Notre Dame

Notre Dame leaving plenty to chance after ugly win over BC


Notre Dame leaving plenty to chance after ugly win over BC

BOSTON — And now, we wait as the cacophony of questions surrounding Notre Dame and the College Football Playoff grows louder.

Will the College Football Playoff selection committee penalize Notre Dame for a sloppy, ugly, insert-your-disappointing-adjective-here 19-16 win over Boston College Saturday night at Fenway Park? Or will the group of 12 men and women who are the only people who directly control Notre Dame’s playoff hopes keep the Irish — a team that’s been “solidly” ranked No. 4 the last two weeks — in position to participate in the four-team tournament on New Year’s Eve?

“The committee is out of my hands, it's out of our players' hands,” coach Brian Kelly said. “All we want to do is put ourselves in a position to be considered. We feel like we need to win another game to still be considered.”

What similarly was out of Notre Dame’s player’s hands on Saturday, in uncharacteristic fashion, was the football.

Notre Dame committed five turnovers in its win over Boston College at the home of the Boston Red Sox, three of which came within the Eagles’ 10-yard line, and the other two came inside the 40. This was as bad as Notre Dame has looked offensively all year: Quarterback DeShone Kizer was picked off twice in or near the end zone and once on an “obviously idiotic,” as he put it, throw off his back foot. Running backs C.J. Prosise — who later left the game due to a high ankle sprain and didn’t return — and Josh Adams both had balls stripped by Boston College’s aggressive defense.

[MORE: Notre Dame's defensive line depth key to their potential playoff run]

“(Kizer) was humbled a little bit today, and I think it's going to be really good for him,” Kelly said. “He's going to take this and really build on it.”

But a playoff race is an inopportune time for lessons to be learned, even with Kizer only a redshirt freshman. Notre Dame was bailed out by its defense, which stuffed Boston College’s generally-feeble offense for most of the evening until quarterback Jeff Smith ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Against a more competent offense, Notre Dame might’ve paid a much harsher price for those five turnovers than the possibility of being dinged in the College Football Playoff rankings that’ll be unveiled Tuesday night.

Notre Dame, though, never was in any serious danger of losing to Boston College. Maybe had Matthias Farley not cleanly fielded a ground ball onside kick behind second base with 54 seconds left things would’ve been more stressful, but even despite the rash of turnovers it never felt like Boston College was in any legitimate position to upset the Irish.

“I felt like we had good control,” wide receiver Chris Brown, who caught six passes for a career high 104 yards with a touchdown, said. “It was just unfortunate events where we were turning the ball over. If you look at us, we really moved the ball up and down the field. Credit Boston College, they played a really good game on defense, they had a really good game plan. I feel like we controlled the ball and moved it. We just gotta eliminate the turnovers.”

The oddity of Saturday’s game — and perhaps frustrating part for Notre Dame — is how well the Irish offense played in a turnover-free vacuum. Notre Dame averaged 6.2 yards per play against a defense that allowed the lowest average (3.9) among FBS teams entering the weekend. Kizer threw for 320 yards, while Brown and Amir Carlisle combined for 13 catches, 201 yards and two scores. This was a much better offensive game than Notre Dame played against Wake Forest — again, minus the turnovers. And it’s not like those, especially given where they happened on the field, can be ignored.

“It's like leaving runners in scoring position,” Kelly said from the same interview room where Red Sox manager John Farrell undoubtedly discussed those issues in a non-metaphorical sense plenty over the last two seasons. “You can't go down there and not come away with points. … We were moving the ball fairly effectively most of the night, and just to keep stubbing our toe down there becomes concerning, obviously, and it made it a lot closer in my perspective.”

So the problem for Notre Dame is the optics of committing more turnovers (five) than its margin of victory (three) against a team that’s now 3-8 aren’t good. No. 7 Oklahoma staved off a furious rally from No. 18 TCU to win by one in Norman, while No. 10 Baylor barreled into Stillwater and dealt No. 6 Oklahoma State its first loss of the season.

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Of course, Notre Dame-Boston College wasn’t Florida-needing-overtime-to-beat-FAU bad. And it doesn’t really matter if the Big Ten — either Iowa or Michigan State — moves past Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff rankings this week. What matters is how the selection committee stacks up Notre Dame with the Big 12 champion, which will be Oklahoma (if it beats Oklahoma State) or Baylor (if Oklahoma loses and it beats TCU and Texas).

“I say this over and over, but it is so hard to win football games,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “… We’re not thinking about style points, we’re not thinking about anybody else besides us and the game at hand and how we can try to execute better.”

Notre Dame will have to play better than it did against Wake Forest and Boston College to emerge from Palo Alto with an 11-1 record. It can spin this win over Boston College as a learning experience, or detail how difficult it is to win in November. Players and coaches will have to hope the selection committee views things the same way.

“This week, the mission was to beat BC,” Kizer said. “We accomplished that mission. We’ll evaluate where we are when it comes to our big goals later down the road.” 

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.