NCF Nation: T.J. Jones
Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:
It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.
Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.
Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).
Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)
What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.
What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.
To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.
Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.
What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.
Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).
Players later revealed they will receive PlayStation 4s. They will also use the New York Giants' practice complex in East Rutherford, N.J. Trips to Ground Zero and other area landmarks are also on the docket.
Shorts and flip-flops might be replaced by winter coats and boots, but the impending matchup with Rutgers and all that surrounds it has the Irish much more intrigued than initially anticipated.
"I guess you hear so much about the other bowls, we didn't think that the Pinstripe Bowl was one of the options we would have," receiver TJ Jones said. "So when we heard it, it wasn't a shock but it was, Oh, we didn't know that bowl was in our options. But now, after we realized what we'd already be able to do in New York, be it Rockefeller Center, the venues that we'll be able to see and also playing in Yankee Stadium again, and we're definitely excited to play."
The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl looked like an option, but it would have required some extra legwork, which ultimately became doomed once Northern Illinois lost the Mid-American Conference title game Friday night. (Reports surfaced about the Irish going to New York earlier that day.) The Sheraton Hawaii Bowl was desirable, too, but its Christmas Eve date made things extremely difficult on a group whose final exams end just four days before.
So it's back to the Bronx, where the current senior class beat Army in the 2010 Shamrock Series. That group remembers the Jumbotron that it lacks in their six home contests, and it remembers playing in the first football game at the new Yankee Stadium, which is hosting its fourth bowl game.
"We had the Yankees locker room, being there and getting ready in those guys' locker room and being out," left tackle Zack Martin said. "The whole baseball field, the way it's set up is pretty cool, and then playing a team like Army, it's kind of a special moment."
Martin, a two-time captain, reasoned that a four-loss team such as Notre Dame cannot get upset at anyone for not playing in warm weather, and that the team is happy with its new destination.
For Notre Dame's eight players from New York and New Jersey, it is a welcome change to be home for the holidays.
"A lot of my family and friends, close followers, support back from home didn't really get a chance to come to a lot of the games," said captain Bennett Jackson, a Hazlet, N.J., native. "Now I'll get a chance to see them. I can stay after the game in New Jersey a little longer and see my family. But it's really great to be able to play at home, my last game in front of all my family."
He is what Brian Kelly calls a gentleman off the field and a tough guy on it, distinctions that will hardly be unique when the sophomore takes the field Saturday night for No. 25 Notre Dame in its regular-season finale at No. 8 Stanford.
The Cardinal are among the three teams the Irish have chosen to keep on their schedule annually moving forward. In a season that has seen Kelly discredit the tension with Michigan, the nation's winningest program, it was more than a little noteworthy to hear the coach call the game with Stanford a "great rivalry" Tuesday.
"Both teams want to be the smartest, toughest football teams in the country," Kelly said.
Last year's meeting was the first between schools ranked in the top 20 of both the football polls and the U.S. News & World Report's best colleges list.
This year Kelly is tasked with taking his operation almost 2,000 miles away on Black Friday, a considerably lighter chore given that the schools had once eyed a destination for this contest some 7,000 miles away: China.
The terrain this weekend in Stanford Stadium will nonetheless be familiar for many visitors, Jack Swarbrick among them. The Irish athletic director has trouble hiding his enthusiasm when talking about this matchup, as he received his Bachelor's in economics from Notre Dame before moving on to Stanford Law.
"There are obvious similarities," Swarbrick said. "Private [schools], among the smallest undergraduate populations in the FBS, excellent academic reputations, a broad commitment to collegiate sports model as reflected in number of sports and levels of success, passionate alumni scattered around the globe and very strong brands.
"Relative to football, the clear commonality is an insistence that the members of our teams be fully integrated into the university in the same manner other students are. They are truly student athletes. This is reflected in both graduation rates and the success of our student-athletes after football is over."
Swarbrick has company on both sides. College Football Playoff selection committee member Condoleezza Rice earned her master's from Notre Dame and is a professor at Stanford. Cardinal coach David Shaw has enlisted the assistance of the former Secretary of State in hosting recruits -- one of whom, TJ Jones, initially committed to Stanford but is now an Irish captain. (Rice has been no stranger at Notre Dame Stadium herself.)
Muir's new employer attracted headlines this summer when the Cardinal sold out of season tickets for the first time, underscoring the cat-and-mouse relationship between these two programs.
Notre Dame has sold out all but one home game since 1966, but it is Stanford that will make its fourth-straight BCS bowl with a win in next week's Pac-12 title game.
The Cardinal are quarterbacked by Kevin Hogan, who estimates he has 10-20 cousins and another five or six aunts and uncles who went to Notre Dame. Protecting Hogan is right guard Kevin Danser, whose uncle, John Gallagher, played hoops for the Irish and roomed with Joe Theismann. Reserve center Conor McFadden, whose photographic memory has become the source of attention that seemingly only the Cardinal or Irish could attract, has a grandfather and several uncles who went to Notre Dame as well.
"It's a fun game because you have the connections, family connections, and we all want to win it," Hogan said.
On Tuesday, Kelly fielded a question here about playing "Notre Dame football," sparking a response about how he does not want personalities like Russell's to be marginalized as just football players.
A few hours later in Silicon Valley, Shaw began his press conference by announcing that Stanford had won another off-the-field honor, this time its second straight AFCA Academic Achievement Award. The Cardinal coach then spent the next few minutes talking about how this would help in recruiting.
It only happened to be Notre Dame week.
"We understand how to manage your time so that you do well in school and you do well in football and you have a social life and you enjoy yourself here, that it is possible for all three of those," Shaw said. "When we graduate our guys and we play really good in football and they come to visit, our guys love it here. That helps a lot."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Can't anything be easy around here?
Perhaps Ken Niumatalolo encapsulated why not after Saturday's Navy-Notre Dame game.
"For everybody that plays Notre Dame," the Navy coach said, "this is the Super Bowl for that team."
It was a different kind of championship, to be sure. And it was a different kind of rivalry, one whose mutual respect seeped through a silence that could best be described as deafening when both the Midshipmen and the Fighting Irish gathered near the visiting pocket of Notre Dame Stadium to sing the Navy Hymn afterward.
The ensuing "U-S-A" chants from the crowd as both teams gathered for Notre Dame's alma mater was a nice touch, too, as was the scary-low pregame flyover from the Blue Angels.
As for everything that happened in between on Saturday? Let's just say No. 25 Notre Dame will take the 38-34 win, thank you, and will wave a glorious goodbye to triple-option football for another year.
"Yes, I'm very glad," precocious freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith said of being done with a two-week stretch of Air Force and Navy, before adding that it would be "good to get back to regular football."
It all resulted in Notre Dame's 10th straight win under Brian Kelly in games decided by seven points or fewer, with eight of those 10 wins coming at home in the past two seasons.
Kelly said he was "ecstatic" to escape this contest with a win, that there would be no asterisk next to it, that his guys would enjoy all 24 hours of their allotted celebration time.
But after so much talk this week about the confidence built up from three straight wins over Arizona State, USC and Air Force, he recognized the outlier that Navy was, how liberating the sigh of relief that washed over the building was once Smith stopped Shawn Lynch on Navy's final play, a fourth-and-4 end-around from the Irish 31.
"This is one, just throw it away," Kelly said. "It's such a different game. It's defending the quarterback, lead play, and it's just you're ready for one game and the Naval Academy and what they do and how they do it, and then the next week it's a totally different situation. That's why it's such a difficult game to play.
"Nobody runs this option as effectively, and when they are on and they're not turning the football over -- and that's what they did today -- it's a one-shot deal with them. Find a way to beat them and move on."
To be fair, his defensive line is pushing all sorts of limits on depth. From the Eddie Vanderdoes transfer to UCLA to season-ending surgeries this summer for Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann, from losing Louis Nix for these past two games and then seeing Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke go down with undisclosed injuries against Navy, Notre Dame is barely getting by up front, and it is no surprise that the Midshipmen were able to run for 331 yards.
"I'm just glad I'll never do the triple option ever again," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said.
So it was a touching renewal with a rival who actually will stay on the schedule, and then another mark in the W column -- not much else to see here. It is on to a Pitt team that has fallen to the Irish by three points in each of the past two seasons, before a bye week gives way to tougher tests against BYU and Stanford.
Those BCS-bowl hopes that a seemingly refreshed outfit chatted about this week? Still alive, and that's all Notre Dame cares to know, however ridiculous the notion of an Orange Bowl matchup against someone like Florida State sounds after all that transpired in the last 60 minutes.
"It's Notre Dame; we don't expect anything to be easy," Irish senior captain TJ Jones said. "That's why we came here. It's one of the greatest challenges off the field and on the field that you can get from an institution, and we expect that week in and week out."
"I've got to tell you, I don't know that we even really have that in our mind-set as much as the guys want to win football games on Saturday," coach Brian Kelly said. "And we just don't get too far ahead of ourselves, because we are staying in the present. And if we think about anything else but the next day of practice, we just -- we just would be putting ourselves in peril. So they have done a great job since I've been here of just really trying to stay focused day to day, and if they get ahead of themselves and start thinking about anything else, we'll find ourselves looking at it on the other end. Again, I think if they just focus on -- they are going to get some time this week to focus on their studies and academics, and get ready for USC."
Still, momentary lapses provided the staff much to work with, particularly when the Sun Devils went 75 yards in just 57 seconds to cut the Irish lead to three and make the game essentially come down to an onside kick, which TJ Jones recovered.
"Well, you know, I wasn't doing jumping jacks," Kelly said. "I guess all I was saying was that I felt our defense was playing well enough for us to win, and I still feel that way. There are things that we have to continue to improve on. Nobody was happy with the last drive. [Defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco was not happy. Our players were not happy. But we think there are things that we can take from it. You know, it's the first time we saw a team that actually wanted to get back there and try to throw a comprehensive passing game and we were able to get some pressure.
"We were opportunistic in turnovers and I thought we did a very good job in -- again, obviously they couldn't run the football against us. So those are all basic, important tenets of playing good defense. So I think those continue to show themselves week in and week out and if you do that, you've got a chance to win each game that you play. I'm not saying that, you know, we've got a spectacular defense, but we have a solid defense that is getting better."
One that answered the bell when it mattered most, staunching the bleeding from a two-loss September and giving the Irish much to play for over the second half of the season.
"They know how difficult it is to win, and when you're on a stretch of games that they were on, and they knew a bye week was coming up, it was a very important game for them, and they understood the significance of winning, and they clearly knew the difference between 4-2 and 3-3 going into a bye week," Kelly said. "They are feeling pretty good. You know, again, I think the most important thing for them is they now look at it as a six-game schedule and they have got to be perfect for six weeks."
On Saturday, Oklahoma will make its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium in 14 years. The Irish won that 1999 contest, 34-30, and have won eight others against the Sooners, as they hold a 9-1 all-time mark in the series. Last season's game turned on several big Notre Dame plays on both sides of the ball, lifting the Irish to a 30-13 road win and an 8-0 record.
What will happen this time around? We turn to Big 12 reporter Brandon Chatmon and Notre Dame reporter Matt Fortuna to preview this weekend's tilt in South Bend, Ind.
Matt: Brandon, Blake Bell earned the noble distinction last year of becoming the first player to rush for a touchdown against Notre Dame. That was eight games into the Irish's season, and this year they have already given up two scores on the ground. Obviously, Bell has a lot more on his plate this time around. And he is making his first career road start, in a stadium where the Irish have won 10 straight games. What can Notre Dame's defense expect to see from Bell on Saturday?
Brandon: The Irish will actually have to account for the possibility they will see No. 10 throw the ball when he's behind center. Notre Dame will have to be prepare for Bell to test its secondary with his arm more than his feet, and he showed he might be a better passer than people think in his first start against Tulsa. Undoubtedly, the windows will shrink against ND but the fact remains that the Irish will have to prepare for Bell, who could test them with his arm and feet, unlike their preparations for Landry Jones, who doesn't put fear into the heart of any defense with his legs. The overriding question in Norman is: how have the Irish changed in the trenches after manhandling OU in Norman last season? Can they do that again?
Matt: The depth of Notre Dame's defensive line took some hits this offseason -- first with the transfer of Eddie Vanderdoes to UCLA, then with the ACL tear suffered by Tony Springmann. Still, the front-line guys remain very dangerous, though the numbers have not exactly depicted that through four games. The Irish's opponents have done a good job of establishing a quick-strike passing game, effectively negating the strengths of the Irish's defensive linemen. A mobile quarterback like Bell will likely present more challenges Saturday, and it us up to the Irish to continue to adjust. The other side is a bit of a mystery as well. Notre Dame has struggled to establish much of a run game so far, but its offensive line has done a tremendous job of keeping Tommy Rees standing up straight through four games, and the offense has again limited the turnovers. Rees and this year's group of running backs just don't pose the kind of threat that Everett Golson and last year's backfield did, so it's hard to imagine the Irish running to set up the deep pass in the same way they were able to last year, when they connected with Chris Brown for a game-changing 50-yard strike in the fourth quarter. They may have more weapons at receiver this year, though. How does Oklahoma's pass coverage match up with TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels and company?
Brandon: Well, Matt, the Sooners' secondary would like to think it's ready for the challenge against Rees and Notre Dame's receivers. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won't be a concern, but the rest of the secondary is somewhat untested. Senior Gabe Lynn is starting at safety, a new position, after spending his first three seasons at nickelback and corner, and he has played well. OU's three new starters, nickelback Julian Wilson, cornerback Zack Sanchez and safety Quentin Hayes, have looked good but haven't yet played a quarterback who will capitalize on their mistakes. That said, the OU secondary, without question, is faster and better in coverage than the 2012 version. Whether it will it hold up mentally in a hostile environment is the unanswered question, so I can't wait to see how it all plays out. Anyway, who do you like this weekend?
Matt: Notre Dame's defense played its best game Saturday, responding to Brian Kelly's mid-week challenge. But I'm just not sure it has completely turned the corner yet. I think the Irish are getting Oklahoma at a more opportune time, as Bell is making just his second start and the Sooners have yet to really be tested. But I have not seen enough so far that makes me believe Notre Dame will be able to handle everything Oklahoma will throw at it offensively. Oklahoma has had one more week to prepare, and I sense a bit of wounded pride coming from the Sooners after the Irish out-muscled them late last year and, eventually, ended up ruining the their BCS-bowl hopes. How do you see this one unfolding?
Brandon: I think everything falls on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. Rees is much more experienced than Bell and I have a feeling that's going to show itself on Saturday as the Irish make Bell uncomfortable in the pocket and force a couple of mental mistakes from the junior during his first road start. OU's defense will hold up and play well, giving the Sooners the chance to remain in the game no matter what happens offensively. But turnovers will be the difference and ND will win the turnover battle and win a close, hard-fought game at home.
Back in the locker room was a gift that Brindza, Notre Dame's do-it-all special-teamer, wanted to give to his nephew: a game-ball he received for his efforts in the Irish's 17-13 win Saturday over Michigan State, their third straight win over the rival Spartans.
Yes, it was that kind of afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium, with the Irish getting out-gained in a game that featured less than 500 total yards of offense between the two squads, on a day that began with the program suffering its first blocked punt in five years, in a contest that saw TJ Jones fumble one punt and inadvertently touch another.
Notre Dame recovered both, and in the end, its zero turnovers to Michigan State's one might have been the difference. The Irish won their 10th straight home game, a feat they have not accomplished in 14 years. They made it seven for their past seven in games decided by one score. And they improved to 12-0 under coach Brian Kelly when they do not give the ball away.
This team learned all about winning ugly during last season's run. The question now is if a similar path is what it will take to have another successful campaign.
"I would characterize it a little bit differently," Kelly said when asked about an ugly win. "I think both defenses really carried the day here today. I think Michigan State has a great defense. They're very difficult to play against in so many fashions.
"If you would have asked me last week about what this kind of game was going to be, it wasn't going to be a beauty contest. I felt like it was going to be this kind of game."
Quarterback Tommy Rees had his worst game of the season, but avoided costly mistakes. He went 14-of-34 for 142 yards on a day that Kelly said that the senior simply missed open receivers.
Notre Dame's biggest offensive weapon, however, might have been the yellow flag.
Four pass-interference penalties gave the Irish 60 yards, with another hold, a 10-yarder, coming on a third-and-9 play in the first quarter on a drive that ended with a Brindza field goal.
One pass-interference call came on third down. Another came on a fourth-and-1 on a drive that ended with a Jones touchdown right before halftime.
DaVaris Daniels drew one on a third-quarter play that could have easily been ruled against him. Two plays later, Corey Robinson drew one. Two more plays later, and Cam McDaniel was in the end zone with a 7-yard touchdown.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had his view of pass-interference calls in a rather humorous postgame news conference. Kelly had his own view.
"When you know that the quarterback is going to throw it back shoulder, the defensive back does not know where it is, you have an advantage in that situation," Kelly said. "You're going to get some pass-interference calls when you put the ball in a good position."
Added Robinson, the 6-foot-4 freshman who led all players with 54 yards on three catches: "When the ball's in there I have to go get it, regardless of whether it's inside, outside, high or low, it doesn't matter. And I have to get around the cornerback to get the ball, and if I get the call then I get the call.
"But I have to make the catch regardless, and today I didn't make a couple of the catches, but I was fortunate to get the call. I don't got for pass interference; I'm trying to get the ball every single time, and that's the goal every time."
Matthias Farley accounted for the game's lone takeaway when he picked off Spartans freshman R.J. Shelton on an ill-advised halfback pass in the third quarter. Notre Dame scored on the very next drive.
The Irish came no closer to solving their backfield riddle, as they netted just 82 yards on 32 carries, with McDaniel again serving as the end-of-game back, getting the team's final 12 carries and even getting an unsportsmanlike-conduct call to boot.
Trailing by four with 3:12 to play and two timeouts left, Michigan State punted the ball from its own 35-yard line.
Which offense that was a bigger indictment of is a matter of debate, as Notre Dame returned favor with a three-and-out, only to see new Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell fall 12 yards short on his decisive fourth-and-20 run.
Notre Dame is 3-1 as it readies for Oklahoma. The Irish handed the nation's top defense its first loss of the season. And perhaps that's all that should be said about that.
"We know how to win close games," Rees said. "That's something we've done for a while now. I think all the guys understood what it took to close out a close one."
But when it comes to The Bus, Dennard and Lewis are glorified special teamers, barely hanging onto roster spots. See, The Bus doesn't care about career starts. All of its regular riders have those. You need to bring something more: All-Big Ten honors, All-America honors, a national award or two. Helping your team to a Big Ten championship -- and possibly more -- moves you up a few rows.
What is this magic bus? Let's let Pete Townshend, er, Mark Dantonio explain.
"So they're traveling, they're playing on special teams, but they've got to become a starter this year."
It won't be easy, looking at the group sitting at the front of The Bus.
There's Mike Doss, the former Ohio State safety who Dantonio coached in Columbus, a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and a unanimous consensus All-American in 2002, when the Buckeyes won the national title. Next to Doss is former Buckeyes teammate Chris Gamble, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2002 who also contributed on special teams and offense before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick. Other D-Bus starters include Kwamie Lassiter, who Dantonio coached at Kansas; and safeties Aric Morris and Renaldo Hill, who Dantonio mentored at Michigan State during his first go-round as an assistant for Nick Saban.
"It's very humbling," Dennard said. "Me and Isaiah, we both think we are very blessed to be mentioned with those guys. Those are great players he always mentions on his bus. It’s a great thing to even be talked about at the same time. We have to have a mindset how it is, we have to be the top of the top of the top of the bus."
It's a lofty goal, but one that Dennard could reach as a senior. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches last year after recording 52 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups for one of the nation's best defenses. More impressive, he played most of the season with a sports hernia, likely suffered in September. Dennard underwent surgery after the season.
"He could have had his intestines hanging out, and he wouldn't have done anything about it," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "The kid's that tough."
Dennard entered the fall on the watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, as well as the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, which go to the top defensive player. The 5-11, 197-pound senior should push Ohio State's Bradley Roby for the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award.
He's also a potential high pick in next April's NFL draft.
"He's probably the best corner we've coached," Narduzzi said this spring. "And he's a fun kid to coach."
Dantonio doesn't bring up names like Doss and Gamble with his current players, but he lets them know where they stand.
"For Coach Dantonio to tell you you're one of the best guys he has ever seen play this position, one of the best guys he has ever coached at this position, it means a lot, man," Lewis said. "You want to be the best and want to do better."
Dennard knows firsthand how preseason praise, whether it stems from his coaches or the outside, means nothing unless he can back it up on the field. Last year, he played opposite cornerback Johnny Adams, who entered the season projected as a potential first-round pick -- Mel Kiper had Adams at No. 14 on his initial Big Board -- but didn't take his game to the next level. Adams earned All-Big Ten honors but missed Michigan State's bowl game with an injury, wasn't drafted and twice was waived by NFL teams last month before making the Buffalo Bills' roster.
"Knowing all the things he did throughout his career here, it kind of gets you down," Dennard said. "But at the same time, I too much don’t think about it. … It's definitely motivation. Just going in every day, from my standpoint you can't be complacent with everything. Preseason is preseason."
Lewis is expected to join Dennard this week when Michigan State faces its first major test of the season on the road against No. 23 Notre Dame. Although the Spartans finally looked like a functional offense last Saturday against Youngstown State, they'll lean on their defense against an Irish team averaging 236 pass yards a game and deep threats T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown.
Big plays have been a theme early this season for the "Spartan Dawgs," who already have eight takeaways, tied for sixth most nationally and nearly half of their total (20) from all of 2012. Dennard and Lewis look to continue to trend in South Bend.
"We have to make more plays," Dennard said. "We have to make more interceptions for touchdowns and have to do more exciting things, like forcing fumbles or scoring touchdowns or doing whatever, big hits or whatever to make Coach D happy."
If they do, they'll earn permanent spots on the bus, seated toward the front.
" After this year, are they going to belong with the likes of Mike Doss, Chris Gamble, Kwamie Lassiter, Aric Morris, Renaldo Hill?" Dantonio said. "Those guys who are starting in front of them right now, guys that we've coached, they're very, very good players. [Denard and Lewis] are making their way onto the field, onto that team."
So Caroline started watching Notre Dame games. And she watched her older brother's Pop Warner games. Intrigued, she started playing flag football as a kindergartener. She moved on to tackle in second grade. That eventually became a problem for some folks back in Doylestown, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, where she was kicked off her local CYO team.
That didn't sit well with the Plas. Caroline and her family waged a campaign that drew national headlines, including a January spot on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." There, Caroline said her favorite team across all levels of football was Notre Dame. As the segment ended she found out she would be a guest of the program for its 2013 opener. And seven months of anticipation commenced.
"It just seemed like the months went by so slowly whenever I thought about it," Caroline said. "And then last week came and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to Notre Dame,' and I got excited and started packing and got stuff ready."
The pep rally followed, with the Plas then watching Saturday's tilt from seats behind the Temple sideline, near the stadium tunnel. Field passes allowed the family access to players afterward, where Caroline received autographs and a mini-pep talk from her favorite player, captain TJ Jones.
"Disney World on cleats," Seal Pla, Caroline's mother, said, describing her children's reactions to the weekend.
Caroline has more on her plate this weekend, as she will play her first game for the varsity Romans, composed of seventh- and eighth-graders. The Archibishop of Philadelphia gave co-ed ball the OK back in March, reversing course after putting the kibosh on Caroline's two-year career in the league on the junior varsity.
There, she was one of the tallest players among the younger age group. Now she will be trying her hand at offensive guard and defensive end against older, bigger players.
She will have a bit of a cheat sheet from her 15-year-old brother, George, who is now a high school wide receiver. Caroline first watched George take the field as a 5-year-old, when he first began to serve as her inspiration to shun soccer like most of her friends in favor of fall weekends on the gridiron.
Caroline is still only a seventh-grader, so she has five years before she has to live up to her end of her grandfather's bargain. Wherever she ends up, though, will likely pale in comparison to this past weekend's events.
"It was just so much fun, even from the first minute we got there, just seeing the campus for the first time," Caroline said. "I always wanted to see it in real life. It was bigger than I expected, and all of the buildings were older and pretty. And then we saw the stadium, and it was really loud and big and overwhelming."
Tommy Rees, QB: Rees had a career-high 346 passing yards, completing 16 of 23 passes with three touchdowns and no picks. This was just the kind of start Notre Dame needed to see from Rees, who has endured a barrage of questions throughout his college career but has managed to keep an even keel throughout it all.
TJ Jones, WR: Jones also turned in a career-best effort in recording 138 receiving yards. He caught six passes, made several shifty maneuvers after the catch and looked very much like the go-to threat Brian Kelly kept calling him throughout camp. He also netted 23 yards on three punt returns, something worth noting on a Fighting Irish return unit that has struggled mightily the past three years.
DaVaris Daniels, WR: Like Jones, Daniels also picked up right where he left off. The Irish's two best receivers from the Discover BCS National Championship loss had strong outings Saturday. Daniels notched his first two career touchdowns, both 32 yards, and finished with three catches for 69 yards despite sitting out the second half for precautionary measures because of a groin problem.
Stephon Tuitt, DE: So much for all that weight talk. Tuitt, who put on 19 pounds this offseason after undergoing a hernia operation, picked up right where he left off, notching four total tackles and a sack. Don't be surprised if he makes another run at Justin Tuck's single-season school record of 13.5 sacks.
When Temple has the ball: Under former coach Steve Addazio, the Owls were a ground-and-pound team. Now they are without their top two backs from last season in Montel Harris and Matt Brown. They have a new coach in Matt Rhule, who has implemented a pro spread offense, which allowed quarterback Connor Reilly to ascend from the fourth team to starter since the start of this past spring. Leading receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick (30 catches, 363 yards, 2 TDs) is back. But Cody Booth, who led the Owls last season with four touchdown catches, has moved from tight end to left tackle. Former signal-caller Chris Coyer added 30 pounds this offseason as he moved to H-back. Notre Dame will likely look to pressure Reilly in his first career start and force him into some early mistakes, especially now that the Irish have a secondary that is better equipped to seize opportunities than it was last season.
When Notre Dame has the ball: Tommy Rees is Notre Dame's quarterback, again. So what changes? For one, Rees is two years older than he was the last time he started extensively for the Irish. He's a bit bigger, too. He has two proven receivers in captain TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels, and some unproven talent behind them. Notre Dame's pistol package in camp has caused some buzz in South Bend, and it figures to help a crowded but mostly green backfield. Those tailbacks, by the way, should try to avoid linebacker Tyler Matakevich at all costs, as he is the reigning Big East rookie of the year and already one of the leaders of the defense as a sophomore captain.
Intangible: This is 38-year-old Rhule's first game as a head coach. The former New York Giants assistant returned to the Owls after serving as an assistant under Al Golden. You never know how a new coach and his players will come out early, especially when entering a place with as much history as Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish, meanwhile, should know better than to look ahead to Michigan, as they had their 2011 opener ruined by what turned out to be a 3-9 Big East team (South Florida).
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Temple 6. The Owls may be the worst team the Irish face this season. Some early first-game hiccups will keep it from eventually getting too far out of hand.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Coach: Brian Kelly (199-68-2 overall, 28-11 at Notre Dame)
2012 record: 12-1
Key losses: RB Theo Riddick, RB Cierre Wood, TE Tyler Eifert, C Braxston Cave, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Manti Te'o, S Zeke Motta
Newcomer to watch: RB Greg Bryant. The Delray Beach, Fla., native was ESPN's No. 2 running back prospect for the Class of 2013 and walks into a crowded but opportune situation. Bryant, an Oklahoma de-commit, is one of six backs vying for extensive playing time after the Irish said goodbye to their top-two rushers from a year ago. Coach Brian Kelly has already gone on record as saying that his young running backs are guys who will help the Irish win some games this fall, and Bryant may turn out to be the best of the bunch.
Biggest games in 2013: Sept. 7 at Michigan, Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State, Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State (in Arlington, Texas), Oct. 19 vs. USC, Nov. 30 at Stanford
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The most pressing question may be how Notre Dame adjusts on the fly after learning after the spring that it would be without quarterback Everett Golson for at least the fall (academic misconduct). Luckily for the Irish, senior Tommy Rees and his 18 starts are back, though he will need some new playmakers to emerge around him after the Irish lost their top two running backs and first-round pick Tyler Eifert at tight end. Six men are vying for carries in the backfield, while TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels anchor the receiving corps.
Forecast: Kelly made it clear that 2012 was in the past by taking his team to Camp Shiloh in Marion, Ind., for the first week of fall camp. No social media or television and, more specifically, no more talk about the Alabama game, Manti Te'o or the other headlines that followed the program during a wild offseason. In helping to get that message across, Kelly has the perfect quarterback in Rees, who has overcome negative headlines of his own and, last year, overcame losing his starting job. He went on to save the Irish in three of their first six games last season and proved to be as valuable as anyone on the roster. Never will that be more evident than this season, as he steps up again in Golson's absence. A stronger Rees took control of the offense during the offseason, and better decision-making should pay dividends for the Irish this fall.
They finished second nationally in scoring defense last season and return eight starters from that unit, including potential 2014 first-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. They are also much deeper, with a plethora of linebackers and defensive backs ready to spare the starters at a moment's notice, a far cry from last season, when the team broke in three new starters in the secondary -- with all three having been on the offensive side of the ball earlier in their careers.
Kelly returns all of his assistants after a renaissance 2012 campaign that saw the team notch a perfect regular season before meeting Alabama in the BCS National Championship. He brought in ESPN's No. 4 recruiting class for 2013. And he brings back more than enough talent to prove that last season was not a one-year wonder, and that the Irish are, in fact, here to stay. Another BCS bowl game -- despite the late loss of its starting quarterback -- should be well within reach for Notre Dame in 2013.
Coy, the aquarium's director of dive operations, had never instructed a job shadower with a background quite like Jones' -- an elite-level, team-sport athlete who is closing in on an NFL career. Jones, who tied for the team lead last season with 50 catches for the 12-1 Irish, had only one previous encounter with underwater animals.
"It's really just something that never left my mind," Jones said Sunday of that trip, some 11 years ago. "I don't know why, but I have a weird fascination with marine mammals, and when I go to SeaWorld I feel like a little kid. When I go watch the Shamu Show, I'm almost in awe of the creatures, their abilities, how those people get to work with them every day. It's just something that's never left my mind, that I wish or hope to do after I graduate."
So the film, television and theatre major reached out to football alumni relations point man Reggie Brooks, acting on an itch that he just could not shake. Brooks hooked him up with Coy, who welcomed Jones aboard last month for a 2-day venture that validated the senior's instinct, placing him in the path of sharks, turtles, eels and other sea creatures inside a tank.
Swimming eye-to-eye with some sharks that he said weighed 300 pounds, Jones was able to muster self-control, adapting early and re-enforcing the initial impulse that told him this could turn out to be something more than just a one-time foray.
Just ask the 19-year diving veteran who helped show him the ropes.
"His confidence, it's very rare," Coy, a Colorado graduate, said. "I've been diving since 1981, and I'm a pretty confident person. He was unique in that area. I put him in right away with the big sharks and with the surface supply training, which is not normal for a brand new diver and a brand new candidate to come in and be able to just do it in short order, and he was able to do that. So I think that speaks to his confidence in himself and also his pro-activeness in terms of knowing what he wants to do and knowing that if he wants to get into this field he needs to be able to do these things."
"Whatever anxieties he may or may not have had," Coy later added, "he didn't share them verbally."
Nor did he allow himself to think them.
"My thing was, 'Don't panic, you're in the water, you have every disadvantage to their advantage,'" Jones said of sharks. "So if I was to panic or if something was to go wrong, it's probably going to be over for me. I wasn't going to make it out with me being underwater and being at such a disadvantage, so regardless of how I was feeling or any jitters I may have had, I just tried my best to keep calm."
The Midwest has hardly been the ideal place to pursue a career in the field. So Coy put Jones in touch with Lindsay Huebner, a senior divemaster and dive trainer who just happened to be a 2008 Notre Dame graduate.
"I went through similar circumstances as him," said Huebner, who majored in biological sciences and interned with the Central Caribbean Marine Institute in the summer before her senior year. "While I was at Notre Dame, I was really interested in marine sciences, so you start looking for opportunities elsewhere. And it was a lot of fun having him here because he was really enthusiastic and was really excited to pick up as much as he could."
Jones grew to feel at home in the water by the end of his stay. He plans to keep in touch with Coy and Huebner, having emailed both in the days afterward to thank them for the introduction.
For now, though, those dreams are back on hold, as Jones tends to one last piece of business in the field that will likely soon become his business after Notre Dame.
"You figure if he is going to jump into a tank of sharks, he's going to go over the middle without any fear," said coach Brian Kelly, who anointed Jones as a potential first-round NFL draft pick. "I was pretty excited it was T.J. Jones in there."
This year, however, is a bit different. Eighteen career starts have prepared the senior to take control on a moment's notice, but he has never had the benefit of entering a season as the No. 1 quarterback.
The response was all the validation that he needed.
"It's important to have a similar atmosphere of practice," Rees said. "I was never too mean to them, but I would yell and get them back when I needed to. I think that's a personality you guys probably haven't seen. I have a lot more fire to me than most people would think. Showing that when the time is right, and guys responded great. It was just me trying to coach them, to make sure we were doing things the right way, that our offense wasn't going to take a step back."
Such is the balance Rees has struck since being named the Irish's starter after Everett Golson's academic misconduct forced last year's signal caller out of school for at least the fall semester.
A two-time winner of the program's "Next Man In" award can save the Irish one last time -- if, in fact, they even need to be saved.
This is where the importance of these past two months and the next 21 camp practices comes into play.
"I think it's going to help just confidence a lot," receiver T.J. Jones said. "He knows his place now. He can go into camp being that leader, knowing he's the starter and knowing that we're going to look to him in times of need and for whatever. He knows that he's the guy that we're looking up to and he's the guy that leads this offense, so it kind of puts him in a different spot, whereas before he was competing for a spot.
"Until you're a defined starter, at least in my opinion, you can't feel like you can lead the team because the team doesn't know that you're going to be there when that first game comes."
Added left tackle Zack Martin: "His leadership's going to be a big part of our success this year."
Rees was there for four starts when Dayne Crist tore his patellar tendon in 2010, and he was there for 12 more the following season after a lackluster opening half from Crist. He saved Notre Dame in its first three home games last season -- starting two others when Golson was disciplined and hurt -- and now he's one of the driving forces behind a team coming off a national title game appearance.
With a collegiate career not short on drama -- 19 turnovers in 2011, an arrest and ensuing one-game suspension in 2012 -- entering its final chapter, Rees is confident that the head-start the summer months have provided him can validate coach Brian Kelly's claim that Notre Dame is "going to see the very best in Tommy Rees" this fall.
"I'm a way different person, I'm a way different player, I've grown up a lot, I'm not 19 anymore," Rees said. "I've learned a lot from all the different experiences I've gone through, learned a lot about football, how to be a leader, aspects of the game. I'm really excited to put all those things out there this season."