A BUILDING BLOCK?
Saturday’s 39-10 handling of Nevada marks the fourth-lowest point total surrendered of the 28-game Brian VanGorder era and the coordinator’s defensive stand couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
A win vs. the Wolf Pack seemed a fait accompli, but the manner in which the Irish defense handled its business – 300 net yards allowed on 56 snaps and a combined 3 of 13 on third- and fourth-down conversions – temporarily stymied the fan base’s still-pending marching orders for the third-year defensive boss.
“That fourth-down stop was definitely a confidence builder for our defense,” said Kelly. “I think that really gave us some momentum going into the next couple of drives.”
The red zone stop to which Kelly refers occurred at the conclusion of Nevada’s opening drive – not coincidentally, it’s best of the day: 10 plays, 62 yards down to the Irish 17-yard line. Fifteen of the previous 19 such opponent marches into Notre Dame’s red zone resulted in touchdowns. (15 of 19?!)
“My thought was there’s no way in hell they’re getting this first down,” said junior Daniel Cage of the 4th-down stop he authored.
Order, at least temporarily restored, with something to build on hereafter.
ST. BROWN, SANDERS, STEPHERSON SHINE
For the second straight week, sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown ranked as quarterback DeShone Kizer’s favorite target, catching 6 of the 10 thrown his way for a game-high 85 yards.
And for the second straight week, St. Brown’s classmate C.J. Sanders continued his rise to playmaking prominence, making the most of his seven aggregate touches, including:
-- a 25-yard punt return
-- a short touchdown reception following a Kizer scramble
-- an 8-yard gain to move the chains
-- a 25-yard catch-and-run to set up another Irish score
-- a 7-yard reception to move the chains on 4th-and-2
-- a 37-yard kick return to begin a touchdown drive
“I’m able to get a spark for the offense,” said Sanders of his two long returns. “But the most important thing is chemistry that me, (Kizer), Q (St. Brown), and Torii (Hunter) have is important. We’re really close friends and I think the chemistry we have to build upon will be special.”
Sanders received the game ball for his efforts.
One More Weapon? Sanders and St. Brown have paced the Irish passing attack in consecutive weeks, but Saturday, a new name surfaced, one that received extended playing time due to the absence of concussed senior captain Torii Hunter, Jr.
“We felt like it was important to get Corey (Holmes) and (Kevin) Stepherson and those kids some touches early, get them some confidence,” said Kelly of a receiving corps bereft of starting experience. “If they got some confidence, they'd make some plays for us. Obviously getting Stepherson the touchdown catch was a big catch for him, getting some confidence there.”
Targeted five times in his second career college contest, Stepherson drew a pass interference penalty (+15 yards for the offense), caught a third-down touchdown pass from Kizer and later secured a 22-yard offering from backup Malik Zaire plus a 9-yarder to move the chains on 4th-and-8.
“It’s never good to have our leader out,” said Sanders of Hunter’s absence. “But it got our younger guys experience. I feel like we needed this game to get the jitters out, to show everyone we can make plays as a unit overall, no matter who’s in.”
A DAY OF FIRSTS
Freshmen in the classroom, freshmen on the field…and the university’s biggest graduate student all posted notable firsts Saturday afternoon in South Bend.
- First starts: Sanders (WR), Te’von Coney (Will LB), and Devin Studstill (S)
- First receptions: Stepherson, Corey Holmes, Chris Fink, and Chase Claypool, with Claypool adding his first career rush as well.
- First game appearances for redshirt-freshmen guards Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland
- First game appearances for true freshmen: Jamir Jones (Sam LB) Khalid Kareem (DE), Daelin Hayes (DE), Julian Okwara (DE), Javon McKinley (WR), and Donte Vaughn (CB).
And of course, the first career interception for fifth-year senior nose tackle, Jarron Jones.
“He came up to me, now he wants to play tight end. I knew it was going to happen immediately,” said Kelly after first theatrically rolling his eyes at the mention of Jones’ big play in the second quarter.
(Kelly added in jest: “I didn't even listen to your question, once I heard 'Jarron Jones' and 'hands'.”)
“He really has pretty good instincts,” Kelly offered on a more serious note. “When we go against Jarron Jones (in practice), we do not run any screens. He sniffs out screens really well. He knows when a lineman is setting for a screen, is setting for a pass. He's got really good instincts. You do not want to mess with that guy with a middle screen. He just has a knack and a sense, like he does on blocking extra points.”
Jones has blocked five field goals and an extra point in his Irish career. And according to the six-foot-five inch, 315-pounder, this was not his first foray with the football.
“I think somebody got me from behind?” said Jones when asked if he thought he might score after plucking the ball from the air at the Irish 9-yard line before returning it inside the 5. “I played tight end in high school my junior and senior year. I think I have great hands – these hands aren’t big for nothing. I know I can grab a ball.
“High school I got caught from behind the same way,” Jones offered of his apparent recurring cameo role as an interceptor of footballs. “Then I think it was the running back that hawked me down.”