Bye weeks have been kind to Irish

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With Notre Dame coming off of a bye week, I decided to do some digging into the Irish’s history of playing after a week off. There is good news: the Irish have had great success after a week off — a 61-14-2 record since 1900.

The extra week of practice and preparation should help the Irish against Southern Cal. The Irish will have had time to familiarize themselves with the pared-down Trojan attack, and after five seasons of facing Pete Carroll’s squad, there is little schematically that Carroll can do that will surprise the Irish coaching staff.

Outside of the X’s and O’s, the Irish will need to make great strides psychologically if they want to win on Saturday. The last outings against the Trojans have been disastrous. 38-3, 38-0, and 44-24 blow-outs have been monumental throttlings that make it seem like the divide between the Trojans’ talent level and the Irish’s have never been larger.

Thanks to a tip from our friends at Blue-Gray Sky, we stumbled upon a great article of theirs written by a former player who discussed the strategic moves former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz made during the bye week of the 1993 season as the Irish team prepared to play the vaunted Seminoles of Florida State.

Here are some highlights:

The beginning of the bye week was different than most weeks during the
season, in that the game plan was not yet finalized. As such, we did
not practice on Mondays. Rather, we spent the afternoon in film
sessions, getting treatment and working on conditioning. In total, it
was a rather light day – this set the tone for the rest of the week.
Although we returned to a normal practice schedule on Tuesday,
Wednesday and Thursday, we were working more on fundamentals of the
game, footwork, balance, positioning, and accurate reads, rather than
focusing on our upcoming opponent. If it wasn’t for the media (and a
few of our teammates) there would have been no mention of Florida State.

In
hindsight, this was one of the most powerful tactics that Coach Holtz,
and the rest of the coaching staff, employed to prepare us for the game
– it was a matter of pacing ourselves for the emotion that would
undoubtedly build in week two. In week one, there was no hype – it was
back to basics, Football 101.

However, as the bye week came to a close his strategy began to unfold.
Coach Holtz normally played to the media, giving them the sob story of
how every team has a legitimate chance at beating us each week; in
internal discussions, however, he was always adamantly clear that we
would win without a shadow of a doubt. Strangely, as the game with
Florida State approached, the message to the media and the team was
fairly similar – Florida State was faster and more athletic than we
were. We wondered why he felt the need to remind us of this fact so
frequently. But as we continued through our daily practice schedule it
slowly became clear that it was Florida State’s speed and athleticism
that would eventually be their downfall. The new offensive schemes for
FSU were based on misdirection and cutbacks – “let their whole team
swarm to the ball and over pursue, then we’ll go the other way.” Our
offensive linemen had dark visors added to their helmets to give them
an advantage on eyeing angles and gaps without being noticed – even the
slightest advantage would equate to a magnitude of success. Slowly we
began to see the total picture of the plan – and we now believed we
could win.

Coach Holtz often repeated the phrase “games are won on Monday through
Friday, not on Saturday.” He was an avid believer that “you practice
like you play.” He demanded focus and perfection every day, on every
play. Unfortunately, the Wednesday before the Florida State game was a
practice that, if translated into game execution, would have resulted
in an embarrassing loss to the Seminoles. For some reason our timing
was off – the execution of the new strategy was simply not there.
Coaches were frustrated and the confidence that we were beginning to
build was turning into doubt.

Suddenly, the legendary offensive
line coach, Joe Moore — as old-school and rugged a football coach as
there ever was — lost his cool. He had had enough of misdirection and
cutbacks – he was tired of the thought of playing Florida State
football in order to beat Florida State. Yes, there would be the time
and place to employ this strategy in order to keep them off-balance,
but he believed that the best way to beat Florida State football was to
play Notre Dame football. In the middle of practice Coach Moore huddled
with Coach Holtz…and then exploded. “Get
me the managers! Get these f*cking visors off these f*cking helmets! We
don’t need this bullsh*t! We’re going to look them right in the eye,
tell them where we’re running the ball, and kick their f*cking asses
all over the f*cking field!”

** snip **

The team went through the usual post-rally schedule: returning to the
Loftus Center for a team meeting and then into our relaxation routine.
Our team meetings on Friday night were more administrative than
anything, covering logistics for the weekend and so forth.
Additionally, we would always watch a short film comprised of
highlights from the previous week’s game and highlights from the
previous year’s game vs. the upcoming opponent. However, with no game
over the bye week and having not played Florida State in several years,
there really wasn’t anything to show. At least that’s what we thought.

Instead
of a game film, Coach Holtz had arranged to show highlights of the 1988
Miami game. As music pumped through the speakers and highlights of
Zorich, Stonebreaker, Rice and Rocket filled the screen, we began
cheering for the players whose performance influenced us to join ND in
the first place. We started to think about the magnitude of the event
at hand. We began to realize that we were about to write another
chapter in the history books. Then, the music stopped, the screen went
blank, and a picture of the 1988 National Championship Ring went up…
and the team went crazy! The sounds of the pep rally were silent
compared to the uproar that filled the meeting room at Loftus – it was
literally an out-of-body experience.


Weis and his coaching staff already told us a stress on fundamentals was at the forefront of practice last week. You’ve also got to believe that Weis has had his team thinking about the Trojans since the moment the Irish squeaked their way past Washington two weeks ago, and probably spent parts of the past few weeks game-planning and preparing for this mid-October date with their rivals.

It was the truth 16 years ago, as it is truth today: This Saturday’s football game will be predicated on many of the same things that resulted in the Irish winning the game of the century.

As was designed, the game would be about execution, Holtz said. Florida State could not win
if we executed the game plan. It was simple: hit them in the mouth and
get them on their heels, then we’ll work misdirection, and they will be lost.
Holtz then talked about what the media believes, what the critics
believe — and how none of that matters. Inside these walls and inside
your hearts was a belief that victory was imminent. Then he said: “Let
there be no doubt… this sucker doesn’t have to be close!” And with
that, we stormed out of the locker room.

Well, we all know what happened on that unseasonably warm November
Saturday. It was a great game against two pretty evenly-matched, albeit
very different teams. This “Game of the Century” definitely delivered
on the hype. The game, though, was not won simply on Saturday. The
foundation had been laid by Coach Holtz over the previous two weeks: a
skillful balance of gameplanning and emotional management that made us
believe we could beat the #1 team in the country. Notre Dame catapulted
to the top of the college football world on that Saturday, but the game
had been won long before kickoff.

The Irish don’t have nearly as daunting of a challenge ahead of them as the 1993 squad did. But the mindset will need to be the same if the Irish walk out of Notre Dame Stadium next Saturday victorious.

(Special thanks to the guys at BGS for the great source material…) 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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