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Notre Dame escapes genuine test from Vanderbilt

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This one cannot be explained as a controlling victory clouded by a tight score. Vanderbilt (2-1) very much gave No. 8 Notre Dame (3-0) all it could handle Saturday as the Irish held on for a 22-17 victory.

“It’s much better than it was last week,” senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush said. “… We executed how we wanted to execute today, and we feel good coming away from it. There is so much more to learn, so we’re excited for that.”

That upbeat attitude notwithstanding, this result remained in doubt until the final 67 seconds, and even those included one last attempt at a lateral miracle from the Commodores. Aside from that formality, Notre Dame junior safety Jalen Elliott ended the game with his breakup of what looked to be a first-down conversion at the Irish 11-yard line. If Vanderbilt junior receiver Kalija Lipscomb (pictured above) had held onto the pass from senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, the Commodores were in prime position to take a lead and leave a sluggish Irish offense less than a minute to respond.

Lipscomb had the pass initially. Irish junior safety Alohi Gilman admitted he thought it was complete “for a little bit.” Instead, Elliott maintained contact with Lipscomb all the way to the ground, doubling the impact as they hit the turf. The ball popped out at the last possible second and Vanderbilt’s final real threat went with it. In forcing the ball out as he did, Elliott displayed the difference in Notre Dame’s effort and focus this week compared to against Ball State a week ago.

“A play is six seconds; we want our players playing through that six seconds,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We felt like we were pulling off plays a little early last week, so the emphasis was defining what compete meant. It’s kind of like the old adage of don’t run to the cone, run through the cone. We felt like maybe we ran to the cone too much last week.”

That incompletion was one of few offensive mishaps for the Commodores in the second half. After gaining 180 yards before halftime, Vanderbilt raised that to 240 in the second half, each drive reaching far into Notre Dame territory, with the exception of the last-gasp lateral play. The Irish managed only 133 yards in the same period, allowing the Commodores to cut a 16-3 lead to the final five-point margin.

“I’d like to say we’re a finished product,” Kelly said. “We’re just not. We’re trying to find our identity on offense.

“We’re a good defense, we’re not a great defense yet. We’ve got some things to clean up, but I really, really like our football team and the way they competed today.”

The one sustained drive Notre Dame did put together in the second half came as the fourth quarter began. Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed 4-of-4 passes for 53 yards while junior running back Jafar Armstrong added 17 yards on three carries. At the 2-yard line, junior quarterback Ian Book stepped in for Wimbush to run a goal line package including three tight ends.

What looked like a surefire running play deceptively led to both sophomore tight end Brock Wright and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar to run routes, Weishar cutting deeper into the end zone while Wright went from a fullback position to the flat. Book connected with Weishar, notching the winning points even without converting a subsequent two-point conversion attempt.

“Whenever [Weishar] gets the ball or wherever he’s targeted, he typically catches it and makes a great play,” Wimbush said. “Like he did today.”

Wimbush finished with 122 yards on 13-of-23 passing with another 84 yards gained on 19 rushes. Junior running back Tony Jones added 118 rushing yards and 56 receiving, averaging 9.2 yards per touch.

Shurmur completed 26 of 43 pass attempts for 346 yards and a score with 11 of those caught by Lipscomb for 89 yards.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Beginning at the midpoint of the second quarter, every remaining Vanderbilt drive brought the real possibility of scoring. That one ended in a goal line fumble, then came a field goal and a missed field goal. The sequence would soon include two touchdowns before finally yielding to Elliott’s pass defense. Between the field goal attempts and the touchdowns, Irish junior cornerback Troy Pride picked off a pass in the end zone.

It was a heave more than anything else, Shurmur looking for Lipscomb from 36 yards out, despite double coverage. Given how things had been going and would continue to go, though, logic figures Vanderbilt would have offered a more imminent threat soon thereafter. It was, after all, a first-and-10 shot.

Pride adjusted to the ball in the air and made a simple interception, at which point he foolishly tried to return it. Nonetheless, this was the only conventional defensive stop for Notre Dame for 36 minutes, a time span in which the Commodores scored all 16 of their points and left at least 10 more to regret.

PLAY(S) OF THE GAME
It is not a sure thing Vanderbilt junior receiver Donaven Tennyson would have scored midway through the second quarter, on the drive beginning the aforementioned run of bending by the Irish defense. He was, however, still upright just a yard from the end zone. Perhaps Pride would have tackled him there, but even if he did, the Commodores would have been set up for a first-and-goal from the one. A touchdown was likely.

Enter Gilman. As Pride stopped Tennyson, Gilman got his grips on the football and ripped it loose. Both he and Elliott leapt for the airborne prize, serving only to knock the jump ball into the end zone still loose. Junior cornerback Julian Love beat Vanderbilt fifth-year running back Khai Blasingame to securing the fumble, earning Notre Dame a touchback.

Maybe the Irish defense would have stonewalled the Commodores at the one — it has shown excellent red-zone abilities this season — but it is most likely the combination of Pride, Gilman and Love literally saved seven points.

“What I was pleased with is that it’s a drill we work on, that we come up through the receiver and try to strip,” Kelly said. “We stayed with the play right through the whistle and got the ball out.

“It was a rugby scrum in the end zone, and we were able to get on it.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Senior kicker Justin Yoon seemed destined for these honors when he made three first-half field goals to provide the majority of Notre Dame’s scoring to that point, but a kicker cannot be deemed player of the game if he misses his final kick, as Yoon did looking to give the Irish an eight-point lead late in the fourth quarter.

Tony Jones led the Irish in both rushing and receiving during Notre Dame’s 22-17 victory against Vanderbilt. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Jones had no such mishap. He took four carries for 41 yards on the opening drive and started the next one with another 14-yarder. Notre Dame rushed for 245 yards, averaging 5.1 per rush, and Jones set that tone.

“[Our rushing game] is great for the pass game, and I would say if we rush good, we win,” Jones said, simply enough.

He also twice streaked up the right sideline for touch passes from Wimbush, exposing a flawed Vanderbilt coverage and accounting for the two longest Irish completions of the day.

“If you do a good job defending him, then we’re creating space on the drive route coming back,” Kelly said. “They’re really easy complements for us versus man coverage.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had converted five trips into the red zone into four touchdowns, falling short with a missed field goal against Ball State.

The Irish had given up touchdowns on only two of six opposing trips into the red zone, a fourth-quarter score to Michigan and Ball State each.

Against the Commodores, only two of Notre Dame’s five visits to the red zone reached the end zone, the other three all yielding field goal attempts. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt turned three drives inside the red zone into two touchdowns and a field goal. (Since the ball was not snapped within the 20-yard line, neither the Pride interception nor the Gilman strip/Love recovery count as red zone stops, statistically speaking.)

The Irish thrived in the red zone last season on both sides of the ball, but this is the danger of a “bend, don’t break” defense. Bending brings you that much closer to breaking.`

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
“There’s things we’ve got to work on. It’s the third game of the season. If you’re a finished product after game three, you’re destined for greatness. We’re not there yet. We’re not destined for greatness. So if anyone wants to write that greatness column, I would tap the brakes.” — Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
11:02 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 26 yards. Notre Dame 3, Vanderbilt 0. (10 plays, 74 yards, 3:58)
0:58 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush 12-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Vanderbilt 0. (15 plays, 94 yards, 5:21)

Second Quarter
7:33 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 33 yards. Notre Dame 13, Vanderbilt 0. (6 plays, 49 yards, 1:10)
1:15 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 46 yards. Notre Dame 16, Vanderbilt 0. (10 plays, 51 yards, 3:55)
0:00 — Ball State field goal. Ryley Guay 21 yards. Notre Dame 16, Vanderbilt 3. (8 plays, 72 yards, 1:15)

Third Quarter
0:11 — Ball State touchdown. Ke’Shawn Vaughn 3-yard run. Guay PAT good. Notre Dame 16, Vanderbilt 10. (5 plays, 47 yards, 2:44)

Fourth Quarter
11:04 — Notre Dame touchdown. Nic Weishar 2-yard pass from Ian Book.  Book pass on 2-point conversion failed. Notre Dame 22, Vanderbilt 10. (11 plays, 75 yards, 4:07)
7:22 — Vanderbilt touchdown. Jared Pinkney 18-yard pass from Kyle Shurmur. Guay PAT good. Notre Dame 22, Vanderbilt 17. (9 plays, 75 yards, 3:42)

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.