shots, Lea’s defense allowed only 90 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) on an even 3.0 yards per rush. Through three quarters, the Wolverines had managed 178 total yards and converted just 3-of-9 third downs. It took desperate measures for Michigan’s offense to finally find traction in the fourth quarter, with Patterson completing 6-of-8 passes for 80 yards in the final frame.

“We have to have that kind of (defensive) depth,” Kelly said. “We’re not generally going to get that one singular star player, but we can develop depth in our group and have that kind of defensive structure where we roll out a lot of really good football players.”

The Wolverines needed to take to the air because Notre Dame started so strongly. In his first career start, sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong took his second career carry 13 yards to the end zone fewer than 90 seconds after the opening kickoff.

On the next Irish possession, senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush connected with senior receiver Chris Finke for a 43-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Another Armstrong touchdown in the second quarter made it 21-3 before Michigan’s Ambry Thomas returned the subsequent kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. The Wolverines would not score again until barely two minutes remained. An Irish three-and-out to follow seemed to offer hope for the maize-and-blue, until Kareem, Tillery and Coney counted otherwise.

“When you feel really good about the physicality of your football team, the offensive line and defensive line,” Kelly said, “your quarterback is a spark, and on the perimeter we won some 50/50 battles, that’s a pretty good football team.

“So I think we’ve got a pretty good football team.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Neither Notre Dame nor Michigan began the second half with anything resembling efficiency. Wimbush overthrew junior receiver Chase Claypool and instead found Wolverines cornerback Brandon Watson’s breadbasket.  The next Irish drive was the truest of three-and-outs, gaining no yards before a punt. Michigan, meanwhile, twice turned the ball over on downs before at least pondering field position with a punt after its own three-and-out.

Combined, the two bumbling offenses turned the first 19 offensive snaps of the third quarter into all of 59 yards. Then, Wolverines linebacker Devin Bush sacked Wimbush for a 10-yard loss to bring up third-and-18. The offensive ineptitude seemed primed to persist. Instead, the sack seemed to refocus Wimbush.

“I didn’t think we had enough energy coming out of halftime,” he said. “Somebody needed to change that.”

When Notre Dame needed a big play Saturday night against Michigan’s highly-considered defense, it was usually Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush providing the spark. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Wimbush took that third-down snap and immediately took it up the middle on a designed quarterback draw for 22 yards. Two plays later, he avoided two potential sacks, wheeled into some open space and found a wide open Claypool along the sideline for 19 yards. Two rushes from junior Tony Jones later, Wimbush appeared to throw an over-the-shoulder touchdown to senior receiver Miles Boykin, only for a penalty to wipe out the highlight-reel score. That led to a 48-yard field goal from senior Justin Yoon.

“I just felt we were backed up a little bit too often,” Wimbush said. “That was on my mind, but every time you get into a third-and-long situation, you have to be smart. Obviously, you want to make a great play. I think the offensive line, on the quarterback draw, did a great job of opening it up.”

That may seem to be an anti-climatic conclusion, a field goal to raise the lead to 24-10. In many ways, it was. But Wimbush’s response to Bush’s sack led Notre Dame down the field for the only time in the second half. Of the 69 Irish yards after halftime, 41 came on that drive. If not using the sack to draw from his stats, Wimbush accounted for 43 yards, missing out on 26 more due to that ineligible man downfield flag.

“He played with an edge to him,” Kelly said. “A confidence. He got the game ball tonight. He really had an energy to him, which brought the group with him.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s roster lists senior receiver Chris Finke at 5-foot-9 ½ and 180 pounds. Michigan’s puts sophomore defensive back Brad Hawkins at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds. There is no situation in which Finke should be able to jump over Hawkins and take what appears to be a sure interception and turn it into a touchdown. Yet, he did.

It would have been a tough snag by Hawkins, needing to read both Finke’s route and Wimbush’s throw perfectly and make a catch in traffic. It was an even more impressive score from the former walk-on.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Armstrong deserves mention. His debut was inarguably solid. Kareem’s day stands out even more, though. It is only amplified when briefly wondering if the entire defensive line warranted this nominal honor. Consider: Of the line’s 15 tackles, Kareem made eight. Of the line’s 3.5 tackles for loss, Kareem made 1.5 of them, and he combined with Tillery to force that fitting coda of a fumble.

Michigan’s offense spun its wheels for 54 minutes. Patterson was pressured six times total. The Wolverines gained 10 yards on a run just once. Kareem’s development against the run helped set that edge, becoming more of a complete player in the last nine months, knowing that role was awaiting him.

“As long as I go out there and do my job, I feel like I can be the best in the country,” Kareem said in what was actually a modest tone.

STAT OF THE GAME
Wimbush completed 12-of-22 passes for 170 yards with both a touchdown and an interception. Adjusting for sacks, he ran for 77 yards on 17 carries, an average of 4.53 yards per rush. It was not an inherently-explosive performance, but it included big plays both through the air (that Finke touchdown) and on the ground (the third-and-18 conversion). Seven of his 12 completions went for first downs. He rushed for five more.

Counting Armstrong’s four-yard score, the Irish had 22 first downs. Wimbush accounted for 12 of them.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Brian Kelly: “Our last two games that we’ve played, we’ve beaten really good defenses and really good personnel in close games, and winning close games against really good football teams, that usually lends itself to you’ve probably got a pretty good football program and keep building it and keep recruiting and keep a healthy culture and organization.

“You should be having the kind of atmosphere we had tonight. Wasn’t that cool? That was as good as I can remember.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
13:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 13-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan 0. (7 plays, 75 yards, 1:25)
7:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Finke 43-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan 0. (7 plays, 96 yards, 3:07)

Second Quarter
11:32 — Michigan field goal. Quinn Nordin 28 yards. Notre Dame 14, Michigan 3. (11 plays, 31 yards, 4:30)
3:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Armstrong 4-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan 3.
3:41 — Michigan touchdown. Ambry Thomas 99-yard kickoff return. Nordin PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan 10.

Third Quarter
3:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 48 yards. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 10.

Fourth Quarter
2:18 — Michigan touchdown. Karan Higdon 3-yard run. Quinn PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Michigan 17. (7 plays, 80 yards, 2:49)

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.