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Notre Dame looks for St. Brown to step up AND a No. 2 option, not OR

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Notre Dame needs both its primary receiver to stand out even more and a second downfield playmaker to emerge. While the two may go hand-in-hand, Irish coach Brian Kelly is approaching them as separate tasks.

Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has earned the designation as junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s top target, and deservedly so. That emphasis comes when your sophomore year breakout campaign includes 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdown. St. Brown played up to that billing in the season opener, catching four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. A week later, though, he managed only two catches for 16 yards.

“[Georgia was] really physical with him,” Kelly said Sunday. “When they were in any kind of two-deep coverage, they had somebody over the top, made it difficult to get him the ball.”

Per Kelly on Tuesday, Notre Dame “targeted” St. Brown 20 times in the 20-19 defeat to the Bulldogs on Saturday. By the working definition, that does not mean Wimbush threw toward St. Brown nearly two dozen times. That was nine times. Rather, Kelly’s targeting means 20 plays were called with St. Brown in mind.

“It’s something that we have to be aware of because you’ve got to get the ball to your playmakers,” Kelly said. “… We have to continue to target him.”

Without a second receiver of note just yet, targeting St. Brown could continue to be a fruitless task. Disagreeing with that dichotomy, Kelly does not intend to let the lack of development on one hand alter the effectiveness of the other. He cited past prominent Irish receivers, including Will Fuller, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd.

Looking at the most-recent of those, Fuller, simply due to pertinence, Kelly’s point holds merit. In 2015, Fuller caught 62 passes for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. The next most effective Notre Dame receiver was Chris Brown with 48 catches for 597 yards and four touchdowns. A year earlier, Fuller tallied 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, compared to Corey Robinson’s 40 catches, 539 yards and five touchdowns. Fuller had no trouble dominating despite secondaries focusing nearly all their energies on him.

The same could, perhaps should, be said for St. Brown.

“We know how to move him around and get the football,” Kelly said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is we need balance. … We have to continue to target him, but we’ve got to find better balance within the structure of the offense.”

Junior receiver Chris Finke will start at the slot position this week following his strong fourth-quarter performance in Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Not that finding a reliable complementary target would be a bad thing. To date, fifth-year receiver Cam Smith has been the closest thing to it, catching seven passes for 54 yards. In the last attempts to regain the lead against Georgia, junior Chris Finke emerged as a possibility, finishing Saturday with three catches for 36 yards. Finke will start this weekend at Boston College. (more…)

Gaining third yard more important for Notre Dame’s Wimbush than the seventh

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Brandon Wimbush used his legs to keep one drive alive, spinning forward with an acute awareness of what was needed for a first down. The very next drive, the junior quarterback broke outside rather than charge forward, falling a yard short on a third-and-three. One minute he knew what to do. Just a few minutes later his instincts misled him.

“Just trust what you see and go with it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday of what he has emphasized with Wimbush since the 20-19 defeat to Georgia. “Don’t be indecisive. Be decisive. Trust it and go with it.”

Such are the perils of placing a season on the shoulders of a first-year starter, especially when he faces a top-tier defense in only his second career start.

“That’s probably the biggest learning curve for all young quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “At times they become a little bit — they think a little bit too much instead of just trusting it and going with it. Just trust your teaching.”

When Saturday’s fourth quarter began, Notre Dame faced a second-and-10 at its own 31-yard line. A short completion later and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called for an old-fashioned quarterback draw. Wimbush dropped back as his receivers began routes, though they didn’t even bother to look back toward the ball as they crossed the field, indicating in hindsight the play’s intended design. With a hole on the line open, Wimbush started up field, spinning through the tackle of Bulldogs freshman safety Richard LeCounte to gain eight yards, two more than were needed.

That was only the second successful third down for Notre Dame to that point. Wimbush would connect with junior receiver Chris Finke to convert another one that same drive, before the next Wimbush dash fell short on third-and-nine in the red zone. Nonetheless, the earlier draw led to the drive continuing up to a field goal from junior kicker Justin Yoon to give the Irish a 19-17 lead.

That was the good.

Georgia went three-and-out on its following possession. Facing a third-and-three, Wimbush kept the ball on a zone-read. As he started up field, rather than drive right into Bulldogs junior linebacker Natrez Patrick nearly exactly three yards past the line of scrimmage, Wimbush attempted to cut outside. A diving tackle to Wimbush’s right thigh by Georgia junior safety J.R. Reed felled the quarterback a yard short of the needed gain.

That was the bad.

“He needs to stick his foot in the ground and go north and south instead of bouncing it out,” Kelly said. “Just the little nuances of the game. … But those are experiences he’s never had before. He’s learning those things, then he’ll take the next step.”

As much as the Bulldogs did limit Wimbush, giving up only 28 yards on 13 carries, including the two aforementioned eight-yarders, the greater concern for Kelly and Long is the situational moments. Gaining that third yard would hardly have effected Wimbush’s stat line and may evade much notice later on, but it could have elongated a Notre Dame drive well into the last third of the fourth quarter. Additionally, it may have pushed Georgia further back into its own end of the field before beginning what would be a game-winning drive.

“They’re really details of small, minute things you may not see,” Kelly said. “But when he went through them this week, he’ll be better for it next week.”

Wimbush’s progression will also aid the offensive line in its protection. His decision to keep the ball on that third-and-three was the right one, but as often as not, he may keep it instead of handing it to junior running back Josh Adams or sophomore Tony Jones even when they have a better lane. Those misreads alter the offensive line’s positioning.

“I know we immediately go to the offensive line and say we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that,” Kelly said Sunday. “Some of that might be true, but your assessment is correct in that they’re all working together post-snap off of decisions the quarterback is making.”

When the Irish next face another top-tier defense (sometime in mid-to-late October), Wimbush will have a chance to show he learned from those seemingly-small, yet quite crucial mistakes.

“He learned a lot from that game. I think it will be a springboard for him.”

Kelly on Notre Dame’s sideline ‘fight’, Chip Long’s play calling and shuffling WRs

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Perhaps it was during Saturday’s one-possession loss when Irish coach Brian Kelly most saw the differences between the 2017 Notre Dame team and its immediate predecessor, even though the close defeat was awfully reminiscent of a year ago. If that was the case, it took some distance from the moment for Kelly to realize, or at least properly voice, that insight.

“I just loved our sideline,” Kelly said Tuesday while discussing the fourth quarter against Georgia. “Being able to walk up and down the sideline and sense their fight, how they felt about the game. Just a different feeling for me, and one where at the time it’s hard to articulate those thoughts and feelings right after a game.”

Immediately after the 20-19 defeat, Kelly was asked a similar question about the close loss evoking memories from 2016’s dismal 4-8 finish. At the time, Kelly offered only a curt response.

He acknowledged the dynamics of that situation during his weekly press conference previewing the upcoming opponent.

“I probably could have handled it a little bit better, but in the heat of the moment, my thoughts were on the game itself,” Kelly said. “I stay in the present. In the present, I really like the way our team is put together.

“I don’t think much about last year. I think about how our team played on Saturday. So my vision and my eyes are on how that team showed grit and toughness, didn’t back off. We needed to make another play, no question. But our defense gave us three shots with 8:30 and less to go in the game to win it. We needed to make a play.”

That play could have come from slightly different play calling, but Kelly insisted he was pleased with the game called by offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Just like a better block from fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, better self-discipline by sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara or better play diagnosing from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush all could have made the difference, a play call or two different from Long might have changed the outcome, as well. Then again, just like McGlinchey’s blocks for most of the evening, Okwara’s overall pass pressure and Wimbush’s touchdown run, Long’s play calls were part of what had Notre Dame so close in the first place.

“We had plenty of opportunities to score enough points to win the game through play calling,” Kelly said. “We would have liked a couple plays back here and there. We could have called a couple of better plays here and there, maybe executed better here and there.

“We look at it as an ‘all’ thing. In other words, we needed to coach a little bit better, make a couple more plays. We walk away as a group, meaning players and coaches alike, that maybe one more good play call, maybe one more good play, and we can win the game.”

Speaking of Okwara’s personal foul, Kelly put the onus on Okwara for giving the referee the opportunity to make the close call.

“We just felt like it’s too close to put an official in that position,” he said. “… It’s just a learning experience for Julian. He felt terrible. We told him, one play does not make this game.”

Finke starts; Canteen injured
The or designation between junior receiver Chris Finke and senior Freddy Canteen has been removed, raising Finke to clear-cut starter status. That is at least in part due to a shoulder injury suffered by Canteen. The Michigan transfer lost more than a season of playing time at his former school due to a shoulder injury, so exceeding caution very well may be exercised in this instance. Kelly described Canteen as “doubtful” this week, hence sophomore Chase Claypool slots in as Finke’s backup with junior Miles Boykin taking Claypool’s position on the two-deep behind junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

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Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC rolls, UNC stumbles, more results & spreads

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Even with two Irish opponents beating up on other teams scheduled to face Notre Dame, the 11 foes went 8-3, including Georgia’s victory over the Irish. Miami (FL) did not see action due to Hurricane Irma, and that will be the case for this week as well.

Temple (1-1): Owls head coach Geoff Collins got his first career win Saturday, barely. Perhaps it should have raised eyebrows when Temple was favored by less than a touchdown against FCS-level Villanova. Vegas knows. Vegas always knows. The Owls won 16-13, but let’s not spend any more time on that encounter.

Before jumping into a tough American Athletic stretch — Temple will travel to South Florida before hosting Houston — the Owls can try to gain some genuine momentum against Massachusetts on Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU. Favored by 14.5 with a combined over/under point total of 51.5, project a final score of 33-18.

Georgia (2-0): Does anyone know how the Bulldogs fared this past weekend?

Their level of competition will drop a bit, now facing FCS-level Samford at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network. From there, though, it will be directly into SEC play.

Boston College (1-1): The Eagles did themselves in against Wake Forest, falling at home 34-10. That lopsided score can be directly attributed to four turnovers, including three interceptions from freshman quarterback Anthony Brown. Senior Darius Wade stepped in to finish the game after the third pick. The Demon Deacons outgained Boston College by only four yards, 309-305.

Now the Eagles host Notre Dame at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Nearly two-touchdown underdogs with an over/under of 48.5, rounding indicates a theoretical final score of 31-18.

Michigan State (2-0): The Spartans had no trouble with Western Michigan, dispatching the Broncos 28-14 before entering a bye week. To open the season, Western Michigan managed 357 yards and 31 points at USC. Compare that to the 195 and 14 Michigan State allowed.

Miami (OH) (1-1): The RedHawks returned to winning ways with an easy 31-10 rout of FCS-level Austin Peay, though the score is misleading when considering Miami outgained the Governors by only 13 yards (283 to 270) and each team committed three turnovers. To counteract that, the RedHawks went 8-for-17 on third downs and 3-for-4 on fourth.

If they continue to keep drives alive like that, they should easily cover the 4.5-point spread against Cincinnati at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN3 this weekend. The over/under of 45.5 implies a final score of 25-21, as odd as 25 points may be in football. A touchdown and six field goals would certainly be an underwhelming delivery.

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson struck that pose once before last year, and North Carolina helped his campaign again this year by giving up 525 total yards to the defending Heisman Trophy-winner. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

North Carolina (0-2): This could be a long season for the Tar Heels. They have now given up 82 points through two games, with Louisville accounting for 47 of those in the Cardinals 47-35 victory. To think, entering the season the wholesale turnover in offensive personnel was the biggest concern.

North Carolina can ease the misery on the road this weekend against Old Dominion. Favored by more than a touchdown in the 3:30 p.m. ET kick, the Tar Heels should win by more than a 32-25 margin.

USC (2-0): Oh, hey Trojans offense. Nice of you to make sure the world was aware of your abilities. USC blew past Stanford 42-24, despite being favored by less than a touchdown. The Trojans racked up 623 yards of total offense, 316 through the air and 307 on the ground, and converted 10 of 12 third downs. Both Stephen Carr and Ronald Jones exceeded 100 yards rushing. It just may seem USC could live up to the preseason hype.

The Trojans now host another highly-touted preseason team, though one that has not fared as well to date. Favored by 17 over Texas with an over/under of 67, USC could mimic last week’s final score. With that in mind, and presuming the Cardinal are indeed better than the Longhorns, perhaps that margin should be larger.

North Carolina State (1-1): The Wolfpack pulled away in the second half to beat Marshall 3-20. Not much else to that, and now North Carolina State gets to enjoy FCS-level Furman on the ACC Network at 12:20 p.m. ET.

Wake Forest (2-0): The 24-point victory over Boston College was a 26-point swing compared to the spread. In other words, perhaps the Deacons are better than anticipated despite the loss of their defensive coordinator and his right hand man (Mike Elko and Clark Lea, respectively).

Wake Forest can solidify that trend as it hosts Utah State this weekend. The Aggies were blown out by Wisconsin, but they are typically a formidable opponent. A 13.5-point spread favors the Deacons with an over/under of 48.5, implying a 31-18 conclusion.

Miami (FL) (1-0): The Hurricanes trip to Arkansas State was cancelled last week due to foreseeable difficulties returning to Miami after/during Hurricane Irma. I will admit, I was at first critical of this decision. The game was in Arkansas, not Florida, after all. But when considering the players may want to be in the mix with their nearby families during this threat, the decision makes sense.

It also made sense to postpone this coming weekend’s tilt with Florida State, since Miami’s campus will be closed most of the week.

From a speculating perspective, the Hurricanes win total over/under was nine entering the season. Missing the Arkansas State game greatly endangers the chances of hitting that over, though most would understand the schedule was abbreviated.

Navy (2-0): The Midshipmen got a conference victory, but a 23-21 final over Tulane was far closer than would ever have been expected. Junior quarterback Zach Abey still both ran and passed for more than 100 yards, though. Navy’s defense was the star against the Green Wave, holding Tulane to 71 passing yards.

Now, the Midshipmen get to enjoy a bye week.

Stanford junior running back Bryce Love was the lone bright spot in the Cardinal’s defeat to USC. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Stanford (1-1): The Cardinal fell to USC 42-24. That was undoubtedly a disappointment, but it may be viewed as more a reflection on the Trojans than anything else. As it pertains to Stanford, junior running back Bryce Love was the bright spot, taking 17 carries for 160 yards and a touchdown.

Now the Cardinal travels to Mountain West heavyweight San Diego State as a 9.5-point favorite. The 10:30 p.m. ET kickoff on CBS Sports Network projects to end along the lines of 27-18. Don’t be too surprised if the Aztecs prove a stiffer challenge than that, partly because they do get to enjoy home-cooking.

Questions for the Week: A No. 2 WR, a RT decision & more

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A loss brings questions, even — perhaps especially — a one-point loss to a top-15 opponent. Most of those questions, though, will be answered on the field. Some, however, might be resolved before then.

Will a second receiver emerge behind Irish junior Equanimeous St. Brown?
More exactly, will junior Chris Finke move up the depth chart? Even that query, though, leaves room to evade the point, considering Finke is already listed as an “or” option along with senior Freddy Canteen in the slot. That two-letter loophole means Finke has been considered a starter, or co-starter, all season.

Finke finished Saturday with three catches for 36 yards while Canteen did not pull in any. Only one Notre Dame receiver had more receptions than the former walk-on, graduate student Cam Smith with four gaining 44 yards.

“Cam has made a couple of plays,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “We know what Cam can do, but we need other guys to step up and show some consistency.”

Finke could be that other guy. Removing a two-letter qualifier from the depth chart this week would indicate his role is going to expand, arguably deservedly so. At that point, perhaps opposing defenses will stop focusing so much coverage on St. Brown, part of the cause of interception such as the one pictured above.

Along with this conversation, sophomore Kevin Stepherson warrants mention. It may be doubtful he returns to the fold this week, but if/whenever he does, he will immediately be part of the search for St. Brown’s complement.

Will a decision be declared at right tackle?
The Notre Dame coaching staff, mainly Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, would likely prefer to see sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey rotate snaps for another week or two before settling on one or the other to lead the way the rest of the season. By no means did getting beat by Georgia’s talented defensive line reveal either Kraemer or Hainsey as the clear-cut better right tackle.

Nonetheless, it would not be too shocking to see one of the two named the right tackle moving forward. With some criticism already directed toward the offensive line — some of it justly and some of it reactionary — this could be a ripe moment to make that decision. Consider it something of a parallel to a Friday afternoon news dump.

On a pure-football level, giving the nod to Hainsey could fit in line with developing better pass protection, something Kelly discussed after reviewing Saturday’s film.

“What we have to do better is we have to sustain box and be more consistent in pass protection,” he said. “What we learned is we’ve got to obviously go back and be better coaching the fundamentals and we have to be better at our techniques.” (more…)