Notre Dame’s defense holds off Ball State while offense idles

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It took longer than expected, but No. 8 Notre Dame eventually got around to holding off Ball State 24-16 on Saturday. The Irish (2-0) never let the game fall into doubt, but the Cardinals (1-1) similarly refused to be routed, running 97 total plays for 349 yards to strain Notre Dame’s defense.

That 3.6 yards per play average camouflaged how much the defense needed to handle. Still, Ball State found the end zone only once, a 10-yard pass from senior quarterback Riley Neal to junior tight end Nolan Givan with 12 minutes remaining in the game. Neal finished with 180 yards on 23-of-50 passing with two interceptions.

“Overall as a defensive standard, the goal is for their offense not to score,” Irish fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “When they do put points on the board, there’s stuff to learn from. It wasn’t a perfect game from us. There will be a lot of film to watch with 97 plays.”

It may not have been a perfect game, but Notre Dame’s defense allowed only one play of more than 20 yards, held the Cardinals to 3.8 yards per rush (sacks adjusted) and 8-of-23 on third-down conversions. Ball State managed only three possessions longer than 40 yards and got into the Irish red zone just three times. The first two of those each resulted in field goals.

“We just focused,” senior linebacker Te’von Coney said of the red-zone shift. “We always say we don’t want to concede points. [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly and [defensive coordinator Clark] Lea always talk about that. Just when they get down to the red zone, we have to play harder. It just takes one play to get them off schedule. Make that play and get them off the field.”

Notre Dame’s offense, meanwhile, struggled. Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed 17-of-31 pases and threw for a career-best 297 yards, diminishing that feat with three interceptions. Although the running game averaged 4.89 yards per carry (sacks adjusted), it still gained only 132 yards, part of why the Irish went 4-of-14 on third downs.

“We thought we would be able to take the gimmies and the easy throws and then make big plays out of them,” Wimbush said. “We had a good game plan in terms of running the ball.

“Some things sometimes just don’t work as effectively as you may wish.”

Sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong led the way with 13 carries for 66 yards and the first score of the day, adding three catches for 61 yards. Junior Tony Jones chipped in 61 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 13 rushes.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Receiving the kickoff to open the second half, Ball State needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie Notre Dame at 14. Given the flow of the game to that point, reaching a tie seemed just as likely as the Irish opening a two-possession lead. The latter came to be reality, largely because of Tranquill.

He got to Neal just before his release, forcing the quarterback to overthrow his intended receiver. The credit naturally goes to junior safety Jalen Elliott for making the subsequent interception, but it all stemmed from Tranquill’s pressure.

It was Elliott’s second interception of the day, the first of any quantity by a Notre Dame safety since the 2016 season.

“You hope with the game plan, you’re able to make the plays,” Elliott said. “Our coaches put us in position, so all we have to do is go out and make the play.”

Elliot’s first interception was caused by senior nickel back and former safety Nick Coleman deflecting a pass. In that regard, it was a stellar day for the Irish safeties, a weak spot in recent years. Junior Alohi Gilman added nine tackles, to go along with Elliot’s seven.

“We’re just trying to do our job,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t just the mindset of let’s go get a pick. It was the mindset of do our job and a play is going to come. We stuck to that, we did our job, and the play came to me.”

Six plays after Elliott’s interception, rather than Ball State tying the game, it was Jones plunging into the end zone from a yard away to eliminate any real concerns for all effective purposes. The suddenly-somewhat comfortable 21-6 Notre Dame lead began with Tranquill’s blitz.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Notre Dame junior cornerback Julian Love should not be commended for tackling an offensive lineman by the shoelaces. What deserves praise is what Love had to do to get to Danny Pinter after Ball State’s right tackle caught a backward pass across the field, opposite the defense’s momentum. Love merely shrugged off two defenders and in doing so, he saved a touchdown, bringing down Pinter at the five.

“We knew they were going to come in and do a lot of tricks, try to get our eyes in the wrong place, try to make some plays,” Coney said. “A great job on their part — happy that Julian Love was able to come up and make the play.”

The Cardinals executed the misdirection well, hence Love being isolated against two blockers. If not for his takedown, Pinter would have likely scored and brought Ball State within 14-10 with fewer than three minutes remaining in the first half, rather than merely gain three yards on what was technically a rush.

Instead, Love’s agility forced the Cardinals to settle for a field goal, their second of the day, not finding the end zone until the fourth quarter. It does not take a logical leap to credit Love with literally saving four points, provided Ball State could convert the extra point.

Irish senior linebacker Te’von Coney (right) led Notre Dame’s stout defensive effort with 14 tackles in Saturday’s 24-16 victory against Ball State. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Coney’s presence was not as omnipresent as it has been in the past. His 14 tackles felt like many more than only three fewer than the 17 he had in the Citrus Bowl victory, but they were 14, nonetheless. Three of them came behind the line of scrimmage, including a six-yard sack.

“All week we talked about things we thought they would do and trying to go out there and do my job,” Coney said. “Execute as best as I can.”

Coney now has 24 tackles through two weeks with 3.5 for loss, but he wants more.

“We have a standard that we hold ourselves to, and today we don’t think we did that,” he said. “We’re going back into the film room and correct things, come back much harder next week.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Whether it was a byproduct of a vanilla offensive scheme or simple ineffectiveness, the Irish offense spent much of Saturday afternoon stalled. As did Ball State’s. Each team managed only one possession that covered a suitably-full length of the field to reach the end zone. Notre Dame opened with a five-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, and the Cardinals put together a 13-play, 79-yarder to cut the deficit to 24-13 early in the fourth quarter.

The difference, then, between the offensive outputs? The Irish scored touchdowns immediately following both Elliott interceptions while Ball State got just one field goal off three turnovers.

“It all goes back to getting off the field and getting the [offense] the ball back,” Elliott said. “We know we have a dynamic offense. Once we get them the ball back, they’re bound to make a play.”

Without two interceptions from an Irish safety — for so long a foreign concept — this result actually may have gone the other way.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
“You can never apologize for winning. Winning’s hard.” — Brian Kelly.

The full context: “The first thing I tell them when we come in (to the locker room) is, number one, you can never apologize for winning. Winning’s hard. Understand that. First and foremost, you won a football game. But you’ve got to critique it. Did we live up to the standards that we’ve set in the way that we played? No.

“I did a poor job preparing you. You’ve got to bring the energy necessary to play this game. It’s not chess. It’s football. It requires an energy that may have been lacking. Let’s look at why that wasn’t there.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
13:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 1-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Ball State 0. (5 plays, 74 yards, 1:54)
6:17 — Ball State field goal. Morgan Hagee 25 yards. (19 plays, 85 yards, 6:49)

Second Quarter
8:14 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 31-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Ball State 3. (1 play, 31 yards, 0:09)
2:30 — Ball State field goal. Haggee 23 yards. Notre Dame 14, Ball State 6. (13 plays, 36 yards, 2:55)

Third Quarter
10:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jones 1-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Ball State 6. (6 plays, 56 yards, 1:55)
2:01 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 46 yards. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 6. (8 plays, 33 yards, 2:30)

Fourth Quarter
12:01 — Ball State touchdown. Nolan Givan 10-yard pass from Riley Neal. Hagee PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 13. (13 plays, 79 yards, 5:00)
1:30 — Ball State field goal. Hagee 49 yards. Notre Dame 24, Ball State 16. (8 plays, 26 yards, 2:21)

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.