HARRELL AND THE RUNNING GAME
With a couple of top one-third rushing defenses coming up – Virginia Tech No. 40 and USC No. 37 – the sledding is going to be a lot more treacherous the last two weeks of the season than it was against the Army front, which boasts a quality set of linebackers (Andrew King, Jeremy Timpf and Kenneth Brinson), but an undersized front that was drubbed by Notre Dame’s offensive line.
Joining that front against the Black Knights was fifth-year senior Mark Harrell, who replaced a banged up Colin McGovern in the starting lineup and moved ahead of Hunter Bivin.
Notre Dame’s 261 yards rushing and 6.1 yards per carry marked season-highs for the Irish, who through 10 weeks rank 80th nationally in rushing at 160.6 yards per game with a 4.40-yard average (69th) and 15 rushing touchdowns (tied for 81st).
The space the unit created helped sophomore Josh Adams look, at times, like he did during his freshman season when he was healthy and had room to show off the gallop that allowed him to set a Notre Dame freshman rushing record with 835 yards and six touchdowns.
Adams ran hard and through some tackles, but exited the 44-6 victory over Army a little banged up again. He favored his left knee at one point in the Army game. It’s been a constant battle for the long-striding Adams (there’s the hamstring, too), who finds himself 182 yards and three touchdowns shy of last year’s rookie totals.
Adams has had his most solid stretch since rushing for 102 yards on 20 yards against Syracuse and 106 yards on 10 carries against Nevada. In the last three games against Miami (12-for-94), Navy (12-for-73) and Army (15-for-70), he’s averaged just shy of 80 yards per game and 6.9 yards per attempt.
Since Tarean Folston rushed for 88 yards on 18 carries in the season-opener against Texas, his high-water mark was just 49 yards (Stanford) until his team-leading 13 carries for 84 yards (6.5) and a touchdown against the Black Knights.
DeShone Kizer created running room against Army both on the read-option and off scrambles, particularly the latter, with 72 yards on seven carries (10.3). That’s Kizer’s third best output of the season behind Stanford (11-for-83) and Texas (13-for-77). It’s the third straight game Kizer did not score a rushing touchdown after tallying at least one in six of the first seven games.
Harrell meshed pretty well with right tackle Alex Bars, center Sam Mustipher, left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey. The unit set the tone on Notre Dame’s first rushing play when Adams bulled his way for 14 yards as McGlinchey and Nelson opened the hole and tight end Durham Smythe set the edge.
McGovern came on for Harrell in the second series of the game, but after his first snap, he was gimping around on that chronic right ankle sprain, and Harrell was back in the action a few plays later.
Harrell is a great story. He came back for a fifth year not expecting a realistic shot at starting. He simply wanted to help the cause and use every day as an opportunity to better the team with his top effort. If that resulted in playing time, so be it.
Harrell literally has played every position along the offensive line in limited action for the Irish. He played a little tall and stiff early on against Army, but seemed to settle in as the snaps accumulated. His pad level improved and he became more active/reactive. On one Adams run, he actually blocked two Army defenders, bouncing from one to the next to spring the Irish sophomore for a 10-yard gain.
It would be natural for a first-time starting offensive lineman to allow his upper body to get out ahead of his lower body. That’s what happens when offensive linemen end up on the ground. But Harrell stayed balanced and kept his pads underneath his center of gravity. He doesn’t give the Irish the foot-speed with pulling movement like a healthy McGovern does. But by keeping his lower body under his pads, he usually arrived at the defender prepared to strike a concentrated blow.
He missed an open-field block on a short pass to Folston that Timpf diagnosed. But for the most part, Harrell did his job. McGlinchey and Nelson had a physical advantage most of the game. When Mustipher and Bars had a chance to impose their physical advantages, Notre Dame’s ground game churned out the yards.
By unofficial count, Notre Dame had 17 rushes of at least eight yards. That’s a thrashing.
However, this offensive line will need much better chemistry the next two weeks. Virginia Tech is 6th in the country in tackles for loss with 82 (8.2 per game). USC held Washington to 17 yards rushing on 27 attempts.
THE EVOLUTION OF KEVIN STEPHERSON
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
There is only one Will Fuller, and this is not to say that the Irish have another budding superstar on their hands in freshman Kevin Stepherson. Over a two-year span, Fuller was the most explosive big-play receiver in Irish history.
But when you think about it, Stepherson is well ahead of Fuller’s pace as a freshman. Fuller caught six passes for 160 yards and one touchdown (which he nearly dropped vs. Air Force) as a true freshman in 2013.
Stepherson has had a much better grasp of the big picture with the help of his early arrival in the spring. Fuller was pretty much just a take-the-top-off receiver as a freshman whereas Stepherson is showing the ability to hurt defenses underneath, intermediate and long.
His 37-yard score in the first quarter showed what kind of day it was going to be for the Army cornerbacks – freshmen Elijah Riley and Jaylon McClinton – who had there moments in the second half, but had their hands full helping out against the running game as well. Notre Dame’s wideouts caught 13 passes for 141 yards against the Black Knights, which aren’t big numbers.
Through 10 games, Stepherson has 21 catches (tied for third on the team), 410 yards (3rd), a 19.5-yard average (1st), and four touchdowns (tied for 2nd).
Stepherson finished with a team-leading five catches for 75 yards. It’s the first time he’s led the Irish in both receptions and yards receiving in a game. He had a team-high 78 yards in the Miami game.
Stepherson had the deep-ball drop against Army, and on the overthrew by DeShone Kizer against Navy, he didn’t stretch out. There may be situations where Stepherson would be better served to prioritize the catch over the catch-and-score. That will be another level to his development.
He showed his ability on the second level on a beautiful comeback throw with a decisive jab of the foot. By sharply coming back to the football, he created space for himself. In the open field with a chance to use some of his wiggle, he has the elusiveness to make a cornerback miss, as he did on that 18-yarder.
The more you watch Stepherson, the more you realize what a graceful, gazelle-like athlete he is when going up for the football with impeccable timing and grace. Like Fuller, he is pretty spindly as a freshman. As he develops, his confidence grows and he realizes what his future holds – it was a maturation process Fuller went through himself – the more he’ll realize how important it is to physically fortify himself against the pounding a receiver takes.
Physically, Stepherson will make the greatest strides in his life between his freshman and sophomore years.
PUTTING ARMY AWAY
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com
The Irish certainly had opportunities to make the score even more decisive than it was. After scoring touchdowns on their first four drives, the Irish had five more possessions. One ended in a field goal and one ended in an interception with two touchdowns and a final use of 8:51 on the clock to end the game.
After having had a chance to observe the game upon returning from San Antonio, perhaps some of the report card grades were a bit over the top. Notre Dame’s always goes through periods in which it loses its poise, and that was the case against Army as well.
The two illegal formations – presumably on Nic Weishar and Chase Claypool, based upon Brian Kelly’s reaction – are difficult to justify in the 10th game of the season.
A quarterback with as much playing experience as DeShone Kizer should never, under any circumstances (unless time runs out), throw an interception in the end zone on 1st-and-goal at the three. Kizer also took a sack in the second quarter on a 1st-and-goal at the five.
Kelly told Kathryn Tappen that the Irish had some trouble with Army’s line calls mimicking the Notre Dame cadence, which is a hidden part of the game to which we’re seldom made privy. But the Irish remain too sloppy in the red zone to defeat both Virginia Tech and USC. The Irish scored three touchdowns on five red-zone appearances against Army.
Having said that, it should be noted that Army has a vastly improved defense. Yes, they’ve posted those numbers against some of the most dreadful offenses in the country. But if you’re not aware of how good Army linebackers Andrew King, Jeremy Timpf and Kenneth Brinson are, you’re not giving the Black Knights enough credit.
After building a huge lead early and settling in, Notre Dame may have lost its edge. The Black Knights kept playing. Notre Dame’s lack of cohesion on the offensive line, which was exposed by the Army pass rush, led to some sputtering down the stretch. Kizer had to run for his life several times throughout the game, and he made plays with his arm and his feet.
It’s been a revolving door at right guard the last few weeks, but the other four starting offensive line positions have been stable. They’ll need to be better to finish 6-6.
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
If Kevin Stepherson is the freshman of the year on offense, the rookie of the year on defense clearly is cornerback Julian Love.
Love’s ability to slide to a safety spot in tandem with Drue Tranquill on a week’s notice says volumes about this kid. A week earlier, he was a terror against Navy’s triple-option, fighting off blocks at his shins and making tackles. Against Army, the duties were altogether different. But Brian Kelly was confident Love could make the transition. His confidence was rewarded.
“He’s a smart football player,” Kelly said. “When you talk about freshmen playing, you worry about the mental more than the physical. But he has a great sense of the game, whether it’s option or the traditional offense that we see. His maturity, the way he handles himself, is well beyond being an 18-, 19-year-old.
“He was chasing down the B-backs (slotbacks). He was man-to-man on the slot and he had to fill. When the slotback blocked, he had to play him man-to-man in terms of coverage responsibility. Then he had to come from the offside and track down the option.
“That puts a lot on an athlete, but we felt he had the skillset and the smarts. He really picked things up well. He’s got eye discipline. Other than one play where he wasn’t in really good position, he played very well.”
The one play Kelly was referring to was a 3rd-and-8 pas in which Love lost his fundamentals and was turned around by the receiver. But his ability to diagnose decisively and get to the football is very impressive. He’s listed at 5-10½, 190. When you stand next to him, the height seems right but the weight seems less. He’s not big but he plays strong and physical. His tackling fundamentals are outstanding.
This kid is going to be fun to watch. He already is.
SMYTHE: TWICE AS NICE
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Through eight games in this, his senior season (he’s eligible to return in ’17), tight end Durham Smythe had six catches for 63 yards and one touchdown with the score coming all the way back in the third game of the season against Michigan State.
Smythe can be an inconsistent, even somewhat passive blocker at times (I’ve been a tough grader of Smythe), but even that part of his game showed improvement against Navy and Army (so did Nic Weishar’s) as he emerged as Notre Dame’s top scoring threat in the red zone the last two weeks.
He caught just one pass against Navy, but it went for an eight-yard score as he bulled his way into the end zone. Against Army, he caught two passes – the first time this season an Irish tight end has had more than one reception in a game – and both went for scores.
From a two-by-two receiver alignment as the inside receiver off the line of scrimmage to the right, Smythe went uncovered as Army linebacker Andrew King chose to drag with Equanimeous St. Brown on the second level. No one ever picked up Smythe as DeShone Kizer found him for the easy score.
Not only did Smythe score his second touchdown of the game and third in two weeks, but both came in the second quarter. The second came with 37 seconds left in the half. This time, Kizer had to expedite the process as a defender closed on Smythe. Smythe used his body to shield the converging defender for the score.
That means each of Smythe’s last three receptions have gone for touchdowns. Of his nine catches in 2016, four have resulted in touchdowns. A worthy reward for a guy who had to endure not one but two surgeries during the 2015 season.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
I can’t describe how beautiful it was in San Antonio Saturday morning. Absolutely picturesque…I don’t care what the Shamrock Series uniforms look like. The day the uniform impacts the outcome of the game is when I’ll care about what uniform Notre Dame is wearing. It’s subjective. Some love them; some hate them. My only criterion for a Shamrock Series uniform is how readable the numbers are from the press box. Thus, thumbs down on the unis…Jeff Monken said that when Army’s opening kickoff bounced, at least one member of his coverage unit thought it was going to go out of bounds. (I did too from the press box vantage point.) It didn’t go out of bounds, of course, and C.J. Sanders shot through the hole created by, first and foremost, Durham Smythe and Chris Finke. Loved NBC’s camera angle. Sanders saw the 75-degree angle crease to his right and it was over…
Jamir Jones was the most impressive of the Jones brother against Army with three tackles on kick coverage. He is a hard-hitting, physical football player who will help this program. Keeping the legacy theme alive, Julian Okwara also had a tackle on an Army kick return…Tons of admiration for the hit by Nicco Fertitta on the second kick return by Army’s Elijah St. Hilaire. Fertitta blasted him and left St. Hilaire numb. That was a hit for the ages. Expect to see that on the post-season video montage. (Nod to St. Hilaire; he came back and played)…I like Te’von Coney over Nyles Morgan at Mike against triple-option, unless it’s inside the 10, where Morgan seems to excel. The Irish could have gotten more mileage out of Coney against 120 minutes of triple-option…The goal post in the south end zone was crooked…Chris Finke’s first step on his 22-yard punt return was lightning quick…
Huge props for the game played by cornerback Cole Luke. The stat sheet says four tackles and one pass broken up. But he was way more impactful than that, including a near interception. One bad play was when he was cut by a slotback on a 37-yard run. But he was really good…Dan Hicks and Doug Flutie went on and on about the two-yard touchdown run by Kell Walker early in the second quarter to give Navy their only points of the game. Tranquill hit him at the goal line and Walker fumbled into the end zone. They talked and talked and talked about whether or not he had possession of the football when he crossed the goal line. They never acknowledged that right tackle Brett Toth recovered in the end zone, making all of that analysis moot. It was simply a matter of which Army player scored the touchdown…Durham Smythe is instructed to fair catch kickoffs. I get it. But he’s a tight end. A receiver. A senior. A player who catches footballs for a living (so to speak). If there’s no coverage-unit player within 10 yards of him…Never mind. I give up. It’s the Notre Dame special teams.
Three notes on Corey Holmes, who made his first catch since snagging two in game 5 against Syracuse: He did a nice job of running off the defensive back on a 27-yard Kizer scramble, prompting the Army player to think that the pass was still in play. He allowed Jaylon McClinton to make a pass broken up on a deep ball by not using his body to screen the Army freshman. He moved the chains by adroitly ducking under a wideout block…Notre Dame only had three possessions in the second half – a 16-play, 76-yard drive that ended in an interception, a five-play, 37-yard touchdown drive, and a 14-play, 69-yard drive that ate up the remaining 8:51…I was guilty of poor eye discipline from the impressive vantage point in the Alamodome press box. I thought Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw started the game. We were not told, as the NBC-viewing audience was, that Chris Carter would get the starting nod. Bradshaw (knee) wears No. 17; Carter No. 7. When I saw Carter in on the second series, I thought Bradshaw was injured in the first series. He actually suffered the original injury against Wake Forest…Malik Zaire is like a playground quarterback. Everything he does is choppy and out of sync with the offense. He looks like a rusty quarterback. One-handed catches of shotgun snaps. It’s bad quarterback play.
The Irish waited too long with Sam Mustipher. He limped off the field with a right knee tweak when he shouldn’t have been in there with just a little more than three minutes remaining…John Montelus called for back-to-back false starts to end the game…Greer Martini is a quality football player. He deserves to play on college football’s high level. But man, if there’s a league where all of a team’s opponents run triple-option, the dude would have 150 tackles. He understands the pre-snap moving parts of triple-option and reacts instinctually…The last word on Jarron Jones vs. option football. Just calling it as I see it. He hates playing against triple-option. It’s written all over his body language. He doesn’t want to be out there and sometimes just falls down upon contact so he doesn’t have to deal with the possibility of having to take on a low block. Call it what you will. I call it a disregard for the cause and one’s teammates.