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Notre Dame’s defense shuts down hyped Syracuse offense in rout

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BRONX, N.Y. — The lights were bright, the stage big, even the weather cooperated, and No. 3 Notre Dame was ready for Yankee Stadium and all its trappings. No. 12 Syracuse may have been fine with all those extras, as well, but the Orange was not ready for the Irish defense. Notre Dame (11-0) had no trouble dismissing Syracuse (8-3) in a 36-3 rout, much to the delight of the vast majority of the 48,104 in attendance.

The Orange never found an offensive rhythm of any kind. Through three quarters, Syracuse had managed all of 122 total yards. As the Irish eased up in the final frame and some second-stringers took some snaps, the Orange boosted its game total to 234 yards, still a far cry from its previous average of 482.2 yards per game.

It took 48 minutes for Syracuse to come within even 40 yards of the end zone, a drive that ended with an inexplicable field goal attempt appropriately clanking off the left upright. The next Orange drive nearly ran out the clock before a field goal slipped through the uprights, depriving the Irish of their first shutout since the 31-0 victory against Michigan in 2014. Three Notre Dame interceptions — two by junior safety Alohi Gilman and one from junior safety Jalen Elliott — amplified the Orange struggles.

“As a coach, you go into the game thinking if we do these things right, we’re going to play really well,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that we ever pinned a shutout on a performance against a team that’s putting up 44 points, but I felt really good in the preparation and the plan, and I felt if we were disciplined, which we were, we would do well.”

Notre Dame needed that dominant defensive performance while its offense sputtered at unfortunate moments. In the end, it put up 36 points, essentially keeping pace with the 38.8 averaged in junior quarterback Ian Book’s six other starts this season, but it could have and possibly should have been much more. Of seven drives into the red zone, only three yielded touchdowns. Three more produced field goals and Book — looking no worse for the wear from the ribs injury that sidelined him last weekend — threw an interception in the end zone in the second quarter.

“There were a lot of stupid penalties and errors that we made today that slowed drives down for us,” Irish fifth-year center Sam Mustipher said. “When we beat ourselves, the defense doesn’t have to do much, I think there were a few cases of that today.”

Those failures to end drives kept the rout from becoming a comedy even before the wayward field goal attempt, yet Book still finished with 292 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-37 passing, best connecting with junior receiver Chase Claypool, who made six catches for 98 yards and a score.

“Ian played pretty good,” Kelly said. “I think the week off definitely showed a little bit of rust, but he got out of it clean. Feels good after the game, and he’ll be able to build off it.”

The Irish running attack never found consistency, its final numbers of 177 yards on 32 attempts (sacks and kneel downs adjusted) skewed by six rushes for 90 yards on Notre Dame’s final drive when it was actually trying to drain the clock. The overall average of 5.5 yards per rush worked at the rate of 3.3 yards per carry for the previous 11 drives. Senior Dexter Williams led the way, finishing with 74 yards on 13 carries (30 on nine rushes before the coda), adding a nine-yard touchdown catch to start the day’s scoring.

But that inefficiency hardly mattered when the Irish defense stopped Syracuse’s offense in its tracks, well below its average of 44.4 points per game.

“Notre Dame is better than what people think they are,” Orange head coach Dino Babers said. “That’s a really, really good football team and coach Kelly, my hat goes off to coach Kelly and Clark Lea, the defensive coordinator. That was a fabulous defense he put up against us and they played extremely well.”

PLAY(ER) OF THE GAME
There was a time, not all that long ago, when it was a running joke to point out how long it had been since a Notre Dame safety intercepted a pass. That first changed when junior Jalen Elliott picked off Ball State twice in the season’s second week. The gag then nearly reached irrelevance when junior Alohi Gilman thought he had an interception against Stanford, only for it to be wiped off the board by a pass interference penalty against fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill, a correct call if also one that did not inherently aid Gilman’s snag.

“I was thinking, does he have an interception this year? I was actually thinking that this week,” Tranquill said. “I was like, if he doesn’t get one this year, that’s on me.”

Gilman got his at Yankee Stadium, twice.

The first came with Tranquill again involved in the coverage, a route down the sideline with Tranquill underneath the receiver. Gilman’s aerial play prevented what very well may have been a touchdown on Syracuse sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito’s third attempt — in for injured starter, senior Eric Dungey. Gilman picked off DeVito again two drives later, hitting Orange junior receiver Sean Riley as he caught the pass and then corralling the bobbled ball. Gilman’s 54-yard return set up an Irish touchdown.

Gilman also made eight tackles, an all-around performance from a piece of the Notre Dame defense absent last season due to NCAA insistence. With Gilman, the back line has improved immensely, making for a complete defense, one capable of holding a high-caliber offense scoreless until the white flag of a field goal attempt was waved, twice.

“We could run another play and we could even score a touchdown, and then maybe even do an onside kick,” Babers said of attempting field goals while trailing 29-0 and 36-0 late in the fourth quarter. “And maybe score another touchdown, but we’re not going to win.

“The other thing is that when you’re running those plays, you got a chance to get people hurt. We can get somebody hurt on the play, Notre Dame can get somebody hurt on the play. The score did not matter right there.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Those Irish red-zone possessions yielding only field goals kept Syracuse close enough for concern for a half. The halftime 20-0 lead may have been three-possessions wide, but with the Orange getting the ball to start the third quarter, a score would have kept the game interesting. A three-and-out later, Notre Dame responded with … another red-zone appearance yielding only a field goal, keeping the margin at three possessions.

Another Syracuse three-and-out, one marked by three consecutive negative plays with two tackles from Tranquill and a third-down sack by Irish junior end Julian Okwara, and Notre Dame responded with … a 10-yard touchdown pass from Book to Claypool.

Even though senior kicker Justin Yoon missed the subsequent point after, the 29-0 lead was clearly going to be enough against an offense yet to find any semblance of sustained success.

The backward three-and-out cost the Orange 13 yards and that bit of field position certainly made the touchdown drive easier, considering it covered only 51 yards and 15 of those came courtesy of a pass interference penalty. The Irish were not exactly moving the ball efficiently, so their defense set them up with a short field.

STAT OF THE GAME
If not for that closing field goal, this would have been the third shutout in Kelly’s nine years at Notre Dame. The most-recent came in that memorable temporary finale to the Michigan series, and the only other was a 38-0 victory against Wake Forest to reach 11-0 in 2012.

It would have been eerily fitting to reach 11-0 against a mid-tier ACC team in 2018 by the score of 36-0.

Sure, it would have come against a team largely relying on a backup quarterback, but DeVito has seen notable action this year, going 11-of-16 for 144 yards and a touchdown in a 30-7 win against Florida State and 11-of-19 for 181 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-37 win against North Carolina.

For that matter, Syracuse rushed for only 119 yards on 3.1 yards per attempt. It had averaged 216.1 yards per game on 4.69 yards per rush. This was hardly an inept offensive performance because of DeVito’s play. It was because of Irish Lea’s plan and his defense’s execution of it.

“They turned the game from chess to checkers and now guys have to make plays,” Babers said. “There was numerous passing combinations that we called and you looked out there and everybody was covered. If there’s coverage, there’s nowhere for the quarterback to throw the ball to.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Kelly was asked if he assumed his team would reach the College Football Playoffs if it wins next week at USC.

“I don’t know that if we win our last game that we’re going to the Playoffs,” Kelly said. “But that’s not in our control. So we don’t even worry about stuff that’s not in our control. What we can control is how we prepare. If we do a good job there and we win our game, then we would have won all of our games, and then we’ll let people decide who should go to the Playoffs.”

If there was any genuine concern, Kelly would have slipped in some politicking. His complete deferral of the concept indicates Kelly trusts Notre Dame will be in the Playoffs if it wins next weekend.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:15 — Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams 9-yard pass from Ian Book. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Syracuse 0. (6 plays, 55 yards, 2:11)
7:44 — Notre Dame field goal.Yoon 26 yards. Notre Dame 10, Syracuse 0. (4 plays, 6 yards, 1:11)
1:09 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 13, Syracuse 0. (9 plays, 83 yards, 3:56)

Second Quarter
4:52 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jafar Armstrong 9-yard run. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 20, Syracuse 0. (1 play, 9 yards, 0:07)

Third Quarter
9:30 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 23, Syracuse 0. (8 plays, 41 yards, 3:18)
3:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 10-yard pass from Book. Yoon PAT no good. Notre Dame 29, Syracuse 0. (9 plays, 51 yards, 3:52)

Fourth Quarter
4:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 36-yard rush .Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 0. (7 plays, 80 yards, 4:15)
0:10 — Syracuse field goal. Andre Szmyt 28 yards. Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 3. (11 plays, 59 yards, 3:48)

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.