Chris Brown

Brian Kelly’s decisions see No. 6 Notre Dame fall two points shy of No. 12 Clemson

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No. 12 Clemson (4-0, 1-0 ACC) seemed to have No. 6 Notre Dame under firm control as the rain came down Saturday night. A sure win, with Clemson leading the visiting Irish 21-3 in the fourth quarter, nearly washed away, but the Irish rally fell two points shy. Clemson stuffed a two-point conversion attempt by Notre Dame with seven seconds to play to preserve a 24-22 victory in the rain.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson struggled to get a  grip on the football and completed just 11 of his 22 pass attempts for 97 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His counterpart, freshman DeShone Kizer, had a much better day through the wet air after a sluggish start. Kizer ended the game with 321 passing yards and two touchdowns in leading the Irish rally from 21-3. Watson did add 93 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown to remind those watching just how effective he can be as a dual-threat.

Clemson’s offense got stuck in the mud after going up 21-3 in the third quarter, but the defense managed to hold on for the win. It was not easy, but forcing four turnovers helped. None may have been more critical than a forced fumble by Jayron Kearse on Notre Dame’s Chris Brown as the receiver was moving inside the five-yard line on a drive that looked to be reaching the end zone for Notre Dame. B.J. Goodson came away from the pile with his hands on the football, but Clemson’s offense would go three-and-out to give the Irish one last chance in great field position. It nearly paid off.

There were two decisions by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly worth second-guessing that may have cost Notre Dame a win, or at least a chance to do something in overtime. Both occurred in the fourth quarter and involved two-point conversion attempts.

Notre Dame had a chance to make it an 11-point game, and a relatively less stressful two-possession game, early in the fourth quarter. After C.J. Prosise managed to stay in the field of play down the right sideline for a 56-yard touchdown pass, Kelly opted to go for two points instead of kicking the extra point. Had Notre Dame kicked the extra point, the Irish would have been down 11 points. Instead, after a failed conversion attempt, the Irish were down 12 points. As it turned out, had Notre Dame kicked the extra point, that would have put Notre Dame just one point away from tying Clemson in the final 10 seconds.

Speaking of that last Irish touchdown, Notre Dame obviously needed to go for the two-point conversion to force a tie game. The call was to run the football, and the ball was kept in the hands of Kizer. Kizer did end the game as Notre Dame’s leading rusher, but he had little room and no ability to make any push as the line collapsed on him. Prosise carrying the football may have been too obvious to fool Clemson’s defense must have been the logic in that situation. But this situation never had to happen in the first place.

Mistakes define first half between No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 14 Stanford

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During a wet and sometimes wild first half, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson proved to be the difference in the game for all the wrong reasons.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are tied 7-7 with the Stanford Cardinal after two quarters of play. Both team left points on the field due to mistakes.

Golson, in particular, had a profound effect on the score. After four turnovers last week against the Syracuse Orange, the Fighting Irish quarterback already turned the ball over twice. The first was a fumble on a designed run at Notre Dame’s 12-yard line. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan capitalized on the fantastic field position with a 10-yard draw into the end zone for the game’s first touchdown.

At the start of the second quarter, the Fighting Irish were finally driving on offense, but Golson was intercepted at the 1-yard line by Stanford safety Jordan Richards.

Hogan didn’t fare any better than Golson. The Stanford signal-caller was 8-of-18 passing for 67 yards and a touchdown.

But Golson redeemed himself to a degree with a late drive before halftime. The quarterback sprayed the ball all over the field, but he eventually connected a key 17-yard pass to wide receiver Chris Brown for the game’s tying score.

Both teams also had miscues on special teams.

Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza missed a field goal after a botched snap, while Stanford’s Jordan Williamson didn’t even get to attempt a field goal after the snap flew over the holder’s head.

It continues to rain heavily in South Bend, and the weather will have a dramatic effect on the second half.

Both teams play reliable defense, but Stanford’s plodding offense is far more suited to these conditions than Notre Dame’s. A strong running game along with solid defensive play will determine which team claims the victory in the second half.

CFT Top 25: No. 15 Notre Dame

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2013 record: 9-4
2013 postseason: Pinstripe Bowl vs. Rutgers (29-16 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 20/No. 24
Head coach: Brian Kelly (90-37 overall; 37-15 in four years at Notre Dame)
Offensive coordinator: Mike Denbrock (first season as OC; 5th year under Kelly at Notre Dame)
2013 offensive rankings: 81st rushing offense (150.92 YPG); 39th passing offense (254.8 YPG); 68th total offense (405.8 YPG); 74th scoring offense (27.2 PPG)
Returning offensive starters: RB Cam McDaniel, WR DaVaris Daniels, OL Ronnie Stanley, OL Nick Martin, OL Christian Lombard
Defensive coordinator: Brian VanGorder (first season at Notre Dame)
2013 defensive rankings: 71st rushing defense (168 YPG); 15th passing defense (198.2 YPG); 31st total defense (366.2 YPG); 27th scoring defense (22.4 PPG)
Returning defensive starters: DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, CB KeiVarae Russell, S Austin Collinsworth
Location: South Bend, Ind.
Stadium: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795, FieldTurf)

THE GOOD
Notre Dame’s offense should be much improved with Everett Golson at the helm — he’s the playmaking quarterback Brian Kelly has wanted ever since coming to South Bend from Cincinnati. In 2012, Golson “rode the bus” to the BCS Championship, as Kelly put it, running a relatively basic offense. And in 2011 and 2013, Tommy Rees quarterbacked the Irish to eight and nine — not where Notre Dame wanted to be in either year.

In Year 2 of Golson, even with his 2013 exile from campus, Notre Dame finally looks to have the kind of offense that can win the team big games. Golson has loads of talent around him, from sophomore running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to wide receivers DaVaris Daniels, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson to tight end Durham Smythe — remember that last name going forward. The offensive line looks solid, too, and there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot holding back the Irish offense outside of a little inexperience heading into the fall.

Notre Dame has a number of stars on defense, too: Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the best player on the team, while defensive tackle Sheldon Day looks primed for a breakout season if he can stay healthy. The Irish secondary is stout, led by junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, sophomore safety Max Redfield and graduate student/Florida transfer Cody Riggs. It’s a deep unit, too, and one that should play well in Brian VanGorder’s aggressive defensive scheme.

THE BAD
I mean, have you seen Notre Dame’s schedule? Road games at Florida State, Arizona State and USC — all of which come in the second half of the season — are tough as it is, but throw in home games against Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina and Louisville and the Irish have an awfully difficult minefield to navigate this fall.

There’s a chance Notre Dame actually is a better team than it was last year — the Irish finished 26th in F/+ — but wind up with the same 9-4 record…or worse. The toughest stretch comes in early to mid October, when Notre Dame faces Stanford and UNC at home on back-to-back weekends before traveling to Florida State.

Stanford and Florida State certainly are tough, but that North Carolina game has all the makings of a dangerous trap game for the Irish. UNC has a good enough offense to give the Irish defense fits, and if Notre Dame goes into Oct. 11 looking ahead to Florida State the Tarheels could be primed for an upset.

THE UNKNOWN
Notre Dame lost five starters off its front seven from a year ago: Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. Sliding in for those guys is a group of inexperienced players who potentially could be good…but also who could potentially struggle to stop a number of the high-powered offenses Notre Dame has to face.

Guys like defensive tackle Jarron Jones and linebacker Joe Schmidt performed well in limited duty a year ago, but will they be able to succeed in larger roles? Can a converted safety (John Turner) and a converted wide receiver (James Onwualu) play Sam linebacker? Will freshmen defensive linemen Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner and Andrew Trumbetti be ready enough to provide much-needed depth up front?

The X-Factor with Notre Dame’s defense is how the unit performs running a defense that’ll take more chances under VanGorder than it did under Bob Diaco. The last few years of stats don’t really apply to Notre Dame’s defensive outlook this fall, given there’s a greater emphasis on forcing turnovers and sacks rather than two-gapping and preventing big plays. We won’t know how this defense really shakes out until it actually takes the field this fall under VanGorder, so that makes it very much an unknown.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: Nov. 29 at USC
Hypothetically, if Notre Dame heads to Los Angeles with one loss (likely to Florida State), a win over USC and an 11-1 season could be enough to get the Irish into the four-team playoff.

That’s the best-case scenario for Notre Dame. But there are plenty of other hypotheticals that involve Notre Dame either salvaging a disappointing season (say, a 7-5/8-4 year) or generating some early hype for 2015 (say, a 10-win year) that involve beating USC. That it’s a rivalry game doesn’t hurt, either.

There are plenty of other games that could’ve fit here: Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and Arizona State. But given it’s the final game of the season and Notre Dame-USC always carries weight, it gets a make-or-break designation.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: Quarterback Everett Golson
Six hundred days will have passed since Golson last played in a competitive game when he takes the field for Notre Dame Aug. 30 against Rice. But that long layoff hasn’t prevented Golson from seeing his name pop up as a Heisman dark horse, and the latest Bovada odds have him at 20/1 to win the trophy.

Golson threw for 2,405 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2012, but expect those numbers — as well as his rushing totals — to go up this fall. It’ll take a big leap for Golson to legitimately get in the Heisman competition, but if Notre Dame has a better season than most are expecting Golson very well could find himself in the discussion.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

JJ Stankevitz is CSNChicago.com’s Notre Dame Insider. Follow him on Twitter @JJStankevitz.

Notre Dame’s Torii Hunter out at least a month due to injury

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Former four-star recruit Torii Hunter Jr. wasn’t expected to make a big impact as part of  Notre Dame’s wide receiver corps this season, but he could have potentially worked his way into the team’s rotation and provided repetitions as a slot receiver. Instead, he’ll miss four to six weeks due to a Grade 3 groin tear, according to CSNChicago.com’s J.J. Stankevitz.

Hunter — the son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter Sr. — will receive three platelet-rich plasma injections during his rehabilitation.

The injury is obviously a setback for the young receiver. He’ll now miss the rest of fall camp and the start of the season. It will be difficult for him to earn games reps once he’s fully healthy with upperclassmen DaVaris Daniels, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle atop the depth chart. And there is plenty of competition between the talented young receivers behind the projected starters.

Hunter missed all of last season with a broken leg. The upcoming season could prove to be another lost season after missing a month or more of integral practice time.

Pregame reading: Grantland’s Chris Brown on Gus Malzahn

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For most of the United States, it’s freezing cold today and the thought of going outside sounds just awful. So if you’re curled up on your couch waiting for the BCS Championship to kick off, take the time to read Chris Brown’s excellent Grantland story on how Gus Malzahn’s diabolical offense came to be.

This part stood out:

The most dangerous wrinkle in Auburn’s offense this season, however, has been providing Marshall with more protection when he keeps the ball. As the zone-read has become increasingly popular over the last several years, defenses have devised a variety of ways to defend it, often by confusing and overwhelming the quarterback.

Malzahn and Lashlee have countered those defensive responses by borrowing a concept from Chris Ault’s Nevada offense, one the San Francisco 49ers in turn borrowed and expanded upon once former Ault pupil Colin Kaepernick became their quarterback: namely, using tight ends, H-backs, and fullbacks to “arc block” linebackers and safeties who crash when the quarterback keeps the ball on the zone-read.

There are gifs and diagrams and the like in the article. Go read it if you want a better understanding of what you’re watching tonight.