Replay Coney

Replay: Irish Still Wielding Brush



DaVinci and Picasso.

Who knows all the names of world-class artists that might merit comparisons to Brian Kelly if the University of Notre Dame head football coach can keep drawing (up) victories in 2018?

That may be a crazy stretch – yet it conjures up images of Kelly, his staff and players all taking stabs at grabbing a paintbrush and figuring out which colors to apply to the canvas.

The palate contains plenty of options – and only the nine more regular-season games will determine if this final work is fit to hang in the Louvre.

For now, the Irish are 3-0 and that canvas has great potential. Yet the Irish all seem to understand there are many brushstrokes to come to define the look of this production.

There are already some tints of red applied to the painting – that’s for the Notre Dame defense that has stopped all three opponents well enough to limit each to 17 or fewer points.

There are flecks of brown, reflecting the tough and physical, working class approach Kelly believes his roster represents.

There are plenty of shades of blue – all those suggesting the sky remains the limit for quarterback Brandon Wimbush and a maturing Irish offense.

Notice a bit of green – that means all systems are go for the Irish kicking game, especially after punter Tyler Newsome, kicker Justin Yoon and the return game sparkled Saturday against Vanderbilt.

So Kelly and his staff literally head back to the drawing board this week in search of where and what to apply to the canvas next.

A 22-17 victory over the Commodores – Notre Dame’s third in a row at Notre Dame Stadium in 2018 – leaves the Irish record perfect heading into its first road assignment next weekend at Wake Forest.

Kelly’s crew already has beaten opponents from the Big Ten and Southeastern conference – with opportunities yet this month to add the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Pacific-12 to that list.

And so the brushstrokes to come will give Irish fans a hint as to the final framed work to go on exhibition somewhere down the road.

“There comes a time when you’ve got to know who you are,” Kelly told his kneeling players before the action began Saturday on a warm, sunny afternoon in South Bend, “and who you are as a football team.”

He talked about grinding his way through his 13 seasons at Grand Valley State, making 13-hour bus rides with only two full-time assistant coaches.

“And I want our football team to know who they are. We are a bunch of young men out here to represent Notre Dame and grind every play. We don’t pretend to be superstars. We have good days and we have bad days. We want to win like everybody else. It’s hard every day and today’s going to be hard.

“We are a bunch of hard-working, blue-collar, get-after-it, hit-you-in-the-mouth football players. We play because we love to play football with our brothers. Every play we get after it.

“We’re not interested in the pats on the back – all we’re interested in is celebrating in this locker room after the game, sharing it together. And then we’ll go back to work next week.

“Let’s know who we are. One play at a time.”

The Irish – in almost identical fashion to their opening drives against Michigan and Ball State – motored impressively to an early lead.

It was Tony Jones Jr., for 19 yards on the first play from scrimmage – on his way to 118 yards on 17 carries. Brandon Wimbush to Chase Claypool for 17 on the third play. Jones for 14 more right up the gut.

Yoon finished it off with a 26-yard field goal – the first of his three in the opening half – as Notre Dame applied the first artistic flourish of the day.

The second Irish drive (94 yards, 15 plays in 5:21) was no less impressive: Jones for 14 on the first play, Wimbush to Jones for 24, then Wimbush scurrying the final 12 to make it 10-0. At that point Notre Dame already held a 96-9 edge in rushing yards. Wimbush would finish with 84 yards on 19 tries (most by any back on either roster).

The second period featured five consecutive three and outs by the two teams combined. Jones’ runs for 20 and 10 yards set up a second Yoon three-pointer to push the advantage to 13-0.

Vanderbilt completed a 20-yard pass to the Irish one, only to have safety Alohi Gilman strip the football and watch as Julian Love (who also had four pass breakups) recovered it in the end zone for a touchback. Ten plays and 51 yards later Yoon made it 16-0 from 46 yards out.

The lone first-half blemish for Notre Dame came when the Commodores completed two different 26-yard passes to Jared Pinkney and then knocked through a 21-yard field goal as the half ended.

“Get ready to finish now,” was the audible rallying cry from Irish players as they headed into the break.

“You played the game the right way the first half – you fought every single play. We can execute better. When we get in scoring territory, we’ve got to score,” said Kelly at half.

“There are no letdowns. You have to play to the end of the whistle every single play.

“The first half is done with. Now what do we have for the second half? You get what you earn. You get what you deserve, okay?

“It’s 16-3 at halftime. If you want to win the game, you’ve got to go win the game. They are capable of coming back and winning the game. They do not take what is ours.

“I want our identity to be known. We are blue-collar and we will hit you in the mouth for four quarters – not two.”

Notre Dame’s offense ran only 11 third-period plays (for 26 net yards) – as Vanderbilt missed an early field goal and then threw an interception to Tony Pride Jr., on its second possession. A 20-yard Commodore punt return followed by a 30-yard pass completion (that pushed Vandy ahead in the total yards column) set up the visitors’ first touchdown with 11 seconds remaining to change the scoreboard to 16-10.

As the final period unveiled, the Irish produced their most important possession of the afternoon:

  • Wimbush to Miles Boykin for 14 (on the period’s initial play).
  • A perfect wheel route from Wimbush to Jones for 32 yards (the longest gain of the day by either squad).
  • A fourth-and-one conversion run by Wimbush.
  • And finally an Ian Book short scoring toss to tight end Nic Weishar. It was 22-10 after a missed two-point try.

Vanderbilt responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive of its own, taking advantage of a fourth-down pass interference call against the Irish and eventually seeing Kyle Shurmur throw 18 yards to Pinkney for the final points of the day.

Yoon missed a field goal from 32 yards – and the Commodores moved as far as the Notre Dame 31, again by virtue of a fourth-down pass interference call. But a fourth-down throw by Shurmur to a leaping Kalija Lipscomb was knocked loose by Jalen Elliott.

The Irish outrushed Vanderbilt 245-94. They also know they were outgained overall by the Commodores 283-133 in the final two periods.

Plenty more brushstrokes to be applied.

“First of all, great week of preparation,” said Kelly. “That’s the way it goes. That’s embracing the grind. That’s what it takes to have that physical mindset that I’m going to come out and get after it because I’m prepared and I’m ready.

“Today I loved the mindset, I loved the physicality. I’m looking at Tony Jones. It’s what we want. I want tough guys on the field. I saw that from so many guys today. That’s how you play Notre Dame football. That’s the only way we’re going to play ever again this year. Every single day, that’s who we are.”

Kelly and the Irish know they need to turn more of their field goal-drives into touchdowns. That might have changed the tone of the contest on Saturday. The Irish head coach also has visions of his defense going from good to great — again, with more brushstrokes to be applied.

“Let’s clean some of these plays up with laser focus. That’s how close we are.

“And you guys kept your heads out there today even when a couple of calls went against us.”

Newsome merited the game ball for his 59.6-yard punting average on five boots.

“We’ve got work to do, we know that. We know where we need to get better,” finished Kelly.

There was plenty of postgame chatter about the Irish identity.

“Work in progress” seemed to be the operative assessment.

And so Kelly and his still-emerging football team will determine what colors to contribute to the canvas as September marches on.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.