Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s playoff run built on lethal combo of resiliency, big plays


Notre Dame’s playoff run built on lethal combo of resiliency, big plays

PHILADELPHIA — If two months from now Notre Dame plays in a College Football Playoff semifinal, it’ll be because of its mentally tough identity coupled with a knack for, to paraphrase Santana Moss, having big time players making big time plays.

On Saturday night, it was Will Fuller — a Philadelphia native — reeling in DeShone Kizer’s 17-yard pass that scythed through a well-played Temple cover 2 defense for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown in Notre Dame’s 24-20 win at Lincoln Financial Field. The touchdown came with just over two minutes to go — not quite the dramatics of the Kizer-to-Fuller 39-yard game-winner in Week 2 at Virginia, but yet another example of the kind of big play ability possessed by this Irish offense.

“We never lose confidence,” Fuller said. “We know we have explosive players and it could happen at any second.”

Notre Dame initially called for a running play to the boundary before Kizer checked out of that play and found Fuller. Temple coach Matt Rhule said his team had everything lined up to stop Kizer’s throw, but safety Will Hayes misjudged the ball — which Rhule said he could’ve picked off had he read the pass better.

“Will Fuller is one of the most dominant receivers in college football,” Rhule said, “and he had no big plays until the last one.”

Outside of Notre Dame’s first and penultimate drives, Temple’s defense stifled the Irish. Kizer threw a pair of interceptions in the red zone — one which coach Brian Kelly said was “completely unacceptable” in which he threw off his back foot into traffic, and the other which the sixth-year Irish coach pinned on Fuller for not attacking a throw that was deflected into Owls linebacker Tyler Matakevich’s hands — and saw another trip inside the 20 stall into a chip shot field goal in the third quarter.

[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]

Temple seemed to ride a groundswell of momentum in the second half, which saw the Owls tie the game when running back Jahad Thomas evaded linebacker James Onwualu and safety Nicky Baratti (the replacement for Elijah Shumate, who was ejected in the fourth quarter for targeting) for a one-yard touchdown on a fourth and goal pitch play. Later in the quarter, an eight-play, 42-yard Owls drive ended with Austin Jones connecting on a go-ahead 36-yard field goal with under five minutes remaining.

The fire was built, and all Temple had to do was light the match to set Notre Dame’s hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff ablaze. But Kizer and Fuller once again proved to be reliable extinguishers, with the redshirt freshman quarterback finding freshman tight end Alize Jones for a 45-yard gain to set up the game-winning toss to Fuller.

They’ve completed these fourth quarter comebacks before at Virginia and two weeks ago at home against USC. They nearly did it at Clemson, falling a two-point conversion short of sending that game to overtime in Death Valley’s brutally drenched, raucous conditions.

[MORE: Shumate tossed for targeting vs. Temple]

“It all comes with experience,” Kizer said. “When you go out there and you do it once or twice, that’s how it’s going to end up being. We know how to go about a fourth quarter comeback now, and we understand (what) we’re going to have to do if we’re down in that situation.

“We just can’t be in those situations.”

Kizer knows had he just taken a sack or thrown the ball away in the red zone, Notre Dame at least could’ve kicked two field goals — freshman Justin Yoon continues to look more reliable by the week — and netted six points that could’ve led to lower heart rates from Irish fans watching the nationally-televised game. Five trips to the red zone resulted in only 17 points, a total that’s a nod to a strong Temple defense but also the occasional mistakes that crop up within the Irish offense.

[MORE: Kelly explains sideline confrontation with assistant]

“I knew that those were probably going to put us in a position where it was going to be a dogfight in the second half,” Kelly said. “We missed those two opportunities, and if we just come up with three points each time, if the worst we do is kick the football, we probably feel a lot better about our situation. But you can’t go down there twice and come up with no points.”

But that Notre Dame was able to rebound from those red zone mistakes and produce another big play late in a game speaks to this team’s identity. The offense will make mistakes. The defense will make mistakes. The special team unit will make mistakes.

Every college football team is mistake-prone — that's the nature of a game played with 18-to-22-year-olds. But not every program has the combination of a team-wide resiliency and elite playmakers possessed by a Notre Dame team that enters November with the chance of making some noise in the College Football Playoff discussion.

“There’s no question about our individual playmakers on this team,” Kelly said. “Collectively, though, there’s a demeanor on this football team of they’re not going to give in. They just keep playing, they play hard for four quarters.”

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.