Notre Dame Football: Kirk Cousins

ND's 2012 opponents, Week 3: MSU

July, 18, 2012
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Week 3: Sept. 15 at Michigan State (at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.)
Time/TV: 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Series: Notre Dame leads all-time, 46-28-1
2011 record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten; first place, Legends Division)
Head coach: Mark Dantonio (44-22, five years)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Le'Veon Bell, LT Dan France, C Travis Jackson, DE William Gholston, DE Marcus Rush, LB Denicos Allen, LB Max Bullough, LB Chris Norman, CB Johnny Adams, CB Darqueze Dennard, S Isaiah Lewis

Key losses

QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, WR Keshawn Martin, WR B.J. Cunningham, TE Brian Linthicum, DT Jerel Worthy, S Trenton Robinson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Le'Veon Bell* (948 yards)

Passing: Kirk Cousins (3,316 yards)

Receiving: B.J. Cunningham (1,306 yards)

Tackles: Max Bullough* (89)

Sacks: Denicos Allen* (11)

Interceptions: Isaiah Lewis* and Trenton Robinson (4)

Three questions for ... Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg:

Their in-state rivals seem to be generating most of the hype this summer, but the Spartans bring back an awful lot from a division-title team last year. Is Michigan State the team to beat in the Big Ten?

Adam Rittenberg: I believe so. Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin enter the season as the potential favorites, but I like Michigan State because of its defense, which I believe to be the single best unit in the Big Ten right now. Despite losing standout tackle Jerel Worthy, the Spartans return a lot of talent. They're headlined by defensive end William Gholston, a bona fide All-America candidate who ended last season with a breakout performance in the Outback Bowl. Junior linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen also return, and the secondary could be the strongest part of the unit. Michigan State was a top 10 defense last year, and even in its loss to Notre Dame, it held the Irish offense mostly in check.

The bigger questions marks come on offense, as almost every valuable skill player departs.

How good is Andrew Maxwell, and, perhaps more importantly, can he be the kind of leader that Kirk Cousins was?

AR: Some are saying Cousins is the greatest quarterback in team history, so Maxwell certainly has some big shoes to fill. The good thing is he has had time to prepare for this role. This isn't a true freshman being thrown to the wolves. Maxwell has been Cousins' backup the past two seasons and has a lot of similar personality traits to his predecessor. The coaches really like what they've seen from him in practices and scrimmages, but he certainly needs to prove himself in the spotlight. He missed the second half of spring ball with a knee injury but is back to full strength. It's really important he builds chemistry with a new look receiving corps that includes Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett.

Maxwell's role is important, but Michigan State undoubtedly will be much more of a run-first team in 2012. An offensive line that struggled at times last season returns almost fully intact, and junior running back Le'Veon Ball also is back in the fold. Bell has the potential to be a superstar, and he'll see his carries load increase.

What's the ceiling on this defense, which returns eight starters and plenty of more young talent?

AR: This defense can be at least as good as it was last season, if not better. Sure, Worthy is a big loss, but defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said Worthy and Anthony Rashad White, who returns, were virtually interchangeable at the end of last season. If several young players step up on the D-line, Michigan State should be strong there. The secondary appears to be the defense's strength, and cornerback Johnny Adams, a likely high draft pick next April, leads the way. There's also a lot of excitement about Bullough and Allen at linebacker. Michigan State will have to lean on its defense, particularly early in the season with so many changes on offense, but the unit looks ready to answer the bell.

Top Notre Dame moments from 2011

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
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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.

Early 2012 opponent power rankings

January, 10, 2012
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With 2011 in the rearview mirror, here is an early look at Notre Dame's 2012 opponents, with the game date and site in parantheses.

1. USC (Nov. 24, away): Matt Barkley's return makes the Trojans a trendy preseason national title pick and Barkley a likely preseason Heisman frontrunner. They host the Irish in the regular-season finale, and how sweet it would be for Notre Dame should they knock their rivals off with the highest stakes on the line.

2. Oklahoma (Oct. 27, away): Like the Trojans, the Sooners return their prized quarterback (Landry Jones) and will, at the very least, enter 2012 as the Big 12 favorite.

3. Michigan State (Sept. 15, away): Kirk Cousins and Keshawn Martin are gone, but the Spartans return four offensive linemen and plenty of production on the defensive side of the ball as they go for a third-straight 11-win season.

4. Michigan (Sept. 22, home): Denard Robinson and several key skill players likely return, but the Wolverines lose a lot on each line and will rely on several young players to fill the void.

5. Stanford (Oct. 13, home): Perhaps the biggest mystery entering 2012. We just don't know how much this team will drop off following the likely loss of Andrew Luck. Time will tell.

6. BYU (Oct. 20, home): Another wild card. Much will depend on the growth of dual-threat QB Riley Nelson and the Cougars' offense.

7. Purdue (Sept. 8, home): The Boilermakers finished 2011 with back-to-back wins for the first time this season and have a bit of momentum under Danny Hope. Some see them as a darkhorse Leaders Division contender in 2012.

8. Miami (Oct. 6, Chicago): The Hurricanes will likely be led by a defense that returns eight starters for Al Golden's second year.

9. Wake Forest (Nov. 17, home): Quarterback Tanner Price is back, but the Demon Deacons must eliminate the mistakes that cost them five of their final six games and two assistants their jobs.

10. Boston College (Nov. 10, away): The Eagles got better as the season went on and hope new offensive coordinator Doug Martin can bring the unit up to speed with the defense, which loses Luke Kuechly.

11. Navy (Sept. 1, Dublin): Can Trey Miller build off 2011, when he was forced in midseason for the injured Kriss Proctor?

12. Pitt (Nov. 3, home): New coach Paul Chryst will have his work cut out for him on a team with quarterback, protection and, at least in the past calendar year, coaching issues.

Final 2011 opponent power rankings

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
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The 2011 college football season is officially over, leaving us 234 long days between now and Notre Dame's Sept. 1 showdown in Dublin against Navy.

In the meantime, let's look back at the Irish's 2011 opponents, seven of whom played in bowl games and three of whom (the Big Ten slate of Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue) won bowl games.

1) Stanford (11-2, beat Notre Dame, 28-14, on Nov. 26): This was a close call between the Cardinal and the runner-up, the USC Trojans. But given Stanford's road win against USC and the fact it beat the Irish convincingly from start to finish — whereas Notre Dame had its chances to close in on the Trojans — the Cardinal get the edge here.

2) USC (10-2, won at Notre Dame, 31-17, on Oct. 22): It's a shame we couldn't see this team in a big bowl game against another quality opponent. These Trojans didn't really register on the national radar until their impressive showing in South Bend, jumping to a 17-0 lead to top their rival for the ninth time in 10 seasons.

3) Michigan State (11-3, lost at Notre Dame, 31-13, on Sept. 17): Few could have envisioned Sparty coming within a few plays of the Rose Bowl following the beating it suffered at Notre Dame Stadium. But the way Kirk Cousins and Co. handled the rest of their Big Ten slate proved that, if nothing else, the Irish certainly had at least one big "quality" win in 2011.

4) Michigan (11-2, beat Notre Dame, 35-31, on Sept. 10): Another case in which a team's game against the Irish was not at all telling about what the rest of the season had in store. You wonder what would have happened to the Wolverines in coach Brady Hoke's first year had the fourth quarter against Notre Dame never happened. Instead, Michigan rode the momentum of a miracle comeback to a renaissance season that culminated with a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

5) Florida State (9-4, beat Notre Dame (in Orlando, Fla.), 18-14, on Dec. 29): The Champs Sports Bowl proved the Seminoles were the most worthy of opponents for the Irish. Both followed disappointing four-loss regular seasons with a defense-dominated, turnover-plagued contest that featured a late FSU comeback, allowing one team to end 2011 on a high note.

6) Wake Forest (6-7, lost to Notre Dame, 24-17, on Nov. 5): The Demon Deacons were responsible for one of the more surprising close contests the Irish played in all season long, jumping ahead early but not having enough gas left in the tank to finish off Notre Dame. Wake Forest did manage to beat FSU earlier in the season and gave eventual conference champion Clemson all it could handle a week after its loss to the Irish.

7) Air Force (7-6, lost at Notre Dame, 59-33, on Oct. 8): The Falcons certainly didn't lack for excitement, helping to put on an offensive clinic in their loss to the Irish and averaging nearly 35 points per game on the season. Their 42-41 Military Bowl loss to Toledo in many ways encapsulated all that was good and bad about this one-sided team.

8 ) Purdue (7-6, lost to Notre Dame, 38-10, on Oct. 1): What is it about Notre Dame and these Big Ten teams? The Irish were clearly much better than the Boilermakers all season long, but their thrashing of them at Ross-Ade Stadium looked all the more impressive after Purdue managed a solid season the rest of the way, beating a ranked Illinois team, Ohio State and winning the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Western Michigan.

9) Pitt (6-7, lost to Notre Dame, 15-12, on Sept. 24): An underwhelming Panthers squad made the Irish earn their second win of the season in the ugliest of fashions, as their meeting at Heinz Field was brutal on the eyes before a late Tommy Rees touchdown drive sealed the win for Notre Dame.

10) Navy (5-7, lost at Notre Dame, 56-14, on Oct. 29): Perhaps no team had worse luck on the field all season long. Navy lost a couple nailbiters on a couple of questionable calls but managed to win three of its final four games after getting blown out in South Bend.

11) South Florida (5-7, won at Notre Dame, 23-20, on Sept. 1): No excusing this loss. The Bulls followed this win and three more nonconference victories by falling flat on their face, losing their first four Big East contests en route to a 1-6 record in conference play this season. Oh, and Pitt beat them 44-17 five days after the Panthers' loss to the Irish.

12) Boston College (4-8, lost at Notre Dame, 16-14, on Nov. 19): Two wins in the Eagles' final three games was too little, too late for a team that could never get it together this season. BC's defense was stingy — and that unit and its special teams units made for a much tighter contest in South Bend than anyone had reason to expect — but the Eagles could never get it clicking on all cylinders this season.

13) Maryland (2-10, lost at Notre Dame (in Landover, Md.), 45-21, on Nov. 12): Where do we even begin? The Terrapins lost their final eight games of the season, beat just one FBS opponent all year and capped their campaign by blowing a 27-point second-half lead in a 56-41 loss at North Carolina State.

Notre Dame picks rewind

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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Here at the Notre Dame blog, we are all about accountability. So with 2012 upon us and the bowl season winding down, it is now time to (painfully) revisit game predictions from yours truly from Notre Dame's season. (As a side note, the blog got started after prediction time for the Irish's opener against South Florida. For what it's worth, like everyone else outside of Tampa, Fla., I did not expect Notre Dame to lose that game.)

In recapping my season, I'll choose to stick with the mantra of a former Irish coach: "9-3 is not good enough."

Sept. 10 at Michigan
Predicted score: Notre Dame 31, Michigan 27
Actual score: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
Hindsight: I was feeling pretty good about myself with 30 seconds remaining in this one, as the Irish held a 31-28 lead. Alas, a Denard Robinson drive for the ages created a memorable first night game at the Big House, pushing Notre Dame to 0-2 and starting my picks off on the wrong foot.

Sept. 17 vs. Michigan State
Predicted score: Notre Dame 23 Michigan State 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13
Hindsight: Aaron Lynch didn't even play the week before, so we still had no clue what to expect from him. A sack, forced fumble and six quarterback hurries later, and our eyes were open. Lynch keyed an angry Irish team that unleashed the frustrations of an 0-2 start on Kirk Cousins and the Spartans, notching what was the Irish's biggest win of 2011.

Sept. 24 at Pitt
Predicted score: Notre Dame 35, Pitt 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12
Hindsight: Do we really need to relive this one? It wasn't easy on the eyes, but Tommy Rees' eight straight completions on the Irish's game-winning drive were enough for Notre Dame to edge out the Panthers and get to .500.

Oct. 1 at Purdue
Predicted score: Notre Dame 24, Purdue 13
Actual score: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10
Hindsight: Purdue ended up playing much better later in the season, but the Irish's offense was simply too much in this one. Gary Gray's pick on the game's first play, Michael Floyd's ensuing touchdown catch and Notre Dame's first zero-turnover performance keyed this rout.

Oct. 8 vs. Air Force
Predicted score: Notre Dame 31, Air Force 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 59, Air Force 33
Hindsight: And we all thought Air Force had the offense that could be the difference. If you blinked you might have missed something in this one, as the Irish scored touchdowns on their first six possessions in a game that featured 1,125 yards of total offense.

Oct. 22 vs. USC
Predicted score: Notre Dame 35, USC 24
Actual score: USC 31, Notre Dame 17
Hindsight: No apologies here. The Trojans had shown nothing before this game to indicate they would jump all over Notre Dame, let alone go on to a 10-2 season that has them as an early title favorite for 2012. Despite an early 17-0 deficit, the Irish managed to come within a play of tying the game in the third quarter, a play that ultimately resulted in a fumble that USC returned 80 yards to stomp out any chance the Irish had.

Oct. 29 vs. Navy
Predicted score: Notre Dame 34, Navy 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 56, Navy 14
Hindsight: This prediction was in the books before Brian Kelly's controversial comments about his players and Charlie Weis', but that doesn't really change anything here. The only thing working for Navy was recent history, and that was not nearly enough to stop an Irish team that came together the day before in a team meeting that helped them move on from what could have been a debilitating episode.

Nov. 5 at Wake Forest
Predicted score: Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 17
Actual score: Notre Dame 24, Wake Forest 17
Hindsight: A slow start plagued Notre Dame in this one, but a key forced fumble deep in its own territory closed the door on the pesky Demon Deacons, who hung around all game but ultimately didn't have enough to break through and notch the upset.

Nov. 12 vs. Maryland (in Landover, Md.)
Predicted score: Notre Dame 34, Maryland 10
Actual score: Notre Dame 45, Maryland 21
Hindsight: Maryland was bad, as expected. Notre Dame's offense didn't take its opponent for granted, playing at a pace unforeseen in routing the Terrapins in a "home" game in the home state of its opponent.

Nov. 19 vs. Boston College
Predicted score: Notre Dame 38, Boston College 16
Actual score: Notre Dame 16, Boston College 14
Hindsight: Jonas Gray's season-ending ACL tear took a bit of the life out of the stadium and Irish offense, and BC's defense nearly capitalized. The Eagles pinned Notre Dame deep in its own territory time after time and scared everyone on Senior Day, which almost went the wrong way for the Irish. Sensing disappointment in his injury and the close result, Gray gave a speech in the locker room afterward to remind all that Notre Dame had just won.

Nov. 26 at Stanford
Predicted score: Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20
Actual score: Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14
Hindsight: Stanford's front-seven made life miserable for Tommy Rees and the running game, Andrew Luck was his top-pick self and the Cardinal's tight ends were too big for the Irish's secondary as Notre Dame missed its chance at a marquee win.

Champs Sports Bowl vs. Florida State
Predicted score: Notre Dame 21, Florida State 13
Actual score: Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14
Hindsight: Another game where I felt really good about my pick until the fourth quarter. Notre Dame jumped to a 14-0 lead and FSU's offense could not do a thing until late in the third. A timely forced turnover and ensuing touchdown pass changed everything, and the Irish offense was no better, turning it over three times in the season-ending loss.

Notre Dame mailbag

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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It's time to take a look at what's on your minds with the regular season over and a trip to the Champs Sports Bowl remaining.

Roald "Roe" Gonzalez from Austin, Texas, writes: Our 105,000 DKR memorial Stadium is awaiting for Notre Dame to Drop by annually for out Turkey Day Shoot out with Notre Dame. Any chance Notre Dame is even considering the invite from De Loss Dodds?

Matt Fortuna: Roe, I don't see that happening in the near future. Notre Dame plays Stanford until 2019, and the Irish's series with USC doesn't seem to be going anywhere. At least for the next eight years (imagine what the college sports landscape could look like in 2019?), I can't see Notre Dame adding Texas on an annual basis.

Ryan from McSherrystown, Pa., writes: Hi Matt,Love your work. Just finished reading your last chat on ESPN and just wanted to see what you think about my optimism for ND next year. This is mostly about the schedule. You point out these games as being the tough ones. USC, OU, STANFORD, MSTATE, MICH, MIA..right? Here is my case. The top 3 QB's in next years NFL draft will come from 3 of those schools. Barkley, Jones, Luck will all be gone and all those schools will be playing with new or young QB's. We are due to beat Mich and Cousins is gone at MSTATE..I don't see MIA as being that tough and they weren't very good this year. Mich is the only one of those teams who brings back their QB and we had them beat at MICH this year. Thoughts...Thanks

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Ryan. You bring up an interesting point with the quarterbacks, but I still don't see Notre Dame entering 2012 as a better team than most of the ones you mentioned. I think we'll learn a lot about Stanford when it no longer has Andrew Luck, so the Cardinal remain up in the air. Being due to beat Michigan means nothing when the Irish have lost three close ones to the Wolverines the last three years. Michigan will only get better in Brady Hoke's second year and with one more year of Denard Robinson. Michigan State, even without Kirk Cousins, is a program that is on the rise. None of this is to say the Irish can't win any of those games, but they do face an awful lot of opponents who are at least capable of beating them — even more than this year, and this was a more experienced team that lost to South Florida.

Joe from Telsau writes: Re: Crist article - REALLY?A rent a player is OK, Wow!!Please shut up, why do we always have to hear bspn peoples opinion. I hope the ncaa does away with this stupid LOOP HOLE.

Matt Fortuna: Sorry, Joe, I'm having trouble hearing you over all of those capital letters. Seriously, though, I see some instances where the rule is taken advantage of and not used for its intent (see: Jeremiah Masoli). And yes, clearly academics are not the main factor in players taking advantage of this rule. But since when did academics dictate where recruited athletes go to college? Sure, academics are often one of several factors. And yes, some schools adhere to higher academic standards than others while recruiting. But a player who graduates and lives up to his end of the bargain academically should be entirely free to go wherever he wants to after, provided the interest is mutual. What does Dayne Crist stand to benefit from staying one year at Notre Dame as a backup while already having a degree? He graduated early, before his scholarship would have expired, and he should be rewarded for that.

Mitch writes: Ok, Matt. We know all about where FSU's defense is ranked. But doesn't their schedule put them in a position to do just that? Looking at the rushing attempts from the opponents they played, you see teams only having 10-15 rushing attempts all together. Seems to me like they haven't really been worn down since they allowed 100+ yards to Wake.

Matt Fortuna: Great point, Mitch. The best rushing offense Florida State played all season was Maryland's, which ranked 44th in the nation. I'm curious to see what Notre Dame can do with Jonas Gray no longer back there, and if Theo Riddick can make a difference at running back. Considering the Irish averaged just 1.8 yards per carry as a team against Stanford, the nation's No. 5 rush defense, they have some work to do.

Bye week grades: the secondary

October, 17, 2011
10/17/11
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SECONDARY

Grade: C+

Summary: We will probably learn a lot more about this unit against the 21st-ranked passing attack of Matt Barkley and USC this Saturday. For now, the 67th-ranked passing defense has been, well, OK. Fifth-year safety Harrison Smith has been a tremendous leader as the Irish's lone season captain, setting the tone for the unit, particularly over the past four games following an 0-2 start. And he is tied for 30th nationally in pass break-ups, with seven. Cornerback Robert Blanton has been a phenomenal, versatile threat, unafraid to blitz and having a knack for making the big play when this unit needs it most. He has one fumble recovery, two interceptions, a sack and six tackles for loss.

But it is impossible to forget the fourth quarter of Week 2 at Michigan, when the defense gave up 28 points and, more specifically, an 86-yard touchdown drive in 28 seconds to close out loss No. 2. This came after Tommy Rees seemingly bailed the defense out by leading a 61-yard touchdown drive in 42 seconds to take the lead.

This unit has obviously been in the spotlight because of that performance, one that came in primetime on a national stage against a big rival. But it is also open to more criticism, and more throws, given the Irish's terrific run defense. I wouldn't put any stock in 300-yard games like the one Michigan State's Kirk Cousins had against Notre Dame in Week 3, since there was nowhere for the Spartans to run and most of the yardage came on intermediate routes. But I'd be curious to see what happens this week against a star wideout like Robert Woods, who will have an experienced quarterback throwing to him. There's plenty of time for this unit to shore up some loose ends, and coming up with a big performance in another primetime matchup against a rival will go a long way in easing the concerns of many.

The backups: Zeke Motta hardly counts as a reserve, as he has seen plenty of time with Jamoris Slaughter at safety. Austin Collinsworth and Bennett Jackson each have nine tackles, and Lo Wood has 0.5 tackles for loss. The three saw extended action in the Irish's rout of Air Force and are likely the future in the defensive backfield.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks

Defensive line

Offensive line

Linebackers

Running backs

Wide receivers

Tight ends

Bye week grades: defensive line

October, 16, 2011
10/16/11
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DEFENSIVE LINE

Grade: A-

Summary: This unit has been marked by consistency and surprises throughout the first half of the season. Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson have been what you would expect from returning senior starters -- sound, disciplined and reliable. The Irish's defensive line, along with the linebackers, have played a strong role in turning Notre Dame into a force against the run. Sean Cwynar has shown his heart by playing with a club for an arm for much of the first half of the season. The starters certainly get some credit for the accelerated growth of the talented freshmen who have made an impact so far.

Backups: What more can you ask of highly-touted newcomers? Aaron Lynch has been everywhere as a pass-rusher, hurrying Kirk Cousins six times in Week 3 and forcing a fumble. He recorded sacks in three straight games from Weeks 3-5 as well, in addition to filling in for an injured Johnson last week against Air Force. Stephon Tuitt has shown his versatility in playing both end and nose guard, and he responded impressively after Brian Kelly suspended him at Purdue for a missed class. Let's not forget Louis Nix, either, as the sophomore has seen extended action in place of Cwynar and is playing roughly twice as many snaps than the staff had in mind back in the spring.

Previous report cards:

Quarterbacks
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- With his defense needing one last stand at Pitt, Brian Kelly watched Aaron Lynch and Prince Shembo come up with huge sacks of Tino Sunseri to all but ice Notre Dame's second win of the year.

The Fighting Irish notched six sacks Saturday to improve to 23rd nationally with 11. They recorded four quarterback hurries to bring their season total to 15.

It's not just that Notre Dame is ahead of last year's pace, when it had eight sacks and 12 hurries through a 1-3 start. And to hear Kelly tell it, it's not just that freshmen ends Lynch and Stephon Tuitt have played such crucial roles in the pass rush so far, either.

[+] EnlargeStephon Tuitt
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicStephon Tuitt (7) has played a large role in an improved Notre Dame pass rush.
"I wouldn't just put it on the young guys," Kelly said. "I would put it on a balance of, you know, utilizing all of the resources that we have. Moving forward, obviously you feel really good that those young guys are gonna be here for a few years. But I think in the present I think we've got a good balance of youth with some veteran players."

At least one player from each class recorded a sack Saturday, led by senior Darius Fleming's two. Lynch's sack came a week after he hurried Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins six times and forced him to fumble.

Lost in the box score was Tuitt, who was officially credited with just one tackle despite teaming with Lynch on the fellow rookie's fourth-quarter sack.

Tuitt showed his versatility Saturday by seeing action at noseguard, creating a devastating rushing tandem along the line with Lynch, Fleming and Shembo on passing downs late in the game.

"Stephon, first of all, he has a lot of speed for a guy that size," said Manti Te'o, who notched a sack Saturday as well. "And he has a lot of natural strength, because he's very strong. And you combine that with his frame, that makes a very dangerous player. Stephon, he does a good job in there, provides a lot of energy, a lot of hustle. He and Aaron always show just a desire to get to the ball. They're always going hard, and they always want to make a play. So that's him."

The early production of Lynch and Tuitt should be enough to get Kelly excited thinking of the possibilities for the rest of this season and beyond, but he's maintained a cautiously optimistic approach, citing the duo's inexperience and vulnerability to freshmen mistakes.

After all, neither played Week 2 against Denard Robinson and Michigan. And on Saturday, Kelly had to burn a timeout after a third-quarter Pitt completion because of their confusion with signals from the sideline.

"There's a give and take there along the way," Kelly said. "But they're big, physical kids that can go in there and mix it up, and Tuitt is a guy that really at the point of attack is a difficult guy to block."

Sudden-change defense providing boost

September, 26, 2011
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Notre Dame committed two more turnovers Saturday at Pitt, which was actually an improvement after giving the ball away five, five and three times in its first three games, respectively.

[+] EnlargeStephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicNotre Dame's Stephon Tuitt, 7, celebrates with Prince Shembo, 55, after sacking Pittsburgh's Tino Sunseri. The Irish defense has been at its best following a turnover by the offense.
Nonetheless, the Fighting Irish are tied with Tulsa for the nation lead with 15 turnovers, and they are all alone at the bottom in turnover margin, at -2.50.

The latter figure is of less importance to the Irish because of just how effective their defense has been. And, more specifically, because of how effective their defense has been once the offense turns the ball over.

Following Notre Dame's past four turnovers, Irish opponents have totaled just 12 yards on 14 plays, an average of just less than .86 yards per play. Two field goals are all the Irish have allowed during that stretch.

The sudden-change defense was at its absolute best in the first quarter Saturday, after Pitt's Andrew Taglianetti forced a Tommy Rees fumble on a third-and-12 at the Irish 26 yard line.

Pitt took over at the 23, committed a false start penalty and, two plays later, lost five more yards when Manti Te'o sacked Tino Sunseri. The drive, which ended with a 45-yard Kevin Harper field goal to put Pitt ahead 3-0, totaled -5 yards on four plays.

A week earlier, following a John Goodman fumbled punt deep in his own territory in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's defense responded three plays later by picking off Michigan State's Kirk Cousins in the end zone to seal the game.

"I think Coach [Bob] Diaco and the defensive staff do a great job of talking about it," Brian Kelly said of his defensive coordinator during his Sunday teleconference. "I think it's something that we coach every day and talk to our players about, and they then -- I think right now, any time you have some early success in that, it starts to build a confidence level where they are talking about it themselves, and I think we have got that going for us."

That's no lie. Just a week earlier, following the Irish's win against the Spartans, Te'o said being ready for such situations is part of the defense's DNA.

Fifth-year safety and captain Harrison Smith said the unit has come to enjoy being ready to get back out there, acknowledging the unusualness of the statement by adding, "as sick as it sounds."

Notre Dame's defense has just five takeaways on the season, but Kelly doesn't see that as a problem.

Given the circumstances the unit has been put in, it is doing just fine.

"Well, I think there's a balance there in terms of big plays," Kelly said. "We really have not let up any big-play runs, and if you are going to gamble a little bit and look to get that takeaway, there's a chance that you give up some more big plays.

"We are philosophically more in line with wanting to be gap sound and disciplined against the run game. I mean, we are doing pretty good this year relative to teams in running the football. I'm more interested in that right now than gambling on defense to get some more turnovers."

What we learned about Notre Dame: Week 4

September, 25, 2011
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1. A win's a win: Cliche, I know. But a Notre Dame team that saw the football gods pull a couple fasts ones on it in Weeks 1 and 2 has to be thankful for escaping Heinz Field victorious with a 15-12 win on Saturday. The Irish are 2-2 with a favorable schedule the rest of the way, and they won't, nor should they, apologize for how they got there.

2. Tommy Rees has to minimize the mistakes: The sophomore quarterback has now accounted for nine of Notre Dame's 15 turnovers on the season, and he didn't even play the first half of the first game. His game-winning touchdown drive shows why Brian Kelly had so much faith in him, but he has to be more careful with the football, especially deep in opposing territory.

3. The pass rush is for real: A week after making life miserable for Kirk Cousins, Notre Dame's front-seven got to the Pitt backfield all afternoon, recording six sacks and coming up with four hurries. The group has proven to be a force to be reckoned with the past two weeks and should only continue to develop with a pair of talented defensive ends playing key roles.

4. Special teams, anyone?: There were at least no turnovers this week, but David Ruffer's missed 39-yard field goal -- due in no small part to a bad snap -- could have been costly in a low-scoring game. The Irish avoided a special teams turnover for the first time all season, but they still can't seem to bring it all together for four quarters without making one kind of blunder or another.

Kelly seeing value of freshmen

September, 22, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Previously in his coaching career, until around his early days at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly would see multiple freshmen take the field at once on Saturdays and almost cringe.

This past Saturday, he saw seven different first-year players take the field at times for Notre Dame, and what they did reminded him how college football has changed in just a short period of time.

"I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshman that we're playing, but times are changing," Kelly said. "College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football."

Freshman George Atkinson III stood out by returning a first-quarter kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. That came one Michigan State possession after rookie Aaron Lynch forced a fumble by sacking Kirk Cousins.

[+] EnlargeAaron Lynch
Chris Williams/Icon SMINotre Dame's Aaron Lynch proved that he can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks during his freshman season.
"As soon as I hit him, just like a surge of energy went through my body," Lynch said of the sack. "Just set the tone for the rest of the game."

Lynch finished the game with six quarterback hurries, one week after not even seeing the field against Denard Robinson and Michigan.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Lynch acknowledged how much different it was going against Big Ten offensive linemen Saturday, especially since his high school opponents were at times 100 pounds lighter.

Not being able to simply bull rush someone at this level was a rude awakening.

"He gets better with playing more with his technique and then building confidence," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "Buying into what we're coaching hasn't been easy because it hasn't worked for him in practice, because he's not doing it right. So he's back and forth on using the proper technique and not using it. And then in a game he used it and it worked out well and he built confidence on it."

The give and take was fairly simple.

"They told me I wasn't gonna play if I didn't do it right," Lynch said.

As one of five Fighting Irish freshmen who enrolled in the spring, Lynch had a longer time to earn the trust of his coaches.

Kelly credited the strength and conditioning director, Paul Longo, for getting the freshmen physically ready to shorten the learning curve.

"You're looking at Aaron Lynch going against four- and five-year players, and you worry about their physical ability to get in there and mix it up," Kelly said. "But the last four or five years, these guys are weight training all year, nutrition is important to 'em, they're taking care of their bodies, and they're coming in. And Coach Longo said this -- I didn't -- he said this was physically the most impressive group relative to their conditioning level when they came here.

"Usually they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here. They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away."

Even then, however, there is an adjustment period.

Lynch could only go roughly six plays at a time on Saturday, something he acknowledged was difficult, but a feat that also showed how far he had come with one offseason.

"I know before the season started I wouldn't have been able to go six straight plays," he said. "It's kind of hard to do six straight plays now, just going into my first game and actually having to put that pressure on my back. But I feel like just work hard during practice and go to the ball every time you see it, you'll be straight. You won't be really tired, because you got the energy going and adrenaline rushing and stuff like that, so you'll be straight."

Sophomore noseguard Louis Nix, who didn't play last season, had to drop more than 40 pounds before he could take the field for the first time this season.

This past spring, Kelly told him to expect 12-15 snaps per game, and Nix said that wouldn't be good enough. With fellow noseguard Sean Cwynar dealing with a broken right hand, Nix has lived up to his word, playing 30-40 snaps per game and starting twice so far, surprising even himself with his stamina.

"Last year or the year before, I probably could have did two snaps," the now-326-pounder said with a laugh.

Such contrast between the early development of Lynch and Nix helps explain why defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has a blanket philosophy on playing freshmen.

"I don't think at this point in time that there's any timetable," Diaco said. "Just, when you're ready, we're ready. When you're ready, we're ready. That's it. And when you're ready to do the jobs, whatever they are, you don't have to do be able to do all the jobs, if you can do some of the jobs. You're ready, we're ready.

"When you're ready to go in and you're better than everybody else at that spot, when you're ready to go in and whip your individual matchup, when you're ready, we're ready."

Kelly impressed with how Irish won

September, 20, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's 31-13 win over Michigan State didn't impress Brian Kelly because it was the Fighting Irish's first victory of the season. No, the second-year head coach was content because of how they won, outmuscling a team that won a share of last year's Big Ten title in large part because of its play in the trenches.

"That's where we started this journey, is to begin with recruiting on defense, playing a tougher style of football," Kelly said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "And to do that, you gotta be able to control the line of scrimmage. You also have to do it physically, you have to do it in the weight room, you have to develop the work volume that allows you to do that to play consistently, so all these things are coming together for us. When people talk about what's truly the foundation is exactly that -- the foundation of this program has gotta be built on being able to control the line of scrimmage, because that's how you build consistency, and we're getting better at that level."

The Irish held MSU to 29 rushing yards Saturday, forcing quarterback Kirk Cousins to throw more than 50 times.

Notes: Kelly said the family matter that forced Prince Shembo to miss Saturday's game "turned out to be quite remarkable." ... Lo Wood has no structural damage in his quad but has soreness when slowing down. Nonetheless, he is expected to play Saturday at Pitt.

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.

What we learned about Notre Dame: Week 3

September, 18, 2011
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1. These guys can rush: Aaron Lynch set the tone early by sacking Kirk Cousins and forcing a fumble. The defense continued the assault all day long, getting to Cousins time and time again and rendering the Spartans' run game moot.

2. Special teams can make all the difference: George Atkinson III's kickoff return for a score made it 14-3 early and the Irish never looked back. The return came after MSU's first scoring drive and gave Notre Dame plenty of momentum and distance the rest of the way.

3. Turnovers need to be curtailed: Three turnovers are still too many. Tommy Rees, at 19, is still growing as a quarterback and will make mistakes, but senior John Goodman's fumble of a punt return deep in his own territory could have been costly if not for Blanton's pick three plays later. Three is better than five, and the Irish have at least showed they're capable of bouncing back from mistakes by not letting up against MSU on Saturday. But at some point the bleeding has to stop.

4. Don't look now, but the Irish could be in business: The Irish should be favored in every game moving forward except for the final one, at Stanford. For now, they can focus on a Pitt team that looked more vulnerable Saturday than the Irish themselves through the first two weeks, as the Panthers blew a 21-point lead to Iowa in a 31-27 loss. Purdue and Air Force follow for Notre Dame before its bye, after which it will host rival USC in its first home night game in 21 years.

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