Notre Dame

Needing a life preserver, Notre Dame only sinks further in loss to N.C. State

Needing a life preserver, Notre Dame only sinks further in loss to N.C. State

RALEIGH, N.C. — Amid flash flood warnings, swaying light posts and deepening puddles, Notre Dame and North Carolina State went ahead and played a game in Hurricane Matthew’s wrath that barely could be described as football. 

But since this was indeed an official football game, Notre Dame’s 10-3 loss at Carter-Finley Stadium counts all the same. The Irish didn’t coach and deal with the conditions as well as N.C. State did, and because of it, they head back to South Bend 2-4 and in grave danger of failing to become eligible for a bowl for the first time since 2007. 

Make no mistake, this outcome was decided far less because of how the 22 players on the field at a given time played. The team that coached better and didn’t make the most catastrophic mistake was in the best position to win. On Saturday, that was N.C. State. 

“We’re looking for wins, not improvement on one side of the ball or the other,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Although, I was very pleased with our physical, toughness and tackling. I’m just extremely disappointed in the offensive execution and lack of ability to manage the snapping of the football, which was atrocious as well.”

Center Sam Mustipher drew Kelly’s ire after the game after two bad snaps led to half of Notre Dame’s fumble total. The first one gave N.C. State the ball on the Irish 22-yard line; Daelin Hayes forced a fumble that gave the ball back to the Irish on the next play. The second one came as Notre Dame was driving for the tie late in the fourth quarter, with Mustipher erroneously thinking quarterback DeShone Kizer was calling for the snap when the Irish quarterback was looking toward the sideline. 

That fumble effectively ended the game, but even if the ball had got to Kizer, Notre Dame still would’ve had to convert a fourth-and-eight try, then get in the end zone and hit the PAT to tie N.C. State. 

Where this game was lost was Notre Dame insisting on throwing the ball — 26 times, to be exact — and Pharoah McKever’s block of Tyler Newsome’s punt early in the fourth quarter, which was returned 16 yards by Dexter Wright for the game’s only touchdown.

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“Obviously the weather didn’t help Sam out today,” left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “Sam’s a great kid and he’s a great football player and he’s going to be fine. Obviously it’s a tough job and it’s something that we’re going to learn from and he’s going to grow from this and he’s going to be fine.”

Kelly said there were no last-minute discussions about postponing the game — Notre Dame during the week gave N.C. State and the ACC a window to play between noon E.T. Saturday and noon E.T. Sunday — even as Hurricane Matthew made landfall about 200 miles to the south of Raleigh. So Notre Dame was left to deal with the elements, which resulted in a horror show of bad in the final box score. 

Notre Dame averaged 1.8 yards per play, was 1/15 on third downs and failed to score both of the times it reached the red zone. Kizer completed nine of 26 passes for 54 yards with an interception, numbers more fitting for a triple option quarterback futilly trying to mount a comeback than a guy who could be the NFL’s No. 1 pick in 2017. And the two teams combined to fumble 10 times, losing two apiece. 

Notre Dame’s defense didn’t allow a touchdown for only the second time since the 2012 season (2014 vs. Michigan, 2015 vs. Texas), while the Irish offense didn’t get in the end zone for the first time since getting blown out by a Pete Carroll USC team in 2008. But this wasn’t some defensive epiphany of offensive malaise that’ll tell us anything about the rest of the season. 

Even with that in mind, though, Notre Dame won’t get to write this game off as a complete aberration at the end of the season. Whereas losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke all had their combination of coaching, offense, defense and special teams shortcomings, Notre Dame’s lost to N.C. State largely due to coaching that could’ve been more conservative given the elements (Dave Doeren & Co., it should be noted, made some curious play calls too, but largely stuck to the run in the second half and did well to deploy backup Jalan McClendon in a Wolfpack version of Texas’ 18-wheeler package with Tyrone Swoopes). 

And with the loss, Notre Dame is 2-4. It has to beat four of Stanford, Miami, Navy (which upset No. 6 Houston Saturday), Army, Virginia Tech and USC to get to six wins. The way things are going, it’s hard to see Notre Dame getting to that magic number.

“I feel terrible that we let them (our players) down,” Kelly said. “I feel like we let them down in the sense that they were prepared for another noon start, they had great energy, they played with great heart on defense. Just North Carolina State made the big play with the punt block.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.