Notebook: Notre Dame experiments in rout before showdowns against USC, Michigan

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly did not mention Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown by name.

But those dynamic USC wide receivers seemed to be on the mind of Kelly, who had one pointed critique following No. 9 Notre Dame’s 52-0 trouncing of Bowling Green (1-4) on Saturday.

“There are some things we have to tighten up in coverage,” said Kelly following his 14th consecutive win in Notre Dame Stadium. “Obviously we’re going to play elite receivers next week. We can’t do some of the things we did (Saturday). Our guys know that.”

“I wasn’t particularly pleased with some of the things that happened (Saturday) and some particular instances on third down, so we’ll clean those up.”

The Irish (4-1) allowed just 228 total yards and recorded their first shutout since blanking Michigan 31-0 in 2014. That result helped Notre Dame experiment for the short term and the long term.

TaRiq Bracy started at field cornerback in place of injured starter Shaun Crawford, who dislocated his elbow in last week’s win over Virginia. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Bracy remained on the field longer than most of the other starters. He lined up opposite of freshman boundary cornerback KJ Wallace at one point and finished with four tackles, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

Defensive end Jamir Jones rotated heavily with starter Julian Okwara. Jones' role increased when Daelin Hayes sustained a season-ending torn labrum against UVA.

With Notre Dame facing maybe its two best remaining opponents of the season this month in USC (Oct. 12) and Michigan (Oct. 26), more reps for Bracy and Jones were necessary.

USC’s Pittman (35 catches for 501 yards and four touchdowns), Vaughns (31 catches for 414 yards and two touchdowns) and St. Brown (24 catches for 238 yards and three touchdowns) each ranked among the top 60 overall players in their recruiting classes on 247Sports. Michigan receivers Nico Collins, Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones garnered similar recruiting hype.

“We are pretty confident in what he can do,” said Okwara of Jones, who finished with four tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack and a quarterback hurry. “He did a great job. He goes out there and does his job. All the time he plays hard. I’m not surprised, because he does it every day in practice.

“It’s that next man in mindset. He’s the definition of that.”

The Falcons converted 8-of-19 third downs, including five conversions against the starting Irish dime package. That Notre Dame grouping consists of four defensive linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs, and it’s been highly effective this season.

Safety Jalen Elliott added interception No. 6 to the dime package total after securing Bowling Green’s "Hail Mary" pass attempt at the end of the first half. Okwara recorded one of Notre Dame’s two sacks in dime. He forced an intentional grounding penalty that resulted in a 21-yard loss.

“We still bring a lot of pressure,” Kelly said. “We’re still going to pressure the quarterback. That made up for it. But those things got to clean up a little bit.”

The long-term moves came via position switches for sophomore Houston Griffith and freshman Cam Hart. Griffith moved to safety after spending time at nickelback and most recently boundary cornerback. Hart, a three-star recruit out of Olney (Md.) Good Counsel, switched to cornerback from receiver.

Griffith played a few drives at safety with the second-team defense beside freshman Kyle Hamilton. There were only five scholarship safeties on the roster. Senior Jalen Elliott will expire his eligibility following this season, and fellow starter Alohi Gilman may depart early for the NFL Draft.

Hart saw action at corner through one-on-ones and individual work starting a couple weeks ago, per Kelly.

“We want to play Houston,” Kelly said. “We want to get him some playing time. We think cross-training him at the safety position is going to afford him the opportunity to get some safety work, maybe some opportunities there in our nickel and dime package. Moving him there gets him on the field a little bit quicker.

“Cam has been moved over to defense. We want to look at him — we like his length at corner. He was a guy that played quite a bit of defense when we recruited him. We’re looking for some size at that position, and he certainly brings that.”

Personnel groupings

The best look for Notre Dame’s offense has become 12 personnel, a grouping that consists of two tight ends, one running back and two wide receivers.

The Irish lined up in 12 personnel on 11 of their first 12 plays and 20 of their first 26. Those 20 plays resulted in quarterback Ian Book completing 10-of-11 passes for 141 yards and three touchdowns with nine rushes going for 58 yards.

Junior Cole Kmet and sophomore Tommy Tremble lined up as the two tight ends with senior Tony Jones Jr. at running back. Receivers Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, Michael Young and Javon McKinley rotated the most with the 1s.

The return of Kmet from a broken collarbone and Tremble’s progress as a blocker and pass-catcher paved the way for Notre Dame’s 12 personnel success.

In Notre Dame’s 35-20 victory over Virginia last week, it began using 12 personnel more, particularly in the running game. On 20 designed running plays with two tight ends on the field, the Irish rushed for 152 yards and three touchdowns against the Cavaliers (stat courtesy of NDI’s Tyler James).

ESPN feeling Irish

College GameDay will go to Dublin, Ireland for Notre Dame’s 2020 season opener against Navy. The 11-time Emmy Award-winning pregame show will tee up the Aug. 29 game from Aviva Stadium.

College GameDay expects to air its broadcast starting at 11 a.m. EDT with the game kicking off at 2 p.m. EDT. Both will air on ESPN.

“College GameDay has built its legacy traveling from city to city, campus to campus showcasing the unmatched passion of college football fans and the pageantry surrounding the game,” Lee Fitting, ESPN’s senior vice president of production, wrote in a press release. “The Notre Dame-Navy rivalry series serves as the perfect backdrop for College GameDay’s inaugural international appearance.

“We look forward to giving the great fans of Ireland and the thousands of Americans traveling to Dublin an unforgettable experience.”


• Quarterback Ian Book, right tackle Robert Hainsey and wide receiver Chris Finke served as Notre Dame’s team captains for the coin toss.

• Book’s five touchdown passes in the first half are the most in history by a Notre Dame quarterback. He’s particularly found success in the first quarter as of late. Book is a combined 16-of-16 for 196 yards and three touchdowns over his last two first quarters.

• Defensive end Julian Okwara blocked a 40-yard field goal attempt from Bowling Green in the third quarter. The last time an Irish player blocked a field goal came from Isaac Rochell in the 2014 Music City Bowl against LSU.

• A total of 14 true freshmen saw the field for the Irish: cornerbacks Isaiah Rutherford and KJ Wallace, safeties Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon, defensive linemen Jacob Lacey, Isaiah Foskey and Howard Cross III, linebackers Osita Ekwonu and JD Bertrand, quarterback Brendon Clark, wide receiver Cam Hart, punter Jay Bramblett, offensive lineman Andrew Kristofic and place-kicker Harrison Leonard.

• Wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. and running back C’Bo Flemister lined up as the kickoff return duo for the first time this season.

• Walk-on safety Patrick Pelini and freshman linebacker JD Bertrand switched from jersey numbers 32 to 7 and 27 to 30, respectively.

Notre Dame’s Jamir Jones (44) breaks past Bowling Green’s Matt Tanner (75) during Saturday’s game in Notre Dame Stadium.