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Notre Dame’s Opponents: While Northwestern & USC lost, only Pittsburgh was embarrassed


It always catches an eye when a losing team handily outgains the winners. It indicates the game was not won as handily as the scoreboard may presume, and speaks to the quality of the defeated with a long view otherwise often overlooked. Keep that in mind when reading the entries below representing Notre Dame’s November opponents.

Michigan (1-1): The Wolverines had even less trouble with Western Michigan than expected, rolling to a 49-3 victory. The Broncos managed that field goal with all of 2:34 remaining in the game, not exactly applying any pressure on Michigan. Karan Higdon led the Wolverines, gaining 156 yards on 13 rushes, part of 308 total rushing yards for the team. Context: Michigan ran for 58 yards against the Irish.

Life does not get much more difficult for the Wolverines, set to host SMU (3:30 p.m. ET; BTN) as 35-point favorites with a combined point total over/under of 53.5. A 44-10 win would only stand out in that the Mustangs would find the end zone at all.

Ball St. (1-1): The Cardinals travel to face another in-state foe this week, heading to 2-0 Indiana as 14-point underdogs (12 p.m. ET; BTN). The 2-0 Hoosiers are coming off a tight win against Virginia, looking to build further momentum before beginning their conference schedule with Michigan State next weekend. Ball State and Indiana last played in 2016, a 30-20 Hoosiers victory. The 57.5-point over/under hints at a 35-21 result.

Vanderbilt (2-0): Yes, the Commodores faced just a Group of Five program, but it was one, Nevada, that is set to have a better-than-expected year. Few other teams, if any, will resoundingly trounce the Wolfpack like Vanderbilt did, 41-10. All but seven of the ‘Dores points came in the first half as their deluge included 468 total yards, 36:02 time of possession and an efficient 23-of-32 for 258 yards and two touchdowns passing from senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, all while the defense forced four turnovers.

Nonetheless, Vanderbilt will arrive in South Bend as a two touchdown underdog — currently the spread resides at 14.5 with an over/under of 53. Notre Dame would not mind a comfortable 33-19 victory (2:30 p.m. ET; NBC).

Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch returned not one punt for a touchdown last weekend, but two, adding in a receiving score for good measure during a 51-20 victory. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Wake Forest (2-0): Greg Dortch scores touchdowns. It is that simple. This week, the junior receiver caught seven passes for 94 yards and one score, something of a ho-hum offensive performance from the playmaker, so he complemented it with two punt returns for touchdowns in the second quarter, leading the Demon Deacons to a 51-20 triumph against FCS-level Towson. Wake Forest gained 582 yards of total offense, while Towson quarterback Tom Flacco (brother of the eminently-elite Joe) hrew for 345 yards and three scores on 35-of-51 passing.

The Deacons now host Boston College for a Thursday matchup that may or may not happen. As of now, it is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN with the Eagles as touchdown favorites, but Hurricane Florence could change those plans. Category 4 storms are rare enough on their own; no one should feel the impetus to stage a football game within one. If and when the two do play, an over/under of 51.5 would make for a one-possession game in the 20s.

Stanford (2-0): On the surface, the Cardinal had no trouble with USC. The reality is, it outgained the Trojans by only 342 to 332 in winning 17-3. Three turnovers provided the crux of the differential, though senior running back Bryce Love did start to loosen up, gaining 136 yards on 22 rushes.

Love and Stanford will essentially take the week off, hosting FCS-level UC Davis (2 p.m. ET; Pac-12 Network).

Virginia Tech (2-0): The Hokies made efficient work of FCS-level William & Mary, winning 62-17 with 586 yards of total offense, compared to giving up only 266. Quarterback Josh Jackson threw for 217 yards on only 16 attempts, completing 12 of them and scoring once, and Virginia Tech averaged 6.6 yards per carry in rushing for 305 yards.

It may seem another casual week for the Hokies with East Carolina visiting (12:20 p.m. ET; ACC Network), but the Pirates are fresh off an upset of North Carolina. The 28-point spread with a 47.5 over/under suggests Virginia Tech should still cruise to a 38-10 victory.

Pittsburgh (1-1): The Panthers wanted to believe they could compete in a renewal of their rivalry with Penn State, but it was made quite clear they could not during a 51-6 shellacking. Pittsburgh threw for 55 passing yards on 18 attempts. The Nittany Lions scored 44 unanswered points. Nothing about the trouncing was, if you will, stately.

The Panthers have a tough ask ahead of them in bouncing back from that in the first place, let alone immediately readying to face the triple-option attack of Georgia Tech (12:30 p.m. ET). The Yellow Jackets are favored by three with a 28-25 conclusion likely.

Navy (1-1): The Midshipmen needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns to come back from a 21-9 deficit and prevail 22-21 against Memphis, even though Navy had the ball for 42:47. Life should be easier for the week with FCS-level Lehigh visiting (3:30 p.m. ET; CBSSN).

Northwestern (1-1): One bad, even terrible, second quarter did in the Wildcats against Duke, giving up 21 points in that one frame to fall 21-7. Northwestern outgained Duke 381 yards to 301 and managed 23 first downs to the Blue Devils’ 14. Yet, a negative-two turnover differential was too much to overcome.

If granting the premise that the Wildcats are more akin to the team represented on the stat sheet than the one depicted by the score alone, then it may be safe to think Northwestern will beat Akron by more than the expected 21 points (7:30 p.m. ET; BTN). A 33-13 result may make sense if considering the over/under of 45.5, but it should not be that close, quite frankly.

Florida State (1-1): Maybe the Seminoles were still staggering from their opening drubbing by Virginia Tech. Perhaps they simply overlooked FCS-level Samford. Or, possibly, Florida State is genuinely terrible this season. Figuring which of those three is most precise is an irresolvable debate this week, as the Seminoles did end up winning 36-26, and a win is a win is a [insert four-syllable pause] win.

Samford outgained Florida State 525 yards to 454, using 475 passing yards to keep things interesting. The Bulldogs undoing? Four interceptions.

The Seminoles now head up to the Carrier Dome, where Syracuse seems to notch at least one upset a year (12 p.m. ET; ESPN). By the bookmaker, this would qualify, with Florida State favored by 3.5 points, but that is plausibly an underreaction to the Seminoles’ trouble this week. A 33-29 result would be thrilling, if nothing else.

Syracuse (2-0): The Orange, meanwhile, had no trouble with its FCS-level patsy, dispatching Wagner with a 62-10 loss, led by quarterback Eric Dungey’s 218 yards and five touchdowns on 23-of-32 passing.

Let’s do away with the vague suggestions: Syracuse will beat Florida State this weekend, furthering a miserable September for first-year Seminoles head coach Willie Taggart.

Stanford running back Bryce Love set the tone for the Cardinal offensively in a 17-3 victory against USC, gaining 136 yards with one touchdown on 22 carries. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

USC (1-1): Not only did the Trojans nearly outgain Stanford, they actually did manage more first downs, 20 to 13. It was not that freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels  had trouble moving the ball (16-of-34, 215 yards), he just threw two interceptions to counteract that. Freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown caught only two passes for 39 yards.

Daniels suffered a hand injury and is currently questionable for the trip to raucous Texas (8 p.m. ET; FOX), where USC is considered a three-point underdog. If Daniels is healthy, the Trojans should cover that and likely push the total past the over/under of 49.

7:30 p.m. Thursday: Wake Forest vs. Boston College on ESPN, pending any possible hurricane-related scheduling changes.
12 p.m. ET Saturday: Ball State at Indiana on BTN; Florida State at Syracuse on ESPN.
12:20 p.m. ET: Virginia Tech vs. East Carolina on ACCN.
12:30 ET: Pittsburgh vs. Georgia Tech.
2 ET: Stanford vs. UC Davis on the Pac-12 Network.
2:30 ET: Vanderbilt at Notre Dame on NBC.
3:30 ET: Michigan vs. SMU on BTN; Navy vs. Lehigh on CBSSN.
7:30 ET: Northwestern vs. Akron on BTN.
8 ET: USC at Texas on FOX.

Favorites: Florida State -3.5; Virginia Tech -28; Michigan -35; Northwestern -21.
Underdogs: Wake Forest +7; Ball State +14; Syracuse +3.5; Pittsburgh +3; Vanderbilt +14.5; USC +3.

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

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 four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per, 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

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.