Nevada… (Why I'm petrified.)


As a Notre Dame fan you get conditioned for certain reactions. Whether its bemoaning a ranking undeserved or chuckling when the team falls out of preseason favor, the opposition always finds a way to say something that gets under your skin.

The Nevada game is a perfect example.

This season’s Notre Dame story line undoubtedly begins with the schedule. It’s almost as if the universe has collectively agreed that the schedule is markedly easier. Predicting a ten-win season is uniformly attached to the scheduling rationale, as if Notre Dame was the only school to find a mix of teams that deserved mock and ridicule this year.

That’s what has me so worried about Nevada.

If you equated the opening of the football season with the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, Notre Dame would be a 4 or 5 seed, and Nevada an 11 or 12. Nevada is the perfect upset / trap team. High powered offense, propelled with the least vulnerable asset an underdog can have: a potent running game.

The big stage does funny things to underdogs. In the NCAA tourney, the little engine that could either starts drilling big threes and gets the crowd and momentum behind them, or the rim gets really small, they get run out of the gym, and CBS cuts to a different game. The problem with Nevada from Notre Dame’s perspective is that Nevada’s offensive doesn’t depend on three-point shooting. Its excellence is also the least risky and best suited attack for an upset: a high octane running game.

It’s not as if coach Chris Ault is asking Colin Kaepernick to put the ball in the air 30 times to get Nevada the win. He’s got two (and if you believe Weis, three) running backs that can move the chains and eat the clock. That’s like combining Princeton’s back-door offense with the low post presence of NCAA sleeper Taylor Coppenrath. If the Irish can’t figure out how to stop the run, then this is going to be a very scary afternoon. Add in a 6-foot-6 quarterback that runs like a gazelle and can extend drives with both his legs and his arm, and I’m already getting armpit sweat.

As for the much maligned Nevada defense, if ND can’t figure a way to get a running game established, it’s going to force the Irish to get extremely one-dimensional, which could swing the time-of-possession battle even more into the run-happy Wolf Pack’s favor. And once you let a defense that’s set with two rock-solid pass-rushing defensive ends and cut them loose (and cut them loose against a left tackle that’s been a little nicked up and hasn’t played for a season), that’s got me already having nightmares about how many times I’m going to see the patent-pending Jimmy Clausen-reverse-peel-out-from-the-pocket-14-yard sack.

(Is it hot in here?)

It’s not as if Nevada doesn’t think they can win. I’m sure coach Ault has shown his troops footage of Notre Dame’s opening game last season, the 21-13 escape against a San Diego State that only managed to beat Idaho and UNLV.

And then there’s this from my interview earlier in the week with Juan Lopez of the Nevada school newspaper:

“The entire team, from head coach to ball boy, knows this is the biggest game in Nevada’s history in terms of national exposure. It is not just another game for anybody involved with Nevada. I’ve had guys tell me they’re losing sleep and that the Notre Dame game was used as a recruiting tool to bring them here to Nevada. This is easily the biggest game some of these guys will ever play in.”

It’s starting to feel like Notre Dame isn’t playing Nevada, but lining up against Norman Dale’s Hickory High basketball team, or Tom Brennan’s Vermont hoops team, or Homer Drew’s Valpo team that made a whole bunch of noise back in the day.

In the end, that’s what scares me the most. Take Notre Dame out of this equation, and I like everything about this Nevada team. High octane offense that’s nicknamed after a firearm, a quarterback that’s a freak of nature and who makes you prove your fanhood every time you spell his last name. (K-a-e-p-e-r-n-i-c-k… that’s what two weeks of Nevada prep gets you.)

I’ve always been a sucker for an upset story… But as a Notre Dame fan, I just hope we don’t get one this weekend.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”