And in that corner… the Michigan Wolverines

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There’s really nothing to be said about the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry that hasn’t already been said. It is not just another game. As a wide-eyed freshman, I remember the football season as follows: The Michigan game… and everything else.

Five days ago, both Notre Dame and Michigan were at low water marks. Michigan coming off an embarrassingly historic 3-9 season, and Notre Dame’s wallowing during a 7-6 season that nearly sunk Charlie Weis’ career. Adding fuel to the Michigan fire was the report that Rich Rodriguez and his staff may have committed numerous NCAA violations with regards to practice time and coaching presence since his arrival in Ann Arbor.

Yet Saturday afternoon brought a collective sigh of relief amongst both Notre Dame and Michigan fans. Both teams made marked strides from last season in their debut, easily overmatching their respective opponents.

There’s nobody will as unique of a perspective on the upcoming game as Michael Rothstein. Rothstein covered the Irish beat for almost four years and wrote the popular ND blog “Irish Insights” for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Mike left the Journal Gazette for an opportunity to write for the newly relaunched AnnArbor.com, where he’s covering both the Michigan Wolverines basketball beat, and a certain football team in Ann Arbor.

We’ve been friendly with Mike since back when he was covering the Domer beat, and he was willing to make some room in his busy dance card this week to spend some time chatting with us.

Hope you enjoy…

Inside the Irish: Was there a collective sigh of relief at halftime for the Michigan faithful?

Mike Rothstein: Ha. Probably say the end of the first quarter almost. Michigan was dominant Saturday against Western Michigan in all phases. Offense was crisp in the first half. Defense shut down Tim Hiller. Zoltan Mesko continued to punt like an All-American and Michigan even saw first-time kicker (and fifth-year senior) Jason Olesnavage make a field goal. That’s a pretty good half.

ITI: What was this week like as a journalist? Was there anything like this during your tenure covering the Notre Dame beat?

MR: It was really, really busy. I woke up Wednesday morning thinking it was Friday. Consider that in the span of 72 hours, Michigan had been accused of NCAA violations. Then the revelation that Rich Rodriguez was being sued for defaulting on a loan. And that his business partner was a twice-banned booster from Clemson. And that press conference Monday was surreal. Rough 72 hours for Rich Rodriguez. It also happened to be the first week I started writing regular columns. It’s great because there was a ton of material to work with. None of it, though, was football related until Thursday. Tough to compare to any single week on the Notre Dame beat.

The closest I’d say was the Notre Dame 2008 stretch from after the Pittsburgh loss to the football banquet. That was insane. You didn’t know what was going to happen from week-to-week and each game meant so much to the future of Weis’ career. I remember covering a Notre Dame basketball game the night it broke that Charlie Weis would be returning. It was a long, long night. Got it confirmed just ahead of the official announcement, but I was getting up from my press row seat so much during the game that one of the basketball coaches asked me after the game what was going on. It was that noticeable. Granted, the Irish were well in control of that game.

Remember, too, that Michael Haywood was interviewing at Washington, which opened up the ability for Weis to take back playcalling (although everyone knew it was coming after the shutout at Boston College). And the week everything got crazy before Navy, I was in Washington, D.C. getting stuff for a few Navy stories, a story on Fort Wayne native Jason Fabini (then an offensive lineman with the Redskins) and keeping tabs on everything going on in South Bend. That said, this past week was one that’ll stand out to me for a long, long time.

ITI: Do you think there’s a way that this whole controversy almost engendered Rodriguez to Michigan supporters?

MR: There were a bunch of “In Rod We Trust” signs this week. By the end of the first half, the students were chanting Rich Rodriguez’ name. With the fans, a lot of times, winning cures all. It doesn’t mean the allegations or the lawsuit are going away, it just means Rodriguez and Michigan won a football game. It’ll be interesting to see what happens Saturday if Notre Dame wins, although I think Rodriguez won himself some fans with the way he handled last week and the way his team played.

ITI: You obviously followed Notre Dame closer than most of us the past few years. Is the Michigan-Notre Dame game “just another game” for either of these programs?

MR: I don’t think Notre Dame-Michigan is just another game for anyone within these two programs. If they say that, it’s bunk. This game has been such a tone-setter, too, for the rest of both teams’ seasons in the past that they have to take it seriously. Remember in 2005, much of Weis’ first-year hype came after beating then-No. 3 Michigan. The next year, Michigan used a win over then-No. 2 Notre Dame to springboard a run of 11 straight wins until the Wolverines played Ohio State. And getting back to an earlier question, I’d bet that weekend was equally insane to this past week. Prepping for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game is tough on reporters. Remember that Bo Schembechler died the day before that game, too, sending reporters
scrambling again.

Anyway… I don’t believe it is. Most of the players in this game were recruited by both schools and it’s pretty historic. As an example, Michigan offensive lineman Stephen Schilling grew up just outside of Seattle. He knew about Michigan-Notre Dame along with the Apple Cup. How many people in the Midwest, besides your diehards, know about the Apple Cup?

(I do! I do!!)

ITI: What did you see from Forcier and Robinson that impressed you?

MR: I’ve said it the past few days and I’ll echo it again: Denard Robinson is the fastest player I’ve seen in person in college football. When he gets to top speed, it’s going to be a touchdown if it’s a footrace. In four years covering Notre Dame, I saw one player I think could catch him: David Bruton. And that’s just because of his really long strides. Put it this way, for Notre Dame folk, I’d take Robinson over Golden Tate in a footrace. Easy.

Forcier impressed me with his poise. Some of the throws he made, specifically his second touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway, looked like something a junior or senior would do, not a guy playing less than a half of college football. Same goes for his first scoring drive. He was directing Hemingway to a spot and then hit him perfectly. Don’t see that from freshmen too often. Didn’t see it from Jimmy Clausen as a freshman, although they are vastly different quarterbacks. Now that I’ve said that, both will have bad days this season. They are freshmen. It’s bound to happen. But there is a lot of raw talent and leadership there.

ITI: It’s very clear that Robinson’s speed is legit. Who should the Irish be more worried about?

MR: Forcier will play more, so Forcier. But if Robinson’s on the field, he can turn a botched snap into an electrifying touchdown run (he did it against Western Michigan). Robinson is more dangerous from a quick-strike perspective but Forcier is going to be the guy who takes the majority of snaps, I’d think, as long as he’s playing pretty well. Plus, Forcier has a bit more balance. With him, you have to be concerned about the pass. Not as much with Robinson. So, a long answer to your question is Forcier.

ITI: Brandon Graham didn’t show up in th
e boxscore, but he did suppl
y some pressure off the corner. Is he who the Irish needs to worry about most?

MR: Absolutely. He’ll likely be the best defensive lineman Notre Dame plays this year. He was in the Western Michigan backfield from the first play on. Graham may have only been credited for an assisted tackle, but he seemed to be everywhere. The rest of the line is still unproven, although freshman Craig Roh and sophomore Mike Martin looked pretty good. But if I’m Notre Dame, I’m doubling Graham because he’s the guy who could get into the backfield and into Clausen.

ITI: A Michigan skeptic would say the offensive performance wasn’t all that impressive. The offense still attacks horizontally, and the running game (save Robinson) didn’t do much of anything. Other than actually being competent in running the spread offense, why should ND fans be worried about the new and improved Wolverines attack?

MR: Well, starting running back Brandon Minor didn’t play. He’s been nagged by injuries in camp, but here’s betting he’ll play Saturday. He changes things a little bit. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of speedy freshman running back Vincent Smith, who is another gamebreaker with his speed like Robinson. And I wouldn’t say Michigan did nothing on the ground. The Wolverines gained 242 yards. And Rodriguez let up a bit in the fourth quarter. From watching Notre Dame, I was unimpressed with its defensive line. Nevada was able to gash through the front pretty easily when I watched the game. If Michigan is given those types of holes, that gives guys like Robinson some space to make big plays. And Forcier can run a little bit, too, he’s just not as fast as Robinson.

ITI: Your thoughts on the ND performance Saturday?

MR: Offensively, impressive. Everything seemed to work. Floyd is better than last year. That jump ball that turned into a touchdown elicited an audible ‘Wow’ from me and I was watching it over 24 hours later. I like Kyle Rudolph’s game a lot, too. He could be the difference for Notre Dame on Saturday. The Irish ran better than I saw the past two years, but Michigan’s front seven is going to be bigger and more talented than the Wolf Pack. On defense, Manti Te’o is as advertised. He’s going to have a great career if he’s healthy. Notre Dame’s linebackers seemed to be everywhere. I got into the defensive line earlier, still think that’s the weakest part of the team. I didn’t get a good read on the secondary, but that’s because Nevada didn’t pass all that much. But I thought coming out of the spring that it was the deepest position group Notre Dame had. I really like the game of Harrison Smith and Sergio Brown might be the team’s most athletic defender and technically he’s not a starter unless the Irish open in nickel.

ITI: Do you think their psyche is fully prepared from the disappointment and downward spiral that last season’s regular season ended on?

MR: For who? Can’t really answer that yet for Notre Dame. I haven’t been around them since late April. At Michigan, yeah, I think the 3-9 season is behind them – for now. Notre Dame fans saw what happened when a team coming off that type of year faced adversity a year ago.

ITI: What do you see happening on Saturday?

MR: Good question. Not sure yet. I think both teams won’t look as good as they did in the opener. Forcier and Robinson will struggle a little bit. Clausen’s going to get hit some, too. I see Notre Dame’s defensive line getting gashed a bunch again, but that’ll be countered by the weaknesses in the Michigan secondary, especially if cornerback Boubacar Cissoko is limited in any way. I won’t give a score yet except to say I think it’s going to be close, a one-score game. I’m leaning toward picking Notre Dame because of Floyd and Golden Tate and that passing game. But I’m not sold yet.

Be sure to check out some of Mike’s work at AnnArbor.com, or read some selected works of his that I enjoyed, (some on the Notre Dame-Michigan battle, some not)  here, here, and here.

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the beginning

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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With the Irish heading east to New York, Notre Dame faces a true big-city conundrum—sink or swim. Because this season is on the brink. And with a defensive coordinator already out the door, there are no other anvils for Brian Kelly to pull off of his ankle.

The Irish need to win on Saturday. They need to find a way to stop a Syracuse offense that’s moving at hyper-speed, while also taking advantage of an Orange defense that’s allowed offenses to do the same.

More than anything, this team needs to find stability. Whether it’s from the enthusiasm of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson or from the head coach pulling the strings on a defense that is beyond in need of a rebound, Kelly has steered this program out of rocky waters before, and his athletic director has given him the clear message that he trusts he’ll do it again.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Because at 1-3, let’s face it—we need one. Here are six solutions that the Irish could use before high noon in the Meadowlands.

 

When in doubt, play aggressive. If there was a true sign that Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame was up, it was the fact that as the veteran coach tried to seek a solution, he went further and further away from the things that gave his defense a chance to be successful.

As this unit found new and painful ways to give up points, they also threw gasoline on the fire. Because as they tried to protect against the big play or the painful drive, the defense spent more time on their heels and less time attacking.

There isn’t a world where this group will stop giving up big plays. Not with the young, inexperienced players learning on the job. And not with Syracuse moving so fast that even gutting the playbook’s inventory won’t stop the Irish from getting caught in some bad looks.

So if you know that, you might as well embrace it. You might as well hope that your defense can create some chaos in addition to absorbing it.

It may sound simple, but every big play this defense can create will be one more than we’ve seen of late. And even if “live fast, die fast” isn’t exactly the most inspiring mantra for your team’s defense, this team is way better off gambling on the big defensive play this scheme was supposed to provide, knowing that if it backfires, it’ll be no different than what we’ve seen and if it succeeds it’ll get Syracuse behind the chains.

 

Get your best 11 players on then field. Kelly has talked about an idea this simple in the past, and likely pulled his hair out when he realized that the variety of sub-packages, scheme tweaks and mental computation essentially limited the personnel that VanGorder even got to put on the field.

That explains why Andrew Trumbetti played 57 snaps last week and Jay Hayes played none. That explains why Joe Schmidt led the defense in snaps last season and Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field.

Kelly is a coach who understands basic principles. He’s won using them, beating teams that had more with less—doing it routinely at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. So think of this less as a cliche than a reminder that a little garage logic sometimes helps.

Get your best guys on the field. Because good players usually win the battle in front of them. And ultimately, you need to be able to do more than handle the mental load of VanGorder’s scheme.

 

Get a dominant game from your offense. For all the heat Kelly took last week in his “call out” of players, he had a point about DeShone Kizer‘s play. Notre Dame’s star quarterback is too good to make the kind of mistakes he made last weekend.

More over, the offense, on whole, was rather unimpressive. The ground game couldn’t dominate. The turnovers killed momentum. And the fits and starts were enough to get Kelly as aggravated as we’ve seen him in years.

Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite for a reason. Because its offense is one of the country’s best when it’s clicking, and its quarterback is an elite player when he’s on. Noon starts against mediocre programs is when an offense like this should dominate. Let’s see them do it.

 

Win in special teams. Two straight weeks the Irish have been on the wrong side of a touchdown. First, one taken away against Michigan State. Then, a return gifted to Duke that brought them back into the football game.

Hidden yards will be critical on Saturday. That means Tyler Newsome will need to get his first bad kick out of the way in warm-ups, no breakfast ball allowed on Ryder Cup Saturday. Justin Yoon will need to convert when he’s called upon. And CJ Sanders should have opportunities, it’ll be up to him to seize them.

It’s worth remembering that special teams has been a place where Kelly has tried to jump start his team before. Against Utah in 2010 it was with a punt block by Robert Blanton and a forced fumble on kickoff coverage by Kyle McCarthy. Kelly also stole a touchdown in the Tulsa game, hoping that excellent fake punt conversion would buoy a team that was still reeling from losing and the tragedy of Declan Sullivan that week.

So if the timing is right, expect Kelly to try and steal something on special teams this Saturday, especially if it can be a momentum builder.

 

Find some kind of consistency in the red zone. Want good news? Syracuse stinks in the red zone. The not so good news? So have Brian VanGorder’s defenses.

But VanGorder is out and a simplified scheme is in. And perhaps the best thing to ask for isn’t a new scheme or installation, but rather some calm before the snap, knowing an assignment for at least a few seconds before it’s time to do battle.

The Irish defense has been known to be the cure to the common red zone ills, but it’s critical to keep the Orange’s touchdown rate down at the mediocre levels where it currently exists. Getting Kizer and the Irish offense to punch in their scoring tickets for seven points and not three and you don’t need to be a math major to understand the Irish would easily win that shootout.

 

Play the game like tough gentlemen. Remember that slogan? Kelly all but co-opted it from Stanford back in the day, but it had a nice ring to it. And on Saturday, the Irish need to play like tough gentlemen—willing to win the battle in the trenches on defense and exert their will on offense.

This season that toughness got lost in the defensive ineptitude and also disappeared as Kizer found comfort in the quick throws and piloting the ground game with an extra hat in the numbers game.

But the “mental and physical toughness” that we heard BK mention a few hundred times over the last few years, that’s been missing. And after a string of losses that have this program feeling down, it’s time to return to the basic tenets Kelly tried to install those first few years.

Football is a violent game A true contact sport. It’s time for Notre Dame’s talent discrepancy to be matched by their size and strength advantage.  They need to dominate mentally and physically.

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.