Notre Dame

Notre Dame schedule watch: Rough opening week for Nevada, USC

Notre Dame schedule watch: Rough opening week for Nevada, USC

Notre Dame doesn't have any margin for error in its quest to reach the College Football Playoff after Sunday night's double-overtime loss at Texas. They'll have to run the table and look good doing it to make football's final four. 

So with that in mind, here’s how Notre Dame’s opponents in their next 11 games fared in the first week of the season:

Nevada: Won, 30-27, in overtime vs. Cal Poly

Brian Polian’s side didn’t do much to show it’ll be competitive against Notre Dame this weekend with this narrow win over an FCS side that went 4-7 last year. Cal Poly averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored three rushing touchdowns, and Nevada only won on James Butler’s walk-off five-yard touchdown run in overtime. While the Wolf Pack went 7-6 last year, they ranked 97th in F/+ and this narrow win over Cal Poly was just as uninspiring. 

Michigan State: Won, 28-13, vs. Furman

The Spartans didn’t have to do much to cruise by their FCS opponent, keeping things pretty vanilla to not show Notre Dame much on film. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor completed 13 of 18 passes for 190 yards with three touchdowns and an interception, and running back LJ Scott carried 20 times for 105 yards. Michigan State has a bye week this weekend to get ready to face Notre Dame Sept. 17. 

Duke: Won, 49-6, vs. North Carolina Central

Another win for an Irish opponent over an FCS team. Promising for Duke was quarterback Daniel Jones — who will be the team’s starter this year after Thomas Sirk was ruled out for the season due to a ruptured Achilles — completed 10 of 15 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. We’ll know more about what kind of team David Cutcliffe is fielding this year after Duke faces Wake Forest and travels to Northwestern between now and its Sept. 24 game at Notre Dame Stadium. 

Syracuse: Won, 33-7, vs. Colgate

The Dino Babers era got off to a good start, with Eric Dungey completing 34 of 40 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns. Expect the Orange offense to look like it did against FCS-level Colgate, with a lot of passing but not much running (Syracuse averaged 3.3 yards per carry against Colgate). Up next are three relatively tough tests for Syracuse: A Friday night home game against Louisville, a home game against USF and a tricky road trip to UConn. 

N.C. State: Won, 48-14, vs. William & Mary

Ryan Finley completed 17 of 21 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns, and Matthew Dayes rushed 23 times for 138 yards as the Wolfpack cruised past another FCS opponent. A sneaky road date at East Carolina awaits Dave Doeren & Co. this coming weekend. 

Stanford: Won, 26-13, vs. Kansas State

While the Cardinal never quite pulled away, they always kept K-State at arm’s length thanks to Christian McCaffrey (22 carries, 126 yards, two touchdowns). Ryan Burns got the start at quarterback and looked solid, completing 14 of 18 passes for 156 yards with one touchdown. Stanford gets a week off before starting a tough five-game stretch: USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State, at Notre Dame. 

Miami: Won, 70-3, vs. Florida A&M

Brad Kaaya completed 12 of 18 passes and threw for four touchdowns, and Miami had three players (Mark Walton, Gus Edwards, Joseph Yearby) rush for over 100 yards against their overmatched FCS opponent. After what should be an easy home game against FAU, Miami strangely will travel to Appalachian State — which nearly beat No. 9 Tennessee on Thursday. 

Navy: Won, 52-16, vs. Fordham

Tago Smith suffered what could be a serious injury — coach Ken Niumatalolo was in tears talking about it after the game — but Navy pulled a quarterback out of the stands (seriously) and cruised to an easy win over its FCS opponent. Losing Smith — who looked solid against Notre Dame last year in relief of a banged-up Keenan Reynolds — could be a big blow to the MIds, who face Bob Diaco and UConn this weekend. 

Army: Won, 28-13, at Temple

This might’ve been the most impressive win a Notre Dame opponent had this weekend given the circumstances: Temple won 10 games last year, while Army won nine total games from 2013-2015. Andy Davidson carried 22 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns to power the Black Knights’ triple option, and Army’s defense suffocated Temple quarterback Phillip Walker, who completed 12 of 26 passes and threw three interceptions. Army faces Rice before trips to UTEP and Buffalo that, after this win over Temple, maybe look winnable. 

Virginia Tech: Won, 36-13, vs. Liberty

Liberty led this game until Virginia Tech ripped off back-to-back scoring drives to end the first half, and the Hokies went on to cruise in Justin Fuente’s first game in Blacksburg. Wide receiver Isaiah Ford is a name to know — he caught 11 passes for 117 yards with a touchdown, building off what was an excellent sophomore season (75 catches, 1,164 yards, 11 touchdowns). Next up for Virginia Tech is a trip to Bristol Motor Speedway to face a Tennessee side that barely squeaked by Appalachian State on Thursday. 

USC: Lost, 52-6, to Alabama

USC led 3-0 after the first quarter and it looked like Alabama was having some issues at quarterback, with one-time Notre Dame commit Blake Barnett struggling and freshman Jalen Hurts fumbling on his first college snap. But Alabama, the AP preseason No. 1, showed up and dominated Clay Helton’s Trojans: The Crimson Tide gained 465 yards and held USC to 194. JuJu Smith-Schuster was double-teamed all day and only caught one pass for nine yards, while Ronald Jones (seven carries, 46 yards) and Justin Davis (seven carries, two yards) were ineffective. This was about as concerning a start to the season as USC could’ve had, and after a layup against Utah State next weekend, road trips to Stanford and Utah loom. 

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.