ADAMS MAKES A MARK
In 1980, Notre Dame had a 6-foot-1, 198-pound senior running back by the name of Jim Stone. He played on a team that allowed just 213.4 yards total offense, finished eighth against the run and the pass, and allowed 10.1 points per game.
The 9-2-1 Irish did it with defense and a running game.
Offensively, with freshman quarterback Blair Kiel, the Irish averaged just 83.9 yards passing per game. Stone rushed for 908 yards on 192 carries (4.7) with seven rushing touchdowns. One of those rushing touchdowns was a 73-yarder.
Phil Carter, a 5-foot-10, 193-pound sophomore, carried 186 times for 822 yards (4.4) and six touchdowns.
Stone, after biding his time behind Notre Dame single-season rushing leader Vagas Ferguson and the younger Carter, was a long, long-striding big back 30 years ago. You thought he was taller than 6-foot-1. But he ran hard, fought to keep his pad level down, and combined power with some zip to lead the Irish in rushing.
Current freshman running back Josh Adams is reminiscent of Stone. Adams is listed at 6-foot-1 5/8, 212 pounds, but he looks taller than that. He’s a long, long-striding bigger back with outstanding pad level (at least in the Pittsburgh game), a forward lean, a falling-forward mentality, leg drive and, on at least one occasion against the Panthers, the vision to cut it back against the grain and make a big play out of nothing.
Adams didn’t just fill in for an injured C.J. Prosise. He carried 20 times for 147 yards, plus a five-yard shovel pass for a touchdown.
Adams had runs of 25, 24, 23, 12, nine and two eights.
The Irish may have found a back that they can rely upon as a complement to Prosise, particularly with Prosise banged up and apparently questionable (although we’ll know more by Tuesday afternoon) for this weekend’s home finale against Wake Forest.
Blitz pickups and consistently finding the mesh point with the quarterback remain concerns. But when it comes to pure running ability – and perhaps an answer to some of Notre Dame’s short-yardage woes – Adams provides an interesting alternative. We saw it earlier in the season when a one-sided victory over UMass afforded the opportunity for Adams to carry 13 times for 133 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown burst.
Then over the course of the next four games, Adams carried twice against Clemson, eight times versus Navy, once against USC and none against Temple.
Forced into action against Pittsburgh when Prosise went down on the second-to-last play of the first quarter, Adams produced. He ran decisively and with authority. He saw and hit holes quickly. If pad level was an issue earlier this year, it wasn’t against the Panthers.
He powered through tackles by refusing to stop driving his legs. Whereas Prosise can be patient to the point of tentative, Adams has the muscle memory of a running back, so when there’s a doubt, he powers forward.
Even when Prosise hits it with authority, he has a tendency to turn his body and try to spin out of a tackle, which prevents him from getting some of those tough yards after contact.
Adams’ 12-yarder on the second play of the final scoring drive said volumes about his progress. Make no mistake, he had a highway to run through due largely to center Nick Martin’s block. But Adams came through the point of attack with great pad level and a forward lean with those long, powerful strides. By the end of his run, he was falling forward. It took just a handful of strides to make that 12-yard run, which was a Jim Stone trait.
If he has to be on the field for 20 carries as a true freshman, the other shortcomings in his game will show themselves. He’ll have to make a key blitz pickup and he can’t be putting the ball on the ground, which he’s done a couple times this year in limited activity. With Prosise’s injury, he’ll likely get the lion’s share of the carries against Wake Forest. But looking ahead, he’d form a nice one-two punch at running back if the coaching staff gains the confidence in him to approach it that way.
It would be interesting to line up Prosise at his old Z position and work Adams out of the running back spot, or vice versa. That personnel grouping alone would open up another branch of the offense that the defense would have to prepare for. Just another thing to consider.
In a perfect world, Kelly probably would like to keep Prosise on the sideline this weekend, although that may not be as easy as some would think against a Demon Deacon unit that ranks 31st in total defense, 24th in pass defense, 45th in scoring defense and 57th in rushing defense. Only 19 teams in the country have had a better red-zone touchdown percentage than Wake Forest, and their third-down defense ranks 12th.
Clearly, Prosise has been battling pain throughout the season with 148 carries in nine games after his five carries against Pittsburgh. He came into the game averaging 17.8 totes through the first eight.
Adams appears well-equipped to carry the bulk of the load against Wake Forest – along with DeShone Kizer – while the coaching staff will have to pick and choose its spots for Williams. In other words, when Williams is in the game, hand him the ball because his blitz pickup – as evidenced by the free shot linebacker Matt Galambos had on Brandon Wimbush’s strip-sack – remains a guessing game at this point.
Let’s see if Adams can carry the load this weekend in what likely will be his first career start. He would be the 19th player to start on offense for Notre Dame this season.
DEFENDING WILL FULLER
Everyone wonders why Pittsburgh didn’t have constant safety help over the top to defend Will Fuller. It’s a legitimate question.
“Pitt is playing with fire in my opinion, leaving (cornerback Avonte) Maddox on an island versus Fuller one-on-one,” said sideline reporter Todd McShay. “They’re going to have to bring safety help. If they don’t, my guess is Fuller is going to have a big afternoon.”
McShay was right about Fuller’s big day. He had one-on-one coverage most of the afternoon, and by the 7:53 mark of the third quarter – two-and-a-half quarters – Fuller had six catches for 140 yards, including 47-, 46- and 14-yard touchdown grabs.
If it were as easy as making sure a safety was in position to help a cornerback every time Fuller ran a route, everyone would do it and that would solve the Will Fuller issue. If it were that easy, Baylor’s Corey Coleman wouldn’t have 20 touchdowns on 58 receptions and a 20.3-yard average. If it were that easy, TCU’s Josh Doctson wouldn’t have a nation-leading 1,315 yards receiving and 12 scores.
There’s a reason why 34 of the 128 FBS teams (26.5 percent) average at least five touchdowns per game, including nine that average six touchdowns per game. In today’s college game, the passing game is way ahead of pass defenses, and “rolling a safety over the top” is not a cure-all.
It’s part of the design of the Notre Dame passing game to prevent defenses from providing safety in every single instance. It’s hard to have a safety in position to make a play over the top when Josh Adams is clipping off 25-, 24-, and 23-yard runs. It’s tough when C.J. Prosise is averaging better than seven yards per carry and Notre Dame is using play-action fakes to keep linebackers and safeties on the look out for explosive runs between the tackles.
An opposing defense can make the other receivers beat them, but in the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game, it generally would have been a matter of pitch and catch with uncovered receivers had Pittsburgh used safety help over the top from their original pre-snap alignment.
Notre Dame continues to come up with different ways to get Fuller the football. On his first touchdown – the 47-yarder on the third play of the game – Fuller lined up to the right with a slot receiver (Amir Carlisle) to his left. Carlisle peeled off to the right, prompting attention from the cornerback as Fuller ran an up-and-out route toward the front pylon.
Maddox was forced to defend Carlisle, and safety Terrish Webb couldn’t get out of his backpedal with any authority, which allowed Fuller to zip right past him. (By the way, this play doesn’t happen without a Prosise blitz pickup.)
“He’s running about a 4.3 right at your throat,” said Chris Spielman of Fuller. “You can’t be stationary with your feet or you have no shot covering, especially when the corner is playing up close to the line of scrimmage.”
Fuller actually could have done more damage. He failed to come down with a perfectly-placed throw by Kizer to the corner of the end zone. Midway through the second quarter, Kizer actually overthrew Fuller on a deep ball with one-on-one coverage again by Maddox. It’s no small feat overthrowing the speedy Fuller.
Fuller’s second touchdown was a poor decision by Webb, who gave more respect to play-action and Carlisle in the slot, despite the fact linebacker Nicholas Grigsby had re-routed Carlisle. At that point, a free safety has to have an awareness of imminent danger, and that danger resulted in a 46-yard touchdown.
Of Fuller’s 12 touchdowns on the season, seven have been for 30 yards or more.
At one point, Spielman pointed out that Maddox had to take an inside technique in defending Fuller if he wasn’t going to get safety help. He’s right. That was the proper adjustment. But you know what Fuller would have done? He would have adjusted to the coverage and veered toward the goal-line pylon. He simply would have scored the touchdown at a different part of the end zone.
There are no easy solutions against great offenses and great receivers with an explosive running game and one of the best offensive lines in the country. That’s college football in 2015.
THE SAGA OF JOE SCHMIDT
The point is not whether Joe Schmidt’s physical shortcomings are showing. They are. The point is not whether there are players more physically gifted than Schmidt. There are.
It all comes down to a simple decision: Is Notre Dame’s defense better off with Joe Schmidt in the lineup? The defensive coordinator says yes. The head coach backs the notion. Notre Dame’s playoff push will sink or swim with Schmidt’s physical limitations and 15-2 record as a starter. (The two losses came on the road against Florida State in 2014 and Clemson in 2015.)
Clearly, Schmidt is getting plowed by blocks much too often for the guy playing the Mike linebacker position. The Mike is normally the physical sledgehammer of the linebacker corps. He’s having difficulty finding run fits. His eye discipline is not as sharp as it was earlier in the season, and certainly a far cry from last year. The instincts that allowed him to compensate for his physical shortcomings are not looking instinctual.
One play in which Schmidt’s instincts were out of kilter was on a second-half play in which he followed tight end J.P. Holtz across the field as quarterback Nate Peterman rolled to his left. Schmidt had to respect the pass, particularly since he was trailing Holtz. But Holtz went to the sideline and beyond, and Schmidt basically followed him out of bounds while Peterman took off on a 20-yard run.
Schmidt looks panicked trying to keep up with the pace of the game and where he needs to be to solidify the defense. He’s scrambling so hard to get to the football that when he does arrive, he’s not in control to put on the breaks, gather himself, and make a squared-up tackle. When he blitzes, he’ll alter the release point of the quarterback, but he rarely gets home.
All that being said, there is no way the coaching staff will make the decision to take him out of the lineup in the four or five games that remain in his collegiate career. Right or wrong, and (I believe it’s right because the big picture is greater than the small picture), Notre Dame will sink or swim for the rest of 2015 with Schmidt in the lineup.
Replacing him guarantees nothing, neither better, more consistent play from that position nor an improved defense. In Brian VanGorder’s mind, Schmidt’s value supersedes his physical shortcomings, and nothing is going to change that.
DEFENSIVE LINE PROGRESSES
While Schmidt’s game has waned and the secondary continues to be a hit-and-miss proposition, the Irish are getting their best play of the season up front, led by Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell, who remain solid anchors with the ability to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Rounding out the defensive front are senior end Romeo Okwara – playing the best and most consistent football of his career – and Daniel Cage, who’s had a tackle for loss in two of the last three games and three of the last six while helping the three veterans set the point of attack.
And while Andrew Trumbetti is still seeking his first sack of the season after several near misses, he’s beginning to provide some pass rush as the coaching staff turns to him a bit more down the stretch.
Okwara came into this season with three career sacks. Few would have projected him as the leader in sacks in 2015 since it appeared he’d share time with Trumbetti. But Okwara has gotten about 95 percent of the snaps.
With his two sacks against Pittsburgh, Okwara leads the way with six, which is twice as many as the No. 2 man – Day. His 9.5 tackles for loss are second to Day’s 11.5.
It was Okwara who blew up Pittsburgh’s attempt at a double pass with Day disrupting the play by penetrating into freshman running back Qadree Ollison. Okwara’s fourth-quarter sack came when he and Trumbetti aligned together on the left side with Okwara inside. Okwara simply overpowered center Artie Rowell right back into the lap of Nate Peterman.
Late in the game Okwara chased a pass up the sideline, ripping the ball loose from wide receiver Dontez Ford. That showed Okwara’s effort as well as physical conditioning so late in the contest.
While Notre Dame’s pass rush without the aid of a blitz remains suspect – Notre Dame has just 17 sacks in nine games – the Irish have increased their pressure on the quarterback as the season has progressed. It’s not ferocious by any means, but the quarterback hurries have been on the rise with eight against USC and another eight against Pittsburgh.
In the last two games, Notre Dame has held Temple’s P.J. Walker and Pittsburgh’s Nate Peterman to a combined 25-of-61, which is a phenomenal 40.9 percent. Credit has to go to the secondary as well with interceptions in six straight games. (Note: Defensive backs have made all seven of Notre Dame’s interceptions.) But Notre Dame’s defensive line is creating some havoc for the opposition on the back end.
MATTHIAS FARLEY AND LEADERSHIP
Before Joe Schmidt was Notre Dame’s defensive whipping boy, Matthias Farley held the title. He’s the guy who played through shoulder agony throughout the 2013 season and not only wasn’t given credit for his bravery and leadership, but was shunned by a huge section of the Notre Dame fandom.
There were those who said not only did they not want him back for his fifth year in 2015, but he might as well hit the highway in 2014. It was a foolhardy notion.
Farley is one of the great leaders on the 2015 Notre Dame team. Representing Notre Dame football means the world to Farley. He’s intelligent and a willing warrior when things get tough physically. He has played every role that’s been asked of him, from receiver to safety to nickel back to in-the-box safety to special teams and so on.
Healthy in 2014, Farley was one of the most improved players on the team. His physical shortcomings led to him being removed from the nickel role this pre-season for a true freshman (Shaun Crawford). Then they gave the job to Devin Butler, or at least inserted Butler into the lineup ahead of Farley. Now they’re looking at Torii Hunter, Jr. in that role, not sophomore Nick Watkins or freshman Nick Coleman.
Farley even led the team in tackles in the first half against Pittsburgh and intercepted a pass, only to be replaced by Elijah Shumate in the second half (after Shumate had served his first-half targeting suspension).
But Farley continued to perform against the Panthers, turning in one of his most impactful efforts of the season as Notre Dame stymied Pittsburgh’s return game. He botched and then recovered Pittsburgh’s second onside kick to end all Panther hopes.
You have to be smart with Farley. He is a match-up liability in certain instances, such as USC when the athleticism on the field can be a bit overwhelming.
But much like Schmidt, when you add it all up, more good than bad happens with him on the field, and that’s important for a defense that can implode at any minute. His leadership as the Irish close the season on the road in Boston and Palo Alto will be critical to Notre Dame’s post-season fate.
Veteran cornerback KeiVarae Russell had a team-leading six solo tackles against Pittsburgh, although most were a result of passes thrown to the man or area Russell was defending. He’s not showing the quickness and explosiveness of a player who thinks of himself as a 4.4 guy. He’s playing more like a 4.55 guy, which is part of the reason opposing offenses are always on the verge of an explosive play.
“KeiVarae Russell is the guy that I would go after,” McShay offered. “I know he’s a big name, people know about him and he’s had some big interceptions. (But) I think he’s the more vulnerable of the two corners for Notre Dame.”
Neither Russell nor Cole Luke is playing his best football. That came last year for Luke and late in the 2013 season for Russell, although his picks versus USC and Temple were hugely significant and clutch. Russell is not exploding out of his breaks and not showing the sharpness of his routes to the football that the Irish will need when they reach games 12, 13 and possibly 14.
Granted, it was a tremendous fake by Nate Peterman in the first quarter, but Russell totally lost the edge on Peterman’s 26-yard run. Russell was so faked out by the play-action as Peterman deftly put the ball on his right hip that Russell was still chasing the receiver down the field as Peterman crossed the line of scrimmage and scampered for 26.
Spielman made a big deal out of Russell’s reaction when Max Redfield busted a coverage late in the game, thus springing Tyler Boyd for a 51-yard touchdown reception. Even if Russell continues to run with Boyd, Russell probably doesn’t catch up.
But Russell stopped to “blame” Redfield for the bust, perhaps thinking in the back of his mind that if he continued to chase, it would look like he was the man who blew the coverage.
Russell needs to tuck his press clippings away and play like he’s fighting to make a name for himself, not defending the name he’s given to himself.
His dream of jumping to the NFL is not nearly as clear-cut as he thought it would be following the 2015 season. Maybe Russell would be better off just putting college football behind him, focusing totally on football, and moving on to the next level.
But based upon his performance and how one would anticipate his testing at the combine in February, it’s unlikely now that Russell will be a high draft choice, although teams snag cornerbacks in the draft right and left. When it comes to the development of his game and his NFL projection, Russell needs another year of collegiate play.
Torii Hunter, Jr. showed great hands and technique on the slant for a touchdown in the second quarter. Rather than trying to cradle it, he turned his left (top) hand over to receive Kizer’s on-target dart.
Since the Clemson game – a span of five games – Hunter has caught 15 passes (three per game) for 188 yards (12.5-yard average) and two touchdowns.
Both Hunter and Chris Brown have emerged as complements to Will Fuller. And give Amir Carlisle some credit, too, for his four-catch, 30-yard performance against Pittsburgh with his impressive pile-carrying 13-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
Between Hunter and Carlisle, the Irish have gotten 31 catches for 351 yards and two scores from the Z receiver position in the last five games.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
You want to know why Jaylon Smith is a projected first-round draft choice? Watch his blitz on 3rd-and-23 on Pittsburgh’s opening drive. That’s a bullet. Watch Qadree Ollison try to pick him up. If there’s a phrase to indicate more than a whiff, it applied to Ollison trying to get a body part in contact with Smith…Chase Hounshell’s inexperience as a blocker showed on a first-quarter sack by defensive end Ejuan Price. The challenge for any blocker against a hard-charging athlete is to engage in contact and come out of that contact with the balance to re-engage. Hounshell lost contact, lunged and Price was on top of DeShone Kizer…Tyler Newsome’s punting operation time was much quicker with a greater sense of urgency than the previous week against Temple. The weapon was back against the Panthers…Excellent punt coverage by Matthias Farley, Nick Baratti and Josh Adams on a first-quarter punt. It’s coverage perfection when you have a 55-yard punt with a one-yard loss on the return…Since his first start against Texas, left guard Quenton Nelson has shown the ability to scrape and get to the second level. He is going to be a superstar college guard…
Sometimes scoring-by-quarter stats can be deceiving. They’re not for Pittsburgh. They allowed 17 points to North Carolina, 14 to Iowa and 14 to Georgia Tech in the second quarter. Notre Dame tacked on another 14 points to raise Pittsburgh’s total allowed in nine second quarters to 100 points, which is 11 points per second quarter. Maybe Pittsburgh should have a “party in the second quarter.”…Andrew Trumbetti once again flashed his pass-rush ability, as well as his inability to finish. It’s been a tough year for the sophomore defensive end, but at least he’s flashing down the stretch of the season…Great job by Nick Baratti in the first half on two punt coverage efforts. Nice bounce-back performance after his missed opportunity on the goal line against Temple…Max Redfield, for all his athletic skill, does not know how to play the ball in the air. He has proven to be a great athlete with limited football instincts…What a great overrule of a near-catch by Dontez Ford on what would have been a 42-yard reception midway through the second quarter. Just about every angle was inconclusive to overrule, except one, and eventually, the officials found that angle and made the right call, although Ford’s effort was spectacular…I’ve always felt that Chris Spielman looks at replays and sees what he wants to see, and he solidified that line of thinking in the Pittsburgh game when he said he could see that the ball was skidding on the turf from an angle in which you couldn’t see the football. He is the best at seeing what he wants to see, not what he actually sees…
All right, Irish fans, give it up for Mark May, who said at halftime that Notre Dame is worthy of its No. 5 ranking. Added Mack Brown noting Notre Dame’s rash of injuries: “Brian Kelly has done as good a job coaching as anyone in America the last two years. Give them credit for great recruiting, moving guys around, and coaching down the stretch. I think they’re in the mix.”…No doubt that the Irish got the benefit of the doubt in the secondary using their hands to redirect routes. Pat Narduzzi’s arguing – although excessive over the course of 60 minutes – had some legitimacy…Notre Dame’s third-quarter touchdown against the Panthers was the first allowed by Pittsburgh since the season-opener against Youngstown State…Did you see former Irish defensive end and current Pittsburgh Steeler Stephon Tuitt on the Irish sideline?...Interesting comment by Spielman on Kizer: “He has the demeanor to handle a strong personality like Coach Kelly’s.” He’s right and that’s key…On Kizer’s keeper touchdown, the Irish quarterback is such a big kid that even Quenton Nelson had difficulty catching and lifting him in celebration…Speaking of Nelson, he was favoring his right shoulder late in the game. Who isn’t a bit banged up at this stage of the season?...
Loved the “Wake Up the Spirit, Wake Up the Echoes” commercial. Notre Dame does a superb job producing commercials that show the essence of Notre Dame…For the record, Pat Narduzzi’s decision to go for two when it was 42-30 was the wrong decision, just as Brian Kelly’s was against Clemson. By failing to convert the two-pointer with 1:44 remaining, Pittsburgh now needed two touchdowns instead of a touchdown, two-point conversion, and field goal. That part of the chart needs to be reevaluated…Thought the new rule this year was that you can’t pull guys off the pile? Joe Schmidt – although he eventually helped the guy off the ground -- clearly pulled a Pittsburgh player off the pile on an onside kick…Notre Dame didn’t execute its plan to run off the final seven seconds against Temple when Kizer was stripped, got a fortunate bounce back into his hands, and then threw it away. They should be pretty good at it now because they’ve had a chance to run it two weeks in a row. Much better this time through against Pittsburgh.