Associated Press

No. 5 Notre Dame wins ugly, but ‘a win’s a win’

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Whatever could go wrong for No. 5 Notre Dame largely did Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh. A Panthers kickoff return for a touchdown? Check. An interception created primarily by a Pittsburgh defensive lineman hitting the quarterback as he threw? Check. Two trips to the red zone yielding only field goals? Check.

What went right for the Irish? They won, 19-14.

“We faced adversity today,” fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said. “There were a lot of things that didn’t go our way and the team responded. We came out of here with a win. It’s hard to win week to week in college football.

“Pitt has taken a lot of people down over the time I’ve been playing football at Notre Dame.”

Indeed, the Panthers (3-4) have taken down a top-five opponent in each of the last two seasons, and they looked ripe to do it again Saturday using a tried-and-true recipe. They controlled the ball — eating up nearly 10 minutes of first-quarter game clock in marching to their first touchdown — and playing an aggressive defense that stopped the Irish run game in its tracks. Notre Dame (7-0) finished with only 112 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) on 35 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per attempt.

“[Pittsburgh] played exactly the way they needed to play to keep this game in the manner that they did,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We still found a way — giving up a kickoff return, throwing two picks and not scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

“If you told me all those things are going to happen and we still found a way to win the football game, I’d be pretty excited.”

Part of Notre Dame’s reduced rushing attack came from hardly having the ball; the Irish had just 10 possessions if not counting the three snaps in victory formation to end the game.

All that meant Notre Dame needed its passing game to bail it out and remain undefeated, reaching 7-0 for the second time under Kelly. Junior quarterback Ian Book completed 26 of his 32 passes for 264 yard and two touchdowns, matched by two interceptions. Somehow, despite completing 81.25 percent of his passes for 8.25 yards per attempt, it felt like a pedestrian day for Book, which speaks to just how well he has played through four starts this season. His two touchdowns in the final 18 minutes — including one with fewer than six minutes remaining to take the lead for the first time of the afternoon — turned an average showing into one that was good enough.

“[Book’s] pocket awareness was not great in the first half,” Kelly said. “Had a nice conversation with him in the second half. He settled down nicely, but I think this is just maturation.”

Whatever it was, it led to a win, a win to keep the Irish without blemish entering their idle week, a win the Panthers had deprived national title contenders of in recent years.

“A win’s a win and these football games happen,” Book said. “There’s no point in freaking out when you have some time on the clock, and we’ve been there before, so we didn’t want to make it a bigger deal than it was.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
It stood out not only for its game-changing realities, giving Notre Dame its first lead with only 5:43 remaining, but also for how much it differed from Book’s long offerings just a week ago. At Virginia Tech, he routinely, even only, overthrew receivers on deep routes. With the game on the line Saturday, Book connected with senior receiver Miles Boykin for a 35-yard score, the pass itself traveling 40 yards through the air and hitting Boykin in stride hardly a step before the goal line.

“[Boykin is] really rangy, so just got to put it up there and give him a chance,” Book said. “That’s something I was focusing on all week was giving our guys a chance, not overthrowing.”

Book also showed off his arm earlier with a deep crossing route to senior Chris Finke, hitting Finke a couple feet before the sideline and out of reach of a trailing defender for a 26-yard gain, the sole chunk play of Finke’s six catches for 62 yards.

“The Virginia Tech game showed [Book] in a bad light,” said Boykin, who finished with four catches for 84 yards. “Usually he doesn’t overthrow us like that. In practice he’s always on the money. I think it was one bad game, one bad instance, and today he was back on it.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Quarterback hurries are an inexact stat, one measured subjectively and inconsistently. What cannot be gauged inaccurately is the effect junior defensive end Julian Okwara had on the final minutes Saturday afternoon. Pittsburgh ran 10 plays while trailing, all at the end of the fourth quarter. Okwara provided pressure on Panthers sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett on half of them, forcing rushed throws, eliminating possible reads and nearly single-handedly ending Pittsburgh’s hopes for dramatics.

“He gets quarterbacks uncomfortable,” Kelly said. “They move their feet. They change their launch point, their eyes drop. Things just make them uncomfortable.”

Unofficially, Okwara was credited with six tackles and seven quarterback hurries, though his one tackle for loss may have been most impressive. With Pittsburgh driving in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame blitzed both inside linebackers up the middle, dropping Okwara into coverage. Pickett connected with running back Darrin Hall in the flat, only to have Okwara immediately tackle him for a loss of three yards on a third down.

“His ability to drop [into] coverage and make a play like that on a running back, he’s a pretty special player,” Kelly said. “He does a lot of things that sometimes don’t show up on the stat sheet, per se, but he’s one dynamic player.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The Irish first found the end zone with a 16-yard Book pass to junior receiver Chase Claypool late in the third quarter. That cut the Panthers lead to 14-12, and Kelly opted to go for two, rolling Book out to target Boykin in the flat. The sharp angle of the throw left little margin for error and a resulting incompletion.

The failed conversion attempt kept the pressure on Notre Dame. It also raised some eyebrows, seemingly early to be chasing those points. Why do it? The math said to.

“The analytics provided us the information that said to go for two in that situation,” Kelly said.

Similar logic led the Irish to consider going for a fourth-and-2 near midfield early in the fourth quarter. After a Pittsburgh timeout, Kelly opted to punt, and fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome sent it for a touchback. Kelly expects to hear from his numbers department about the inefficiency of his own second-quessing.

“I’ll get a note from our analytics people on Monday telling me that I was incorrect and I should have gone for it,” he said. “The sense I had in the game, however, is that they weren’t going to go 80 yards on us, so I was not going to give our defense a short field to operate. So I went against our mathematicians in that situation.”

The Panthers faced a similar decision on the ensuing drive, also opting to punt, also sending it for a touchback. The net 30-yard field position change did not stop Notre Dame from scoring to take the lead, indicating Pittsburgh would have been better served going for the fourth-and-5.

STAT OF THE GAME
Excluding sacks but including scrambles, the Irish ran 35 times Saturday, more than last week at No. 24 Virginia Tech (30) but otherwise a season-low. Kelly thought that run-pass balance should have been even more titled toward Book’s 32 pass attempts (plus three sacks).

Once Notre Dame started taking advantage of the openings in the secondary provided by the Panthers planting a seventh defender in the box, it started moving the ball a bit.

“Started hitting us on some slants,” Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Hitting [Claypool] on the seam in there. We struggled to stop that route in the last couple drives.”

How much more should the Irish have thrown the ball? Quite a bit, per Kelly.

“Maybe we were a little stubborn,” he said. “We should have thrown the ball a little bit more. This should have been maybe 45 to 50 times throwing the football. It was that stark in terms of the pressure that they were putting on the running game today.

“We want to try to stay balanced. We want to try to stay true to who we are. Today, they weren’t going to allow that to happen.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“I don’t know a team that’s won the national championship that hasn’t had to come from behind at some point in the season or play in a close game. That happened to be today for us.” — Notre Dame fifth-year linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
1:26 — Pittsburgh touchdown. Qadree Ollison 9-yard run. Alex Kessman PAT good. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 0. (17 plays, 88 yards, 9:43)

Second Quarter
4:34 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 22 yards. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 3. (10 plays, 44 yards, 3:34)
0:05 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 41 yards. Pittsburgh 7, Notre Dame 6. (12 plays, 42 yards, 3:27)

Third Quarter
14:46 — Pittsburgh touchdown. Maurice Ffrench 99-yard kickoff return. Kessman PAT good. Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 6.
2:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 16-yard pass from Ian Book. 2-pt conversion failed. Pittsburgh 14, Notre Dame 12. (8 plays, 71 yards, 2:51)

Fourth Quarter
5:43 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 35-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 19, Pittsburgh 14. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:43)

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.