NCF Nation: Robert Blanton

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tapping into the archives to learn more about the shoes he needed to fill, Bennett Jackson instead learned more about his own progress.

While watching film this week of former Notre Dame cornerbacks Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, Jackson stumbled across a few clips of himself featuring sloppy play and weak technique. He didn't like what he saw, and he didn't recognize it, either.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Bennett Jackson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesBennett Jackson has become the elder statesman of Notre Dame cornerbacks.
"I didn't really know what I was doing, I was just kind of just running around," Jackson said of his younger self. "But then I look to myself now and just see the change. So that's a confidence booster for sure."

It all re-affirmed for the junior just how far he has come since switching from wide receiver to corner two years ago. And with Lo Wood's season-ending Achilles injury Monday, Jackson knows the margin for error is slim, as his nearly two years of experience and limited reserve action at the position has forced him into the role of elder statesman for a unit re-tooling on the fly.

"Me and Lo, we tried to lead by example on the field," Jackson said. "But with Lo out, obviously me being the older cornerback, I kind of have to take charge. I took charge before, but now it's more on my shoulders I feel. All the younger guys are working, we're all a great unit. We have great chemistry and I want the best for the guy who's going to be next to me, for sure, all the guys."

Jalen Brown, Josh Atkinson or KeiVarae Russell will likely be that guy next to Jackson come Sept. 1, with Russell providing the most interesting rise through camp so far.

Recruited as a running back out of Mariner (Wash.) High School, Russell arrived on campus this June and made the switch to corner, where the Irish were already down one big prospect following the spring departure of early-enrollee Tee Shepard.

No stranger to switching sides of the ball himself, Jackson has been impressed by Russell's quick adjustment from taking the hits to delivering them.

"Everybody's surprised," Jackson said of Russell. "Everyone's happy with how he's coming along. He's adapting to it really fast for sure, but he's got a great group of guys around him. Everybody's helping him. He's a really smart kid. I'm surprised he caught on to it that fast. He's doing a great job."

With one fateful misstep Monday -- teammates saw Wood stumble and walk off the field, figuring he had rolled an ankle -- the learning curve has been accelerated for Russell and the rest of the healthy cornerbacks, none of whom have seen more than marginal playing time in the secondary.

"You're young, you're inexperienced, but you're excited," safety Matthias Farley said of his defensive backfield-mates. "Because you want to get in the game, you want to prove you can make an impact at whatever position you're in, contribute to the team. And I would say across the board everyone is in high spirits and fully confident that they can do the tasks that are assigned out for that position, whatever it may be."

Numbers from ND's pro day

April, 3, 2012
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Representatives from 27 NFL teams were present Tuesday for Notre Dame's pro day. The Irish just released numbers and notes from the event. Here you go ...
  • Robert Blanton (4.53/4.56) had the fastest 40-time among the five former Irish players who ran it. His 4.53 would have been fourth among safeties at February's combine in Indianapolis, and would have tied for 12th among cornerbacks.
  • The other 40 times from Tuesday: Darius Fleming (4.58/4.54), Gary Gray (4.75/4.70), Trevor Robinson (5.24/5.22), and Taylor Dever (5.38/5.34).
  • Robinson, who was not invited to the combine, would have been the only offensive lineman there to rank among the top 10 in vertical jump (30 inches; tied for 8th), broad jump (8 feet, 9 inches; tied for 6th), bench press (31; tied for 8th), and 40-yard dash (5.22; 8th).
  • Jonas Gray improved his bench press number from 20 at the combine to 22 Tuesday.
  • David Ruffer hit 13 of 15 field goals.
  • Harrison Smith's 60-yard shuttle time (11.52) would have been the fastest time among safeties at the combine. That was the only timed drill Smith participated in Tuesday.
  • Michael Floyd ran an 11.66 in the 60-yard shuttle. The 3-cone drill (7.13/7.11) and pro agility drill (4.23/4.37) were the only other timed drills he took part in Tuesday.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A year ago Bennett Jackson was transitioning from offense to defense to help what Notre Dame's coaches then thought what was a thin cornerback group. The staff likely had no idea just how much the switch would pay dividends this spring, when the Irish were down to four scholarship corners following the sudden departure of early-enrollee Tee Shepard.

Running back Cam McDaniel was brought over prior to this spring, upping the number of cornerbacks to five.

"We're certainly short, there's no question," head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of the spring season. "There's no hiding the fact that we have a numbers issue there. But we'll be smart in how we manage our reps. We'll be smart in how we put those guys in positions. But clearly you know our philosophy and style of defense; we think that we can be a championship team with the five guys that we have there."

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Bennett Jackson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesLast season Bennett Jackson moved from special teams and receiver to defensive back.
Multi-year starters Robert Blanton and Gary Gray are gone, and suddenly the leader of the pack is Jackson, who played mostly on special teams during his freshman year of 2010, when he was also a wide receiver.

No conversations during his recruitment centered on a possible re-location to the secondary, Jackson said, as the move last spring came as a bit of a surprise.

"I'd say at first I was a little moved by it," Jackson said. "I was a little, I wouldn't say aggravated but a little disappointed. But as I went down the road I actually enjoyed cornerback a lot more than receiver, so I thought it was a great move by the coaches."

"I always enjoyed the physical part more," he later added. "I always like hitting. Special teams my freshman year, I was always hitting. I didn't really play receiver too much so I got a feel for the physical part of the game more. And trying a new position, I fit in well. So I was doing good at it, I was having a chance to compete and I just really started to enjoy it."

Of the switch, Jackson said he would likes to hit rather than be hit. Given Notre Dame's current cornerback situation, he may just like the pressure of being one of the best the Irish have.

"Bennett is as talented a cornerback as I've ever coached," cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks said. "From the speed, he's long, he's athletic, he can flip his hips. The part that he's missing is just the experience part, which he got a little bit of that toward the back half of last season. So he's still got to grow. The first few days have been awesome -- he's out there, he's talking, he's vocal. He's doing all the right things, so I like where he's at right now."

Jackson and Lo Wood are the No. 1 corners this spring, with Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown behind them. Wood's 57-yard interception return for a touchdown last season against Maryland is the highlight among the group, which stands little more than five months from a slate featuring Heisman-caliber passers like USC's Matt Barkley and Oklahoma's Landry Jones.

The corners are welcoming the negative perception as a challenge.

"We're making sure we're just focused on getting better as a unit in the secondary because we all know that, hey, the pressure's on us," Atkinson said. "We all just wanna be great and we're all just committing ourselves to getting better each and every day."

Kelly said there are no current plans for incoming athlete Davonte Neal to play cornerback upon arrival, as he will likely be a receiver or return man.

Cooks, meanwhile, is looking at the current situation as a blessing in disguise. If nothing else, he said, there are more opportunities for each player to take advantage of.

"To me, I don't even look at it like that," Cooks said. "I got the guys that I got. If I had eight I'd be happy, if I had four, if I had three — I'm gonna coach the guys that I got and the guys that wanna be here. And to me, having five scholarship corners allows a lot of guys to get more reps, which means we're building depth at the same time as trying to find out who our two-deep is."

Top Notre Dame moments from 2011

January, 12, 2012
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Another 8-5 season left a lot to be desired for Notre Dame fans. Nonetheless, there were plenty of memorable moments from the Irish's 2011 campaign.

1. Jonas Gray's remarkable stretch. Coach Brian Kelly said he had never seen it all click for a senior the way he had with Gray. The running back rushed for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns, including at least one in eight consecutive games. Unfortunately, he tore an ACL against Boston College, ending his college career. But when on the field, Gray was the feel-good story of 2011.

[+] EnlargeJonas Gray
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireRunning back Jonas Gray, left, averaged 6.9 yards per carry in a season cut short by a torn ACL.
2. Manti Te'o announces return. This might have come off the field, but the likely first-round pick couldn't help but blurt out his announcement to return to school for one more year Dec. 11, while at the Lott IMPACT Trophy ceremony. The junior linebacker is the team's best all-around player and exemplifies all that's right about the game, on and off the field.

3. Aaron Lynch's sack and forced fumble vs. MSU. One week after not playing at Michigan, the freshman end announced his arrival to college football, turning the game around with a big hit on Kirk Cousins in what went on to be the Irish's first victory, and their most impressive one. Lynch had a standout freshman campaign and will be a star for the Irish moving forward. Robert Blanton's game-sealing interception deserves some recognition as well.

4. Michael Floyd's TD vs. FSU. A ridiculous five bobbles. Two defenders absorbed. An upper-body injury suffered that kept him out of the rest of the game. Still, the senior held on for his 100th catch of the season, and final one of his career, as Floyd hauled in Notre Dame's only offensive touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl.

5. Andrew Hendrix's run vs. Air Force. Late in the fourth quarter of a rout, the sophomore quarterback burst up the middle for 78 yards, his legs giving out two yards shy of the end zone. Hendrix turned plenty of heads in his first college game, and he will fight it out with two others this offseason for the starting quarterback job with two others.

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame

November, 28, 2011
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It's time to take one more look back at Notre Dame's regular-season ending 28-14 loss at Stanford.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Hendrix
Kyle Terada/US PresswireQuarterback Andrew Hendrix saw extensive playing time in Notre Dame's loss against Stanford.
The Good: Better late than never, right? Andrew Hendrix saw his first extended action since Oct. 22 against USC, playing the entire second half. The sophomore completed 11 of 24 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown, and added 20 rushing yards and another touchdown on 12 carries.

The Bad: Whatever BCS-bowl hopes Notre Dame hung onto went up in flames with a convincing road loss against a likely BCS bowl team. The Irish were out-gained 287-75 in a first half that ended with them trailing 21-0.

The Ugly: In falling to 1-3 against ranked opponents this season, Notre Dame surrendered five sacks, missed a 20-yard field goal and committed 10 penalties for 68 yards. Not the recipe for beating a top-10 team on the road.

Turning point: After Darius Fleming picked off Andrew Luck in the second quarter and returned the ball -- with the help of a horse-collar penalty -- to the Stanford 11, David Ruffer missed a 20-yard field goal. Luck and the Cardinal then marched 80 yards in 10 plays, ending with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Coby Fleener that made it 14-0 and swung the momentum.

Call of the day: Hard to point to just one call, but Stanford did a tremendous job of taking advantage of its massive tight ends against the Irish's small cornerbacks. Luck hit 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo for a three-yard touchdown pass on a first-quarter fade route when Toilolo was matched up against the 5-11 Gary Gray. For his second touchdown pass, Luck hit the 6-6, 244-pound Fleener near the 14-yard line when he was covered by the 6-1 Robert Blanton. Fleener essentially dragged Blanton the rest of the way into the end zone, resulting in a 28-yard touchdown pass and 14-0 Stanford lead in the second quarter.

Next up: Despite its 3-0 ACC record (4-0 if you include soon-to-be ACC school Pittsburgh), Notre Dame will not be playing in this Saturday's ACC title game. That contest will feature Clemson and Virginia Tech. The Irish might get Clemson in the Champs Sports Bowl if the Tigers fall Saturday, but the Irish's bowl and opponent is, at the moment, not yet officially determined.

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame

November, 14, 2011
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It's time to take a look back at the weekend that was in Landover, Md., where the Irish notched their third consecutive victory.

The Good: Notre Dame played its most complete offensive game of the year Saturday, beating Maryland 45-21. The Irish notched more than 500 yards of total offense for the fifth time in 10 games this season, jumping out to a 17-0 lead early and never looking back. The victory — along with several other dominoes falling into place — has the Irish ranked for the first time since the season began.

[+] EnlargeLo Wood
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireLo Wood's 57-yard interception-return touchdown was the turning point against Maryland.
The Bad: Time to nitpick, and in this case the offensive line (and Tommy Rees) are the unlucky recipients of an extra big microscope in a week the Irish left little to complain about offensively. Still, Notre Dame surrendered three sacks Saturday after not allowing a single one in its last five games. The Irish had allowed just five sacks on the season prior to Saturday.

The Ugly: Maryland's uniforms? Or the Terrapins' play? Tough call here, though watching quarterback Danny O'Brien's season come to an early end because of a broken bone in his upper left arm added injury to insult.

Turning point: Inserted for Robert Blanton (stinger), cornerback Lo Wood came up with a 57-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter, the Irish's second third-quarter score, to make it 38-7. It probably would not have been much of a competitive game anyway, but this one sealed the deal with plenty of time remaining.

Call of the day: Jonas Gray punched it in from 1 yard out on fourth-and-goal in the final minute of the first half, making it 24-7 Irish at the half. Sure, it's not that difficult to gain a yard (or have faith in your team to), but Maryland had just scored on the previous possession to cut the lead to 10, and a Terrapins stop there could have changed the momentum of the game.

Next up: Notre Dame's next challenge after beating a two-win Maryland team will be beating a three-win Boston College team. The Eagles are coming off a 14-10 win over North Carolina State, their second victory in three games. Keep an eye on linebacker Luke Kuechly, who could finish this season as the leading tackler in the FBS for the second consecutive season. Saturday will also be Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium.

Irish pick up tempo in rout of Maryland

November, 13, 2011
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LANDOVER, Md. — Robby Toma was fielding postgame questions from reporters Saturday night when Tony Alford stuck his head in.

"What did you do?" the receivers coach asked. "What did you do?"

"I don't know," Toma replied with a smile. "This is new to me."

The career-best seven catches for 73 yards was new. The starting role in place of the injured Theo Riddick (hamstring) was a change. And the ability to capably fulfill Notre Dame's next-man-in philosophy in the Irish's 45-21 rout of a hapless Maryland team made the not-so-easy look not only simple, but rewarding.

Notre Dame beat a two-win Terrapins team, as expected. But they did it by improving their play in nearly all facets of the game, most notably on offense.

In notching their fifth 500-plus-yard offensive performance this season, the Irish ran 84 plays, the most in the Brian Kelly era. They showed a steady balance, with 46 runs and 38 passes. And they ran the offense at a tempo that embodied the pace Kelly has wanted to push at, one his quarterback ran efficiently throughout the evening.

"We wanted to kind of go with a hurry up, no-huddle — we're always no-huddle, more of a hurry-up, push the tempo a little bit," Tommy Rees said. "I think it worked out. I think we caught them and they weren't lined up. And you can tell throughout the game that — hats off to Maryland — but throughout the game the guys were getting tired, and I think that has a lot to do with how we pushed our tempo."

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Matt Cashore/US PresswireTommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense turned in an efficient performance against Maryland.
Rees finished 30 of 38 for 296 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. During one stretch that ended in the third quarter, the sophomore completed 17 of 18 passes.

The run game, which has looked dominant at times, was never as sharp as it was before a Notre Dame-heavy crowd at FedEx Field.

Jonas Gray finished with a career-high 136 yards and two touchdowns. Cierre Wood finished with 99 yards and a score.

But the numbers cannot convey the helplessness of the Maryland defense, evident on two separate plays involving the two running backs.

Facing a third-and-10 from his own 8 on Notre Dame's third drive, Wood rushed for 13 yards. Facing a third-and-17 from his own 20 on the Irish's first drive of the second half, Gray bursted up the middle for 19 yards.

Notre Dame ended up scoring on both drives, the latter kicking off a 14-point third quarter that extended the Irish lead to 38-7 and their third-quarter margin this season to 77-13.

"I think our guys settle into the game, they're tuned in, we can talk to them and they know exactly what we want to do in the third quarter and they go out and do it," Kelly said. "Again, our guys understand how important it is to get some adjustments made at halftime. There's good communication. Our guys go out and execute."

There were other signs of improvement across the board aside from Toma, the run game and Rees. Namely, reserve cornerback Lo Wood stepping in for Robert Blanton (stinger), taking a third-quarter interception back 57 yards for a touchdown and making it 38-7.

There was Mike Golic Jr. filling in nicely for Braxston Cave at center, and Ethan Johnson bringing his veteran presence to the defensive line in his first game since Oct. 1.

And, of course, there was that tempo, which showed that opponent and circumstance were irrelevant in the Irish's attempt to make something of this week and next, when three-win Boston College comes to town.

"It was a big emphasis this week, to play at a fast tempo, and we did that well," Gray said. "A few guys were getting gassed — we're not used to doing it, even myself. But that's a dimension of this offense we're trying to continue to keep doing. And when we do that we're a pretty good offense and hard to stop."

And if the offense was getting gassed, does that make for an exhausted defense?

"Oh yeah, yeah," Gray said. "Just a lot of exhaustion. They can't line up as fast as they want to, just small things like that. And Coach Kelly's done a great job of dialing plays up."

Notre Dame helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 6, 2011
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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- It's time to honor those who played the biggest roles in Notre Dame's 24-17 win over Wake Forest.

Jonas Gray: The senior had 92 yards on 19 carries with a touchdown, scoring in his sixth straight game and for the ninth time during that stretch. Keep in mind, folks, that he had zero career touchdowns before Week 4 at Pitt. Gray's 1-yard scoring plunge in the third tied the game and his 1-yard plunge from the Wake Forest 44 in the fourth sealed the game.

Cierre Wood: Wood finished with 87 yards on just 14 carries, throwing in a couple of nice jukes along the way. The junior had several big carries to start the Irish's final drive, ultimately leading them to victory.

Harrison Smith: A game-high 11 tackles. A huge forced fumble on second-and-goal for Wake Forest in a seven-point game. And a huge backfield tackle for a loss of 4 yards on another second-and-goal play. Smith was everywhere, leading the banged-up defense throughout the night.

Robert Blanton: Happy Homecoming. The game captain enjoyed his return to North Carolina by notching 10 tackles, including two for loss, and he was a force in stopping the Demon Deacons' passes into the flat.

Stephon Tuitt: Two big tackles for a loss, including a momentum-shifting sack for an 11-yard loss on first goal, earn the freshman this sticker. He was a workhorse on the line all night, as it was once again without Ethan Johnson and even missed fellow rookie Aaron Lynch for portions of the game as well.

Austin Collinsworth: Collinsworth had two kick returns for 67 yards, including a 41-yarder, giving the Irish great field position for their first two scores in a back-and-forth first quarter. He added a nice hit on the Demon Deacons' Lovell Jackson on a third-quarter kickoff return as well.

Irish make presence felt in Carolinas

November, 4, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — What's one implication of playing Wake Forest inside 31,500-seat BB&T Field, almost 50,000 seats fewer than Notre Dame Stadium? How about exposure.

No, Notre Dame doesn't lack for drama or attention, but maybe the Carolinas do. And the Irish have made it a point of making their presence felt in that area.

Just take a look at these numbers:
  • Seven current Notre Dame players hail from North Carolina or South Carolina.
  • Three more, Mark Harrell and Romeo Okwara (both North Carolina) and Chris Brown (South Carolina), have committed to play for the Irish next season.
  • Eight ESPNU 150 players hail from either North Carolina or South Carolina, which, together, puts the area sixth behind Florida, Texas, California, Georgia and Alabama.

"It's started to grow in terms of its significance in the recruiting grand scheme of things — even when I was at Cincinnati we started to get in there because the high school football was growing and that population growth in that area, as you know, made that the reason for it," Brian Kelly said Sunday. "So it's been on our radar. We've just really worked hard at it, and we've obviously got some players from that area that have allowed us to continue to build those relationships."

"Yeah, North Carolina, South Carolina has been an area now that we've had a number of coaches on our staff, it's not just one coach, that are in there recruiting it hard. So getting down and playing Wake Forest, you know, obviously we're gonna be able to have a number of kids come up — they won't be our guests obviously, but they're certainly gonna check us out."

Irish cornerback Robert Blanton, from Matthews, N.C., said he will have a dozen family members in attendance.

"It's about an hour and 15 minutes [northeast] of Charlotte, and it takes about 45 minutes if you drive fast," Blanton said of his hometown, laughing.

Linebacker Prince Shembo, from Charlotte, will get to see his father, Maurice, in the stands for just the second time since the elder Shembo suffered a brain aneurysm Sept. 16.

On Tuesday, Kelly again cited population growth for the number of recruitable football players in the Carolinas, a place he said he recruited wide receivers and defensive backs from while at Central Michigan from 2004-06.

In addition to Blanton, Kelly's other starting cornerback Saturday, Gary Gray, hails from the area, having played high school ball at Richland Northeast in Columbia, S.C.

"Just have always felt that that's been — when I was at Central and Cincinnati — kind of an under-the-radar state or states," Kelly said. "It's not that anymore. So I've always felt the importance of it because it was a big growth area demographically. And then I think Notre Dame has always been in that area, and we've just kind of carried that on from my beliefs that it's a very good football state."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Gary Gray initially described his situation coming off Notre Dame's Week 2 loss at Michigan as "just a little adversity" that his teammates helped him overcome.

Pressed further, the cornerback confessed it was more than that.

"I mean, it was a lot," he said. "We lost the game, but I mean, they stuck behind me, so they still believe in me and I still believe in myself, so that's all that matters."

[+] EnlargeGary Gray
AP Photo/AJ MastGary Gray has performed well since giving up the game-winning catch to the Wolverines.
Gray, a fifth-year senior who has started 26 straight games for the Irish, experienced a nightmare at the Big House, low-lighted by the game-winning touchdown catch he surrendered to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left.

Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks, not wanting the disappointing performance to get to Gray -- and knowing that the obligatory "24-hour rule" is easier spoken than exercised after a bad game -- immediately went into the film room and showed Gray that all wasn't lost.

"As a coach you pull out some of the old clips, and you remind Gary Gray what he did and how many plays he's made on numerous great wide receivers in big games and that shows him that, 'Hey OK, it wasn't a fluke, I just didn't play up to my abilities, I didn't play technically sound. Michigan's got good players and that is what it is, it's behind us now,' " Cooks said. "But you do things like that, you show him what he's done in the past to help him move forward in the future. Just kind of as a reminder that, 'You know, things happen. Short-term memory. This is what you've done. You didn't do it this game. But this is what you've done. This is what you're capable of. We've got confidence in you as a staff.'

"His teammates rallied around him and let him know that they have confidence in him as a player and he went out and just performed well."

Cooks shared with Gray a saying he often heard throughout his four-year NFL career, a cliche that helped him bounce back after rough outings:

"They get paid, too, to make plays," Cooks said of receivers.

Notre Dame touted Gray as one of the top cornerbacks in the country this season, though fellow starter Robert Blanton has garnered more attention so far through six games.

Gray, the most decorated recruit of the Irish's defensive backfield, admitted to being a little shaken after the Michigan game but was picked up by his teammates the next day.

"I think that throughout that game he was kind of wondering what was going on," Cooks said. "Because if you watch the game closely on tape, he was in position to make some of those plays and just didn't come up with them.

"But coming out that following week in practice there was nothing different. He knew that he had to come out and he needed to improve on some certain things from a technical standpoint and he did those. He was positive. He was excited. He went out that very next week and played ball."

Gray has steadily improved his play in the four games since, and his game-opening interception at Purdue in Week 5 set the tone for a rout.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco called Gray one of the stalwarts of the defense, saying he hasn't missed a beat in practice following the prime-time blemish.

"The demons he was going through, we all work with," Diaco said. "But he really didn't let them -- I don't know how long it caused him to decelerate, but we didn't see it. By the time he came to work he was ready."

Notre Dame helmet stickers: Week 5

October, 2, 2011
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — That was a good one, eh? There's plenty of praise to pass around on both sides of the ball after the Fighting Irish's 38-10 drubbing of Purdue, so let's get right to it:

Tommy Rees: He competed 24 of 40 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. And, more importantly, he had no turnovers. Rees' most effective outing of the season should quell everyone's fears for at least one week, as he directed an offense that outgained Purdue 551-276 yards.

Offensive line: The unit played with a purpose all night, opening holes trucks could drive through on the left side for much of the game. Notre Dame averaged a very impressive 7.2 yards per carry and was able to control the game from start to finish by dominating in the trenches offensively.

Cierre Wood/Jonas Gray: Wood got the long touchdown run this week, a 55-yarder that broke the game open in the first half by making it 21-3. The offensive line created the initial holes, but the two backs did great jobs of juking and spinning out of tackles en route to 191- and 94-yard games, respectively. Each scored a touchdown, too.

Michael Floyd: Brian Kelly wasn't kidding when he said Pitt didn't provide a blueprint for stopping Floyd. The senior wideout caught 12 passes for 137 yards, perhaps none more important than his 35-yard touchdown on the Irish's second play from scrimmage. As proved Saturday, Floyd has a lot more to offer than being a decoy, and Purdue found out the hard way.

Manti Te'o: The junior has continued to lead this defense, which did not give up a touchdown until Purdue's final drive of the game. Te'o finished with a team-high eight tackles, all solo, including three tackles for loss and a sack.

Aaron Lynch: No quarterback hurries this week? Seriously, though, the freshman stepped up in a big way Saturday, recording three tackles and another sack. With fellow freshman Stephon Tuitt out because of missing class and starter Ethan Johnson leaving with a right ankle sprain, Lynch showed he's more than just a situational pass rusher.

Gary Gray/Robert Blanton: Gray made a stand in a big way in prime time, picking off Caleb TerBush's first pass of the game and setting the tone for both sides, as the offense responded accordingly. Blanton, meanwhile, seemed to be everywhere, recording six tackles, including one for loss, and teaming with Gray to limit Purdue to just 192 yards passing on 38 throws.

Non-AQ Players of the Week

September, 19, 2011
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Here are the non-AQ players of the week, as selected by each conference. The independent players of the week are selected by a national media panel.

Conference USA

Offense: Case Keenum, QB, Houston. Ryan Griffin, QB, Tulane. Keenum led the biggest comeback in school history in a 35-34 win at Louisiana Tech, completing 25-of-40 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns to overcome a 27-point third quarter deficit. Griffin completed his first 11 passes for 164 yards and finished the game 22-of-26 for 281 yards and a career-high-tying three touchdowns in a 49-10 win over UAB.

Defense: Korey Williams, LB, Southern Miss. Williams led the Golden Eagles with 10 tackles, seven of which were solo stops, in a 52-6 win over Southeastern Louisiana. He added one tackle for loss and an interception return for a touchdown.

Special teams: Nick Adams, KR, UAB. Adams set a UAB single-game record with 194 kick return yards and took a Tulane kickoff back 92 yards for a touchdown in a loss to Tulane.

Independent

Offense: Trent Steelman, QB, Army. Had 28 carries for 108 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-14 win over Northwestern.

Defense: Robert Blanton, CB, Notre Dame. Grabbed an interception deep in Notre Dame territory and returned it 82 yards, setting up a game-sealing field goal for the Fighting Irish over Michigan State.

Special teams: George Atkinson III, RB/KR, Notre Dame. Had 142 yards on four kickoff returns, including an 89-yard touchdown, in a 31-13 home win over No. 15 Michigan State. Atkinson is the first Fighting Irish freshman to return a kickoff for a score since Raghib Ismail in 1988.

MAC

East Division
Offense: Tyler Tettleton, QB, Ohio.
Threw for a career-high 285 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Bobcats to a 44-7 victory over Marshall and improve to 3-0 on the year -- its best start to a season since 1976. He also also rushed for a touchdown and a season-best 53 yards.

Defense: Dwayne Woods, LB, Bowling Green. Had a game-high 12 tackles and two tackles for loss in the Falcons’ 28-27 loss to Wyoming.

Special Teams: Matt Weller, K, Ohio. Was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals, connecting from 20, 21 and 34 yards and was 5-for-5 in extra-point attempts in a win over Marshall.

West Division
Offense: Jordan White, WR, Western Michigan.
Had 13 catches for a season-high 177 yards in a 44-14 win over Central Michigan. White had two touchdowns and a career-best 241 all-purpose yards.

Defense: Travis Freeman, LB, Ball State. Had a season-high 12 tackles in a 28-25 victory over Buffalo.

Special Teams: John Potter, K, Western Michigan. Scored for 14 points in a 44-14 win over Central Michigan with five extra points and a career-matching three field goals (33, 43, 43).

Mountain West

Offense: Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State. Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State. Moore went 32-of-42 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns. The 32 completions are a single-game career high for Moore, while the five touchdowns tied his career high. Hillman rushed for 191 yards on a career-high 32 carries and tied his career-high with four touchdowns in a 42-24 win over Washington State.

Defense: Larry Parker, DB, San Diego State. Josh Biezuns, DL, Wyoming. Parker helped forced three turnovers, including two fourth-quarter interceptions, as the Aztecs beat Washington State 42-24. The two interceptions were the first two of his career. Biezuns forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, had two sacks for 15 yards and combined with fellow senior defensive lineman Gabe Knapton to block the potential game-tying extra-point attempts with 3 seconds left as Wyoming beat Bowling Green 28-27.

Special teams: Greg McCoy, DB, TCU. Returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown in the second half, setting the tone for TCU to score 14 points in the opening 4:18 of the third quarter in its 38-17 win over ULM.

Sun Belt

Offense: Corey Robinson, QB, Troy. Set new career highs for pass attempts (63), completions (36) and rushing yards (33) in a loss to Arkansas. His 373 passing yards were the third most of his career.

Defense: Isame Faciane, DT, FIU. LaDarrius Madden, DB, Troy. Faciane had arguably the biggest play of the game against UCF when he picked up a fumble by Jeff Godfrey and returned it 51 yards for a game-tying touchdown in the win over the Knights. Madden had six total tackles and a 53-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Special Teams: Melvin White, DB, Louisiana. Made the momentum turning play against Nicholls State with a 68-yard blocked field goal return for a touchdown. The Cajuns outscored the Colonels 24-7 after the blocked field goal.

WAC

Offense: Mike Ball, RB, Nevada. Rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns in Nevada’s 17-14 win at San Jose State.

Defense: Logan Harrell, DT, Fresno State. Recorded a career-high 11 tackles and tied his career-high with 4.5 tackles for a loss of 23 yards in a 27-22 win over North Dakota.

Special teams: Jake Hurst, P, Nevada. Punted six times for 259 yards, A 43.2-yard average, in the win over San Jose State. He had a long of 49 yards and placed two inside the 20-yard line.

Weekend rewind: Notre Dame

September, 19, 2011
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A Notre Dame win makes this look back at the weekend much more enjoyably for many of you, as the Fighting Irish washed away the demons from a pair of heartbreaking losses to top Michigan State 31-13.

The Good: The pass rush was at its absolute best Saturday, knocking around Kirk Cousins and holding the Spartans' ground attack to 29 yards on 23 carries. Freshman Aaron Lynch, who didn't play at Michigan a week earlier, led the charge with six hurries, five tackles and one sack that forced Cousins to fumble.

The Bad: Three turnovers are still three too many. As Brian Kelly said afterward, he's not at the point where he will simply take the bad with the good because of a win: "We've got to hold onto a punt late in the game. We can't do that. And Tommy [Rees]'s developing, and I'm not happy with interceptions but he knows what's happening and he's going to continue to get better.

The Ugly: What was Mark Dantonio thinking? Down 11 just before halftime and set to get the ball to start the second half, the MSU coach passed on a chip-shot field goal by attempting another fake against the Irish. Surely, Notre Dame's guard was up, and the call made little sense given the time and situation. The attempt was stuffed, MSU went three-and-out to start the second half and the Irish scored on the next possession to make it 28-13.

Turning point: Robert Blanton's interception and ensuing 82-yard return put to rest any nightmares Irish fans had after John Goodman fumbled a punt return in the MSU red zone. The pick secured the first win of the season for Notre Dame and sent a sigh of relief throughout town.

Call of the day: George Atkinson III's 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown answered MSU's first score and made it a 14-3 game early. The Irish executed the play by bringing an "ambush" player, walk-on Chris Salvi, from one side of the field to the other, taking out the coverage and contain men simultaneously. It created enough room for Atkinson, a freshman, to take it all the way and give the Irish some much-needed momentum.

Next up: The Irish travel to Heinz Field to take on a Pitt team that must be feeling how Notre Dame felt after Weeks 1 and 2. The Panthers blew a 24-3 lead at Iowa on Saturday and ultimately fell 31-27.

Notre Dame helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 17, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A Fighting Irish win means more helmet stickers to go around. And there were several key contributors who stood out for Notre Dame in its 31-13 win over Michigan State.

Robert Blanton: His fourth-quarter interception and ensuing return sealed the deal for the Irish. Just as importantly, he had three big tackles for loss, and six overall, helping the Irish secondary respond from a dismal fourth-quarter performance a week ago.

Manti Te'o: The linebacker finished with a game-high 12 tackles, moving all over the field and helping the Irish limit MSU's ground game to 29 measly yards on 23 carries.

George Atkinson III: The Irish finally got a big special teams play, and it was the freshman who stepped up to deliver it. Right after Sparty cut the lead to 7-3 early, Atkinson returned the kickoff 89 yards for the score, helping the Irish keep their distance throughout the rest of the game.

Michael Floyd: The numbers aren't what they were in Weeks 1 and 2, but Floyd's 84 yards on six catches -- including the 200th of his career -- led the Irish. Often drawing two men on him, Floyd opened things up for the rest of the Irish offense, as Tommy Rees spread the ball around much more efficiently his third time around.

Harrison Smith: Eight tackles, a near-pick at the end of the game and setting the tone for the defense throughout the week as the team's lone season captain earns Smith this sticker. Smith seemed to dictate the mentality of the unit in getting Notre Dame its first win of the season.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly pulled his star cornerback aside as Notre Dame walked off the field Saturday, and he told the senior not to share with anybody else what he had just told his head coach.

"We had a conversation that I didn't want our DBs, in particular, Gary [Gray] and him, to sit back and be apprehensive based upon last week," Kelly said. "I said, 'Be aggressive.' He said, 'Coach, I was maybe a little too aggressive on that play.'

"I said, 'Make sure you don't tell anybody that. You were correct in all of your alignments and assignments.' "

Chalk it up to a pair of devastating losses or even a handful of more turnovers against Michigan State, but Robert Blanton and the Fighting Irish played with a make-or-break mentality Saturday, winning their first game of the season by a 31-13 score.

[+] EnlargeRobert Blanton
John Gress/Getty ImagesRobert Blanton's fourth-quarter interception sealed the win for Notre Dame.
Blanton sealed the contest with an interception at the goal line with less than four minutes to play, returning it 82 yards deep into Spartans territory. And he made good on his promise to Kelly afterward, biting his tongue when asked about the conversation between coach and senior leader after victory No. 1.

"Yes, sir," he said politely when asked if he told Kelly he was too aggressive.

"Yes, sir," he said again when the conversation was repeated to him for clarity.

"No, sir," he said when asked if there was anything else he would like to share from that conversation.

"No, sir," he said again when told the conversation seemed longer than what he was letting on.

The funny postgame episode with the media went against the way his coaches and teammates described him nearby -- brash, loud, aggressive.

And, in a game he finished with six tackles -- three for a loss -- he was the difference-maker for Notre Dame.

"He's usually a talkative guy on the field," fifth-year safety Harrison Smith said, "but I think after that one he was out of gas, so I think he was pretty quiet."

Blanton deserved all the time he needed after a second-straight end-zone pick in the fourth quarter, this one actually sealing the game after last week's frenetic final minutes rendered his first pick of the season moot.

It came one drive after Notre Dame had seemingly shut down Sparty once and for all, forcing a punt with less than five minutes left and holding a 28-13 lead.

And it came three plays after the yips returned again, this time to punt returner John Goodman, who lost the ball at his own 21-yard line.

MSU pounced on it, and all of a sudden the Spartans were poised to deliver one more heartbreak to an Irish team that suffered more than its fair share two weeks into the 2011 season.

"It's just like second-nature now," Smith said of the sudden-change defense. "That's something we practice and we almost like that, as sick as that sounds.

"When we get a bunch of adversity where we gotta go back on the field, that's a challenge for us that we need to step up to, and that's just the way we see it. That's what we need to do for our team."

Added linebacker Manti Te'o: "I think it's part of our DNA."

So Blanton broke in front of B.J. Cunningham, the only bright spot for MSU's offense on the day, and the cornerback rumbled, stumbled and finally collapsed at the Spartans' 11, receiving an earful from safety Jamoris Slaughter afterward for not lateraling it to him on the return.

"He's extremely active," Kelly said. "He's got great instincts. When the ball is in the air, he's gonna go get it. I feel very confident no matter who goes against him that when the ball's in the air he's gonna make a great play on the ball.

"And sometimes you try to coach that as much as you can, but some guys are just good at it. And he's really, really good. And he's a spirited guy. He's really, you talk about guys that lead by example, he also leads. He's probably one of our more emotional leaders back there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit."

Smith said that passion transcends the football field -- to workouts, the film room, ping pong and even video games.

"It doesn't matter what it is," Smith said of Blanton. "He's gonna be out there, he's gonna be loud and he's gonna make sure that you know his presence is felt, not just with talking but with his play."

He needed only one of those during a week Smith, the lone team captain, set the tone for the defense by refusing to talk about the past and telling the media it was time for the Irish to walk the walk.

Te'o, who was with Smith during that press conference Wednesday, paused when asked about Blanton, searching for words before finally labeling him special, which drew laughs from everyone within earshot.

"He's real special," Te'o said, "and he knows what to say at the right time."

Knowing how reserved Blanton had been minutes earlier, Te'o offered a clarification.

"To us," he said with a laugh. "I really love him and he had a great game today."

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